Free: Knowledge!

10 March 2013 § Leave a comment

Two months ago, I was sitting on the toilet enjoying a moment of peace when a sudden feeling of stupidity came over me. The bathroom fan sucked up the pungent scent of my shit, and with it my intellect. My thoughts became mush, which stuck to the sides of the three-foot-deep plastic sink like dried razor hair. I couldn’t conjure words, book titles, or a single philosopher’s name, and was hard pressed to remember how many of the dozens of coups in Latin America alone the CIA has admitted to helping execute in the last century.

Oh yes, zero. Beside the point.

I felt more than a mere lack of knowledge; I thought I’d lost my need for a breadth of knowledge and understanding. Life had grown entirely devoid of intellectual stimulation past that of my daily philosophies on how to manage energy, a topic I by that point had earned a scribbled honorary doctorate in. Heather’s and my conversations have always penetrated to the core of the issue; when they do not, one or both of us feel like we’re missing out. Such a dedication to working out and solving problems has propelled us through and past emotional turmoil and catastrophes that I’ve seen break up marriages. I say this not to boast, but to give you an idea of how much exercise we give our vocal cords. Voice yoga, you might call it. So much of this talking about myself, however, led to an awful drought in learning about things outside my cute Portland bubble of positive experience, delicious local, organic food, and healing walks along the Willamette; all for which I have infinite gratitude – and, I could read more.

By the time I flushed, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea to get smart quick. Because my intellect and bank account were running in alignment at the time, going out and buying a bunch of smart people books wasn’t an option. And, the libraries in Portland seemed oddly deficient. Small, boring, and pastel tan, the corner store-sized venues of mystery novels, bestsellers, and children’s reading areas felt more like vessels for dozens of computers copiously occupied than community centers for knowledge and divine, cobwebbed shelves packed full of obscure literary criticism.

In part due to the vast success (and beautiful wooden shelves) of Powell’s Books, independent bookstores are scarce in Portland. Occasionally I’ve found a house converted into a used bookstore, old titles shoved into the deep crevices of not-anymore bathrooms and what were once children’s bedrooms, more stacked on staircases shaped more to shelve books than footsteps anyway. These comforting, homely places run by stressed women approaching menopause and lonely bearded men I worshipped in and visited infrequently. Used books were an option; after all, any reading is better than no reading.

I considered what I’d heard from so many college graduates since I deliberated taking the traditional college route: I’m so overloaded with debt, how will I ever find my way out, what did I actually learn, will I ever get a job, or, worse, I have a six digit debt, and no desire to pursue what I studied.

Years later, during my brief but dedicated foray into university life, I wondered, where did we find the idea that knowledge cost money? Was it sitting in a gutter somewhere, or did it spring up during an annual stockholder’s meeting? Did an entrepreneurial teacher think she could be better paid by her students than the Department of Education? It was a capitalist idea, to be sure. Plus, it’s free! This is America; we love free things, form ridiculous lines and arguments to obtain them. What makes a free tank of gasoline, or samples of cheese at a store more important than information? In some countries, education is downright illegal for women. The value then, to female students especially, increases exponentially. You wouldn’t see the students fortunate enough to be taught playing with their iPhones during class. I mean, have you read Reading Lolita in Tehran? It’s marvelous, and I’ve never once in my entire educational experience seen that kind of voraciousness for knowledge in a group of students.

Knowledge, as stated by countless smart people throughout history, is the most powerful tool, toy, and weapon available to a thinking species. It is why libraries exist; it is why the internet is the greatest revolution of our age. It is also free as hotel pens, restaurant toilet paper, and smiles. I don’t need a $100,000 piece of paper with my name and major written in calligraphy; I need what it represents! I need the visceral memory of being enraptured by William S. Burroughs when I was assigned Milton. I want to set up shop in a library row full of century-old leather-bound books, to run my hands along the spines and feel interpretations of Othello and Paradise Lost, to get lost in Latin American anarchist poetry and biographies of unstable dictators. America, you succeeded in convincing me that education was important, and actions speak louder than propaganda. 

My goal, I decided as I made my way from the bathroom to the living room, to make quality, focused education accessible to me. If I wanted to study something, I thought, I would delve into it, read, write about,  and learn it. And, if I felt so inspired, to write a song, or paint, about it. That is true integration for me; mastication and regurgitation of information never cut it. In school, I rebelled against academic writing in my papers simply to annoy my professors. They in turn refused to view my rebellion as artistic expression, and I received appropriate marks.

As with all of my great ideas, I told Heather my revelation, which wound up on a post-it note labelled ‘Research Days.’ I stuck the square sheet to a kitchen cabinet door, along with the first topic I wanted to learn about. The idea was to dedicate one or two days a week to researching a particularly interesting or unknown subject, and teaching each other what we’d learned in a fun and interesting way. Going to a coffeeshop to teach someone about body language is much more effective, for example, than making faces in front of a class, or explaining in a lecture that matching gestures indicates interest, or putting your hands behind your back during a conversation subtly shows superiority. How would we remember the zeros and ones so to speak, unless we gave each other and ourselves permission to get out of the lecture hall and watch people interact?

Do you ever wonder why we so coveted field trips in school? Of course not; they removed us from our normal learning environment, changed the scenery, provided opportunity to socialize with the outside world. All of the most obvious reasons! So why, if educators were so interested in providing quality educations, not apply this model as a form of schooling?

Thankfully, institutions like the Northwest Youth Corps established the OutDoorSchool on similar principles. ODS provides an academic foundation with a container of outdoor education, leadership training, work experience, and application. It is a credited high school able to grant credits, diplomas, and transcripts, leaving the social stigma and cultural associations of ‘alternative’ schools up to an open-minded public. If only I knew about places like this when I was 14!

The post it note is still stuck to the cabinet. Granted, the idea was a lot greater than the follow-through, but I have hope for my brain. Finding the methods by which I learn best helps (entire education methodologies have been developed on this subject alone – look into it!). Personally, I find inspiration in TED talks and well-written non-fiction (books such as Bananas by Peter Chapman and Lasso the Wind by Timothy Egan were integral in my desire to pursue writing), and many magazine stories, in such rags as Harper’s, Mental Floss, and one story in Mother Jones in particular have fascinated me beyond hope of repair. My brain will never be the same. My hunt for knowledge is on high. I am finally reading books I bought years ago, and wonder why I didn’t read it the day I got it?

Well, because I was meant to read it now. On the toilet. In grocery lines. While waiting for the food stamp or DMV people to call my number. When work is dull. When I’m pacing around the house looking for something to do and end up eating more out of boredom than hunger. Read a book. Break out the Kindle, or the Nook. Whatever your preferred medium (mine is paper and ink), carry it around, and in free moments, spend your time gathering ideas, so that when you go back to your phone, you have something titillating to talk about.

How do you acquire knowledge? Do you make time for reading books? Have your desires for new information continued past what you learned in high school and college?

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