Follow-up to “Don’t We Never Learn?” Part II: Learning and Transformation

Academy for the Love of Learning Founder and President Aaron Stern shared this letter with participants after our second 20th anniversary offering held on May 20th, “Don’t We Never Learn?” Part II: Learning and Transformation.

I continue to be heartened by the generative and deep conversations into which you, our friends and supporters, are willing to enter. At a time when we see so much separate-ness, we truly are coming together in remarkable ways. I am reminded of the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

At the second of our special Anniversary Dialogues on May 20thDon’t We Never Learn?” Part II: Learning and Transformation, I was in dialogue with my dear friend and colleague, the renowned neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson, with the support of a highly engaged audience. Over the past couple of years, Dr. Davidson and his team at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been conducting an extensive study of The Academy for the Love of Learning’s work. Our hope is to validate, more objectively, our belief and substantial anecdotal evidence that there is a clear link between the transformative learning experiences at the heart of our work at the Academy and human flourishing. The conversation began with a sharing of what we are learning, quantitatively and qualitatively, about the transformative impact of the Academy’s work. As Richie noted during our discussion, “one of our aspirations in collaboration is that we can really harness these different perspectives in a way to bring a much richer and deeper understanding of the fundamental nature of transformative learning.”

Throughout the conversation, the importance of the Academy’s arts-based and experiential practices arose, particularly as strategies and techniques for approaches to cultivate wellbeing and “becoming better at being human beings.” I shared my own story of practicing piano at 12 years old. This story brought us into a conversation about the development of will. A key to transformation is recognizing those patterns that no longer serve us and are blocks to our deeper intents, and then changing them – which takes intent, concentrated effort, awareness and practice. As Richie pointed out, those who desire transformation must first cultivate the will to transform. Apropos that, I wanted to share some additional words from the great dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham:

“I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which come shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes, in some area, an athlete of God. Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”

Indeed, it is an act of doing that develops the will, whether by learning an instrument, a language, a recipe or unlearning a pattern. If addressed early enough in life, it is quite natural to develop will. For example, educators trained in Waldorf School methods are taught to work with kindergartners by cultivating the children’s will-development through the direct act of doing. During the school year, a couple of days each week, kindergarten students will walk in and see their teachers “stirring the soup” or “making the bread” or “cutting the vegetables.” The children naturally join in as they enter the classroom, largely in silence – practicing doing and thereby cultivating that development of will. They love it and are learning a key life lesson – “making stuff’ from start to finish, a lesson that they can carry inside them, in profound ways throughout their lives. Perhaps today’s effort to focus on early skill development in kindergarteners could take into account this essential understanding, and all kindergartens could prioritize to include this form of practice?

I was touched by the nature of the questions audience members asked Richie and me. They reflected the understanding that compassion was utterly essential, as well as a concern for the wellbeing of the collective – all living beings. Indeed, even as we here at the Academy offer programming that encourages individual human flourishing, we are always deeply engaged with the flourishing of community and society at large. I hope that these dialogues are one small way that we can build the capacity for collective transformation, learning together, to make a better world for all. I feel confident in the individual capacity to transform one’s life. The larger question we must learn about is how whole groups, communities, systems and societies can transform and move towards greater degrees of wellbeing. This is the learning edge upon which we now sit as an organization and, indeed, as a world.

This is also why I have sought partnerships with other like-minded organizations and leaders, such as Richard Davidson and the Center for Healthy Minds. We are better together. Our efforts are interdependent. As I said at the event, when we begin as a group to recognize and bring awareness to the patterns that are misaligned with our deep moral compasses and then change them from the inside, the aspirations for wellbeing that we see, for example, on a social scale (such as the #MeToo movement), can become portals through which to move into becoming a better and more just, peaceful society.

Thank you for joining us as we continue to explore how we can “learn ourselves to a better world.” Please stay connected to the Academy as we continue the celebration of our 20th anniversary year and the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Leonard Bernstein, with whom I conceived the Academy for the Love of Learning. Follow us on our social channels, join us at our many events and programs and become a “friend.” There is so much more to come as we explore, together, this question, “Don’t we never learn?” I, for one, continue to believe deeply in learning and operate within “a pedagogy of faith” – one that sustains me and allows me to say, once again, “Of course we do! We transform!”