I caught a segment on the news today that captured my attention. The piece had to do with the issue of memory loss and whether there are practices we can use to slow down the seemingly inevitable loss of memory that afflicts so many of us. The discussion included several lifestyle factors which can affect memory strength: exercise, sound nutrition, sufficient sleep, stress control and mental stimulation such as encountered in learning something new. This last category is the one which struck me with special impact.
I’m not sure how many retirement-age people seek out new fields of learning in their later years, but I suspect that it’s a significant number. It may not be learning in the sense of a new language or taking up a musical instrument- as suggested in the story- but some retirees are inclined to delve into topics that they never had the time to explore when working vocationally. The availability of extra time is simply too valuable to leave unfilled.
And what gifts such opportunity provides! In addition to mental and memory sharpening, learning can launch the acquisition of new skills, discovery of new outlets of expression, permit an unfolding of a new worldview, and further enrich lives that may have previously been thought to be static. Even new careers are launched from the base of educational re-birth. As long as the energy and desire to learn are present, transformation can happen, and at any age.
The recognition is a happy one for someone like me, on the upper fringes of middle age (whatever that is). But following a week in Nicaragua during which our emphasis again was education development, such awareness exposes an uncomfortable inequity, another one of those troubling realities which has seemingly few avenues for redress and yet massive consequences to us all. For in Nicaragua, like many other developing nations, access to education is limited, at best, and at every age.
At the time when Nica children are most eager and receptive to the lessons of life from the neighborhood academy, they are all too often denied entry. Too many are needed by their families to work in order that living necessities can be met, or they are unable to access a school with books and teachers, or they cannot afford the niggling costs of a uniform and materials. As a result, rural Nicaraguan children have very small chances of remaining in school past the third grade, and the statistics are not improving. Another generation of so many uneducated children is an enormous burden that the country simply cannot absorb successfully, no matter how strong the optimism or how deep the denial.
Last week, WPF visited the Fe y Alegria vocational school in Somotillo, located in the far west corner of the country. Like so much of the country, it’s a remote, rural sector, featuring high heat and ever-higher winds, few opportunities outside of “street” jobs, and a place where kids have few chances to learn much about their lives and what they could be. In fact, most of them come from destitute families or no families at all; the street is not only where they work, but where they live.
The Somotillo Technical School is an oasis in this context, where children ranging from pre-school to high school can be exposed to the possibilities in life, away from the streets. Young people are introduced to trades like welding, furniture-making, sewing, baking, electricity and computers. (In one class, I inspected this computer made by the students from old parts. Could you do that? On my best day I could not.) As importantly, they are taught life skills, things like respect and healthy relationships, personal hygiene, lifestyle choices. But most importantly, the kids are given the chance to absorb what they crave: learning and self-actualization. Melby, perhaps as old as twelve, said it for himself: “I have done baking from my lessons in
the class and it has allowed me to sell and generate a little money for my everyday needs.” With no one else available to do so, this free school- the only free technical school in the entire region- is helping Melby to learn the basics of self-sufficiency.
Our world requires all the collective knowledge, innovation and insight that we can possibly muster and the under-education of our future generations might be one of the most self-defeating postures ever assumed by humankind. Issues of poverty and justice, climate change and energy, war and peace, demand intellect and vision beyond what we have at our disposal presently. The answers to the great dilemmas of humanity may well lie in the untapped mental fertility of those for whom education is a great unknown, a process only to be dreamed of, or perhaps even feared, but never to be personalized. The notion is frightening enough to conjure a particular vision of Hell, where humans there discover that they had all the answers to life itself within their collective grasp, but failed to see them due to their own shortsightedness.
Truth and irony abound in this education tale. The truth is that the capacity for learning- indeed, the love of learning- never goes away during our lifetimes. It may become dormant for lack of use or opportunity, but it is as central to our beings as the heartbeat itself. The irony is that while most in this country have endless access to even the narrowest fields of learning, we tend to take such privilege for granted and are willing to forego such capacities in favor of less dynamic pursuits. And meanwhile, many of the young children of Nicaragua are desperately seeking even the smallest chance to advance their understanding of the world around them. It creates an immense imbalance, one that would seem worthy and capable of address, if we were collectively motivated to do so.
Leave it to a week in Nicaragua to teach me a new perspective. I am grateful for the gift of life-long learning, a gift intended for all….