Learning and solitude

This morning I read an interview with a veteran artist, known as much for his teaching as his creative output. He spoke of the importance of solitude, and of absorbing oneself in whatever one is studying. This revisiting, over and over again, the topics, novels, poems, pieces of music, mathematical equations, or whatever one is drawn to, conveys a level of deep learning that is otherwise difficult to attain.

The problem, he said, is that his students have a very hard time doing it. This really struck me, because the process of immersion he described seems to me not something people learn to do, but rather a natural human impulse.

blurred book book pages literature
Photo by Caio on Pexels.com

As my family steeped itself in slow homeschooling, each of my kids, extroverts and introverts alike, spent plenty of time alone, pursuing whatever happened to be striking their fancy at the moment. One kid read and re-read Tolkien, Brian Jacques, and all the Calvin and Hobbes books, over and over. Another became obsessed with jazz, listening to every Ella Fitzgerald recording until they were etched in her brain, then moved on to Miles Davis and others. My youngest dove headfirst into Shakespeare, and to this day the entirety of several of his plays continue to live in her memory.

My kids aren’t the only ones. Plenty of others I’ve known have embarked on this kind of deep exploration of a wide range of skills and topics. I’ve even heard parents fret about it: All my kid does is read the same book over and over again; play his guitar; hole up in her room and build stuff; stare at plants all day; etc. I get the worry. Keeping an eye on our kids is our job, and homeschooling parents have an even greater responsibility to bear, that of education. The thing is, despite the fact that mainstream curricular agendas delineate specific goals and skills to be attained at specific ages, learning is not a linear process, or a simple one. It’s also difficult to measure. Tests and other standardized evaluative tools tell us little to nothing about a child’s inner knowledge or soul.

So what do kids get from obsessively following their pursuits of choice, other than the ability to quote Hobbes at will, identify and sing almost any jazz standard out there, or recite the Bard at opportune moments? The aforementioned artist and teacher said it in one word — context. When you read a book or a play or a poem over and over, or listen to the same music over and over, or study the same mathematical equation, you absorb, consciously or unconsciously, the way the words are put together, the cadences of the language, the pauses between the words and the notes, the textures of the sounds, the meaning of the silences. You begin to see not only the paths taken, but those not taken. The choices made and not made. The possibilities, sounds, words, and knowledge around the human creation or problem.

This level of learning provides so much — open-mindedness, inspiration, delight, and profound satisfaction, to name a few benefits — and it is available to everyone. With time, freedom, and a foundation of support and love, human minds do it naturally. As so many kids find themselves out of physical school right now, unable to interact with their peers, the opportunity to make the most of solitude is there. All of us look forward to the joyful day when we can once again meet in person with our friends and loved ones, a vital part of life to be sure, but maybe in the meantime, some of us will find ways to reclaim the value of solitude, and of revisiting, over and over again, something we care about or want to learn. Maybe we can let go of ideas about product, keeping up with the education Joneses, and what should be learned when, and let our kids do the same, and maybe, when we emerge, we can even make solitude, and the learning that comes with it, part of our new normal.

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