Written to a class of students ten years ago who had a difficult time–they complained a lot about their assignments and driving 10 miles to class.
To a Professor of Cross-Cultural Studies every destination is a new course in cultural knowledge. Every encounter is an assessment of skills. A new relationship is an opportunity to learn from others. While the sum of our experiences shapes our present, it is the significant encounter, that can change our perspective. It has been a number of years ago, but the situation is still the same. My Kenyan associate and I were invited to teach in a mountain town near Mt. Meru. It was a five-hour drive from Nairobi, a city where I lived for quite a few years. We set out one morning and drove the 200 miles.
We looked forward to working with a group of young people and their leaders. The classes were held in a mud, brick and concrete church building in the center of the village. There were two outdoor toilets for 100 people. Food was prepared outdoors on campfires, and everyone slept on the church floor. Everyone that is, except my Kenyan colleague and myself, who had been advised to sleep in the car because the mosquitoes were very thick. The local leaders were concerned about our catching malaria. I have had malaria five times contracted when spending time out in rural communities without proper protection. Malaria can be a very painful disease many times resulting in death (if not treated). The symptoms are cycles of stomach pains and hot sweats, very painful. The last time I had malaria I lost 10 pounds in two days. So, I was glad to sleep in my car.
The training went very well for two days. When we were about to leave on Sunday to return to Nairobi, one of the leaders came to us and said that they wanted us to meet someone special. Up walked an old grandmother and her two grandchildren. She almost prostrated herself before us in joy and began to tell her story.
This grandmother “heard that there was to be some teaching” in the Meru area, some 60 miles from where she lived. She wanted her grandchildren to experience this teaching because where she was the local schools had not been functioning. Her home was so remote that cars didn’t pass very much, and besides, she had no money. And so, they set out on foot because “we heard there is going to be some teaching.”
By Friday evening they had only covered 20 miles and in the evening they knocked on the door of a local pastor and asked if they could spend the night. The pastor agreed because he knew that to sleep outside could bring the ill health, or danger from thieves.
The next morning they arose very early and set out on foot again, this grandmother and her two grandchildren, because “we heard there is going to be some teaching.” They traveled all day again barefoot in the muddy roads and sweating when the African sun rose to its full glory at noon. By that evening they had covered almost 30 miles. As the day before, they knocked on the door of a house and asked to spend the night with its inhabitants. When asked where they were going the old grandmother responded the same, “we heard there is going to be some teaching.”
On Sunday morning they arose very early and made there way to the place where we met them as we were preparing to leave—mud and dirt caked around their feet, clothes wrinkled, and dirty from the rain, snot hanging from the childrens’ noses, and huge grins on their weary faces, because “we heard there is going to be some teaching.” I will not forget the lesson I learned from the old grandmother and her two grandchildren.
Education is a privilege, and some people will do what it takes to get it, even walking 60 miles, because, “we heard there is going to be some teaching.”
Now, I am empathetic to a degree with the concerns of university students in the US. I am, really. It is expensive (as all education is), it is sometimes inconvenient, and it is demanding. But I must admit that I loose patience when I here comments like I can’t afford the books, the ticket here, or even the time to study and go the extra mile. Americans, in general, no matter what the state of poverty are so much better off than most of the world’s people. And through our prosperity we have developed a cultural value that permeates our belief system–convenience and individualism. These two values more than others have provided some very good things for us. We can be independent thinkers and strive for personal goals, and do it in a way that makes it easier and faster and sometimes even better than in many other countries. But it has a downside as well. And that downside rears its ugly head at the most inappropriate times. These values can also create ethnocentrism (we are better than others), arrogance (I have the right to what I want because I am special), selfishness (I want what I want because I want it), and often ignorance (most of us don’t know we are ignorant). And in the final ascription we appear pampered, impatient, and ungrateful for what we have.
These same values affect the way we learn, or expect to learn. We are enculturated to believe that we can go to a classroom, hear a lecture, and we have gained the knowledge needed for our education. Indeed, we may have gained knowledge, but we have very little wisdom. Most of your classes are designed this way. You go to class, listen to lectures, read the books, take the tests, and get a grade. And in some way that is supposed to be proof that you actually know something. And maybe you do, but this is not the only way to learn. To get the real meat of the subject one will have to walk a distance. One may have to take the train, the bus, go to an extra event, listen to people who may not share your same background or culture. Some of this has to do with attitude, drive, and calling. It is a much bigger issue, of course, than a single lecture or assignment. Most of us pack our education into a few years because it is expensive and it is not convenient for our lives to take the time to learn what might actually be there for us to learn. The result is that we have an education but remain ignorant. Life-long learning is a journey–because we are committed to an enlightened life.