I’ve spent an hour on each of the last two Wednesday afternoons in conversation with several colleagues on Stanislas Dehaene’s Consciousness and the brain: Deciphering how the brain codes our thoughts. No stranger to Dehaene’s work (I’ve read The number sense several times and used it in more than one class), I’ve begun this book with alacrity and have not so far been disappointed. Neither am I disappointed with the quality of the discussions we’ve had on the book’s primary subjects, consciousness and, by way of comparison, the unconscious.
For example: the matter of “consciousness expansion” came up today as several of the learning circle’s participants related their own experiences of forming new associations among various complex concepts (race, religion, national origin), and one of my colleagues opined that education derives its force from its ability to expand consciousness by exposing students to new ideas. This brought to mind an interview I once conducted (for a class project) with the professor of ancient literature who taught me this subject as a first-semester college student nearly twenty-three years ago.
Near the end of our time together, the aptly-named Prof. Tripp told me aphoristically, “the most important outcome of college is going to college in the first place: it’s the experience of having gone to college that matters most, not what you learn there.”
Having now slogged through several more years of higher ed as a student and nearly two decades more as a teacher, I have to say that I agree: while developing useful skills and getting a grip on fundamental concepts of a particular knowledge domain are helpful, there’s much more to be gained, ultimately, from living and learning with others for four years, from exposing oneself to new ideas, from learning that no matter how much you know you’ll never know it all.
This isn’t to say that college is the only path to enlightenment. Far from it: nearly any activity you undertake during that period of peak neuroplasticity that lasts into your twenties will do, so long as it offers exposure to new things, new thoughts, new people…the more different from what’s come before, the better.