One of the major changes made to the Wisconsin Annual Conference gathering each June is the addition of a learning day. It is ironic how much resistance I met when I first suggested the idea (“that’s not what people come to conference for,” “people won’t want to add an extra day to conference,” “nobody will be interested in workshops at annual conference,” etc.) considering how popular it has become in just 3 years. The first year we had about 125 show up, the second year we topped 300 and this year we had 600+. Originally, learning day was to be the first day of conference, but it got changed to the last day — a move that met with the universal opinion that no one would stay for it, thus it was doomed. Well, nanner, nanner, nah, nah — lots of people came and lots of people loved it. I am already getting calls asking what will be offered next year.
Wisconsin has a very odd and confusing view of learning. Our clergy vehemently fought to reduce required continuing education to next to nothing (1 Continuing Education Unit (CEU) credit a year = 10 total contact hours and can be achieved by reading one (1!) book of the individual’s own choosing…) and both clergy and laity attend workshops to collect certificates — but they don’t do anything with what they learn (I met a woman at our conference this year who proudly told me she completed her twelfth advanced lay speakers/servants course. When I asked how she was using what she learned, she looked at me like I was crazy and told me, “I’m not going to lead anything, I just love taking the classes!”)
I’ve been in Wisconsin for four years now, and people ask me all the time if we are going to have a workshop on this or that — yet, often when we offer the class, virtually no one comes. Sometimes this is a matter of poor communication — “I didn’t know about it” — but more often, I think it is because people are not in the habit of learning anymore. Oh, sure, people learn all the time — it is impossible to live life and not experience new information and knowledge. But the commitment to actively learn, to pursue new knowledge and deepen existing understanding is cultivated over time. Active learning doesn’t happen unless there is a learning culture and an engaging environment for growth, development and improvement.
Learning is natural, education is not. Learning happens in us and to us, but education is a formalization of attaining information. Learning is the accumulation of relevant feedback that enables one to thrive in a given situation (like “life”). Education is information that someone else decides we ought to know to become well-rounded and culturally competent. What junior in high school hasn’t questioned the lifelong practicality of calculus or advanced chemistry? Esoteric knowledge is not the same as quotidian knowledge. Now, does the previous statement teach us anything? Who had to look up esoteric or quotidian (or both)? How many people added esoteric and quotidian to their vocabulary for regular use? We can learn an awful lot that has little applicative value, but to what end?
One of the commitments we have made to the learning days at annual conference is that they must achieve three goals: 1) they should present something of practical value, 2) they should offer something simple and concrete that can be taken home and shared with others, and 3) they should help each participant do/know something they didn’t do/know before. In this way, there is an outward and visible sign of the inward and often spiritual process. How often do we attend “learning events” that are entertaining and interesting, but offer no value or impact once we depart?
Many adults fail to see much value in continuing education or lifelong learning. Learning and personal development is noticeably absent from Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — as it is from many developmental psychology models. Learning is often viewed as a luxury or a hobby, not essential to survival and existence. So, why learn?
For Christians who believe that discipleship is important learning is not optional. A continuous process of growth, improvement, perfecting and practicing is the definition of discipleship. While there is an innate and natural capacity for such things as kindness, compassion, mercy, grace, patience, justice, gentleness, and love, there is also in each one of us an incredible need for improvement. The scriptural imperative to “be perfect, therefore, as God in heaven is perfect” is simply going to take some work — it won’t come naturally or by accident. But notice the significance of the list of characteristics and qualities central to discipleship. Huge difference between learning mercy and learning math, servanthood and social studies, evangelism and English, compassion and chemistry. Information based knowledge is completely different from formation based knowledge that leads to transformation. Information is important, but only as it coalesces into spiritual knowledge and practice that becomes the foundational wisdom of all we say and do. We need to learn, but we need to learn that which is most important. Revisiting Maslow’s hierarchy, learning as a function is absent, but without learning we cannot hope to scale the heights and move from mere survival to any real quality of life. Lifelong learning is not an option or just a good idea. For Christians, it is the essence of discipleship, and it is critical that we work together to learn things good and lasting.