I didn’t like to read when I was a kid. I couldn’t sit still and I was distracted by life outside various windows. In college, I read for class and “for fun,” but I didn’t read well enough or with a pen in hand. Now, I read for enjoyment and research. I struggle to focus and I don’t understand everything. Perhaps I never will. But I try.
I’m writing to expose my stake in learning, my struggle and surprise while attempting to learn and my belief in creating learning communities with those around us. I’m writing to acknowledge my limited capacity to learn. Our limitations should be seen as a guiding light rather than a flickering headlamp. I remember in Spring 2020 when Professor Naeem Inayatullah wrote to his students, “I want to sustain our rigor. Studying [as with learning] is a great distraction. It has the power of prayer, the enjoyment of a party and richness of a good meal.” So I reread old books, I studied hard and, in September, I created Ongoing — an independent platform for left politics and culture.
There’s an element of surprise in all of this. As a freshman student, I saw learning as passive and I saw myself as a sponge. Later, I wasn’t sure if learning was possible or what it looked like. It proved to be mysterious, not simple — and I reconciled these issues through Inayatullah’s pedagogy. I emerged willing to engage thoughtfully and critically, and I felt I learned more in his classes than in previous ones. What did this realization mean, and was it even true?
We fail to learn when we see it as a passive endeavor. Our thought processes and psyches are deeply powerful and complicated. Learning is engagement, whether it be in the form of reading, hiking or cooking.
In March, when I was at a low point, moving back home due to the pandemic and closing in on graduation, I attempted to engage and learn. I thought to myself, ‘I can either be a part of the international community and live with vitality, or I can feel stuck in my thoughts in suburban New Jersey.’ The challenge was to not be consumed by manic social media debates and partisan politics while channeling my finite energy toward more meaningful activities.
In that depressing moment, I built an important, albeit sparse, learning community. It was made up of friends, former professors and acquaintances. “It is best to develop one’s thoughts with the open-mindedness ensured by the presence of other people. Their potential to reciprocate or to differ helps provide balance,” John Miller Chernoff, the great musicologist, writes in “African Rhythm and African Sensibility.” It felt natural to connect and learn among others, and this community was there all along — ready to be activated. While I craved face-to-face encounters — in the classroom and at Gimme! Coffee — phone calls and emails compensated for such an immense loss of sociality. A mere text sustained my spirit and that of my emerging learning community.
While I’m still scrolling endlessly on Twitter and taking too long to finish my next piece for Ongoing, I’ve decided to make learning — and learning with others — central to my life. I wouldn’t want a life without romance or travel, and I wouldn’t want a life without learning. I’m trying and failing. And learning.