The letter came late Monday evening and I didn’t see it until Tuesday morning. “Dear Mr. Charles Letbetter, I am pleased to offer you admission…” Despite several challenges and questions, anxiety and worries, I’ve been given permission to continue learning, filling my head with a level of knowledge substantially greater than what I currently possess. I am both excited and frightened by the prospects.
Almost immediately after sharing the news on social media, someone responded something to the effect, “Goes to prove you’re never too old to learn.” While I would agree that age should never be a factor in deciding whether to continue one’s education, there remains a point where one is challenged to confront the limits of one’s mind. Is there a ceiling, a limit, on what a given mind can learn?
Obviously, our instinctive response is that no, we continue learning our entire lives and there is always something new, some recent piece of information that we need to know in order to function in our society. Limits on learning do not and cannot exist.
Given what we know about the limits of memory, however, it seems logical to me that there would be a top-end to how much one person can actually learn beyond short-term rote memorization. Passing a test has never been a sufficient measure for how much information one actually retains at a level necessary for application. How much useable knowledge can our brains store?
This question worries me as I consider going back to school. What professors ask of students is a depth of understanding, and the ability to communicate that comprehension sufficiently, at levels I’ve not had to produce in over 40 years. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever faced an education challenge as steep as what sits before me. Are there pre-existing boundaries to what I can achieve? I need to know.
Learning is easy until it isn’t
When I consider whether there are limits on my ability to learn, looking at the topic strictly from a personal perspective without any generalizations outside my own experience, there are both reasons to be encouraged and reasons to be concerned. I have two examples and both, interestingly enough, involve creative software.
The first is WordPress, the online platform that not only serves as the foundation for all my websites, but those of many others including The New Yorker, BBC America, and Sony Music. WordPress issued a significant upgrade this past week, which can be a nightmare for heavily customized websites. Changes in the core software create new ways of doing basic functions, often re-writing existing pieces of code in order to extend what can be done, or create security limitations. The core also provides new functionality so that websites can do more while running efficiently. The larger one’s website is, the more critical these changes become.
Sitting on top of the WordPress core are these third-party pieces of software called plugins. Plugins provide specific functionality by making calls back to the WordPress core. For example, the ability to include audio on this page requires a plugin. The ability to share the content of this page on social media requires a separate plugin. Even how the page layout is constructed relies on plugins. With so many different plugins, it is easy to see how changes to the core can cause a lot of work for the people who write software.
Updating plugins can be tricky. Smaller plugins, the ones that perform one basic task and do it with as few lines of code as possible, update quickly and easily. Larger plugins, though, often struggle, especially when working on a shared server that contains more than one WordPress website. Often, these larger updates fail and can cause the entire website to crash. What’s important to know is which plugins are most likely to struggle and what, if anything, one can do to prevent such a crash.
I’ve been using WordPress long enough that I know exactly which plugins don’t always behave well and what I have to do to avoid bringing everything to a grinding halt. With every update, I learn something new, something critical that I carry forward to make sure the website stays up and running through update after update. I’ve even had to learn how to resolve server problems on my own when something goes awry.
I don’t particularly enjoy having to learn these things. I’d rather updates happen automatically and let someone else worry about the details. In fact, there are levels of service that allow that to happen. One of the things I’ve learned, though, is that fully automated updating systems must, of necessity, expect certain responses from the server and when they don’t get those responses, or get them too slowly, the whole thing comes tumbling down. So, it’s better for me to handle them manually. That means I have to continually learn.
By contrast, I needed to download a couple of pieces of video editing software in order to complete a large project I’ve been working on for several months. I’ve worked with both pieces of software in previous iterations, but they’ve changed significantly to the point that I’ve had to spend several hours going through tutorials just to be able to figure out how to import images and video clips.
What has been especially frustrating is that tasks that I expected to be intuitive aren’t. Not at all. Specific ways of animating text, for example, have proven excessively difficult. I’ve gone through the tutorials no fewer than five times and still found myself unable to remember exactly how to perform the tasks in the correct order for producing the results I wanted. Compounding the frustration is the problem that having completed a task correctly once does not mean that I know how to do it a second time. Or a third. Each iteration sends me running back to the documentation to make sure that I’m getting the required steps done in the correct order because in this software, much more than others, when something is done matters.
Why can I learn new elements of one set of software and struggle with another? What makes it difficult for my brain to hold onto knowledge despite having read and reviewed the material more than what I would expect to be a sufficient number of times? The whole experience has me questioning the extent to which my brain is capable of retaining all the knowledge I’m trying to put into it. This could be a problem.
Learning comes with challenges
Biologically, the trillions of synapsis within the brain that store information is finite, so yes, there is a limit to how much we can learn. However, that capacity far exceeds our ability to recall information making it theoretically impossible that anyone would ever come close to bumping into that knowledge ceiling.
There are other hindrances, however. Learning requires the creation of memories. Anything that hinders the creation of memories, such as short attention spans, high-volume interruptions, fatigue, or hunger, limits what we are able to learn. Any biological problems with memory creation and retention would prove problematic as well.
Another challenge can be conditioning. Our brain’s ability to respond to certain stimuli, such as changes in language, is largely cemented during the first year of our lives when no one is giving a lot of thought to whether we’ll need to be multilingual or comprehend complex math equations or assemble quantum computers. Our parents rarely have the resources or the foresight to equip us with the kind of mental conditioning that prepares our brains to deal with advanced thought. In fact, by the time most of us start school at the age of five, we don’t realize it but we’re already at a learning disadvantage. Biases and roadblocks have already set in so that learning in certain areas may be almost impossible.
A fourth issue is that our brains are limited by what our short-term memory can absorb. Long-term memory comes in part through the reiteration of what is taken in through our short-term memory. So, when we try to learn in a situation where the amount of total information coming at us is overwhelming, there’s less opportunity for the short-term memory to hold on to what is thrown at us. There’s less transferred to long-term memory which is part of what sets up the problem where one can pass a class with flying colors but have no workable knowledge of the topic covered.
We live in an age where there is a lot of information available to learn. The phones we hold in our hands hold more knowledge than a hundred libraries but they’ve not made us any smarter because our brains simply can’t absorb all that information at once. We need smaller, workable chunks that allow us time to absorb, reiterate, and retain information for long-term use.
The space to learn is available, but we are blocked by the mechanisms of learning. None of those mechanisms get easier as we age.
Learning’s dark side
Lurking in the darkest shadows of education is the fact that not everyone wants you to learn. Sure, they’re going to say differently in public because no one wants to be seen as the person who’s holding another back from being better. But the truth is that there are social and political benefits to keeping some people ignorant and we’re seeing some of the fruits of that ideology in the challenges facing economies and hierarchies around the world.
Take, for example, the rate at which people have dropped out of the foodservice industry. One of the things they learned while unemployed during the pandemic is the degree to which the industry relies on people not knowing their worth. People take jobs making miserably low wages because they’re convinced by someone, multiple someones, that any job, no matter how demeaning, degrading, and impoverishing it is, is better than no job. When millions of people learned it only takes an extra $300 a week to dramatically change the quality of their lives, they revolted against that punitive system.
One of the reasons tyrants spread lies and dictators cut off access to schools is because people who understand that the true power of government can only come from the consent of the governed don’t put up with bullshit from their governors. Intelligent people tend to support governments that are more liberal, have more open policies toward migrants, and the poor, and the disenfranchised, the very groups that tyrants and dictators like to exploit. Things such as limited access, high tuition costs, and the threat of a lifetime of debt are all tools used to keep groups of people from learning.
I’ve had bosses early in my career who would deny educational opportunities to bright employees for fear that if they learned too much they might leave and take their skills elsewhere. In fact, a large part of the reason for non-compete and non-disclosure clauses in many employment contracts is to prevent someone from using the knowledge they’ve gained with one employer from benefitting anyone else, even if the fields aren’t related.
There are many examples and many reasons why one person or one group of people doesn’t want another person or another group of people to learn. Power shifts. People change. Relationships built on dependence crumble.
Learning all you can
Personally, I am of the belief that everyone has the right to learn as much as they can, whenever they can, through whatever means best suits them. Restrictions on who can go to which school, who can learn from whom, who has to work versus who has their way paid for them, and many other problems chafe against a belief system that says everyone is equally valuable, equally deserving, and is born with equal potential.
No, we cannot learn too much. The capacity of our brains is still untapped. Even those among us who seem to be the most brilliant use but a minuscule amount of their capacity. If such is the case, then what good reason is there for me to not learn more, both formally and informally? What reason is there for you to not join me?
Don’t believe the lies. You can do much more than you’ve imagined. You have abilities of which you’ve yet to dream. The economy will get along fine even if every factory worker in the world left tomorrow to go to college, or finish high school, or get their GED.
We all have obstacles. My biggest is the fear that I might fail. Well, that and how the hell I’m going to pay for it all. There are other issues, such as how my being gone more often affects the family dynamic, but those are, I think, more manageable as long as everyone involved remains cooperative. There’s nothing standing in my way that cannot be overcome.
The same applies to your situation, whatever that might be. You can’t learn too much. Push. Demand what is your inalienable right. Learn.