College is a great place to learn. So what?

What if we decided to take learning into our own hands? What would we be missing? Can we do better for our own learning and personal development in small, homegrown communities without the assistance of a school or university?

1.Schools give us permission to learn. Formal institutions of education justify expenditures of time and money for the pursuit of one’s own interests. When we tell our spouses or coworkers that we need to spend Saturday in the library because we’re taking a class for our degree, we may earn their support and respect. Tell the same people you are working on a draft of a novel, and you may be asked to do something else. Family functions, chores, commitments to work and friends all seem to take priority over our own learning and personal growth. When we go to school, we allow ourselves to commit to learning tasks with diligence, guilt-free passion, and with few interruptions.

But wait a minute . . . what happens if we go to school, but then don’t finish the degree? Are all our time and energy wasted? And what happens when we do finish the degree? Is all our learning, and the permission to devote our lives to learning, over?

2. In school we honor commitments so we can get things done. We sign up for classes with deadlines and grades that provide feedback for doing what we said we were going to do. A promise made to ourselves for personal self growth never seems to hold the weight that an obligation to an instructor or advisor at an institution holds. Debt, transcripts, and the “permanent record” bear witness to how we hold up to our promises.


On the other hand . . . how often do we fulfill commitments to school that have nothing to do with learning? How much of our degree programs reflect our own lifelong goals?

3. The institution is held accountable to your success. Instructors, advisors, and administrators succeed only when we, the learners, achieve. The interdependence guarantees a community of support.



On the contrary . . . how often to students, as individuals, feel that faculty is accountable to them personally? Do contracts hold instructors to their word toward individual students?

4. We develop relationships with teachers, advisors, and others who know more, and who are better connected than we are. Experts, some of whom would otherwise have nothing to do with us, are willing to teach, advise, mentor, and publish with us in formal academic settings.


Is it possible that we could network with experts and practitioners in authentic settings other than school? Unless my goal is to establish a career as a lifelong academic, wouldn’t I be more fully engaged, raising deeper questions, building more authentic relationships with a broader network by learning outside of school? Is it possible that these experts would take me more seriously if I approach them directly as in individual interested in learning rather than hire them indirectly through an institution like school?

5. We have much to do and little time. In life, learning is messy, hit-and-miss, and unpredictable. In school, learning is condensed, streamlined, and efficient. Much of the work of education, i.e. figuring out who we are, what to learn, how to learn, and what to do, is already done for us. Preprocessed curricula await our speedy consumption. No need to ask distracting questions, reflect on process, or risk self-doubt. We just have to gobble it up, swallow it down, and make sure somebody pays the bill.

But what if what we have to learn takes time? What if what we don’t mind getting messy? What if we’re naturally slow and don’t mind savoring challenges or taking risks?

6. Achievement is measurable. Well-defined timelines and sequences mark progress. As learners, we know we’re getting somewhere when we earn credits and reach other indicators of our success. We can measure and compare our rates of success on bar graphs easily communicated in bulleted formats such as resumes and Powerpoint presentations.

What if what you want to learn is not measurable? And so what if what you want to learn is measurable? What happens when you reach your goals? Do you then stop learning?

7. People smarter than you will read and critique your work. Teachers and others will read your work, offer feedback, and even help proofread your drafts. Reading work in process is their job. Besides, more than likely, your teachers aren’t your friends. You can pretty much trust that their feedback is honest and relatively unbiased.



So, why not contact smart people directly? Why not contact the leaders in your field of study and offer to pay them their going rate as a consultant?

8.Schools offer identity and social credibility. “He’s a student.” “She’s a grad assistant.” “I’m a Harvard PhD.” Our academic titles let others know that we’ve had to suffer for what we know. Even as children, schools defend us when we’re asked how we’ve been spending our time.



So why not just tell people you’ve suffered for your learning. For example, how does this sound “My name is Patricia Kambitsch, and I may not have my MFA but I’ve suffered even more than if I had one.”

9. Schools offer access to information. Knowledgeable people tell you their stories in classrooms. Research groups rework old information and uncover new knowledge.


Hold on. . . Thanks to technology, libraries, and open source courses and syllabi, information is plentiful and cheap. No longer can we use information as an excuse to go to school.

10. As students in school, we not only have a place to go, but a place to stay. Most campuses encourage loitering by design, Libraries furnished with carrels for the serious, include couches for the sleepy. Landscaped courtyards and quadrangles shade benches and maintain Wifi hotspots. Student unions and cafeterias don’t mind if you pack a lunch or bring your own tea bags. You’re allowed to be there.


And . . . most of us can get by with loitering in such places even without a valid college ID.

What’s Wrong with You?

from The Gifted by Patricia Kambitsch, Winner, National Novel Writing Month 2005

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.
— Thomas Edward Lawrence (of Arabia)

Ever since you were a small child you noticed things. You might have gazed upon the fading intensity of an autumn leaf, one whose beauty and fragility brought tears to your eyes. You might have been enchanted by waves of cricket song that drew you tender moments of reverie. Perhaps you spent more hours than anyone else ever would luxuriating in the bathtub, communing with the cosmos with your ears below the surface spying in on whale calls echoing in your bathwater. Or you may have witnessed a slow motion big bang origin of the universe explode before your closed eyes as you held your face up to the afternoon sun. Entire worlds opened themselves up to you from what seemed to be out of nowhere. The beauty, the flavor, the rhythm, the cadence. and the nuances of these worlds were never wasted on you because, unlike others, you knew how to pay attention.
Your attention was anything but in deficit. Your ability to lose yourself in the presence of God’s creation enabled you to explore worlds that others had no clue even existed. These were beautiful, golden times full of adventure and romance.
And then, sooner than later, people started noticing that you were noticing things. They noticed that you weren’t noticing what they wanted you to notice. You were listening to sounds and watching a world they had forgotten was there. They noticed you weren’t getting as much work completed or earning enough stars in their grade books. They noticed you were different.
And then it was all over. Well meaning adults and spiteful children alike called you names. If you were lucky, the names were romantic and benign. “Dreamer,” they would say or, “What a space cadet.” Parents and teachers said you were lazy, restless, disorganized, and underachieving. Later, people with whom you worked suspected that you were lazy or a procrastinator or unreliable or you simply had too much time on your hands. The words you heard most often as you grew up were “Hurry up. You’re taking too much time. Get a move on. You’re going to be late.”
So you did what you could to speed things along. You tried to please. Instead of dwelling on the beauty and the mysteries of the universe for a very long period of time, losing yourself in the beauty and the mystery of the world around you, you rushed though tasks. And the universe itself stared rushing by you as well. Speeding up the pace of your thoughts and your observations and your musings you found that you were able to attend yourself to many things at once. You found that the world itself was calling to you in many different directions at a pace that kept you hopping. There was so much to notice. You tried to do your work in school, but a street cleaner was coming by, the rain was dripping off the leaves in slow motion, birds were gathering on the telephone wire, and the fractal patterns formed by the lines on the face of your teacher were more interesting than anything she was trying to tell you. On the way home from school, you tried to pay attention to where you were going, but the clouds were forming themselves in to cotton candy castles. The mashed potatoes on your plate could be transformed into animal effigy mounds. The vibrations on the back of the bus were synchronizing with the waves in the old lady’s hair sitting in front of you . Dogs and squirrels and birds may have been talking to you and you knew that if you could just take the time to listen you could understand what they had to say.
And colors. Flashes of color, shadows of color, trees and sky and water. They all called to you. Colors deepened and changed. Everything, everywhere, living and nonliving seemed to call to you.
And the world didn’t just want you to notice. The world wanted you to participate, to run and jump and touch the energy of the wind as it brushed over your finger tips. Everything in its multitude of particular manifestations was calling to you: come play with me.
The only way to keep up with the ideas and the pace of your own imagination was to keep hurrying up. As you grew and matured, ideas started coming to you as well. You would have a clever idea, and then, before you knew it another idea (related directly, tangentially, or not at all) You invented solutions to the world’s problems, you devised ways to reorganize flora and fauna giving them names according to the sweetness of their breath, or the lightness of their touch, the bass of their pounding.
Not all your meanderings and your noticing were pleasant. Because much of your you worried too. You worried about Santa getting stuck in your little tiny flue in your fireplace. You worried about the stray cats outside in the winter that they might not find anywhere cozy to sleep. You worried about unidentified flying objects and if the intelligent life forms that traveled in them would be able to find someone as friendly as you before the army started shooting them down. You worried about your grandma’s heart condition. And you worried about the animals you knew were being killed so that you could eat. You worried about gravity. (Just because it worked for as long as scientists and philosophers could tell, doesn’t mean that they would always be there.) You worried about pollution, and the return of the Nazis, and you worried that if you weren’t good you might go to hell forever. You worried about your parents impending divorce before they even knew the possibility ever occurred to them.
You worried because you couldn’t help but keep noticing.
And people went right on noticing you noticing. And they thought maybe you were doing drugs. And maybe you were and that’s the only time you felt normal. At least then, the friends you were doing the drugs with were going along on some kind of ride of their own and weren’t likely to tell you to hurry up.
And you started noticing people. You noticed the beauty of eyes. So you looked deeply into the faces of anyone close enough to see. Whole universes expanded within each set of pupils. And you listened to their voices. And you touched their hair, their lips. You watched the way their flesh moved as they walked. You could listen to them speak about anything for hours, just to hear the music of their voices. You fell in love deeply and often.
People who noticed this and called you such names as scattered, disorganized, unsettled. Friends and lovers who watched you were convinced you had lost interest in their friendship and assumed that you had grown disloyal, your heart had become unfaithful, and that your bed hopping was a serious case of profound promiscuousness.
Perhaps you have found yourself alone, marginalized by the rest of the people in what might have been your community if they hadn’t pushed you aside or made fun of you or under.
Or maybe you have compensated for your behaviors. Maybe you have learned how to disguise or dampen your noticing and thinking and reflecting and imagining and inventing behaviors so much that you appear normal and blend right in with the rest of the world. Maybe you have blurred and blanded down your intensity to a point that you don’t even know who you are anymore.
Maybe you have compensated so often and so well that you have stopped losing yourself in the wonders of the universe so much that you have really and truly lost who you were meant to be.
Maybe that’s what’s wrong with you.

The Right to Play

Bill of Rights
Players and Thinkers

You have the right to play–participate, recreate, fool around, dabble, doodle, explore,
perform, have fun, show off.

You have the right to think–
imagine, ruminate, muse, dream, conjure, tinker, invent, pretend, reflect.

You have the right to take risks.

Playing and thinking take time. You shall feel no guilt or shame for taking time for this important work.

The elite shall not exclude you. Art is active, participatory, inclusive. You have the right to join in.

Tortoises, late bloomers, and ugly ducklings take heart. The best learning is often slow: begin any time and take as much time as you need.

You have the right to play around, to explore playgrounds near and far, and to share your toys with many different playmates.

Your freedom to show outrage and to make noise shall not be infringed. You have something to say. Be loud and be heard. Be bold and be seen.

You have the right to make mistakes.

You may play with toys of others. Mix up media, blend and bend genres, transplant and cross-pollinate ideas

You have the right to play with yourself, to spend time alone, to explore your own gifts. No one can play with you like you can.

You have the right to assemble peacefully with other players and thinkers and to thrive within the support of a nurturing and challenging community.