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Learning To Learn

For the first year students who roll through the gates of UCD in September I dedicate this article to you all. Entering university requires that each student re-learn the way they learnt to learn in secondary school. And for me one of the most liberating discoveries was that learning does not just occur in the lecture theatre. In fact, a huge amount of learning takes place outside the classroom. These interim moments are a key part of university life.

Being in a university is a precious time. Even physically being here enlarges your perspective and encourages your mind out of any lingering summer slumber. On every wall debates are advertised, revolutionary slogans capitalized and the comforts of conformity shaken. Straight away minds are challenged to think differently and to think more.

I always thought the very air in the Newman building was tinged with learning. There’s something about being in university that gives you a grandiose feeling, a fresh independence. You start to walk around campus confidently, holding your head up high and feeling as though this is the real beginning of your life. If you’re an arts student, especially a first year, being in this environment might make you want to become more bohemian in your outlook. You visibly carry “Das kapital” or “Ulysses” and you name drop famous writers or geographers or historians or philosophers or artists or whoever is the big somebody in the discipline you are studying. And this is all great because it means university life is entering into you (despite the fact you will feel like a tool some years later)

After the first few weeks of frenzied introductions the term starts to settle down. The rhythm of university life slowly unfolds. But this is when the real pulse must be detected, the pulse of learning. The greatest of learning takes place outside the lecture theatre. Don’t get me wrong – lectures are paramount and provide us with the fuel that is essential for igniting those first nascent desires. But when the lecture ends and we leave the dark, enclosed theatre and step out into the bright light of the day that is when curiosity and vision harmonize with life. It is in animated conversations in the smoking area or while queuing in the shop that real learning occurs. Where else would you overhear people talking about existential nihilism or theories of gender?

Aristotle and his students used to be known as ‘walkers’ because he lectured them while walking outside between the trees. Socrates spent hours talking with his students in public places outside of the academy. This is what the literary critic George Steiner said: “After my lectures in Geneva, my students always knew at which café I would have my second coffee of the morning, or a glass of white wine, and they could come and chat. That’s where the intellectual life really blazes” it is beside the UCD lake or in the cafe or in the gym or on the grass beside the sports pitches that are the discreet places where learning flourishes. Life is a journey of learning and we’re a bunch of wanderers finding our way. Learning, and her sister wisdom, dwell in the most unexpected places. They hide shyly in the corners awaiting encouragement or sometimes they brazenly announce themselves. Either way in UCD they are there to be found.

In the history of this country some of the most memorable events happened in pubs. In her autobiography ‘Are You Somebody’ the ex-UCD student Nuala O’ Faolain wrote about the days and nights they spent in the pub with people like Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin. These nights (and days) acted as extensions to their learning. As they spoke about poetry and politics they were giving life to seeds of knowledge already planted and were turning theory into dreams into action and into life. Perhaps one could go as far as saying it is only when we bring our learning outside the lecture theatre that we can transform it into life. Perhaps only then does it become a part of us, come closer to our person.

In McDaid’s pub the Dubliners and Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan and all the other figures of the day used to meet and sing and tell stories over pints of Guinness and numberless smoked cigarettes. I would have killed to be a spilt drop of beer on their table to hear the conversation. I am sure each of them learned more during these evenings than they did during their entire secondary school careers. I am sure Kavanagh stumbled out of McDaid’s with his imagination teeming with poetic impulses and Luke Kelly’s heart beating to the harmony of a chord.

I am also sure that going to the pub between lectures is sometimes a bad idea, but other times it could be the very place where that strange openness grips the air and briefly gives us a glimpse of the limitless horizon we’re all reaching for through our studies and our life. This all seems dependent upon the lifestyle we adapt. If this lifestyle is one of a searching curiosity we will experience what John Henry Newman called a light in the mind that transforms the whole person.

So don’t think learning is only restricted to the lecture theatre. The purpose of this article was to show that is not the case. Learning is authentic when it demands the commitment of our entire selves – both the self we are inside and outside the lecture theatre. Learning beckons us to take a step further with bravery into the heart of the unknown. The point of a step is that it never remains static or in the same place. It always moves beyond itself.

– Laura Cullen