NEVER TOO OLD TO LEARN

June 17th, 2021

Jason Tan is Professor of Policy, Curriculum and Leadership at The National Institute of Education in Singapore. He is also an acknowledged expert on what has become known as “lifelong learning”. Singapore is a world leader in this field and the Singaporean government has pioneered a lifelong learning program for the entire population; its SkillsFuture platform is available to every citizen. 

In an interview earlier this week, Tan noted that the major motivation behind SkillsFuture is the “increasing challenge posed by technological disruption to workplaces… around the world.” Artificial Intelligence is no longer just a threat to lower-skilled jobs, it even threatens white-collar workers. For example, computers are able to read and interpret radiograms, surpassing radiologists in their understanding of the data. Another example is computer programs that write press releases and compose company blurb by extrapolating information from balance sheets. Entire areas of expertise and skill that were previously unassailably human are in danger of obsolescence.

And as this tsunami gathers pace, the only way for workers to stay ahead of the game is to continue learning throughout their lives, constantly gaining new skills, training and retraining as technology advances and circumstances change.

But what really stuck out in Tan’s description of SkillsFuture was when he said that the Singaporean government’s “conception of lifelong learning is much broader than just narrow employability concerns.” In other words, lifelong learning is not just about putting proverbial bread on the table, it is about constantly expanding your knowledge. And, most importantly, it is about accepting as fact that no matter how much you know, and how much you have studied in the past, there is always more to learn.

Our Talmudic sources are replete with references to this kind of lifelong scholarly humility, even among the most illustrious of the sages. In Avot (4:1), the last of the great Talmudic darshanim (“scriptural interpreters”), Simeon Ben Zoma, declares that a wise person is someone who learns something from everyone they come into contact with, based on the verse in Psalms (119:99): “From all who taught me have I gained understanding.” The implication is clear: learning is not limited to your years at school, and you can gain knowledge throughout your life, and, indeed, that’s what you should do if you want to be wise.

Both Rabbi Judah, editor of the Mishnah, and his devoted disciple Rabbi Hanina, are quoted as having said (Makkot 10a; Taanit 7a): “I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but more than from all of them I have learned from my students.” Strikingly, these outstanding scholars acutely understood that in order to learn, and gain knowledge, you must be willing to humble yourself – even to the extent that your students become your teachers.

I can clearly remember from my own years in yeshiva that the rabbis who taught us how to study Talmud – and we were self-evidently inexperienced novices by comparison – eagerly sought our interpretations of the passages we were studying together, and willingly conceded to our analyses if they felt our version was more accurate than theirs. This lifelong learning model has stuck with me – the total negation of ego when it comes to learning something new, or even relearning material. As far as I can tell, it is exactly this that is the root of the wisdom defined by Simeon Ben Zoma in Avot.

Remarkably, this concept of self-negation in the pursuit of knowledge, and specifically Torah knowledge, is explicitly stated by Reish Lakish, the third-century giant of Talmudic literature. In Parshat Chukkat (Num. 19:14), the Torah records the laws of ritual impurity, beginning the section which deals with the impurity of corpses with the words: זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אָדָם כִּי יָמוּת בְּאֹהֶל – “This is the law, if a person dies in a tent.” But rather than seeing this opener as merely introductory words to the arcane laws that follow, Reish Lakish suggests a novel, parallel interpretation. “From where do we derive that Torah knowledge is only retained by someone who kills himself over it?” he asks – and then cites this verse.  

Clearly, Reish Lakish would never suggest that we engage in behavior which might endanger our lives just so that we can study Torah, nor is he stating that the study of Torah will result in life-threatening health problems. After all, we are expected to “live” a Torah life, and if the observance of any aspect of Torah could result in death, preserving our life overrides it. And on a more practical level, being at death’s door is hardly the route to academic success.

Rather, Reish Lakish is making a more prosaic pronouncement. A person who wishes to learn must be willing to “kill” his ego, and the learning will inevitably be exponentially better. In Reish Lakish’s creative interpretation, the verse is telling us that if you want ‘this Torah’, then always be ready to ‘kill’ your ego in the ‘tent’ of learning.

Or, as Albert Einstein put it, “Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”

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