Last month, I wrote a post for the One Year Adventure Novel blog entitled The Hidden Connection Between Fiction and Academic Writing. The post was specifically geared towards that community, so it discussed how writers can use the OYAN curriculum to improve their academic writing – but it also briefly discussed the idea of creativity in academia as a whole. In this blog post, I’m not going to get into everything I discussed there, but I do want to use it as a way of introducing some of what I want to say here. If you want to read the whole thing, go for it!
(Before proceeding, be warned: this is not going to be a polished, well-edited article. This is a stream of consciousness blog post, without editing – basically just my raw thoughts)
So in that OYAN blog post, I mentioned how most academic writers have a lot to learn from creative writers. Many skills learned in creative writing are directly transferable to scholarly writing and vice-versa, despite the widely held belief that they are two entirely different activities. (On that point, I’d make the argument that literally every skill and experience you have is transferable to everything else you do in some way, but that’s another blog post for another time)
While some ideas expressed in that previous post are related to what I want to discuss here, I now want to talk more broadly – about something I see as a problem in today’s education system as a whole: which is that it seems we have forgotten the whole point of learning. What do I mean by this? Let me begin with a quick scenario, using writing as an example:
A current undergraduate student is taking a general education “English 101” course – and so he has to write several academic essays on various topics that he cares nothing about and will never research again in his life. As a result, this student learns to hate research, to hate academic writing, and maybe even to hate education itself. Obviously, the professor’s goal for assigning these papers was for her students to become better writers and more adept researchers – but by structuring her assignments in the way she did, she completely missed the potential to allow her students to also learn more about personally interesting topics – and thus to enjoy learning.
Writing and finding quality information are both core 21st Century skills which are directly relevant to everyday life – so learning these skills is obviously important (I teach college-level information literacy myself, so I’m a big proponent of that) – but if students are being taught to write about subjects they care nothing about and to find information they will never use beyond their classes, then the entire purpose of learning has been forgotten. I believe much of this problem stems from the fact that today’s culture has tried to separate learning from enjoyment and make them into their own separate categories. This distinction informs how we separate knowledge from art, work from hobbies, and yes – scholarly writing from creative.
Looking at writing specifically: I do enjoy writing academic papers, but I enjoy writing them because I see them as an incredible opportunity to share things I am actually excited about with other people who are also excited about them. I enjoy academic writing because it presents the challenge of creatively crafting my ideas into the “academic structure” – which is really just the best format for those people to be able to access, read, and fully understand what I’m trying to say. I write academic papers for the same reason I post in ALL CAPS on Facebook after I find out who’s going to be the next Doctor on Doctor Who – because I just learned something new, and I am really excited to share it with other people. The academic structure does not exist just so that students and scholars have to adhere to it – it exists because it is one of the best ways for those people to easily process that information and those ideas. The entire academic system of articles, and journals, and databases is built to facilitate the sharing of knowledge between real people who are excited about what they are learning – but students and teachers alike seem to forget that.
Curiosity is a part of being human – we are all designed to want to learn things. We are also designed to communicate, and to create. Writing is a means by which to do both of those things – and different avenues of writing (fiction, scholarly articles, blog posts, etc.) are all just different ways to create for and communicate to different audiences. You may not ever need to write scholarly articles, if you are not writing for researchers and academics – but for me, academic writing is a wonderful way to creatively express my thoughts, ideas, and research with other people who will learn from and appreciate them. And then I can also read what those people are excited about and what they are learning. By writing for each other, we are not just learning in isolation – we are learning collaboratively – and I believe that is how we are meant to learn, because knowledge is meant to be shared.
So… why do we learn? What is the real point? We of course learn so that we know how to do things – like learning to drive a car, studying to get a degree, or memorizing a song so that we can sing it. In these situations, it’s often not the learning itself that drives us – it’s the goal that we really want, and learning is just how we get there. This is a good, healthy way to learn, because it teaches us the value of learning. But we also learn things simply because they are exciting to us. I don’t read a million articles about the musical Hamilton because I’m going to write a paper about its Broadway success (though that’d be fun), I read them simply because learning more about the musical excites and interests me. I don’t learn about Irish fairy-tales, or Disney movies, or penguins for any reason other than because I sincerely enjoy it.
We were made with the ability to learn. Learning is a beautiful gift that God gave us when He created us – and in the same way that we enjoy the sounds He created for us to listen to, and the color He created for us to see, and the food He created for us to taste, we are meant to sincerely enjoy the ability He gave us to learn.
By fully appreciating God’s gift of learning, and by using that gift to give back to others in our own creation, communication, and collaboration, we are also glorifying Him.
TL;DR: Learning is an awesome, wonderful gift from God – and we are meant to enjoy it!