For more than 15 years I have presided over my university’s Arrival Day, the time when families drop off their sons and daughters about to start their college career. Every year some parents will take me aside to say they wish they were starting college, and that they’d get a lot more out of the experience now because they’ve become better learners.
One mother laughingly called herself a “perpetual student.” She meant she pursued learning for the sheer joy of inquiry. But the term is usually one of gentle derision: someone who keeps taking more courses as a way to avoid holding down a job. In other words, a slacker, or a loser. I think that’s wrong. We should begin to see this sort of lifelong learning as a way for individuals to gain not just knowledge, but liberation. In its ideal form, being a perpetual student is not an act of avoidance but rather a path to perpetual self-determination and freedom.
The ideas of “freedom” and “student” were not always linked together. In pre-modern Europe, schools were few and far between, but there was learning nonetheless — learning that aimed at economic independence and integration with a community. Universities were founded in the medieval period, and as literacy became more culturally and economically advantageous, especially after the Protestant Reformation, basic schooling became more common.
For the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, the student in pursuit of enlightenment was someone in the process of leaving behind “self-imposed immaturity” and learning to think for oneself. Some people, however, were said to exist outside the realm of learning altogether — at least the kind of learning meant to allow one to stand on one’s own feet. With intellectual contortions fuelled by racism and economic self-interest, many supposedly enlightened Enlightenment thinkers and writers argued that enslaved people could not be students, that they did not have the potential to be free. States passed laws forbidding the education of enslaved people. Learning became an act of resistance.
Across the West in the 19th century, formal schooling became more widespread, and debates about education centred on preparing independent thinkers who could also be free citizens. But questions quickly arose: Are schools truly helping students think for themselves, or are they only indoctrinating them into the latest conventions? Will advanced learning lead to scientific gains that benefit society, or will it only create self-serving justifications for the inequalities produced by industrialization? By the mid 1800s Ralph Waldo Emerson would call on his fellow citizens to live more independently by being more open and creative. For him, the freedom of a student was not just an intellectual matter. It was bound up with opposing convention — and it shouldn’t end with school.
The connection between learning and freedom is presupposed in many criticisms of students today as censorious or relativist, illiberal or radical, coddled snowflake or warrior for social justice. As the 1990s boogeyman of political correctness has been transformed in the minds of its enemies into woke and cancel culture, one can see more clearly than ever that the idea of the student is a screen onto which folks (themselves long out of school) project their fears for the future and, perhaps, anxieties about themselves.
There are many ways be a student. Some will strive to find balance and harmony by fitting into their educational context. Others build intellectual muscle by criticising every move the teacher makes. In daring to be critical and competitive interlocutors with their instructors, they work harder and learn to think more deeply. Some students learn through imitation, eager to follow their classmates as well as their teacher. The core of all these approaches is developing the capacity to think for oneself by learning from others.
Ultimately, the true student learns freedom by developing curiosity, judgement and creativity in the service of one’s own good and the good of their communities. This flourishing is different from being trained by an instructor to do a task or earn a badge, and it is different from the satisfaction one gets through acquiring objects or experiences in the marketplace.
On campus, students do learn specific tasks and they do enjoy experiences, of course, but as students they are doing something more fundamental and more open-ended. They are learning freedom by learning who they are and what they can do (including how they might think). This almost always happens in concert with others. Students flourish in discovering and developing their capacities together.
That’s why it’s such a challenge to be a perpetual student — as our society becomes atomised and polarised, the informal educational spaces for adults to learn from people who have different points of view are fewer and farther between. And it gets harder to exercise the intellectual humility that being a student requires when one is supposed to have the authority, the certainty, of adulthood. Yet some people manage it at various points in their lives by finding fellow learners. This can happen in book clubs, online classes, Bible study or simply in stimulating interactions with co-workers.
There is a hunger for this. Roughly 200 people join my online Great Books humanities class each week on Coursera. During the pandemic, the number was more than 1,000, and millions around the world find other classes via Khan Academy and edX. The desire for learning is also a desire for connecting. It is not just the desire for a prize or a diploma.
For perpetual students, learning (as opposed to training) has no end. As they reach the end of one path of inquiry, they find themselves already on another. These paths develop their capacities and can’t be delimited in advance of the opportunity for exploring them. Every day is Arrival Day.
Perpetual students, like all of us, have the potential for freedom. They embrace this potential, exploring the world, absorbing its lessons and creatively responding to them.
To be a student is to be alive to the world and to oneself. Why would anyone want to graduate from that?
(Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. This essay draws on his forthcoming book “The Student: A Short History.”)
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.