Education: Holding On to the Adventure Part of It

Education must hold on to learning-as-adventure or it goes stale.

Here’s a real example:

A man goes to his American Heritage Dictionary, to look up the word “vinaigrette” which he seems to remember as a salad dressing but finds there are as so often happens, other meanings.

The man’s eye looks down and comes across medicinal words close by like “vinblastine” and “vincristine” which have anti-tumor properties and are used in cancer medicine.

If you read the dictionary definitions receptively and thoughtfully you enter a world of tremendous complexity and interest (e.g., alkaloids, plant chemistry, phytochemistry, medicine, etc.). The Madagascar periwinkle plant is mentioned as a source for these alkaloids that become anti-neoplastic drugs. You wonder: why Madagascar? Why periwinkle plants? Why plants? These questions have “nontrivial” answers.

You also wonder about the nature of alkaloids and whether there are some evolutionary reasons why some plants produce food, some poisons (poison ivy, say), and others “good poisons” (i.e., alkaloids that can be made therapeutic through pharmacology).

You perhaps remember the PBS program of years ago about the black genius who did deep work in these and other “phytochemical” fields:

Percy Lavon Julian (April 11, 1899 – April 19, 1975) was a research chemist and a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. He later started his own company to synthesize steroid intermediates from the wild Mexican yam. Julian received more than 130 chemical patents.

You can be dismissive and dismiss this “spontaneous questing” as a kind of woolgathering or “lolling about” mentally but the truth is often the opposite: it is only such “productive daydreams” that allow you to penetrate fields and topics and questions and problems by finding a “surprise window” or “backdoor” into them. Serendipity is very related to education, which has both formal or “do your homework” components to it and also a “wander about” one when you’re quite relaxed and mentally receptive.

Going from your “vinaigrette” definition quest, where you started, to wandering off into a deep look at vinblastine, vincristine, cancer, alkaloids and phytochemicals opens up “worlds” to you which is of course at the very basis of real education.