Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Places of Learning


Last summer my husband and daughter attended a science conference at Berkeley University in California. I went along to enjoy San Francisco with them in the evenings and wandered about by myself during the day when they were in classes. The first day I stopped by the university library to see if they had any books on the colony of New Netherland - my favorite place in history. As I checked the computer catalog I realized the library had 932 books about it; more than I had ever had access to. I quickly wrote down several call numbers and eagerly went to find some new information. To my bitter disappointment, nearly all of the books I wanted to research were in a place called "The Stacks" and were only accessible to Berkeley students and non-students who were doing research. Since I fell into the second category, I went back to the main desk and found that I needed to be interviewed to have access to these books. After two interviews I received a guest card and was granted access to the protected section of the library. I immediately found the first several books on my list and immersed myself in New Netherland.

I devoted each morning to the library that week to learn more about New Netherland. I spent my first hour, each day in the reading room of the main library and then descended the spiral staircase; to go four stories underground and devour any information I could find about New Netherland. I soon recognized this building, the main library, to be a place that reverenced learning. Upon entering the oversized, ornate doors, the halls were adorned with marble floors, pillars and display cases. These glass cabinets were filled with old books and journals that related to various topics; all opened up for examination by anyone who wanted to stop and examine them.  After passing the display cases, I ascended the wide marble staircase to the reading room each morning to organize my thoughts and review what I had learned the day before in The Stacks. I absolutely loved the reading room and always spent the first several minutes just sitting at a table and looking around. This room was unquestionably a place of learning. The walls were filled with books in heavy wooden bookcases. The long tables and heavy chairs were also made of solid wood. The high ceiling was arched and decorated with ornate designs that were painted and carved into the wood. Each end of the arched room was made of glass, oversized windows that welcomed the sunlight in each morning and opened the mind up and learn everything it possibly could.

Not all places of learning are this obvious. I recently read an article about the brilliant scientist, Jane Goodall. She is known for her tireless work with chimpanzees but I found that she has other interest also. When she was a young girl, Jane had an insatiable interest in plants. She studied what leaves do, how seeds are transferred and what environments they grow in. Goodall's place of learning about plants was on a large branch of a favorite beech tree in her yard. She spent hours reading, drawing and writing about the world of plants while perched in her tree. Before ascending the tree each day, she filled a small basket that was attached to a long string, with "a book, a saved piece of cake, and some homework" (Smithsonian, March 2013, p 75). As a 12-year-old girl, Goodall filled each page of her "nature notebook" with observations and drawings about plants simply because she loved learning about plants; not because it was an assignment she was obligated to do. The learning she acquired while sitting in her beech tree - her place of learning - has remained an important part of her life. During her years in the jungles studying chimpanzees, she simultaneously paid attention to the plants around her. Jane recently wrote a book, Seeds of Hope. The basis of this book began in the branches of a tree - Goodall's place of learning.

The scientist Charles Darwin also had a place of learning where he spent his time studying. Although he gathered a great deal of information during his voyage on the HMS Beagle and began to formulate some ideas about the workings of natural selection, it was at his own home, fifteen miles outside of London, where he spent time pondering, experimenting and learning. Down House, on its twenty acres, was a place of learning for Charles, his wife Emma, and their children. Their home was organized with daily routines that made it run like clockwork. "Yet it was also a liberal house, always slightly untidy, muddied from the passing of children and their dogs and cluttered with the saucers and jars of perpetual natural history experiments" (Smithsonian, February 2013, p 62). Darwin's home was his place of learning and a remarkable feature was that he invited his children to help oversee his experiments. As his children fully participated in Darwins experiments, their home became a place of learning for them as well. At Down House, most surfaces were covered with books, bottles and microscopes-there was something to be observed and learned at every corner.

Darwin was particularly interested in barnacles, carnivorous plants, bees, and worms. His curiosity of the natural world carried over to his children who were always willing assistants for his experiments. As soon as they were old enough, they were recruited to "observe seeds growing on saucers arranged in window sills, or to play music to worms, or to follow and map the flight path of the honeybees across the Down House gardens" (Smithsonian, February 2013, p 65). What a delightful place for learning to occur!

These three places of learning are only the beginning. Our own places of learning are all unique, and no matter where they are found, we can gain infinite information as we ponder and study topics we desire to learn more about. Mahatma Gandi suggested to, "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. If we will carry this attitude with us to our own personal libraries, beech trees, and homes, we will achieve a love of learning that will last us our entire lifetime; and in the end, we will have enjoyed the world a bit more because of the understanding we have gained, and can leave behind the gift of increased knowledge to those who follow after us.
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Smithsonian Magazine, "Darwin in the House," February 2013, pages 60-67.

Smithsonian Magazine, "The Roots of a Naturalist," March 2013, pages 75-79. 

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