So let’s start by looking at what learning actually is: Learning is the process of knowledge or behaviour beaming part of you. Learning changes who you are.
Old English leornian “to get knowledge, be cultivated, study, read, think about,” from
Proto-Germanic liznojan, from
Proto Indo European leis-“rack, furrow.”
Learning new ways of doing things is hard work, and there are good reasons for this, as can be seen from our inclination towards healthy eating and exercise:
Fat & Sugar
Why is it that fatty foods are so attractive to us but they are so unhealthy? The answer is of course that in the vast majority of our history as a species, and all the time of the history of our ancestor species, fat and sugars were hard to come by it was a good idea for us to develop a taste for the highly concentrated energy.
Biological evolution has been overtaken by social and technological evolution so now our craving for what was before hard to come by is the default option.
Why is it that running is so healthy but for most people it’s not pleasurable? It used to be that running was essential if we were to tire the beasts we needed to slaughter and bring home for the rest of the tribe. Humans are better at dealing with body heat than other animals so we can run for longer than any of the ones on our menu.
But why did we not simply fall in love with running and run all the time? Because we would simply not have enough food to support such an energy consuming lifestyle, so we developed a tendency towards laziness apart from when adrenaline pumped to spur us on to run and run, and with it, runners high for when we needed the long distances.
So here too, our evolutionary development put an activity within a spectrum of need vs. energy.
As a species humans are very good at doing what we have done before. Once we know how to ride a bike, we can ride a bike, we don’t need to learn how to do it again and again. Once we learn how to read, we know how to read, and so on.
If we want to learn a new sport or to read in another language, it takes significantly more time and real, hard mental effort to ‘get up to speed’, burning extra much sugar in the brain, to accomplish the change in our brains to ‘learn’, to ‘seat’ these new skills, these new behaviours, into our memories and processes.
This is for the same reason as it’s not really ‘natural’ for us to avoid fatty foods or run at leisure; committing something to memory comes at a cost since there is a chance it could disagree with something we already know: The older we are, the longer we have survived with the previous notion or skill, so the cost of changing is higher. We have acquired important life-lessons in childhood, when we know little and learn quickly but are supremely vulnerable as we have few automatic systems in place, only the very most basic ‘instincts’.
Let’s take this all the way to its logical conclusion, let’s see what it would be like if learning something new was not ‘backed up’ by the ability to learn and put the behaviour on automatic pilot: First of all, the decision overhead of deciding how to do anything since it can be done in any way would be huge. Imagine the simple act of going out to buy groceries; the way you walk could be completely different way from how you walked yesterday. You come across a door. What’s that all about? How about stairs? Or getting into, never mind driving, a car. The benefit of ‘automatically’ doing what you have done before would be lost.
Putting information, processes and perspectives into yourselves always be an energy and survival (for earlier evolutionary times) gamble. Putting the essentials on autopilot and leaving them as stable, slid behaviours and perspectives makes perfect sense in a world which is relatively static in your lifetime.
Today we live in an environment of daily work related change and massive, global change. We live in an environment where people who used to be separated are now coming together, with all the opportunity and friction that brings. We live in an environment where our social, poetical and financial interactions are so complicated that we cannot simply read a book or have a conversation and be confident we understand the issues in totality and in-depth.
We have to put learning front and centre.
This means treating continuous learning as a global priority. Not simply literacy of basic reading and writing, but continual literacy development of learning how to access, asses and share information as well as, crucially, how to discuss information with others, in continual, active dialog.
Whereas evolution, with it’s ‘blind’ optimisation of our survival based on our ancient historical environment, has optimised us for learning while young, then relying primarily on automatics, we now have to adapt or simply die, as a species.
The cost of sticking with what you have learnt when young is simply too high now.