For Learning’s Sake

I went to my cousin’s college commencement last week. She was graduating from Occidental College, the small Liberal Arts school in Los Angeles where President Obama studied before transferring to Columbia University. The ceremony was pleasant, but a little tedious. My family sat, sunburning, in the LA morning blaze, and listened to the sentiments that blurred into the cliches of graduation speeches: “As you stand on the precipice…Beginning this new chapter…” etc.

Later that evening, after a few drinks, I shared some older-wiser-cousin wisdom: “Your twenties are going to be great, just messy, and you will probably feel unfocused. It’s a decade where you adventure and make Do & Don’t lists; Yes, No & Maybe lists… It’s just a decade to get you closer to the good sh%*. Which is your thirties.”

I am twenty-nine. I’m not even in the good sh%* yet, apparently. But my husband is, and nearly all our friends are now, and it looks good. I’m excited for my thirties — I’m ready, let’s do this.

I remember graduating from college, barely twenty-two years old. It all seemed to go by too quickly. I loved college, and I was sad when it was over! I reveled in the particular balance of structure and freedom in art school. I reveled in working really hard, and staying up all night. I reveled in the community, and the conversations. Although my upbringing as an unschooler had trained me well to be self-directed, making the transition from college student to college grad felt stark. And the following years were spent experimenting with different day jobs and wandering road trips.

But, looking back at what I told my cousin last week, I wonder if my version of being twenty-something has anything to do with her? Our families, though very close, are of somewhat different stock. Her parents were both lawyers before my aunt left her law practice to become a rabbi. They’re achievers. Are we? The message and modeling my cousin grew up with are somewhat different from how my sisters and I were raised: we didn’t pursue education for the purpose of achievement or “succeeding” at something. As my sister put it, we learned for learning’s sake.

Me & Mindy, art show

Me and Mindy, 2009 — photograph by Sean Teegarden

Were we raised by the antithesis of a Tiger-Mother?  I can’t help but wonder how that affected our values and approach to living. And ultimately, how that affected our prioritization of “success” in traditional terms. In a recent conversation, my sister Mindy and I discussed the question:

Lindsey: One thing I feel we gathered from unschooling, and having to create our own goals and structures, was the message that you don’t need external recognition for success. I think that was kind of an underlying message that I see, looking back.

Mindy: I think what you’re getting at is being able to have an innate curiosity, right? Being able to learn for learning’s sake, and not because someone is expecting you to?

Lindsey: Yeah, and I don’t know if you agree with me, but I think Mom kind of presented the message that it was best to pursue things mostly for your own satisfaction. That there wasn’t necessarily the greater goal of “succeeding” in the eyes of society… Like, she wasn’t grading us, so we weren’t succeeding for recognition by her. And there wasn’t a school looking over her shoulder, so we weren’t succeeding for recognition from an institution. Now, as an adult, people are trying to achieve in the workplace, and make more money, and go towards certain standards of success. Do you feel like you’re as interested in those expectations, or do you think the way we were raised kind of set us a bit outside of that paradigm?

Mindy: Oh, yeah. I’m definitely outside of that paradigm. I have a lot of discussions about this. But, I feel like I know a lot of people who reject conventional standards of success, or “success” as happiness. And they’re people who come from all different backgrounds.

Lindsey: Do you ever feel like there’s a downside to how we were raised?

Mindy: Sure, if you reject societal expectations…There’s going to be a reaction to that. I have a post-graduate degree, but I think focusing on a career holds less value to me than it does to other people.

Lindsey: What does hold the most value you for you?

Mindy: Having interests, and knowledge and learning, creating things, and being a good person.

That’s a pretty good answer. But I don’t know if those are the top-5 most valued things in our larger society (maybe that last one makes the cut). But is there an underlying danger in the message that learning, curiosity and creativity are goals in and of themselves? Does that produce people less inclined to find and enjoy traditional “success”?

Within the scope of this blog, I am self-conscious about whether or not our family’s experiment in child-led learning resulted in my sisters and me being good poster-children of the unschooling approach. I mean, we’re ok! Our struggles are certainly not exotic, but I don’t see us as over-achievers, either.

During college and after, I worked in a number of jobs in arts education with children. I liked the work and enjoyed kids. Then, not long after my graduation from art school, I was in an art show in New York City, made a little cash, quit my job, packed the car, and had three months of spirit-questing and driving across the country. About a year after I returned to the West Coast from that journey, my husband-to-be and I left again to live in Portugal for several months. We stopped in New York City on the way home, and we fell completely in love with the town. Not long after that, there we were, living in New York!

new york

Because I had always loved kids, and because nannying can be good money in New York, I applied to a “boutique” nanny service. I interviewed with a family in lower Manhattan; the parents worked on Wall Street. They said they loved the nanny they had, but she wasn’t worldly enough now that the kids were toddlers. They told me about their 3 year old studying for an important IQ test, and interviews for Kindergarten… Then the mom told the dad where to sit on the sofa. I knew that these weren’t my people.

But the other funny thing that hit me in that interview was the realization that I was a fun, bohemian, artistic, well-traveled accessory for these children. But, by the measure of the parents’ values, I wasn’t worth more than being “the help.” Certainly, if their kids ended up being me, that would be a failure for them.

My husband and I talk a lot about defining success, pursuing meaningful work, growthful work, gainful work; balancing commitments and practicality with our “bohemian” priorities like freedom for travel and creativity. And when we talk about kids and education, we swear we won’t send them to art school!


So, I didn’t go to Yale, or make a start-up, or invent something game-changing, or earn six figures doing anything. Nor have I swung the other way! I don’t have a beautiful farm in the woods and a bunch of naked babies… I live with Josh and our two cats in an apartment, and I am incredibly average! I keep operating on an internal compass towards personal meaning, love, responsibility, inspiration and curiosity.

The thing about the pursuit of happiness is that it’s a slippery goal. Every time you get somewhere, the ground shifts, and things rearrange, and you gotta keep moving, all the time!

Maybe my cousin will fare better.