At once spiritual, practical, and streetwise, Kent Nerburn
’s Letters to My Son: A Father’s Wisdom on Manhood, Life, and Love
has been beloved by readers from all walks of life, including single mothers seeking guidance in raising a son, fathers looking to share a voice of clarity about life’s most important issues, and young men wanting an intelligent, thoughtful, and sensitive companion on the journey toward a worthy manhood.
We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the new twentieth anniversary edition, in which Kent Nerburn
shares his reflections on education and learning.
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Education is one of the great joys and solaces of life. It gives us a framework for understanding the world around us and a way to reach across time and space to touch the thoughts and feelings of others.
But education is more than schooling. It is a cast of mind, a willingness to see the world with an endless sense of curiosity and wonder.
To be truly educated, you must adopt this cast of mind. You must open yourself to the richness of your everyday experience — to your own emotions, to the movements of the heavens and the language of birds, to the privations and successes of people in other lands and other times, to the artistry in the hands of the mechanic and the typist and the child. There is no limit to the learning that appears before us. It is enough to fill us each day a thousand times over.
The dilemma of how best to educate has always pivoted on the issue of freedom to explore versus the structured transmission of knowledge.
Some people believe that we learn best by wandering forth into an uncharted universe and making sense of the lessons that life provides.
Others believe that we learn best by being taught the most complete knowledge possible about a subject, then being sent forth to practice and use that knowledge.
Both ways have been tried with every possible method and in every possible combination and balance.
If we find ourselves tempted to celebrate one approach over the other, we should remember the caution of the Chinese sage Confucius, who told his followers, “Study without thinking and you are blind; think without studying and you are in danger.”
Formal schooling is one way of gaining education, and it should not be underestimated. School, if it is good, imparts knowledge and a context for understanding the world around us. It opens us to ideas that we could never discover on our own, and makes us one with the life of the mind as it has been shaped by people and cultures we could never meet in our own experience. It makes us part of a community of learners, and helps us give form and direction to the endless flow of experience that passes before us.
It is also a great frustration, because it often seems irrelevant to the passions of our own interests and beliefs.
When you feel burdened by formal education, do not be quick to cast it aside. What you are experiencing is a great surge in your growth and consciousness that is screaming out for immediate and total exploration.
You must remember that all other learners have traveled the same path. And though all true learners have felt this urge to strike out on their own, formal education, in its many shapes and guises, has been sought and revered by all people and all cultures in all times. It has a genius that is greater than your passions, and it is abandoned at your own peril.
Still, formal education will not inform your spirit and make you full. So, along with knowledge, you must seek wisdom. Knowledge is multiple, wisdom is singular. Knowledge is words, wisdom is silent. Knowledge is standing outside, understanding what is seen, wisdom is standing at the center, knowing what is not seen. No person can be whole without both dimensions of learning.
There are many ways to seek wisdom. There is travel, there are masters, there is service. There is staring into the eyes of children and elders and lovers and strangers. There is sitting silently in one spot, and there is being swept along in life’s turbulent current. Life itself will grant you wisdom in ways you may neither understand nor choose.
It is up to you to be open to all these sources of wisdom and to embrace them with your whole heart.
So do not disparage the lessons of either the schooled or the unschooled.
Those who have less formal education may have learned some single thing more deeply, or they may have embarked early upon the search for wisdom. In their uniqueness, they have discovered something special about life, and it is yours to experience if you are open to what they may have to teach.
Those who have devoted their life to formal learning may have walked further along a path than you can even imagine, and may be able to lead you to a vista that will take your breath away, if only you can overcome your boredom and fatigue at the rigors of the search.
Remember the words of the musician who was asked which was greater, knowledge or wisdom. “Without knowledge,” he answered, “I could not play the violin. Without wisdom, I could not play the music.”
Place yourself among those who live their lives with passion, and true learning will take place, no matter how humble or exalted the setting. But no matter what path you follow, do not be ashamed of your learning. In some corner of your life, you know more about something than anyone else on earth. The true measure of your education is not what you know, but how you share what you know with others.
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Excerpted from the book Letters to My Son
© 1994, 1999, 2014 by Kent Nerburn