The need for flexible life-long learning

Last Updated on Thursday, 3 June, 2021 at 11:17 am by Andre Camilleri

Luca Cachia-Morena is a co-founder at Elephant & Cross, a startup that works alongside world leading course providers and universities in order to connect people with the best courses for their needs

At around 8am on 26 December 2004, an undersea “megathrust” earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia. It had a magnitude of 9.1, releasing enough energy to sustain global power consumption for 80 years. The sea floor rose by several metres, causing a tsunami that went down as one of the worst natural disasters in recorded human history.

In Indonesia, this moment is etched in the national psyche. Around 230,000 people lost their lives to the 30-something-metre high waves. For the people of Banda Aceh, the closest major city to the earthquake’s epicentre, their community practically disintegrated. Less than half of the city’s population survived and just about the only thing left standing after the waves was the mosque. The devastation is still incomprehensible.

The economist Richard Davies tells the story of Sanusi, an Acehnese man he interviewed. Before the tsunami, Sanusi ran a successful coffee shop in a suburb of the city. When the waves came, he only survived by climbing a coconut tree. By the time he slid down, he found himself without a single earthly possession. His coffee shop and house had been washed away. Even his savings, kept in a safe and built up over years of brewing were gone. Tragically, his wife and eldest son lost their lives. Sanusi had his surviving children to think of, but after losing everything, how could he rebuild?

Well, there was one thing that wasn’t washed away. One asset that Sanusi had that could survive any tsunami: what he knew. He had the skills to run a good coffee shop; he knew where to source the beans; he knew how much to charge; he knew how to brew an espresso such that it didn’t taste like an ashtray. Sanusi had to start again, literally from scratch, but just five months later (and with a loan of €400), Sanusi’s coffee shop was back in operation.

This is not just a fascinating story about human resilience, but it also reveals what is resilient: our knowledge.

Sanusi’s story plays out on a macro level as well: how many cities and countries have been flattened by war or natural disaster, only to come back? So long as there are people, there is someone who knows something and another person who can learn it. No one can force an accountant to forget double-entry or demand a mathematician hand over their understanding of calculus. The only person who can take your skills from you is yourself (I have chosen to forget calculus on multiple occasions).

Humans, unlike other animals, do not only grow as individuals from infancy to seniority, but we also progress as a group. We’ve spent the last 7 million years building on formerly laid foundations: borrowing and re-investing from our collective bank of information. When we learn something or practise what we know, we are not simply tsunami-proofing our lives (important), but we’re also taking part in a conversation that extends through the ages. It’s why we mourn when certain skills, like lace-making, do not get transferred. We understand the ending of this collaboration.

I think it’s important to remember that learning is a lifelong undertaking. A lot of us can have a one-dimensional view of education as something that happens and then ends once you start work. In my role at Elephant & Cross, I often speak to people who feel like they’ve “missed” the higher/further education train; got off the line somewhere between kindergarten and graduation and now it’s too late. Maybe this was the case when we were all too busy in our cubicles to go back to school, but we now inhabit a hyper-connected world. You no longer need to go to a big University building full of lecturers wearing polyester trousers if that’s something you don’t have time for or don’t enjoy. We can learn basically anything, whenever we want. Part-, full-time, evenings, on full moons, whatever. If knowledge is what drives us forwards, then I think we’ll be alright.

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