Ancora Imparo

They say that a PhD is a ‘terminal degree’ and often academics who have achieved this status believe that their raison d’être is to impart their knowledge and expertise with little room in their heads (or heart) for continued learning. They become as musty and dusty as the paper their thesis was printed on. Collecting dust on a shelf somewhere… Please don’t get me wrong! Achieving a PhD is an incredibly long and arduous process. Often like a prolonged labour and painful birth. It is good to take a breath and look at the beautiful creation you’ve brought forth into the world. But, birth is a beginning, not the end and what is the point of reaching a milestone or destination only to exclaim, ‘I have arrived’ and then not explore?

‘I am Still Learning’

Image credit: Shelli Ann Garland, author

At the age of 87, Michelangelo is attributed with inscribing the words “ancora imparo” translated as ‘I am still learning’ on a sketch he was working on while at St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Image credit: history.com

As a non-traditional ‘mature’ student who started my formal higher education later in life, I have often pondered the significance of that small but incredibly impactful statement recorded almost 500 years ago.  What inspired Michelangelo to long for learning and understanding and to want to share that knowledge with others?  It seems most fitting that Michelangelo, and many others who have had similar sentiments were meaning “look at everyday as something new, learn something new, do something new.” 

Ancora imparo… Even after he was well established and highly respected in his career as an artist, sculptor, and architect, Michelangelo still knew how important it was to continue to learn. Imparting a more unspoken lesson that we should never allow ourselves to believe (or let others believe) that they’ve reached some sort of pinnacle, and don’t need to learn anymore. We should never stop learning and that lifelong learning should be actively encouraged and pursued from cradle to casket.

Of course, there have been many other very influential and highly intelligent people who’ve also promoted the importance of lifelong learning.  For instance, Albert Einstein famously stated ‘Once you stop learning, you start dying’ and Gandhi said ‘Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever’.

Image credit. Pinterest.com and twitter.com/iamfearlesssoul

I have had a burning for learning in my soul, as far back as I can remember. As my final parting words of my PhD thesis, I wrote ‘Learning is lifelong… Never stop’, and then I quoted Michelangelo as if I believed this with my whole heart.  I did… and I still do.  They say that a PhD is a ‘terminal degree’ and often academics who have achieved this status believe that their raison d’être is to impart their knowledge and expertise with little room in their heads (or heart) for continued learning. They become as musty and dusty as the paper their thesis was printed on. Collecting dust on a shelf somewhere… Please don’t get me wrong! Achieving a PhD is an incredibly long and arduous process. Often like a prolonged labour and painful birth. It is good to take a breath and look at the beautiful creation you’ve brought forth into the world. But, birth is a beginning, not the end and what is the point of reaching a milestone or destination only to exclaim, ‘I have arrived’ and then not explore?

In 2019 there was a trending ‘tweet, re-tweet’ occurrence on an education and postgraduate Twitter social media platform that invited conversation about ‘what I wanted to be when I grew up’ – in primary school – high school – undergrad – and postgrad.  I am sure that it was a question to encourage reflection about growth and maturity as we live and learn.  I participated… how could I resist?  I reminisced briefly about what I wanted to be at those varying age levels (keeping in mind that there was a 30 year gap between my high school and undergrad education). I dashed off my reply and clicked ‘+tweet’.  I didn’t contemplate my tweet very much at that time, but while I was completing the reflection section in the final chapter of my PhD thesis, my 6 year old me – 15 year old me – 40 year old me – and 47 year old me were calling out to me once again.  I revisited that tweet and I was blown away by the desire for learning and the sense of purpose I had always had within me. This was my tweet:

Image credit: Shelli Ann Garland

‘I want to be a teacher so I can teach the world’

What did I want to be when I grew up?  In primary school I wanted to be a teacher.  I remember frequently playing ‘school’ with my siblings and cousins, as a child, and I always wanted to be the teacher.  I recognized that there was power in passing on wisdom and passion for learning to others.  I wrote ‘I want to be a teacher –  so I can teach the world’.

‘I want to be a flight attendant so I can see the world’

In high school (secondary school), I initially wanted to be a flight attendant because as a Sagittarius I was a dreamer, I had a restless spirit, and I was fascinated by the cultures of the world around me.  I believed that becoming a flight attendant and travelling the world would take me places that only my dreams and imagination had taken me at this point. I wrote ‘I want to be a flight attendant – so I can see the world’. Of course, my parents were not in a financial position to be able to send me to the flight attendant school that I desperately wanted to attend in Florida, so I joined the United States Navy instead.  I didn’t see much of the world because I promptly became a mother, married and settled into my role as primarily a ‘stay at home’ mom.  

‘I want to be a Sociologist so I can study people in our world’

It wasn’t until after my boys were fairly independent young men, that I embarked on my ‘further’ educational journey.  That burning fire for learning was still very much there, buried deep in my heart.  My passion for education and learning was just as strong in my 40s as it was when I was just a young girl.  Throughout my undergraduate degree and even into my master’s degree, I was passionate about sociology and understanding people and the way that people function in societies all around the world.  My favorite courses were classes that centered around cultural awareness and global consciousness. I wrote ‘I want to be a Sociologist so I can study people in our world’.  

‘I want to be someone who makes a difference in our world’

As a middle-aged woman with many experiences and life events behind me, I desired to understand more about the world in which I lived.  To study people, places and events that I had knowledge of… And many more people, places and events that I did not.  I did become a Sociologist, and yet I was so hungry for more learning.  As a postgraduate – finishing my master’s degree and working in a job as a higher education administrator (that was less than satisfying for me), I set my sights once again on my passion to become an educator.  I wrote ‘I want to be someone who makes a difference in our world’. I then commenced my journey to PhD without a single glance behind me. One of my research participants said during our interview ‘don’t look back, you’re not going there’. This is a very Irish saying, and I really love it! It reminds me that life is a journey – FORWARD. Reminiscing and memories are lovely, but the journey is still always forward.

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@timmossholder

After posting that missive on Twitter, confined in the very limited word count, I sat back to think about my educational journey and all that I have learned throughout my life and indeed through my PhD study.  I realized that my personal and educational aspirations, my own beliefs, attitudes and values, have been deeply influenced by what I have learned from others – formally and informally.  My social interactions, connections, and relationships with others over the years, have shaped my identity and my personal aspirations, as well.  Today, I have come to realize that tweet, glibly tweeted in haste on a very early Sunday morning in June, represented my conscious recognition of my identity, my learning, and my life journey.  This educational journey is all part of my innate desire to make a difference in our world. At the end of my ‘terminal degree’ I realised that my raison d’être is to inspire a love for learning that is LIFELONG, in others.  

I, (like Albert Einstein), believe that once you stop learning, you start dying… I, like Mahatma Gandhi, aspire to live as if I were to die tomorrow, and to learn as if I were to live forever.  Who we are as social beings, are strongly impacted by the relationships, social interactions and learning moments that are enacted throughout our lifetime. I equally believe that active and continued (personal, academic, and professional) reflection as an adult learner is key to transformation and develops learning that endures.  I, like Michelangelo, am still learning. Learning is lifelong… Never stop.