Paying it forward

I grew up in a small town outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma. My parents and most of the other adults in my extended family were educated, middle class helping professionals. They were not readers or intellectuals. My love of books and lifelong hunger for learning was somewhat unprecedented in the family.

I learned to read early and matured quickly as a reader. My mother used to take me to the local library, an old building in the center of town. In the dusty stacks I discovered Greek and Norse mythology, baseball anecdotes, and stories about Robin Hood.

By second grade I was reading the adult classics and attending middle school English classes. I won spelling bees and other academic awards. I was a typical “smart kid”.

At some point my learning hit a wall. My parents divorced and my home life changed. After fifth grade at our local public elementary school I went to the city-wide middle school. The teachers were not as good and their classes were larger. That meant that the teachers spent most of their time attending to the poorest students and ignoring students like me who didn’t cause any problems. School started to feel less like a place to learn and more like a day care.

I was reading less, too, and when I read it was mostly junk: weekly magazines, action stories, even the self-help books my mother was into in the years after the divorce. It was a bleak time, and as close as I ever came to dropping the thread of learning.

When I was 13 I got my own computer at home, and found out about BBSs. It was a community of people connected by shared interests. Even though I was just a kid, and most of them were adults, they took me seriously in a way few adults in my “real” life at the time did. There was so much to learn from them, and from information I could find on the BBSs themselves – text files, code, messages. I spent far more time on the computer than reading books, but I was learning again.

Those experiences helped me get through the ordeal of high school. At 16, I learned to drive and could go to book stores and larger libraries. After years of focusing on the computer, I began to read intensely again, and meet more people who loved books as much as I did. By the time I got to college I had momentum, and I’ve never lost it since.

It seems miraculous to me now that my love of learning survived so many years of bad teaching, standardized tests and worksheets, and disaffected classmates. I was lucky to have supportive (if frequently perplexed) parents and a few mentors who shared new ideas and perspectives with me. I was fortunate to come online at a time when the experience was far less fraught than it is today. I was old enough that I had had time to learn pre-digital ways of doing things, like how to work with library resources. In many ways it was the best of both worlds, and set me up to thrive in both.

Not many things just came to me, however. I’ve spent countless hours browsing library stacks and sifting through bargain tables, slogging through poorly-written books about topics that interested me, and writing messages that were never answered. Perhaps those experiences made me appreciate what I learned that much more, like savoring a simple meal at the end of an arduous hike, but I’m not convinced that so much groping in ignorance was truly necessary.

Today we no longer have to scramble to find scraps of information, as I often did when I was young. Back then I had a strong sense of how ignorant I was. Ignorance is boring. I felt an urgent need to enrich my inner life. Ironically, the more I learned, the more I realized the depths of my ignorance.

Today we suffer from over-abundances of low-quality information and cheap stimulation. It’s easy to gain a superficial understanding of almost anything, and most people stop there. Deep ignorance is as common as it was when I was growing up, if not more so. Awareness of one’s own ignorance seems to have become even rarer. I don’t believe our systems of education are to blame for that, because I don’t believe those systems were ever fundamentally different than they are now. When it comes to education, the vast majority of people have always taken, and will always take, the path of least resistance. The system can make that path harder and less convenient, but it can’t change human nature.

My concern is that there is so much noise in the world today that a young person like I was is likely to get lost in it. Where will he find silence and time to think? And things worth thinking about? Who will point the way when he gets lost, as I did many times? Who will show him the value of culture and history?

I am doing that for my own children, but I feel like that’s not enough. I remember the older people who took time to help me along the way. A few were my teachers in school, but most were not. They had no reason to help me except their own generosity. Perhaps they were paying it forward, just as I feel compelled to do.

I can’t recreate the world I grew up in. The question for me is what forms paying it forward should take in today’s world.

Mentorship is certainly one of them. I deeply enjoy mentoring “smart and hungry” people, and will continue to seek that out. I often wish the U.S. had an apprenticeship system like Germany and some other countries do. I imagine I would have benefited from that when I was young.

I have tried teaching. I enjoyed quite a few of my interactions with the students, and a number of them remarked on how much they learned in my classes. However, I also felt deep conflict and a sense of futility about the coercive aspects of teaching, such as grades and deadlines.

My personal projects are another medium. In years past these projects were largely a vehicle for my own learning. This year I’ve pivoted to trying to make them more useful for other people and institutions, particularly libraries and museums. Since my mother first took me to our local library, cultural heritage institutions in general and libraries in particular have had an overwhelmingly positive impact in my life. I want to give something back.

This blog and other forms of writing are possibilities as well. Recently I’ve been trying to focus less on what I’m doing and more on sharing what I’ve learned. Although I see some of the benefits of generative artificial intelligence, and I’m starting to incorporate it into my work, I also believe in the value of human curation. It’s up to thoughtful people to cut through the noise.

This year marks three decades since I discovered BBSs and started programming. I’ve experienced a lot of personal growth since then. I have children of my own now. It feels like the right time to start taking on new roles in other people’s lives, the way other people did for me back then.