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Learning for Life

Educational reformer and philosopher John Dewey once said that “Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” Dr. Andrew P. Roth, president of Notre Dame College, echoed this sentiment, likening the search for knowledge to a quest for survival.

“Learning to humans is like swimming to sharks,” he said. “If you stop, you’re dead. You might still be standing and breathing, but you’re dead. You’ve fossilized yourself. The world will keep going, and unless you want to be left behind, you have to be open to life and open to experience.”

When the leadership of a college speaks so strongly about the importance of learning, it sheds some light on the culture of that institution. Transcending rote memorization and mundane “book learning,” Notre Dame College is striving to become an institution that fosters an attitude of lifelong learning among its faculty, staff and students.

Lifelong learning is drawn from society’s formalized educational structures. According to Dr. Roth, who is a self-professed lifelong learner, “The real function of an education at the high school and college level is to inculcate and instill in students a love of learning. It’s all about critical reading, problem solving, mathematical literacy, and having a wide enough breadth of knowledge. A liberal education should provide you with taxonomy – the big framework. It’s not going to fill it, but it’s going to provide you with the framework with all these empty cells and the tools and skills and hopefully the curiosity to want to fill them because it’s innately or inherently valuable.”

Filling this framework of knowledge over the course of one’s life can be done through a number of means, both formal and informal. Of course, one can return to college to acquire additional degrees or certifications, but if the attitude of being a lifelong learner is truly internalized, there are additional ways to acquire knowledge through more creative means.

Candy Fischer, the executive secretary to the president of Notre Dame College, recognizes her unique circumstances of working in a liberal arts college. Fischer has been recognized by her peers as a lifelong learner, and her philosophy on learning is bolstered by a simple truth: “You can’t know everything and you can’t learn it all in four years or even six years of a college education.”

Fischer, who holds a degree from Case Western Reserve University, has since pursued interests ranging from paralegal studies to economics to fuel cell technology simply by using her daily contact with the professors of the College as a point of reference for her own research. “My job is so interesting because I’m surrounded every day by people who are teaching and learning about subjects that are important on a global basis and on an individual basis,” said Fischer.

But there is more to learning than just being interested or busy pursuing a subject. According to Fischer, “It is important to become interested in things you don’t know anything about. Only if you are able to take a risk and talk to a person you don’t like or read something you don’t agree with or explore an idea that might be a threat to your own view or comfort level, that’s what learning is – taking that risk. Something might offend you, scare you or worry you, but when you take the risk to open yourself up to learn about it, it changes you. People who are just busy never really change as a result of what they learn.”

Because of its position as a mission focused, liberal arts institution, Notre Dame’s students have an inherent advantage of becoming lifelong learners themselves. According to Dr. Roth, being mission driven is a key difference between Notre Dame and other institutions. “Historically, the meaning of liberal is free or at liberty. I think it is expansive and liberating for a student to have this kind of educational experience. From there, however, a true lifelong learner realizes an important truth that was articulated in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics: The object of an education is not only to learn how to earn a living, but it’s how to learn how to live a life. At Notre Dame College, students learn to do just that – live a life, and hopefully one that places great value in learning.”

Andrew P. Roth, Ph.D.

After earning four college degrees over the course of four decades, Dr. Andrew P. Roth, President of Notre Dame College, is quite literally a lifelong learner.

Dr. Roth holds a B.A. in English and History from John Carroll University, an M.A. in English Language and Literature from Case Western Reserve University, an M.B.A in Marketing and Strategic Planning from Gannon University, and a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Higher Education Finance from State University of New York at Buffalo. “I almost earned a fifth degree, an M.S. in Communication, and to a certain extent I regret that I never did it,” he said.

Roth contends that a lifelong learner has to be intrinsically motivated toward learning. “You become a lifelong learner because you have some innate curiosity. A good undergraduate education and great teachers can instill a love of learning, but even for those with an innate hunger for education, over time it can be snuffed out.”

Where does this innate drive for learning come from? Roth credits his educational foundations: an extremely good education from Canton City Schools, a demanding curriculum from the Jesuits at John Carroll University, and most importantly, from his parents. “My mother was a reader, and there were always books around,” he recalled.

For lifelong learners, one topic of debate is whether one can be self taught or if a more formalized approach is necessary. Roth believes that the latter is true. “The fallacy of the self taught person is that they don’t know what they don’t know. An education does not teach you anything so much as it provides you with a matrix into which someday you will fill in the blanks with information which will lead to knowledge and, ultimately, to wisdom.”

Candy Fischer

Although she works in academia, Candy Fischer does not believe that she is an academic. “I went to college a long time ago, and even though I’ve gone back many times for courses that either interested me or were for professional development, I am not an academic.”

Be that as it may, her colleagues have a different description of her: a lifelong learner. In preparation for the 2007 Self-Study Report, the Self-Study Committee asked members of the Notre Dame community to identify lifelong learners at the College. Time and again, Fischer’s name was brought up.

Learning is just a part of Fischer’s lifestyle “It’s just plain fun to learn new things.”

But Fischer also believes that learning is vital to her well being . “It is very important to exercise your brain as you do your muscles. Otherwise you may fall into inertia. Your brain and intellect will wither away.”

One such exercise for Fischer involved enrolling in a series of paralegal courses. “I always thought that law was an interesting subject. Although I have no desire to become a lawyer, I realize that the law touches our lives everyday in everyway.”

In the introductory course alone, her eyes were opened to basic but important concepts of law. “I learned things such as what the laws are, where they can be found and also about how the court system is structured. My instructors were lawyers in their own specialties whom I found to be extremely interesting. That course was worth the little bit of time and money that I invested, even though I will never practice law.”

Pursuing an active lifestyle of learning is rewarding for Fischer. “There is a whole world out there with things I know nothing about unless I actually try to find out about them. All these worlds and all these doors – if you walk through them, it’s amazing what is out there to learn!”

Carol Staiger ’65

How can a lifelong learner be recognized? Tell-tale characteristics include being open to new challenges and in a constant state of development, never finished with the business of learning.

These qualities are obvious in Carol Staiger ‘65, along with a dedication to giving others the opportunity to learn. Carol, who operates her own marketing business, has long volunteered in business and civic fields. She has served on the Board of COSE (Cleveland’s small business chamber of commerce) and chaired COSE’s Community Leadership Committee. “In all my volunteer activities,” she said, “I’m exposed to different viewpoints and presented with challenges that stretch my capabilities.”

In the last few years, Carol has turned her energies to support of schools. This direction reflects her belief that education is the key to correcting many of society’s ills. Now Carol serves as the chair of the new Board of Directors of Regina High School, a Catholic, all-girls school; as a member of the founding Board of the Entrepreneurship Preparatory School of Cleveland, a public community (charter) school, sponsored by the Cleveland Municipal School District; and as a member of a committee to increase enrollment in St. Ann’s Parish elementary school.

After Carol graduated from Notre Dame, her mathematics major got her a job in market research. As she moved into product management and industrial marketing, she recognized a need for more education. She returned to school and earned an MBA from the CWRU Weatherhead School of Management. “Since then,” Carol reports, “I continually seek out situations where I can spend a few hours at a forum or workshop, often on a topic that has nothing to do with my professional career, to connect with and learn from people with different perspectives, on topics that stimulate my thinking and enhance my view of the world.”

Carol feels that these traditional learning situations and her volunteer activities force her out of her “comfortable box.” She says, “They make me confront differences and use new experiences to build and grow the person I am.”

Patricia Opaskar ‘65 is a free-lance writer and editor residing in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Steve Ruic is the writer and editor at Notre Dame College.