What I’ve Learned About Learning and the Fight to Control It by Nancy Lord

This spring I was honored to be chosen by the Friends of the Homer Public Library as the recipient of the 2024 Lifelong Learner Award. This was truly a great honor in a community full of impressively smart, thoughtful, and passionate learners who generously share their knowledge, wisdom, and crafts with others.

What follows is a shortened text of my talk, that I called “What I’ve Learned About Learning and the Fight to Control It.” 

A writer I admire very much, Joan Didion, wrote in her famous essay “Why I Write,” “In many ways, writing is the act of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying ‘listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.’ It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act.” Here I am, prepared to impose on you, perhaps even hostilely.

In recent years I’ve tried to learn about learning itself—both how the brain and memory work and the socio-political aspects that define and influence it. I got very interested in brains when both of my parents suffered from dementia in their later years. I learned and then wrote about the different kinds of dementia, about neurons and the plaques and tangles that grow among them and disrupt their signals. I learned that an average brain has a hundred billion neurons with a hundred trillion pathways connecting them. I learned how memories work—not like a computer storing data but as an on-going process of information retention, which allows for memories to change over time. I learned about the different parts of a brain—the lizard brain that handles basic bodily functions as well as aspects of survival, and the large cerebrum where most of our remembering, thinking, and feeling are housed.

Related to the workings of brains, I’ve become very interested in the scientific/evolutionary basis for learning and understanding—in particular, questions of how people take in information and come to understand and believe what they do. I’ve learned that, because of our evolutionary development as tribes in a dangerous world, the parts of our brains that involve belief are stronger than those that involve reason. Our brains are simply wired for belief.  This is from a scientific paper: “Belief is associated with greater signal in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a brain region important for self-representation, emotional associations, reward, and goal-driven behavior.” Another recent study that looked at blood flow and activity in the brain found that “liberals” (as opposed to “conservatives”)  had more activity in the part of the brain called the anterior cingulate, which helps a person mediate when things are in conflict with what the person previously believed; that is, people known as liberals are more capable of taking in new information and changing their minds.

Another fact of brain science is that we’re built to deal with the present, not the future. In the past, few humans lived much beyond child-bearing age, so no one needed to worry about anything too far ahead. This makes it very hard, today, to seek solutions for something like climate change, which most people don’t see as an immediate threat. We’ll jump out of the way of an attacking animal, but, again, what’s the evolutionary benefit of planning for even a decade in the future?

Shifting now to education—its role has never been more important than today, when there are so many sources of information, misinformation, and disinformation competing for attention. There are those who want to control free expression and limit critical thinking and the teaching of any truths that make certain people uncomfortable or are contrary to particular ideologies. It’s well established that poorly educated people are susceptible to following authoritarians who lie to them. Donald Trump once said out loud “I love the poorly educated.” In a civics survey from a few years ago only 26 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government. Is it any wonder that Trump can get away with attacking judges and the entire judicial system when so many Americans don’t even know there’s such a thing as an independent judicial branch?

Education is not about job training, nor is about loading empty vessels with unquestioned information. Education is about learning to learn—to develop the skills to continue learning for all of our lives and to put those skills to work as thinkers, doers, and good citizens.

Recent debates in Alaska over education funding and public schools mirror what’s going on nationally. In Florida, Texas, and elsewhere politicians and appointed boards have banned books, forbidden sex education and references to gender identity, and stripped parts of our history from textbooks. This is part of a larger agenda of those who want to return America to a time before the country’s diversity and the value of all its people were recognized and respected, back to a time when it was permissible to discriminate against minorities, immigrants, gay people, and others outside of the white Christian mold.

Of course, this repression takes a very big toll on teachers, who don’t want to lose their jobs or end up in jail for teaching the “wrong” thing. It means that teachers self-censor themselves; when in doubt, don’t say or teach anything that might be considered “woke.” Teachers are leaving schools that don’t value and support their expertise and judgment; they’re leaving the profession altogether. The issue extends to colleges and universities, where professors are being denied tenure. The chilling effect is as dangerous as outright bans. A recent study found that 65% of K-12 teachers nationally report that they’re limiting instruction on “political and social issues.”

The issue is similar for libraries and librarians, when books are challenged and library professionals may think twice before adding recommended books to their shelves.

Our own experience with this issue came last year when a group of residents tried to have books removed from Homer’s children’s library. When the 55 challenged books were read and examined it became obvious that the titles had come from a list put together by a national organization. What they had in common was subject matter or authors connected to racial and gender diversity. Library board members read each book and determined that each was appropriate for its age group. It also became clear that those who signed a petition challenging the books were not familiar with the books themselves and had signed something they were told was about “protecting innocent children.”

Library collections are for everyone, and every American has a First Amendment right to read and have free access to information. Library staff have expertise and resources to curate collections that best serve their communities. Parents have their own responsibilities to guide their children’s reading and media use.

Ron Charles, the book reviewer for the Washington Post, recently noted that the number of challenged books in both schools and libraries in 2023 increased by 65% over 2022 and was a record high. Charles noted that most of the challenged books were, as in our Homer case, by or about people of color or in the LGBTQ community. He had some choice words to offer, including “Book censors drunk on lurid fantasies of depraved librarians and pedophile school teachers are the Cub Scouts of White supremacy, part of a larger effort to bleach our understanding of American society and to label whole groups of people fundamentally obscene.” I’m not sure I like him defaming the Cub Scouts, but he makes his point.

Those of us who care about learning have a lot of work to do to support the next generations of learners. We can’t leave this to educators and librarians. Writers, let us use our skills to always, continually, adamantly, aggressively speak out in favor of learning and against those who want to limit learning, thinking, or the expression of opinions. What might our world look like if every student and every adult in America was a creative and critical-thinking lifelong learner?



Nancy Lord is a long-time Homer resident, the author or editor of ten books, a former Alaska Writer Laureate, and a library advocate. She teaches science writing for Johns Hopkins University and writes book reviews every other Sunday for the Anchorage Daily News.

4 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned About Learning and the Fight to Control It by Nancy Lord”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Congrats on your award, Nancy! I loved reading this, including the brain science you reference, and would happily read more on this topic from you. I am selfishly hoping you are writing a book about learning!

    1. Thanks, Andromeda! I love learning about neuroscience, but I’m certainly no expert. I hope that we can cross paths in real time and place sometime. Whenever I go tide pooling I think of you and the night we went out with Daisy Lee.

  2. Anette Coggins

    Freedom of speech should always be a given right. Young people have always been on a search and had a need to find the truth in live and around them and discover themselves on the way. Important life changing decisions are made, often more volatile in their teens than later in live. Caring parents are the trunk of the tree and with all the books -that literally should be available to read- about the world they live in , I believe, young people need family guidance more than ever.

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