The question about education that this doctor asks every new patient

“How far did you go in school?”

This is a question that I ask every new patient as a matter of course.

Granted, I have gotten some very odd answers, including hearing from a very successful businessman who only finished the seventh grade, or a very psychotic person who has a double master’s degree. Not implausible, but certainly not expected or the mainstream answer from the majority of my patients.

Now, leaving the children aside, most of whom are of course still actively engaged in academic pursuits, what is one of the most common answers to that question that I hear day in and day out?

I’ll give you a minute. Discuss, select a spokesperson for your group, and be prepared to show your work.

The answer is, “I finished.”

Now, if you were me, and you heard that, what would you think?

Depends on your frame of reference, personal experience, your own educational level and your expectations or preconceived notions about the person sitting in front of you. Yes? Do you agree?

The majority of folk who give me that answer, “I finished,” mean that they graduated high school. We could even split that hair further and talk about who got a regular academic diploma, who was on a technical track, or got a certificate of attendance, but that’s not important for this particular post. Fodder for another day.

“I finished.”

Often said with pride, sometimes with hesitation, and sometimes even with a little fear and trepidation.

We often read in our news outlets or see on television, especially in an election year, those who say that the common core is the ticket, others that say we are not setting the bar high enough, and still others who want to abolish the Department of Education all together. I think we all know in our hearts and heads, and can agree, that education, real education that can be put to good use in real life, is key to long-term success. Many of us know this. We have lived it, studying for years if not decades to learn a trade or skill or profession that will allow us to provide for ourselves, our families, and be active, vibrant members of our communities.

It bothers me, a lot, that many of my patients look towards the age of eighteen and the high school diploma that may come with it as being the pinnacle of their educational experience. Once they are emancipated from their home, and once they walk across that stage and flip their tassel from one side to the other, they really do believe that their education is over. They are not obligated to learn another thing. I believe that they believe that.

How sad to think that before you are even old enough to drink alcohol that you have essentially been taught that you do not have to be taught anymore. That you feel that there is nothing more that really entices you to read, listen, explore, or get your hands dirty in that way that held you learn something  real that sticks with you far beyond a standardized test.

Life is all about learning. Learning something new every single day that we live. Trying new ideas on for size to see if they fit, and tossing them for others if they don’t. Visiting new places, having new adventures, reading new books, listening to new music, learning a new language, meeting new people who disagree with us, thinking outside the box that we have put the lid on, taped securely shut and put up on the shelf to (not so proudly) display the rest of our lives.

Life is about living, not just existing.

If we convince ourselves otherwise, we are shortchanged and hamstrung, limited and hobbled.

The second you finish learning and experiencing and growing should be the second that you draw your last breath. Who knows, we may even go on learning and experiencing past that point too.

The second you finish learning is the second that you become stagnant.

The second you stop learning, the day you say you have finished, is the day you will die.

There will be time for dying. That time will come for all of us.

For now, living, really living, is the thing that we should strive for.

Greg Smith is a psychiatrist who blogs at gregsmithmd.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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