On Learning

“You literally cannot learn when you are scared,” Dr. Kurt Fristrup told my students on Tuesday. He was talking about evolutionary biology, but also about being a student—both in college and beyond. Kurt visited my class to give a talk about the effects of noise on animals, but in his introductory remarks, he spoke about how he got to this point in his life as the senior scientist in the Natural Sounds and Night Skies division of the National Park Service. As his bio makes clear, he has worked several different jobs in several distinct scientific fields.

I’m paraphrasing here, but in essence, he told the class that the best way to go through life is not to plan for a specific career, but to plan for the futures you cannot yet imagine. He said the best things you can learn are how to be a quick learner and how to communicate clearly. From there almost anything is possible, he argued, no matter if your major is chemistry or comparative lit. It was as direct and moving and meaningful an argument for the humanities as I’ve heard recently—and I couldn’t agree more.

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