Remembering Education and Learning

I’m only a boy from Livingston Parish who grew up picking strawberries and working alongside his grandfather.  My grandfather only had the reading ability of “run spot run” in both his native language of Hungarian and in English, but he taught himself plumbing and founded the Water Works in Albany.  An early retiree from the profit of selling his company allowed a return to the farming he knew as a child.  Solely from hearing stories and seeing pictures, he created a hydroponic system to grow tomatoes in one of the hothouses.  From the plumbing shop and the farm were all of these mechanical marvels:  block and tackles built from scratch with the precision where a boy in elementary school could lift an engine from a truck using one arm; hoists, wenches, and hydraulics to move anything without the need of a stout tree limb or setting up an A-Frame for the block and tackle; and for childhood fun catapults with intricate counter weight configurations to allow his youngest grandson to propel mud and water bombs at cousins 10 years his senior without their ever being able to counter the attack.  Regular visits from professors at the LSU Ag school to work together on creating hybrid berry varieties and on methods to control or eradicate numerous crop diseases.  Visits from members of the police jury and state government to discuss and get his opinion on governmental issues.

My grandfather never had the opportunity for formal education, but he, his twin brother, and their friends championed the importance of education to this young boy.  Every day I spent time discussing my lessons with these men from elementary school until the last passed away.  None of these men had any degrees and only a few had completed the equivalent of high school, but all had very successful careers involving the development and repair of systems at some of the refineries in Baton Rouge and Norco, at Michoud, the New Orleans airport, highway and bridge design and maintenance, drafting and architecture, and public service by forming different cooperatives and farmers’ groups through the years.  They learned their crafts in the apprentice manner, observing those before them and learning from mistakes and successes.  As I continued in school, I discovered the knowledge these men had of the creation and bravery of the individuals who broke from England to form the US.  As I related school lessons on slavery, I learned of not just the inhumanity but how farming transformed both before and after, the social and economic reasons for disenfranchisements, and the struggles to gain recognition and rights generations later.  While a student at SLU, these men gave me geometry and economic quizzes in the form of purchasing materials and stringing barbed wire fences, using torches to cut metals to build, repair, or redesign various tractor implements for greater strength and efficiency.  Art appreciation classes turned into ways to design signs and arrange crops for sale.  Music appreciation found lessons in establishing rhythms in doing multiple tasks with greater efficiency.  Theater became an easy way to consider other opinions or sides to an argument by simply changing character to place myself in another’s shoes to see things from that perspective.  When they  discovered that SLU had a Modern Russia history class, the course became essential for me to take.  These men had first-hand experience from their service in WWII and from slowly losing contact with friends and relatives as the Iron Curtain isolated Hungary.  Puzzles comprised of pieces gathered through the years from multiple sources allowed for some logical conclusions as to why many of the people they knew were never seen or heard again after 1956.  They had a strong feeling about the Soviet Union, but I was not to accept their feelings as the truth but to compare and contrast from what was said in the course.

Well certain subjects and courses can be of no value according to many?  The lessons both said and displayed by those I respected, however, taught that any and all knowledge can be valuable.  The key is really how you apply and adapt a particular bit of knowledge to assist you in completing the task at hand.  Some things can be accomplished step by step while others require a unique or imaginative approach.  It is only through the imagination and innovation that some scientific or mechanical wonder can occur.  These attributes can be gathered from any number of sources, but the arts, music, theater, history, English, and so on provide an easy avenue.  In the same light, the skills of science and engineering can be learned from a variety of sources as well.

Now I am just your typical Livingston Parish boy who was the first and still only person in his immediate family to get a college degree, let alone graduate degrees.  A Livingston Parish boy who achieved the rank of Associate Professor and became chair of his department even though he was the youngest full time faculty member but through a twist of fate regarding what is now termed as a “malignant” vestibular disruption left teaching and administration.  The initial debilitation occurred in Oct 2007, and a diagnosis and effective treatment plan did not begin until December 2009.  Right now, I’m about 70 percent with full recovery expected over time.  Since a major aspect of my rehabilitation is to rebuild the brain and connections, I’m supposed to utilize different parts to stimulate activity and blood flow.  Without any formal training but having a former student who is a Georgia Tech grad to advise, I’m building desktop computers and beginning to teach myself to write different types of code.  My relationship with my physicians at Johns Hopkins and Harvard has gone from just being a patient to beginning and probable future collaborations with some of these MD/PhD’s.  Even without science and medical training, I’m able to read their research and more importantly know how to find needed information so that I can break down the area specific technical aspects to a degree that a non specialist can understand.  Simple MDs never imagined that possible, but these professors who are also MDs have a different take on what a history person is able to do.

Some subjects and areas make it easy to envision the job or skills necessary.  Many of those who excel, however, are the ones with that ability to see things that nobody has thought of before.  The problem with that is that few things are truly new and are only a byproduct of something created or tried in an earlier time and place.  Knowing and understanding something about the past, can save people a lot of time and aggravation in the present.  That is the feeling of a Livingston Parish boy who when he has his sense of balance and space feels just as comfortable discussing C. Vann Woodward, Robert Frost, and others as he does installing hydro coolers and CPUs, replacing head gaskets on trucks, using a two man saw or an axe to take down a tree, or repairing any household appliances or sewer problems.  What’s really interesting is that the same ideas instilled by my “uneducated” grandfather and his friends that all knowledge is valuable and that the true key is how you adapt and apply that knowledge is the exact same message I am getting from MD/PhDs from both Johns Hopkins and Harvard.