Faculty Reflections

Remembering the Joy of Learning in Oaxaca
By Beth Ritter-Conn
Lecturer, College of Theology and Christian Ministry

When was the last time you decided to try to learn something just for the joy of learning it—not because you needed to know it for a research project, or because you needed to brush up on an unfamiliar topic for a class lecture, but just because you wanted to know more? Maybe it hasn’t been that long for you, but it had been a while for me.

So this summer, on a bit of a whim, I flew solo to Oaxaca, Mexico for a week to participate in a Spanish immersion program. I spent my days in one-on-one conversational lessons with two different teachers. I practiced grammar. I memorized vocabulary. I wrote essays and did homework. It was hard. I felt nervous and uncertain and uncomfortably vulnerable every day. I made mistakes and felt embarrassed about them.

But it was also one of the most fun and rewarding experiences in my recent memory. No one needs me to improve my Spanish. No one was making me work on this—I wasn’t being graded on this work, nor did a certificate or credential await me at the end. I was doing it for the pure joy of seeing myself get better at a skill that I want to have.

In First-Year Seminar, we tell students that part of the purpose of a liberal arts education is to learn how to learn, just for the sake of learning. Yes, they are here at Belmont to develop skills and absorb knowledge they’ll need in their chosen professions, but we mostly want to emphasize that liberal education is concerned with pursuing knowledge for its own sake—for the purpose of becoming more well-rounded humans who approach life with wonder and curiosity. I had begun to feel like a hypocrite, preaching this sermon to students year after year while, on some barely conscious level, I clearly considered my own education to be complete.

My week in Mexico reawakened something in me that had been sleeping. Now I spend an hour each week practicing Spanish with one of my teachers in Oaxaca, via Skype. That hour used to be devoted to frantically catching up on grading, or responding to emails, or prepping for class (or, if we’re being REALLY honest, doing some other meaningless activity by way of procrastinating on any of the above). I’ve found that I still have time for all that. I have more energy for it, too, because I am taking the time to learn something I love. I am taking the time to feed my mind, just because it’s hungry, not because I have to.