The term “perpetual student,” as seen on the tagline of my website, has gained cultural currency just at the point when it no longer seems to apply to me.

One mother laughingly called herself a “perpetual student.” She meant she pursued learning for the sheer joy of inquiry. But the term is usually one of gentle derision: someone who keeps taking more courses as a way to avoid holding down a job. In other words, a slacker, or a loser. I think that’s wrong. We should begin to see this sort of lifelong learning as a way for individuals to gain not just knowledge, but liberation. In its ideal form, being a perpetual student is not an act of avoidance but rather a path to perpetual self-determination and freedom.

Michael S. Roth. “The Value of an Education That Never Ends,” The New York Times, Sept. 12, 2023. (Gift article)

For decades, I was on the path of the perpetual student by studying languages, earning a second master’s degree in literature, taking art classes, watching dozens of online courses, doing small programming projects, and last but not least, writing blog posts.

But since starting a new job, first on-call and now full-time, I’m no longer adding to the curriculum. Even though my job has fixed hours and a minimal commute, I haven’t had the energy.

Then: On my weekly trip to the library, I would fill a canvas tote bag with my borrowings.

Now: I’ll take out one or two books and return them weeks or months later, sometimes unread.

Then: A daily diet of the Financial Times, New York Times, and Washington Post.

Now: Read the front page of the Seattle Times. Skim the New York Times headlines en route to playing Wordle.

Then: Watch an entire series of lectures every few months and do all the readings on the syllabus, plus some kind of writing project.

Now: Move boxes of books around when trying to find something in the storage unit.

Then: Dedicate a year to still-life painting by setting up an art studio in my garage and attending a virtual atelier.

Now: Hang a painting a couple times per year.

Things may have changed, but my learning hasn’t stopped.

My new job is the first time I’ve had to clock in and out; the first time I’ve had to wear a uniform or put on a tie every day; my first public-facing, front-of-house job; my first union job with mandatory breaks; my first time working in the public sector; and my first job where instead of sitting at a computer, I’m expected to be on my feet, face-to-face with people, whether one at a time or as crowds of thousands.

It’s a real education.