Edd Merritt, Contributing Editor

He was born on the road in the month of July,
And he’ll live on the road ‘til he sees fit to die,
‘Cause he learned from the road how humanity cries,
How society lies, he sees with more than his eyes.
~ The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty, On the Road, Aztec Two-Step

Since this is The News’ back-to-school issue I thought I would write a bit about my own education and the differences I see between it and schooling. I was helped along by a gift from my wife, a book about Alan Ginsberg titled with the opening lines of his poem Howl. It’s called The Best Minds of My Generation. Ginsberg, of course, of the “Beat Generation,” was a hero of mine along with his chum Jack Kerouac. Howl had enough dark criticism of my era growing up in the late 1950s, early ‘60s to fuel my desire to learn something other than what my dad wanted me to and other than what my teachers thought they were teaching me.

I also recently shared duties at our fifth edition of an annual event in Charlotte and Eden called “Grammy Camp.” After a day together, our twin grandsons sent Dad back to Providence and hung out with Grammy and Squid for a week, splitting their time between camp and Charlotte. They played, kayaked, pedal-boated, drove go-karts, slid water slides, read a bit of what Mom asked them to and, of course, had to treat every event with a full cone of Ben and Jerry’s. Ben spent time on Grammy’s Mac making his own company, complete with products (plastic entwined key holders), printed receipts and bills with Rory as his willing business accomplice. Beth and I paid the price. The boys gained rolls of coins.

And I began to see how different their world will be. The September Atlantic magazine may have hit some of these differences in its feature article by Jean Twenge titled “Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?” The post-Millennials are more comfortable online than they are in face-to-face social intercourse. How often do you see pairs walking along the street, each talking to somebody on a smartphone and paying no attention whatsoever to their colleague? Everyone is on a separate planet, and Jupiter is not aligned with Mars as those of us at Woodstock thought. It was “Hair” then, and even much of that is gone these days.

So where and how did our learning take place compared to how it does among those in today’s upcoming generation?

Did we learn in schools? Somewhat. But it wasn’t always what our teachers wanted us to learn. Even then I think they called the collection of processes and information schoolwork. It encompassed how to work through problems, how to read thoughtfully and remember what you read, how to use a blackboard, what to do in the event of an air raid, how to mind the flag person as you cross the street onto the school block. But it was limited to schooling. Learning on the other hand, came via a constellation of activities, of which schooling was but one. For me, I looked to see how, in Ginsburg’s words, the “best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” discovered the world. He said they “passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blakelight tragedy among the scholars of war.” He also said America “go f. . . . yourself with your atom bomb.” See, he was ahead of his time. Either that or he was North Korean.

I remember an English professor in my freshman year of college (1960-61) was roundly criticized by his colleagues for teaching the poetry of the Beats and reading out loud some of the obscene language they used to define the world. He and I left that college at the same time, he to the West Coast, I to Wisconsin. But I think both of us had certain misgivings about an education that would not stray from the straight and narrow path of social acceptability. That, again, was schooling, not learning.

So what learning occurs among youth of today? At “Grammy Camp” it involved a good deal of physical skills—in the boats, behind the steering wheel of a go-kart, learning to maneuver the twists and turns of the water slides and, of course, how to measure just the right amount of ice cream to fill the cone but not melt it into oblivion. I was pleasantly surprised by dinner conversations following a full day on the Pond in which reflections on the day’s events predominated. They learned where the fish lived and how one had to maneuver one’s hands on a kayak paddle in order to get a full-bladed stroke. And, yes, in town they watched iPads before bedtime most nights. Ben practiced games well before challenging the rest of us to compete against him. As a result, he and Rory learned the route to victory. Grammy and I fell in the losers bracket. Yet, despite the tinges of new technology, we all managed to stay connected person-to-person. We interacted socially as well as technically.

Being almost 11, the twins have not fallen off the digital cliff toward which their age cohort moves. Twenge says that while today’s teens are physically safer than their precursors, they are psychologically more vulnerable. “Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. . . Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

So what, if anything, can be done to change learning patterns? Let me dig into my own memory bin for help. Where did my “Kerouacian” learning occur? A significant piece did happen “on the road.” I remember four friends from college driving from Wisconsin to Florida for spring break. All white, we were three boys and a girl. Passing through the murky night on the back streets of Appalachia, we picked up a man hitchhiking. He happened to be black, and as we neared the white section of town, he tapped the driver on the shoulder and suggested for our own protection we drop him off before we get there. A white girl riding with a black man was a threat to southern supremacy and a danger to us all. Sound a bit familiar?