What’s in a Name?

Learning is a complicated process that is difficult to define. We all know it when we experience it. We also know when we don’t. We know the difference between passing a test because we pulled an all-nighter and passing because we really understand and have thought about the material. When I think of learning I think process: explore, discover, connect, invent.

Learning can happen formally in school or in an online course. We also learn through activities, social interaction, and just plain exposure. We can learn from a positive experience such as attending a play, or a negative experience such as getting mugged afterwards. Through learning, we become who we are and develop attitudes toward learning. As I look back, I realize that my love of learning was spurred quite randomly—by my last name, Diogenes.

Diogenes was a Cynic in Ancient Greece who scorned material things and those who owned them. Choosing to live in the marketplace, he slept in some sort of tub and engaged in personal acts in public explaining that one should not be ashamed of what is natural.

Diogenes defended morality, reason, and truth. When Plato defined man as a featherless biped, Diogenes supposedly plucked a chicken and tossed it into Plato’s lecture saying, “This is Plato’s man.” Plato changed his definition.

According to a popular story, Diogenes carried a lantern in broad daylight. When asked what he was doing, he said he was looking for an honest man. So people used to ask me, “Have you found an honest man yet?” I only answered yes once when I called a wedding planner about my ceremony and she asked. I answered, “Yes, and that’s why I’m calling you.”

The inquiries of strangers started me trying to find answers and eventually sent me to the library to do research on Diogenes. I even applied to college as a philosophy major. One professor, who was holding oral exams with each student, began our appointment by saying he had looked at his calendar and wondered if he was interviewing Diogenes about Descartes or Descartes about Diogenes.

Even today I dip into stories on Diogenes. Recently I read a great book, Examined Lives, by James Miller, because it had a chapter on Diogenes. That’s why I picked up the book, but, of course, I learned a lot more. It seems somewhat incredible to say, but it’s clear that I would be a different person if I had been born with another last name. And learning may not have become the enjoyable, gratifying experience it is for me if I were not a Diogenes.

Many people badmouth the use of electronic devices: “Children can’t focus on more than a few paragraphs” “They will never be able to think of anything on their own.” What if we look at it from another perspective? Now young people explore, discover, socially connect, and create through digital devices everyday. One could say that the processes of learning are embedded in their lives more than ever. And you never know which random stimulus can lead to a love of learning.