A License to Learn

March 1, 1996

It had been a very long morning. After a grueling two-and-a-half hour oral exam and an hour-long "performance" test, the designated examiner was grinning, shaking my hand, and congratulating me—I had passed. For a few minutes I reveled in the thought that I was finally independent and would not have to have an instructor by my side. Finished! Sobriety quickly returned as the examiner returned, handed me a temporary license, and, with a gentle smile, gave me his parting words: "Remember, this is just a license to learn."

A license to learn. Really? Should I not shrivel at the thought of being a perpetual student? Should I not aim at conclusion? It took a while for the seed of that thought to bear fruit, for I was determined to enjoy my achievement, at least for a while. Gradually, I gained a new sense of understanding and process. Lifelong learning is a worthwhile aim. It does not invalidate the value of past achievements. Had I not understood that before?

While this episode could have been part of anyone's experience graduating from any course of study, this was my experience the day I received my private pilot's license several years ago. That "license to learn" message has preyed constantly on my mind since then, both in terms of flying (my avocation) and music (my career). For better or worse, as my students often attest, in flying I find abundant metaphors for our chosen careers-indeed, for life.

In flying, the path to lifelong learning is often quite natural, as periodic flight reviews and other currency requirements mandated by the FAA force pilots to go in for regular performance check-ups and "coachings" with instructors. Most of the time, pilots look forward to these opportunities to sharpen skills and receive feedback from others. In our chosen academic careers, there is no federal agency regulating our currency level, although many would argue that annual evaluations and promotion reviews function in a similar manner. In a perfect world, these evaluations would always be fair and the criticism constructive, but we know that such is not the case. I have heard from some colleagues that, at some institutions, the evaluation process is, at best, random. In the absence of a clearly stated evaluative process, one colleague told me recently that his department chair "forgot" to forward his promotion and tenure package when due. At another institution, a colleague had only the vaguest understanding as to the basis for promotion and tenure since he had received no mentoring on the subject, until his bid was denied. We are generally aware of the need for mentoring students-should we not insure that there is a system of peer or administrative mentoring of faculty?

Student evaluations are mandated at most institutions, but how do we, the faculty, react to these? Ideally, these instruments are meant to provide us with feedback as to what we are doing right and what needs improvement. In reality, this works as intended only if students are taught to offer comments in a constructive way and if they are encouraged to communicate concerns before they have pencil in hand on evaluation day. If the lines of communication with the faculty member have been perceived as closed for the entire semester, evaluation comments may come as a rude surprise to the instructor. No wonder faculty members sometimes feel threatened by student evaluations and see no value in them.

In flying, the more one knows, the safer one is, so progressing to more advanced ratings or certificates seems quite logical to most pilots. It is interesting to me that I heard the same "license to learn" admonition from the examiner following my exams for the next three advanced ratings I received as a pilot. The quest for feedback and deeper knowledge is standard among pilots, and, fortunately, it does not seem to be a detriment to the sybaritic pleasures of flying. I do not mean to advocate constantly searching out other advanced degrees in music, but lifelong learning can and should be achieved in a variety of ways. Opportunities abound right around the corners of our offices and studios, yet how frequently does the performer make a point of attending an occasional musicology or theory seminar to find out what the current concerns are in those fields? Or, how frequently does the composer attend a colleague's faculty recital if his/her works are not being performed? For that matter, how many of us are actively seeking retraining in the new information technologies?

I know all too well how there are a limited number of hours in a day, a month, or a semester, but, at least on occasion, it might be useful to grab our license to learn and get some information about how others in our field think, feel, or act. We might make some interesting discoveries, make more solid professional friendships, and, in the process, gain new insights into our own fields of expertise.

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