Incidental Learning

Pair of forks made of sterling silver.
Image via Wikipedia

Nothing that follows should be interpreted as demeaning or diminishing the importance of education professionals. No teachers were harmed in the creation of this blog post or in any of the events described in it.

Teachers and education administrators sometimes fall victim to the conceit that learning only or mostly occurs in schools. The fact is, every one of us learns most of what we know and can do outside of schools

Some of that out-of-school learning is every bit as deliberate and curricular as any teaching unit, a mother teaching her son to do the laundry or a father teaching his daughter how to hit a curveball for example.

But much of the learning in and out of school is unplanned and unintentional. This is constructivism writ large because an individual assembles meaning from disparate and not necessarily related circumstances or events.

I call that incidental learning.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver died this morning. That news helped me recall some incidental learning I assembled from the first time I met her and her sister-in-law Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s widow.

Thirty-five years ago I was a radio news reporter and wire service stringer working on Cape Cod. The Kennedy’s, particularly the Kennedy children, were often good for a story. That’s how a nice, nominally Jewish lad like me ended up attending Mass more often than most of my Roman Catholic friends. I always knew where I’d be December 24th at midnight.

One hot August day I got a phone call from a colleague at a radio station in Connecticut. A busload of men, women and children were on their way to one of the Hyannis beaches, from which they were going to march along the shore to the Kennedy compound to protest the lack of public beaches accessible to people who were not residents of the town the beach was in.

What any of that had to do with the Kennedys was puzzling, but I knew a story when I saw one. I was there when the bus arrived and watched as the men in jackets and ties, women in dresses and fully dressed children got off the bus and started walking south toward the Kennedy family’s property.

It was brutally hot and humid, but they marched without pause. As we walked I interviewed the leaders of the group and got the gist of their complaint against Connecticut. They were marching on the Kennedys because they figured it would get them publicity. They were correct.

Eventually we got to the Kennedy homestead. You cannot see any of the buildings from the water’s edge. They are hidden by substantial sand dunes that some say were erected by the Secret Service when JFK was President.

For about ten or fifteen minutes we all stood around admiring the sand dunes or looking at the waves on the water. I sweated profusely, and most of the men and women were mopping their brows with handkerchiefs, but not one loosened a tie or took off any item of clothing. Neither did the children.

We just stood there.

I’m not proud of this, but I was waiting for the police to arrive, almost hoping for a noisy, perhaps violent confrontation that I could report on, sell to one of the networks and earn an extra $20 or so to supplement my $160 weekly salary.

Then I saw what I thought was a mirage.

Two tall, thin women carrying silver trays with large pitchers on them were coming down the dune followed by a half-dozen children, each carrying a silver tray.

As they neared I could see that the women were Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Ethel Kennedy

When they reached us, they  started pouring and serving cold lemonade to the protesters while their children circulated carrying sterling silver trays and offering sugar cookies.  Then the the various Kennedys and Shrivers stood around chatting with the protesters as if they were guests at a party.

It was almost surreal, but as I watched I realized I was seeing something special.

I was seeing class. and I was seeing a lot of it.

Class wasn’t something I had come to expect from the Kennedy family, but as the lemonade poured from their silver pitchers, class poured from Eunice Shriver and Ethel Kennedy

I didn’t figure out what it all meant until a few years later.

I was out of radio and working in a bar. One guy felt that another guy got in his space and comments led to shoving. I separated the jerks before they could fight, and threw one out. Later that night, as I reflected over a scotch and water, I recalled how those protesters got in the Kennedy’s space and how different their reaction was.

It occurred to me that people react to provocations many different ways. Everyone gets provoked, but we control how we respond.

And one more thing…

When you respond with class, things generally work out better.

Thank you Mrs. Shriver, for the Special Olympics and everything else you did for people with mental retardation.

And thank you for simple acts of kindness and class.

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7 Responses to Incidental Learning

  1. Learning really never ends. The simple everyday lessons of our multi-dimensional lives have a truth for us to glean each moment. Few of us reflect on the moment.

  2. Ira Socol says:

    All the places you learn…

    I was a young architecture student and paramedic and, during the 1980 New York Presidential Primary, went to the Kennedy HQ Hotel with a friend, a junior – and very struggling – writer/reporter. At some point we ended up in the elevator, coming down from somewhere, and it stopped and Ted Kennedy and Paul O’Dwyer got on. And we all began to talk. Ted – and this guy was running for President – asked me about Brooklyn, where I lived, where I worked, what I saw in the neighborhood. O’Dwyer made an appointment with my friend for a long interview the next week.

    I know all these guys could be bastards when threatened. But I also think they had a lot to teach about simple grace when nothing else was necessary.

    And the story ends by reminding me of how much I learned every day because I wandered the streets of New York for so much of my life. Incidental – and incredibly valuable.

  3. Deven Black says:

    You and I both wandered the streets of New York and seemed to have had many similar experiences. O’Dwyer was one of my idols and I worked for his Senate campaign in 1968. New york was, and probably still is, a great place to learn.

  4. Hadass Eviatar says:

    Keep on with the stories, guys, so the rest of us can learn from you … thanks Deven!

  5. Michael J says:

    nice story. Coming upon your blog this morning was incidental learning for me.

    My two cents:
    The focus in education is mostly on teaching. Much less on learning. Imagine if teachers saw themselves primarily as grown up learners with alot of kid learners going on a journey together. I read someplace in Deborah Meyer (sic) article that our schools need mentors in the form of responsible mature adults. I take that to mean adult learners who are there to show how it’s done. Not to fill a brain with curriculum to satisfy a school board, politician or anyone else.

    Not to say that there are not very specific skills that must be passed along. But it’s not any more about imparting “special knowledge.” It’s about showing kids what it means to be a life long learner and a grown up.

  6. Loretta Donovan says:


  7. […] Read this post about incidental learning. […]

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