When I grew up, I distinctively remember a situation at home, probably in a conversation with my parents and siblings. I learned a new idiom that day: “He’s been the eternal student”.
It is a German description for someone who can’t stop studying at the university. My parents explained that’s what you called someone who would not take on a job, but always study.
To appreciate this saying, you have to remember back then, universities were quite different than they are today. Some universities have maintained a certain level of conservatism and tradition, but many schools have adopted an approach to education that allows more flexibility. It isn’t frowned upon anymore if you study without a certain goal, like a dissertation or entering a PhD candidacy, or simply getting any sort of degree you can put on your CV.
“The eternal student” was a derogative expression. I doubt it is still used today. It referred to a person who is inapt with life, who is not able to find their goals. I don’t know how old this expression is, but it sounds very much like something a post-war generation would say, when knowing your goals—typically getting a steady job you’d keep for decades, a family and a house—would be the defining direction in your life. It was something people used to judge your character upon.
“Has he made something out of himself?” would be the implicit question. If you didn’t know what to do with your life, you could end up becoming an eternal student.
As it lies in the nature of times, they do change, and luckily this term isn’t something common today. To the contrary. Studying and learning is considered a part of your life journey, to nurture your growth, your development as a person. It has always been an assumption that you can’t learn too much, but never before in history, we had this much access to this much information—virtually all the time, almost anywhere we are.
And never before we had so much to learn.
For me personally, being an eternal student has no longer a derogative meaning. It’s something I rarely think about, to be honest, but I do think about learning all the time.
I know what I want in life. I often don’t know how to get there. Learning this, how to overcome hurdles, small and big, how to change and improve myself, my ideas and ideals being adjusted along the way—all this has become a part of my centred self. I feel I am a teacher in many ways, but I can never stop learning. It is simply not in my nature.
I am indeed an eternal student.
So whenever you may have doubts about studying, or being in university and it seems like an eternity until you are “done”, and you don’t know yet what you’re going to do with your philosophy degree, or psychology, or you took English or law, but you had no clue why, don’t despair. Embrace it fully.
Finding your purpose in life is not a task you can check off at some point. The process of finding it is going to occupy all your life.
And if you’re like me, you can’t help it but loving the richness you gain through understanding. After all, that’s why you’re here.
(Image by Salvation Army USA West on Flickr)