Every September, the Riverdale Upper School community gathers to hear a member of the faculty provide a personal response to the question, “Why Learn?” As Dean of Faculty Shelby Stokes said, “From year to year, the focus, tone, and perspective of the lecture reveals the rich diversity of the teaching faculty and offers a vision of learning that invigorates a sense of purpose as a school community.”

This year, Dr. Rachel Cox, a member of the Upper School Science faculty and Director of Science Research at Riverdale, was chosen as the Fall 2022 “Why Learn?” speaker. An avid alpine mountain climber, Dr. Cox began her lecture by sharing a personal anecdote about her experience scaling Petit Grepon, a 12,000 peak in the Colorado Rockies, where she and her fellow climbers were caught in a lightning storm and had to think quickly in order to survive. She explained how she prepared for the lecture and came to her central thesis, “I started to collect data. First, I tried to make a note about each time I learned in a day. Rapidly, my list grew long, very long, too long to keep track of let alone to share with all of you. For quite a few days, I continued to check in with my learning list. One day, I learned about the role of lipids in a plant’s stress response to drought. This will sound familiar to a group of my students here because I learned it from them this summer in the lab and this helped me remember something very important. I teach so I can learn from my students and my colleagues.”

“We are a species of learners,” said Dr. Cox. “We are constantly learning, questioning, quibbling. Why do we do this? Let’s think about this question from an evolutionary perspective. We learn for our survival. We are biologically programmed to work and learn because learning is aimed toward a goal, survival. All creatures have to do this basic type of learning to some extent. Learning is when a being alters a behavior based on a previous experience so that experience can be better managed in the future. “Learning, – something that happens automatically for us – assumes a future.”

Dr. Cox ended her remarks with a plea to students to be stewards of the planet, “The one difference between us and every other being on earth is that we are responsible for stewardship. Only species Homo sapien will be able to take care of the Earth and plan carefully for life today and for future generations. No other creatures can do this. To exercise your synapsis is to learn, and learning is hope for the future.”

Watch Dr. Rachel Cox’s “Why Learn?” lecture above.