A bit ago I wrote about “on-fire learning” meaning that insatiable, burning desire to learn from every experience and opportunity. It’s internally driven, informal, and increasingly social as we extract knowledge from everything around us. As much as I love my new metaphor, it’s hardly the first time learning has been likened to fire.

Well over a century ago, people spoke of the “lamp of learning.” Interestingly, I found no good references to this with a simple Internet search, instead finding mostly references to the lamp of knowledge. Yet lamp of learning makes much more sense to me, as it’s clearly a reference to the days before electricity when reading after sundown required a candle or, more enduring and reliable, an oil lamp to provide light for the reader.

1887 map of the north part of Redondo Beach. The streets in the top-right of the map clearly form the shape of the Chautauqua lamp of learning.

In the town of Redondo Beach, California, the streets were originally laid out with the intended cultural center of town in the shape of the “Chautauqua Lamp of Learning” by William Hammond Hall, who also designed the roads for San Francisco’s Golden Gate park. According to the Redondo Beach Historical Society, “Chautauqua was an organized, nationwide movement that had its roots in the early Protestant camp meetings and was meant to bring an emotional, communal and outdoor approach to America’s thirst for knowledge…” Independent Chautauqua assemblies thrived in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and the Southern California association was housed in Redondo Beach starting in 1889.

My point in exploring this historical tie between the lamp of learning and learning as fire is two-fold. First, the Chautauqua assemblies were effectively social media. They were places where thought leaders and learners came to search for wisdom and truth together, because learning is more effective when done with others. Second, as much as things change it’s ironic how they stay the same, or at least cycle back to how they used to be. Today’s emphasis on online social media tools is raising awareness for the importance and ubiquity of informal social learning as the primary way people learn.

As professionals in the learning and development community, it’s becoming increasingly important to recognize our role as facilitators of learning and performance improvement, not just trainers or teachers. And, as Kelly Meeker wrote recently, “The new training manager is ruthlessly focused on scalable activities…” What’s more scalable than seeking to light a learning fire in each and every employee in the organization? Plain and simple, that’s a challenge worth rising to.

Thanks for reading! @tomspiglanin

The photo of the oil lamp is courtesy C. Frank Starmer.

The 1887 map is from “Historic Streets of Redondo Beach


The Lamp of Learning — 1 Comment

  1. Thank you, my students asked me today to explain the lamp on our school’s logo. I knew the lamp was associated with academics, such as in the logo for the National Honors Society, but I found your writing helpful to explain why.

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