Friday, July 31, 2009

Finding and making the time for self-education

When I picked up War and Peace from a bookstore one winter afternoon as I was leaving college for winter break, all sorts of doubts ran through my head. War and Peace is one of those books that everyone is aware of and respects, but few actually read. As a friend likes to say, it’s a book one would like to “have read.” The book contains over 500 characters and plenty of theoretical digressions about history, war, military strategy, and the dynamics of human life. My edition, the Norton Critical, ran to 1,070 pages.

One of the biggest doubts I had about cracking open War and Peace was the familiar dilemma of time. First: our time on earth is limited and finite - why should we spend it reading monstrously large books? And in a smaller and more practical sense, my vacation was limited and finite - why should I spend it reading War and Peace instead of playing Playstation?

I suspect that everyone runs into similar doubts when they are deciding how to spend their time, and that the eternal dilemma of limited time is one major reason why so few individuals choose to continue reading, studying, and actively learning after their formal schooling is completed. Each of us is “busy” and faced with countless competing demands upon our finite number of hours. Every time we act or do not act, we “spend” time, and spent time can never be recovered. Just as we become poorer each time we hand over cash to a store or restaurant, we become older each time we watch a movie, read a book, or attend a party. Few things are as precious as our time, and it matters how we choose to spend it.

Nevertheless, however, I decided that reading War and Peace would be a worthwhile way to spend the 30-40 hours over the course of 13 days that it took me to finish it. I suspected – rightly, it turns out – that the book would enthrall and entertain me, make me a bit wiser, give me a bit more insight into human life, and share with me the insights of one of the most profound thinkers and beautiful writers who ever lived. These benefits outweighed the “opportunity cost” of forgoing other activities in favor of reading it

We go through this sort of cost-benefit analysis each time we decide how to allocate the hours of our day, and so a crucial step on the road to becoming a self-educator is to recognize the value of learning and to keep that in mind at all times. I find that self-education gives my life meaning and constantly provides me with new lenses through which to view and understand the world. Having made that judgment, it is easier to make the call to read War and Peace instead of doing something more "fun."

I have been speaking in terms of allocating the hours of one’s day and the weeks of one’s vacation, but self-education can also take place on a much smaller scale. We all waste large amounts of our day standing in lines, sitting in waiting rooms, and "zoning out."

But as Barry Farber explains in his How to Learn Any Language - an incredible resource for self-educators, language learners, and language teachers - we can actually put these “hidden moments” to work in the cause of self-education. If you are going on a long walk, bike ride, or drive, try listening to podcasts or audio books instead of your playlist of familiar music. Bring a good book next time you have to sit in a waiting room or wait for a flight.

There are two ways self-educators can change the way they think about their time: First, recognize the value of learning and self-educating, and plan to spend some of your leisure time accordingly. And second, understand that you have more free time than you might suspect, and begin finding ways to put those hidden moments to productive use.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Interview: Self-Educator Race Bannon (Part 1 of 2)

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of interviews Wide Awake Minds will be conducting with educators and self-educators. If you enjoy these interviews or other material on this blog, please consider linking to us, mentioning us on Facebook and Twitter, and emailing and sharing our articles. If you would like to share your story as an educator or self-educator, please contact me and I’ll send you a questionnaire. Thanks for reading!)

Wide Awake Interview #1: Race Bannon

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl
Featured self-educator: Race Bannon
Self-educator’s age: 55
Self-educator’s location and/or hometown: San Francisco, CA
Self-educator’s website: The Art of Self-Education:

Date: 29 July 2009

Thank you for sharing your story and taking part in this exciting conversation.

Does the description of the self-educator’s mind as a “wide-awake mind” resonate with you? Why?

Using the “wide-awake mind” imagery for how self-educators live their lives is an excellent way to describe those of us that pursue education on our own terms and with our own styles. It also points out the innate curiosity that seems to be pervasive among self-educators. The very nature of self-education is that we must be open to the world of ideas and the vast possibilities of the modern knowledge base in order to focus our learning efforts appropriately. Self-educators do not have the restriction of having someone else define what it is we need to learn. That is up to us, but that is the power of self-education. By defining our learning objectives ourselves we are much more invested in the process and more likely to engage fully in the learning undertaken.

Why should we be curious? What ought we to be curious about? What forms does your own curiosity take? If you are curious about something – say, an academic subject or the way something works – do you follow up on that curiosity by studying?

A lack of curiosity is a key indicator of a lackluster life. To be curious is to be human. It is our natural state and the further we move away from robust curiosity, the further we move away from our humanity.

We ought to be curious about everything. We may not necessarily pursue education for everything about which we’re curious, but the self-educator tends to find all of life fascinating and worth study, even if we choose not to study a particular topic.

My own process for learning is not linear or regimented at all. About the only consistent method I use for learning is books. When I become particularly curious about a topic and I know I plan to learn about it in some depth, my first course of action is to read a good book on the subject. The web and its countless resources supply an equally important source of research. When I can talk to someone with some expertise on the topic, I always do. Nothing can replace talking with someone who knows a subject well. They provide a “real life” perspective to knowledge not always easy to see when learning in other ways. I also listen to lectures and speeches, watch DVDs, stroll through the library, consult magazines and professional journals, and occasionally join groups who discuss the topic. On rare occasion I’ll sign up for a workshop or class, but this is not my preferred way to learn.

Do you use the Internet or other technology to self-educate or expand your intellectual horizons?

The internet and related technologies are the tools that have catapulted us into the era of self-education again. Once upon a time all education was primarily self-education. Then we created the modern school system to feed the needs of an industrialized society and we quickly suppressed the natural self-education urge. Now the internet and technology are allowing the pendulum to swing again to empowering the self-educator. The cat is out of the bag and I don’t see formal institutions ever again maintaining the sole dominance on the learning culture again.

What is your profession? (Or, if you are retired, what was your profession?) Did you self-educate on the job or as part of your job? Did you see your work as complementary to or a distraction from your interests and education? If your self-education took place largely outside of the workplace, how did you make time for it?

Although my professional life has been varied, my current profession is managing a team of technical writers, instructional designers and marketing writers for a large software company. I’ve worked in fields related to both writing and computers for much of my life and this profession combines those two worlds in an interesting way for me. I’ve been in this latest professional incarnation for the last 10 years.

Virtually everything I use in my current profession (and most past professions) has been self-taught. And throughout my years in this profession almost everything I’ve learned to further my career has been through self-education. One of the things I try to do at my current job is to evangelize self-education (usually termed informal education in the corporate world) and I’ve been able to garner significantly more respect for such learning within my company. The software business, due to constantly changing technologies and business trends, is one of those industries that more readily understands that formal education can’t possibly serve all of the ongoing educational needs for their employees. So informal education is more warmly embraced than it might be in other businesses. Other businesses could learn from the software industry’s example.

I’m lucky that my current profession complements my self-education interests and efforts. Perhaps that’s because I have one of those ideal corporate positions that offers me stimulation, growth and autonomy in ways not many enjoy in their jobs. I know I’m lucky.

Some of my self-education takes place at work and some outside of work. My interests are too varied to be entirely satisfied as part of my daily work life.

Who are your educational, intellectual, artistic, and moral role models?

Without a doubt, my father. As a young child, even before I entered first grade, my father was fostering the hunger in me for self-education. My father was an esteemed Ph.D., professor and practitioner in his field with an extensive education and many academic honors. That wasn’t what made an impression on me though. Rather, it was his constant desire to learn, and to learn about all sorts of things, that acted as my model and motivation to do the same. My father is a superb self-educator and I recall loving the process of learning in all sorts of ways alongside him or as inspired by him.

My father also set the tone for my moral compass. I never saw my father act unethically. Never. That had a profound influence on me.

What is your formal educational background? How did you feel about your formal education? Did you in some ways benefit from the constraints and parameters it provided? Did your classes often bore you? What is the relationship, in your opinion, between formal education and self-education? What role do you see, if any, for teachers and tutors in self-education? What changes do you think should be made to America’s system of formal education, or to the way we think about education?

I went to an excellent religious grammar school for grades 1 through 8. Was it entirely enjoyable? No. The religious dogma I learned never really resonated with me very well, but apart from that I probably received a far better academic education than most kids in grammar school, then or today. And while the value of learning such basics as reading, writing, basic math and science can’t be underestimated, the school structure and process strained against my own personal educational process.

Probably because I was an excellent reader and a quick study (thanks again to my father), I made it through grammar school with excellent marks without really studying too hard. Instead of attending to my school studies as expected, I worked just hard enough to get decent grades and then I put school work aside and began to learn and explore things of far more interest to me.

High school ushered in a time that was more social and with an even greater array of interests. Again, I stuck with my regular studies to the extent necessary to receive good marks, but that was it. As soon as I’d complete an assignment I’d dump the schoolwork and replace it with the latest book I was voraciously reading or the pursuit of my latest hobby, sport or social group.

Then came college. Forces strained my relationship with college from the start. My disillusionment with college athletics (part of my reason for going to my college at the time) was part of it. So was my similar disillusionment with the educational path I was expected to follow in college. Add to that coming into adulthood and wanting to spread my wings more than college would allow and the end result was me leaving college during my third semester.

I was, in fact, encouraged to leave by a visiting professor (I’ll never rat her out though – thank you again to her for the push). Early in college I left my lifetime sport of gymnastics and that left me with a void for physical activity. On a whim, I took a physical education dance class. I was good at it. Quite good. Within just a few classes the teacher took me aside and asked how much dance training I’d had. I had none. When I told her of my gymnastics background my aptitude made more sense to her. She encouraged me to try out for the dance department. At the time I was an accounting major with the goal of adding a law degree to that later. Needless to say, dance had never been part of the equation. I auditioned for the dance department and got in. During a visiting dance professor’s class she pulled me aside and told me I was a good dancer. She asked me if I wanted to dance professionally. I said yes. She told me to get out of college, that my years as a dancer would be few and that I should start doing it now. I left school the following week.

For me, the most important value formal education can give to individuals is to provide the necessary foundation knowledge and skills to foster self-education in the future. I think formal education could do this better than it does, but that is what I consider its primary mission should be.

With all that said, there is no more nobler profession than that of a teacher. My concern is not with the teachers, but with the curriculum and process they are forced to adhere to. If we elevated teachers to the professional stature they deserve, compensated them accordingly, and let them create their own approaches to educating their students, we’d end up with much better educated students. We’d no longer be educating to the lowest common denominator. Eliminating standardized approaches to teaching is the single most valuable thing we could do to improve the formal education environment. Unfortunately, we live in the “credentialed society” and this might be extremely hard to do, but do it we must if we’re to truly improve formal education.

At the same time, we must begin to promote the concept of lifelong learning beyond simply adult continued education within the setting of formal educational institutions. It is only by honoring the value of self-education that formal education will blossom into its greatest potential for benefiting individuals and society.

Interview: Self-Educator Race Bannon (Part 2 of 2)

What do you see as the importance of reading? Is reading necessary to self-education, or could self-educators who dislike reading substitute other media and skip reading entirely? Must we still read books? How do you decide what to read?

This is a tough one. I am such a book person that I know my answer will be biased. There is a certain linear structure to the book form that presents information in a logical, progressive way that other forms may not. With that said, I think reading, in any form, is vital to learning. Why? Because I consider words to be the foundation of all learning. Yes, the spoken form can relay information without the need to read, but my instincts tell me incorporating the read and spoken word into a self-education regimen maximizes learning.

Other media certainly has its place though. And as technology increases those options I’m sure that books will take a seat alongside, rather than in front of, other learning options. As this happens I would personally continue to recommend the value of books, but I think I will have to succumb to the notion that true learning can take place without books.

I decide what to read in lots of ways. When bookstores were more common and contained broader selections than they do today, I would spend hours roaming the aisles and scanning the books. Nowadays I often do the same thing virtually on I carry a notepad with me at all times and I write down titles and authors whenever I hear of something interesting.

What role do other people play in your self-education? Do you find that conversations and other exchanges with other people can be educative, and if so, do you seek out such exchanges?

For me, knowledge without human interactivity is useless knowledge. I’m not one who believes knowledge for its own sake is the ideal. Knowledge should serve mankind. Yes, there is value in learning about something simply to satisfy one’s own curiosity, but ultimately knowledge should serve some purpose even if only on the individual level.

My conversations with people do two specific things for me. First, they expose me to new subjects, new insights, new perspectives that I might not stumble upon on my own. This often instigates the beginning of a self-education project for me. Second, once I’ve embarked on a learning path, I use people with knowledge about something to help me fill in the blanks and to place that knowledge within a real-life context.

Do you follow current events, and if so, where do you get your news? Why did you select those sources? Do you feel that it is important to follow current events and/or participate in political debate, and if so, why?

I am somewhat of a news junkie. Passive listening to mainstream news outlets, on television in particular, do little to inform me in the robust way I need to be informed. My preferred method is to read and watch on the web and I try to mix up the sources. I start every morning with a scan of these sites: (for my local newspaper’s online edition), (the closest thing we have to unbiased major news media in my opinion), (for left-leaning news and blogs), (for the moderate viewpoint),, and (for technology news). I also subscribe to Google newsfeeds on various topics and the summaries of related news shows up daily in my email inbox.

I feel it’s vital to follow current events and be part of the political debate because I consider it an individual’s responsibility in a civilized society.

What books, movies, music, art, websites, or other media would you recommend to other self-educators, that is, to other people who want to make a conscious effort to learn more, discover more, and expand their minds? List as many resources as you like, but be sure to place emphasis on those you most strongly recommend.

OK, I’ll get the blatant self promotion out of the way first and suggest my blog at is extremely useful. My favorite website of all time is and a great education can be achieved by simply listening to the presentations streamed from that site.

I also think everyone should become skilled at doing targeted advanced searches on web search engines. Most people only tap the most basic power of search engines and if they simply learned a few tricks to narrow and focus their searches the resources they’d come up with would be dramatically superior to the standard results.

I love so many books it’s hard to recommend even a few. What I do recommend is that people adopt the approach of reading a few books well rather than just reading a lot of books. A single good book read well and with thought and introspection is of far more value than a dozen books read quickly and without deep engagement and thought.

Other thoughts and insights?

None I can think of at the moment except to thank you for doing the work you’re doing. Fostering self-education in any way does society a great service.

Educator profile: Wendell Brooks

I watched a video today that was the single best example of great high school social studies instruction I've seen yet. The teacher was Wendell Brooks, an instructor of history and vocal music at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, CA, and the video is available in the "Social Studies in Action: A Teaching Practices Library, K-12" series produced by the WGBH Educational Foundation (2003) and available as streaming video online at Annenberg Media's

The video can be found here:

The description of the video as listed on the website: "Wendell Brooks is a teacher at the diverse Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California. Mr. Brooks' ninth–grade history class focuses on a variety of political ideologies present during the period of World War I (sic). His class includes lively discussion on capitalism, communism, totalitarianism, and Nazism, as portrayed by leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini. In his lesson, Mr. Brooks incorporates a Socratic discussion into his lesson, as well as group activities and presentations."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Michael W. McConnell on religion and educational choice

Michael W. McConnell is Director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, a former federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, and a conservative scholar of Constitutional Law. He is also a supporter of school vouchers and choice. Here are his thoughts on the matter, as expressed in the 1991 University of Chicago Legal Forum:


Despite insistent demands by minority groups, principally Catholics, but including Jews, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, for equal funding for their free schools, the common school movement soon achieved a monopoly of public funding. Many states even adopted constitutional provisions barring state funding of religious schools, and a federal constitutional amendment to that effect was narrowly defeated in Congress. The opposition to particularistic private schools grew to the extent that, in the early twentieth century, some states passed laws forbidding the education of children in languages other than English and banning private schools altogether. These efforts were promptly overturned by the Supreme Court, on the ground that "[t]he fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only." (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 1925)
The leading elementary and secondary school textbooks virtually neglect any mention of religious influences or ideas in history, ethics, or social studies. Thus, the "public values" inculcated by the public schools are not, in fact, the values held by the large majority of the American public, but the values held by a secular minority.
It is not possible, practically or theoretically, for public schools to be "neutral" with respect to contentious questions of morality, politics, and religion. The more the school attempts to be evenhanded, the more it will appear to endorse a position of relativism, or worse, cynicism.
No shifts in constitutional doctrine governing the conduct of the public schools can solve this problem, because it inheres in the nature of things. The Supreme Court can alter the character of public education, making it more religious or more secular, but it cannot make public education genuinely more pluralistic. A common school is a common school. That is its blessing and its curse.
While fears of church-state constitutional problems are often cited by opponents of educational choice, those fears are groundless. Whatever may be the flaws in the educational choice idea, it should be debated on its merits and not rejected on spurious constitutional grounds. In fact, far from offending the First Amendment, an educational choice plan is much more consistent with the pluralistic vision of the First Amendment than is granting secular schools a monopoly of public funds.
The common school movement now teaches our children, unintentionally, to be value-less, culture-less, root-less, and religion-less. It can no longer achieve its crowning purpose of providing a unifying moral culture in the face of our many differences.

Michael W. McConnell
--"Multiculturalism, Majoritarianism, and Educational Choice: What Does Our Constitutional Tradition Have to Say?," University of Chicago Legal Forum 1991.

(Ed. note: This post originally appeared on my general blog in June 2008.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Should we finish the books we begin? It depends.

In an article published in Friday's Washington Times, economist Tyler Cowen makes several interesting and provocative arguments about reading and books. In short, he suggests that we should be more easygoing about giving up on books we don't enjoy without finishing them.

I addressed Cowen's arguments - and the underlying assumptions of the article about the reasons we read - today in a post on my personal blog. You can find the post here - it is directly relevant to the discussions below about self-education and the case for reading good books.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The case for reading good books

A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.
--Arthur Schopenhauer

Regular encounters with great thinkers and great ideas can give us perspective. They can remind us that our personal experiences, unique though they may be in the particulars, have much in common with the experience of other human beings throughout the world and across the centuries.

By reading, we can expand our understanding and our empathy, and we can begin to see that some experiences – the joy of love and sex, the fear of death, the struggle with belief – are universal. This realization helps to alleviate our loneliness and increase our sense of empathy and solidarity with distant individuals and communities.

Reading widely can also help us to distinguish between what is trivial and what matters. For instance, the descriptions of society gossip in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the description of the glamorous parties of the aristocracy in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and the descriptions of the emptiness of a wealth-obsessed life in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt or Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman all serve to educate our sense of what is important.

If you are serious about self-education, reading should become a regular, major part of your life. There are alternative ways of learning, and some would-be self-educators may find reading – especially reading difficult material – to be a frustrating experience. Others will simply prefer other methods. But America’s most highly-regarded schools, the best college-prep high schools and elite universities, usually place a premium on broad, deep, challenging reading. In addition, the vast majority of the great thinkers of history have shared a passion for and dedication to reading and writing. By reading the works of important writers past and present, anyone can take part in a conversation about human existence that has gone on for over two millenia.

But this often requires walking past the tables of flashy, attractive, hardcover, fresh-off-the-press bestsellers and into the more forbidding and intimidating sections of literature and philosophy. It requires the reading of the "Great Books" (or "classics") that have stood the test of decades and centuries. The authors of these books dealt with the very same problems and questions that the men and women of today face, and they brought a level of profound understanding to their subjects that most of the popular writers of our day can only hope to approximate.

What's more, the language, vocabulary, and concepts writers like Plato and Shakespeare used to discuss ideas profoundly shaped our understanding of those ideas; they shaped the way we think and talk about human life. When we think through an idea or express our feelings, we are usually acting within the parameters set by the imaginations of our greatest writers: we think in their terms without being aware of it, because in many cases they are what we know - their work changed the history of ideas and thereby changed the conceptual, cultural, and political world we inhabit.

Our media is filled with references to our “21st-century” society and its unique challenges: globalization, technology, progress, the Internet, nuclear arms, genetic manipulation - all of these, we are told, signify that we are part of a world fundamentally different than that of our ancestors.

But it turns out that people in every age have felt their generation to be different from all who came before. In War and Peace, Tolstoy addresses this view. People of “limited intelligence,” Tolstoy writes, “imagine that human characteristics change with the times.” But War and Peace, like Hamlet, Paradise Lost, the Iliad, and the Bible (among many others), continues to speak to modern readers precisely because the differences and changes in human life across societies, cultures, and generations are outweighed by the continuities, the common human experience.

Birth and death, fear and hope, friendship and loneliness, belief and mythmaking - these are present everywhere and at all times. It would be intellectually crippling, therefore, for someone who hopes to be learned or well-read to ignore the classics because they are “old.” Their themes are timeless. If a book is still being read twenty, fifty, five-hundred, or two thousand years after it first appeared, all of those generations of readers who kept it alive must have found some value in it.

I am a firm believer in the value of putting the classics at the core of an education, but I also think it would be a mistake to stop there. More and more diverse writers are putting their thoughts on paper than ever before, and a few of them are producing some excellent literature. I try to keep up with Poetry magazine, for example, and I thoroughly enjoy the contemporary poetry I find there. Last year, I was blown away by Per Petterson’s novel Out Stealing Horses, which I picked up after reading a glowing review of it in the New York Times. Contemporary novelist Jim Harrison, a native of my home state of Michigan, is able to speak to me more immediately and directly than Plato or Shakespeare can because he is writing about places that are very meaningful to me. Resources such as the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and The Second Pass are great places to find reviews of contemporary literature. At the end of the year, these and other reviewers often create lists of the “Books of the Year,” and these are worth reading.

In short, if it is wrong to advocate doing away with the traditional canon of Western literature for whatever reason - because it is underinclusive and "politically incorrect," or because contemporary students supposedly cannot connect with it - it is equally hubristic to argue or imply, as do some of the most fervent advocates of the "Great Books" (Mortimer J. Adler, Harold Bloom, etc.), that little of value has been written since the mid-20th century. We live in unusually fertile intellectual and artistic times. Again, it bears repeating: more people from more places and backgrounds are writing and publishing than ever before, and we have more access to their work than ever before.

Setting literature aside for a moment, it is clear that natural science and the social sciences require that we give a great deal of weight to contemporary materials. The discipline of international relations, despite its roots in the ancient writings of Thucydides, has only existed in its current form for less than a century. In the realms of math and science, it seems reasonable to learn about biology and mathematics from the most comprehensive and up-to-date textbooks rather than directly from Darwin and Newton. And, in my view, no one should consider himself or herself educated who is fully ignorant of contemporary history and the basic conditions of the modern world, and these are things that can only be learned by becoming a regular reader of or listener to high-quality news sources.

The bottom line, however, is that no matter what your interest, becoming a serious and disciplined reader is the surest path to educational growth. Your local library should have a copy of Mortimer J. Adler’s classic How to Read a Book and Clifton Fadiman’s The Lifetime Reading Plan, both of which contain detailed lists of “the classics” and make a strong case for focusing your reading on them. A website run by Robert Teeter at is a fantastic resource: it contains the Adler and Fadiman lists along with many others, including non-Western canons.

Internet tools such as LibraryThing, Facebook (each profile has a "favorite books" section), and are good sources of recommendations, and countless syllabi from university courses covering every subject under the sun can be found by searching Google and various online syllabi databases. Subscribing to newspapers and journals in your areas of interest will give you access to current book reviews and advertisements.

And, finally, you should not be shy about soliciting book recommendations directly from readers you admire, as well as those who work with books and ideas for a living: journalists, librarians, booksellers, graduate students, professors, lawyers, teachers. The book that turns one person’s worldview upside down may hold little interest for the next person, but whatever your interests, by doing a bit of research you can easily find books from which you can learn a great deal.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ideas from Northrop Frye's "On Education"

We hear much about the increased numbers of students coming to universities.... Most of these students will, inevitably, be processed rather than educated, and for the really keen student in the future the great difficulty will be, not to get to university, but to get his proper education instead of processing. I say difficulty for the student, because the initiative will be up to him. [ed. note: see the post below, "A few of the things you can do in a great university," for more on this].
The university can best fulfill its revolutionary function by digging in its heels and doing its traditional job in its traditionally retrograde, obscurantist, and reactionary way. It must continue to confront society with the imaginations of great poets, the visions of great thinkers, the discipline of scientific method, and the wisdom of the ages, until enough people in the democracies realize that a way of life, like life itself, must be lost before it can be gained.
It is impossible to teach the humanities properly if we think of them as ornaments or graces of ordinary social life. They have their laws and disciplines like the sciences, and must be taught as impersonally as the sciences, despite their emotional and aesthetic connections.
(The high school student) is becoming aware of an underlying conflict in his situation. On one side of him is his ordinary social environment, the world of his television set, his movies, his family car, advertising, entertainment, news, and gossip. On the other side is the school, and perhaps the church, trying to dislodge him from this lotus land and prod him into further voyages of discovery. ...

The school has only five hours a day in which to fight the influences which keep soaking into the student from the rest of his experience, and which usually command an authority that the school cannot command. As a rule, therefore, the world of technology and rhetoric wins out, whether the student goes on to university or not. ...

The education theories generally called progressive tried to abolish this conflict my making the school the agent of society. Education thus became a matter of social adjustment to the world one must live in. But this world, in itself, provides no real standards or values. It stands for immaturity and a cult of youth, for social values rooted in entertainment and advertising, and for emotions rooted in the erotic. Besides, the world, unlike nature, always betrays the heart that loves her. It changes very rapidly, driven on by forces that the socially adjusted cannot comprehend, and can only cope with by the fixations of prejudice and stock response. Thus understanding the world, if made the goal of education, is forced to become an acceptance of the world, and that in turn becomes increasingly an acceptance of illusion. The forms of illusion are familiar: there are the illusions of slanted news, and the illusions of entertainment....

(The student) should understand what he must do to live in his society; but he must understand too that that society has no criteria for judging itself or one's actions within it. The criteria (or at least the secular criteria) can come only from the arts and sciences, the co-ordinated vision of the greatness and accuracy of human imagination and thought.

Northrop Frye
--"The Critical Discipline," in On Education

Monday, July 20, 2009

Wide Awake Minds Interviews: Self-educators and their stories

I am currently interviewing self-educators in order to tell their stories on Wide Awake Minds ( and in The Wide-Awake Mind: An Invitation to Self-Education.

Please email me if you would like to be interviewed, or if you know someone whom I ought to interview. I can send you an email with writing prompts, or we can conduct the interview over the phone. Alternatively, you can click here to look at the interview questions and copy and paste the questions and your responses into an email.

I can't wait to gather your stories and share them with the world. Whatever you do to test your intellectual limits, pursue your curiosity, or explore the world of art and literature, chances are good that if you are reading this, you have some experience as a self-educator (or "autodidact"). Share it with us so that we can learn from your example and your methods.

Self-Education: A Manifesto

I am currently writing my first book - The Wide-Awake Mind: An Invitation to Self-Education - and I ought to clarify what I mean by the term "self-education."

Self-education is at once a mindset, a lifestyle, and an action. It is both something that can be engaged in unconsciously and a habit that can be cultivated. For instance, a person can self-educate by going to the coffeeshop with a stack of books and reading, or by unconsciously choosing forms of entertainment that happen to be educational – say, high-quality films, travel, theater, lectures, backpacking, or deep conversations. Just as you can develop the habit of healthy eating or exercise, you can develop the habit of regularly reading, becoming more alert to and curious about your surroundings, and seeking out educational experiences beyond the confines of your comfort zone.

To be a self-educator does not mean to turn away from teachers. It means to embrace teachers and learning opportunities wherever they occur – whether in the classroom, in family settings, at work, with friends, in nature, or anywhere else. Embracing self-education as a philosophy and a lifestyle means growing beyond the idea of education as schooling that you may have inherited from society; it means understanding that education is a lifelong endeavor. It is not primarily the means to a degree or a job, although it may also play that role. Instead, it is both an end in itself and a means to and method of a more fulfilling life, a life that embraces the wide world of knowledge and ideas that moves beneath the surface of daily existence. The self-educator chooses the option of engaged participation in this world and rejects the option of disengaged apathy.

A self-educator strives to experience life and the world as a beautiful gift rather than as simply “what is given,” the “way things are,” and he or she realizes that the proper stance toward the world is one of curiosity and openness. Such a person can discover beautiful things in literature, in mathematics, in science, in art, in music, or in architecture that are not disclosed to those whose eyes have been closed by apathy or by a belief that their education is “complete” because they have earned some slip of paper (whether a diploma or a doctorate).

And the fields of knowledge are not a finite source of beautiful things, but an infinite source; the books and poems and monuments and recordings of the world constitute a far greater pool of knowledge than anyone could learn in many lifetimes, and worlds of knowledge are constantly changing, expanding, and being discovered. In that sense, we are at an especially fortunate moment in human history: the processes of globalization and the modern world’s advances in economics and technology, though their negative consequences must be faced squarely and fully understood, have given us a situation in which those who are a part of the “connected” world have unprecedented access to sources of knowledge in cultures across the world. Ideas and people are more mobile and accessible than ever before.

Self-education is not usually or necessarily a solitary endeavor, and the best self-educators make the most of whatever resources are at their disposal – including teachers, courses, and traditional schooling. Self-educators who are enrolled in a K-12 school or university should learn everything they can from their teachers, professors, and fellow students. At the same time, they should always remember to see beyond the structures of the school and keep in mind that they are getting only fragments and tastes of the world of ideas, and that however much they learn, the totality of what they know will always pale alongside the infinite weight of what they do not know. No degree or academic achievement can change that basic fact.

The decision to become a self-educator can transform a person’s experience in school. Graduation comes to represent not the end of one’s education, but simply one stepping-stone on a journey that ought to last until the end of one’s life. “Down-time” in and between classes comes to represent a rare, treasured opportunity to study one’s own interests. And grades, once a thing to be dreaded, come to be seen as what they are – not a reflection of your personal worth or ability in a subject, but a sorting mechanism that classifies some as more or less promising students for the purposes of getting jobs and admission to academic programs. Education is infinitely more than that; it is not something reducible to school attendance, grades, degrees, or other features of contemporary schooling.

Becoming a self-educator means cultivating the habit of lifelong learning, that is, cultivating a wide-awake mind. A wide-awake mind is a mind alert to educational opportunities in everyday life, a mind curious and eager to explore these opportunities, and a mind disciplined enough to follow through on its curiosity by making time for extended study of the areas it is interested in.

Please email me to share your self-education stories; as part of my research for The Wide-Awake Mind: An Invitation to Self-Education, I plan to interview self-educators of all ages and backgrounds. Their stories will appear on this blog and in the book. Thank you for reading, and please help spread the word about Wide Awake Minds by linking to this site and passing it on to others who might be interested.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Czeslaw Milosz on curiosity and lifelong learning

Truly, wherever one turns, there are...surprises everywhere, and the world appears to be a collection of a limitless quantity of details to be taken notice of.

The world is so organized that it is endlessly interesting; there is no limit to the discovery of ever newer layers and strata. It is like a journey through a maze which is pulsating, changing, growing as one moves through it. We make this journey by ourselves, but also as participants in the common undertaking of all humanity, with its myths, religions, philosophies, art, and the perfection of science. The curiosity which drives us cannot be sated and since it does not lessen with the passage of time, that is a sufficient argument against dying. Although, to be sure, many of us enter the gates of death immensely curious, expectant, eager to learn what it is like on the other side.

The opposite of curiosity is boredom, bull all opinions leading to the conclusion that nothing remains to be known, because there is nothing new under the sun, are false, dictated by boredom, or sickness.

Can you assure me, sir, that when we grow older, ever newer sights open up before us, as if around each bend in the road on a journey? I can. It seems as if everything is the same, yet different. Without a doubt, we do grow old; that is to say, our senses desert us, our hearing grows duller, our eyesight weakens. Yet our mind finds ways to balance these losses with an acuity that is inaccessible in our younger years. All the more so, then, does defeated old age deserve our sympathy, when the mind, following the senses, sinks into sleep.
Curiosity must be a powerful passion if so many people for thousands of years have tried to discover, touch, name, understand an elusive reality of "n" dimensions.

Czeslaw Milosz
--Milosz's ABCs

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A few of the things you can do in a great university

I believe that one way we can get more high schoolers interested in college is to give them more information about what college is and what possibilities it holds. The fact that they will probably make more money and have more career options if they go to college can only be one argument among others, and not necessarily the most important one. We should be giving students college marketing materials in 8th or 9th grade - and never mind the fretting about kids "growing up too fast" - in order to make the idea of college more real to them, and to help them understand that there is a relationship between the way they approach high school and what their future opportunities will be.

To that end, I offer an incomplete list of things that can be done in great universities. I believe that what we teach kids in high school should pave the way for them to have the opportunity to do the sort of things listed below.

Things you can do in a great university

-Spend a summer, semester, or year learning a language - any language - and living with a family in a country thousands of miles away. When you get home, the experience will have transformed you, and your knowledge of another language and culture will be something you carry with you for the rest of your life.

-Discuss some of the greatest books ever written with professors and graduate students who are devoting their lives to understanding these books.

-Take advanced courses in art, film, literature, or music, and never look at these in the same way again.

-Learn to do, and actually do, research in a field that interests you. In addition to learning things that others have figured out and written down for you to memorize, you'll be a participant - in labs and seminars - in the creation of knowledge.

-In the four summers before you graduate, travel, volunteer, read voraciously, or get internships doing important work that you will remember and learn something from. Don't get a "job" over the summer - get an experience and an education.

-Learn Chinese, Arabic, Ancient Greek, or Egyptian hieroglyphics. Take four years of classes in a language; when you are done, you may be able to read newspapers, letters, and literature in that language, and an entirely new world of people, communities, ideas, travel opportunities, and careers will be open to you.

-Develop your own voice and the voice of others by joining or starting a publication as a writer or editor, or hosting or participating in an art exhibition, play, or concert.

-Build your focus, physical capabilities, maturity, and self-discipline while making lifelong friends by participating on an athletic team; if the team is on the varsity level, you will also be able to travel and compete around the country. (Many club teams travel as well, of course).

-Increase your literacy and reading fluency as well as your ability to write persuasively by taking four years' worth of classes in the humanities and social sciences.

-Do independent study work with graduate students and professors who are brilliant people and experts in their field.

-Attend lectures by experts in every field, politicians, judges and lawyers, writers, and others.

-Discover the complexity and importance of politics, and learn to think beyond the headlines. Discover your political voice.

-Attend concerts, museums, and exhibitions that include work by some of the most talented artists and musicians in the world.

-Learn to create professional computer programs, websites, or documentary films.

-Have access to the resources of enormous research libraries and cutting-edge research technology.

-Surround yourself with some of the brightest and most creative people of your generation.

-Graduate and have the freedom to choose your career - including the most desirable careers in the world. Have access, through your alumni network, career center, skill set, and educational background, to practically any social or professional network in your field. Be a credible and desirable job applicant with economic opportunities around the country and the world.

-Enjoy four years of relative freedom - a time you can easily squander, if you wish to do so, or an opportunity, if you will seize it, to become an educated person. It can be four years of throwaway job-training or four years of stimulating and unforgettable intellectual experiences.

If students want to make the most of their school years in general and their college years in particular, they must take ownership of their education and elect to do what is difficult. The alternative is to take an easier, clearer, purely pre-professional path - a path that is all-too-often paved with banal classes and textbooks, and that often doesn't actually do much to prepare you for your first job (the pre-medical track is a significant exception). You can work toward entering a profession while getting a great education along the way.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Thinking critically about critical pedagogy

Most schools of education in the U.S., including the one in which I am enrolled, require preservice teachers who are pursuing certification to take a class on teaching to diverse learners. The idea is that as we are preparing to teach students with racial and socioeconomic backgrounds that may differ from our own, we ought to gain some understanding of the special issues these students (and their families and communities) confront so that we can do a better job connecting with them, respecting them, and teaching them. It is a very sensible idea.

In the diversity class I am currently taking, our reading so far has been drawn largely from the fields of critical pedagogy and critical race studies. This is not the first time I have encountered this sort of writing; variations of critical theory - often rooted in Marxism and the Frankfurt School - have flourished in many academic disciplines.

I am generally very resistant to this body of writing and scholarship, and I am hoping to use my experience in the diversity class to (a) open my mind about it so that I can take better advantage of its resources and its best works and thinkers, and (b) to better understand my resistance to critical theory and the reasons I am reluctant to adopt its conventions and vocabulary or spend too much time looking at the world through its lenses.

First, a bibliography of the readings we are being assigned this term, so that you can look into these ideas for yourself:

-Harro, "The Cycle of Socalization"
-Goodman, "About Privileged Groups"
-Howard, "Unlearning the Lessons of Privilege"
-Schmidt, "More Than Men in White Sheets: Seven Concepts Critical to the Teaching of Racism as Systemic Inequality"
-Bartolomé, "Critical Pedagogy and Teacher Education: Radicalizing Prospective Teachers"
-Godley et al., "Preparing Teachers for Dialectically Diverse Classrooms"
-Harklau, "Representational Practices and Multi-modal Communication in US High Schools: Implications for Adolescent Immigrants"
-Kalyanpur and Harry, "Legal and Epistemological Underpinnings of the Construction of Disability"

The titles alone can give you an idea of their contents. I've read the first five of these articles, and I have a few thoughts and criticisms so far:

I am concerned that the many and significant concerns I have about the worldview of critical pedagogues might be dismissed as a personal failure to understand my “white privilege,” to escape my racist “socialization,” or to fully comprehend the nature of institutional and cultural racism.

Some of the writers we have read attempt to pre-empt counterarguments by raising questions about the reader’s racial bias, a practice that amounts to a sophisticated form of ad hominem: “You wouldn’t understand or agree, because you are a socialized, privileged white male.”

I am more than willing to grant most claims about the reality of institutional and cultural racism in contemporary America. As a student of politics, history, and education, I know that one needs look no farther than statistics that show the correlations between race, school quality and funding, and household income level to understand the fact of the racial divide in America.

Segregation and inequality are hard facts from which the existence of institutional racism can be derived. But the layers of group-focused, finger-pointing theory that critical pedagogues pile on to these hard facts are not beyond debate and discussion, and we should be able to question these theoretical lenses – their rigor, appropriateness, and utility – without exposing ourselves, because we happen to be members of privileged groups, to charges of bias. The same goes for policy ideas, such as bilingual education and affirmative action, that we supposedly ought to support once we have recognized the fact of institutional racism.

To suggest that there is a necessary and immutable relationship between one’s group memberships and one’s political understanding is absurd, and to dismiss those who disagree with one’s own views - one's own radicalism, in the case of the critical pedagogues - as biased and insufficiently informed is bad practice; when, as in several of the articles we have read, these issues are discussed in terms of the need to “educate” people to think like critical pedagogues, and framed as recommended curricula for university professors and high school teachers, it borders on thought-control.

Critical pedagogues who assume that their white readers (because of their socialization and dominant-group position) have a less-sophisticated understanding of society are themselves making a broad-brush racial generalization; accordingly, they push a definition of racism that excludes their own biases: racism, apparently, is something that only dominant groups confronting minorities are engaged in (since only dominant groups benefit from "hegemonic," cultural racism).

There are alternative and arguably more optimistic and empowering lenses through which to look at racial and economic divisions, including race-neutral or cosmopolitan humanism, socialism, or libertarianism, or the lenses of human rights or natural law, or the ethical frameworks of the religious traditions (such as Catholic social thought). It is also very possible to adopt one of these alternative frameworks in a race-conscious way. I believe that individuals from all races and classes can reduce as well as perpetuate racism and classism. I wouldn’t be dedicating my life to education and writing if I didn’t believe in the critical role of individual minds and consciences in shaping social, political, and economic realities.

Things can get pretty ugly when “critical pedagogues” forget about individuals and lose themselves in a fantasy world where race and class are not only facts, but practically the only facts that matter. In the Bartolomé article, the author approvingly quotes a high school principal who argues, to paraphrase and draw the argument to its logical conclusion, that the worst day in the life of the poorest and most misfortunate “Anglo” is “never as challenging” as the best day in the life of the most wealthy and fortunate “Black person or Brown person.” How does this sort of hyperbole advance the conversation or improve the condition of underprivileged groups?

The bottom line: shouldn’t educators work to create a comfort zone for all students? Shouldn't we be focusing on creating caring and comfortable classrooms in which we can help all students advance their understanding and develop a love of learning? Must we think about inequality only in group-focused (collectivist) terms of dominant vs. subordinate groups, oppressors vs. oppressed, colonizers vs. colonized, and agent vs. target? Must everything be about race and class (and sexual orientation, disability, dialect differences, and so on), or can we best respect people by recognizing them as fellow human beings much like ourselves and working to understand them in the fullness of their individuality?

I encourage my classmates and readers to recognize the reality and complexity of cultural and institutional racism, but also to think critically about the theoretical lenses of critical pedagogy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A liberal education for every student

Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.
--John Dewey, "My Pedagogic Creed"

Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings. ...Today, a liberal education usually includes a general education curriculum that provides broad learning in multiple disciplines and ways of knowing, along with more in-depth study in a major.

--American Association of Colleges and Universities, "What is Liberal Education?"

It is long past time to do away with sloganeering about the primary purpose of education being to "prepare our kids for 21st-century jobs."

This cliché, and others like it, contributes to a narrative that cheapens the work of educators and shrinks the province of education to something that is done purely "in preparation" for something more "real," more substantial or meaningful - i.e., a job. But it is a colossal mistake to think and speak about K-16 education as though it were nothing more than extended job-training.

If we give students a liberal education aimed at educating their whole selves, building their foundational and critical literacy, increasing their access to and understanding of the world of ideas and art, and helping them develop their ability to understand and think about complex issues in and across academic disciplines, then we will have given them the best "vocational" education possible: students with excellent verbal and quantitative skills have the economic and social worlds wide open to them. They gain access to coveted internships and jobs, opportunities for studying and working overseas, and a stronger political voice.

Education - and therefore schooling, which is institutionalized education - is first and foremost about the pursuit of understanding. It is not about job-training. Job-training happens primarily on the job - but to give students access to rewarding and fulfilling work, and to prepare them to have as wide a choice of work as possible, the best preparation is a strong liberal education.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Quotes from Deborah Meier's "In Schools We Trust"

What I offer as a teacher, after all, is not just an acceptable babysitting experience but rather, like my doctor, professional expertise.
In some ways these experiences confirmed my support for parental choice in education - for shopping around, getting second opinions, and above all being allowed to select a school that matched a parents' biases and inclinations. I saw no contradiction between this and support for public education. Public schools simply had to be redesigned to offer families more choices,just as medicine should.
We also picked up on a successful (Central Park East Secondary School) practice - community service. Invented as much to provide teachers with free time as anything, it turned out to have life-changing repercussions for entirely different reasons. Over the four years that students spend doing community service, almost all, according to interviews conducted in later years, had built at least one relationship with an adult that helped them get into college, find a job, build a network in the larger world.
The Mission Hill school, like many of the other small schools I know, was deliberately designed designed to make it hard for the adult culture and the youth culture to hang apart for long. We even tried to make it easy for the high school and elementary school to exchange people and ideas. ...Even in terms of physical space, we thought about how to make the generations overlap. ...The grown-up behind-the-scenes life of the school is made visible and touchable.
We have to trust students' drive to learn, because it is the greater part of what we have going for us.

Deborah Meier
--In Schools We Trust

Thursday, July 9, 2009

On language learning textbooks

Over the years, I've accumulated a decent library of world language textbooks and readers. Even those I do not get around to studying usually yield some benefit - I can get a feel for the sound and structure of each language with only a few hours of reading, and such kernels of knowledge can often serve as bridges and conversation-starters with native speakers. And then there is the physical presence of the books: the diversity of the languages represented is a reminder of all the things I hope to study and places I hope to travel.

I have also learned something from the texts about the many ways foreign languages can be taught and how teaching methods have changed over time. The improvement in recording technologies has revolutionized language learning; it is difficult to imagine, but many earlier students of world languages had to study without ever hearing their target language spoken. Today, the primary (and, in my experience, most effective) method of instruction is to have the student listen to and memorize conversations carried on by native speakers in various contexts (the train station, the post office, the dinner table, etc.). Grammar is learned intuitively; one comes to understand the workings of the past tense by hearing a voice actor discuss his or her day at work. It’s a long way from the older methods, still used in the most widely disseminated Latin and Greek textbooks (Wheelock’s and Mastronarde’s), of memorizing paradigm after paradigm and carrying out drill after drill.

Language textbooks are invariably infused with knowledge of the cultures where the language is spoken. For instance, Latin is learned through readings about the orations of senators and the deeds of heroes and gods; Norwegian is learned by listening in on the conversation of tourists in Oslo who are admiring the sculptures in the Frognerparken; and Italian is learned through texts about the history of coffee or the many courses of an Italian dinner. Most dialogues in contemporary language textbooks have settings - some are universal, but many are specific to a particular time and place. It’s hard to imagine an elementary Russian textbook that does not teach the reader how to ask for directions to Red Square.

The experience of learning how to find one’s way around the Kremlin, and “asking” directions during the lulls on the audio track provided for that purpose, with soft voices and the sound of traffic in the background to add authenticity, is qualitatively different from the experience of reading about Red Square in a history book or travel guide. In secondhand accounts, the reader is one more step removed from the experience of physically being in Moscow. The language learner, however, can to some extent simulate that experience. And if one’s attitude when reading secondhand accounts of another place’s history and culture is one of looking upon a culture from “above,” one’s attitude as a language learner is much more humble. Even the cows of ancient Greece understand Attic Greek better than we ever will, someone once quipped. There is some truth to that. The student of languages is a student in the fullest sense of the word; his highest aspiration is to speak a language as well as a native speaker - any native speaker, regardless of age or station. He may believe, consciously or not, that there individuals in his home culture with whom he has nothing to discuss and from whom he has nothing to learn - but abroad he is stripped of that elitist attitude, because everyone reads, writes, and speaks better than him.

I continue to learn a lot and derive a great deal of pleasure from my library of language textbooks, and I’ve become a collector almost by accident; the collection is a byproduct of two of the things I love most: languages and books. By letting go of the dream of ever mastering all the languages represented in my collection, I have given myself a freer hand to purchase the old Russian text with “Printed in the Soviet Union” stamped in red ink on the frontispiece, and the grossly outdated handbook of Japanese grammar written to assist American servicepeople in the postwar occupation of Japan. Even if these are all but useless as instruments of language study, they serve a different purpose by providing that pleasure of owning something rare that is the province and privilege of the collector.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

School finance and the vouchers debate

School Finance and the Vouchers Debate

The slideshow above begins with a description of how U.S. public and private schools are financed and the enormous disparities between rich and poor public schools, then describes the various school choice policies that have been proposed to rectify these disparities. Finally, I examine one proposed reform - school vouchers - in depth, presenting the main arguments for and against vouchers and linking to both pro-voucher and anti-voucher resources.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

NYT's Kristof offers a reading list for kids

I am a fan of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Many political writers become caught up in day-to-day partisan spats or adopt a too-conventional set of political principles. Kristof, however, remains remarkably focused on the things that really matter - things like international human rights, modern-day slavery and human trafficking, poverty, and education.

And so Kristof's column in tomorrow's Times is about neither Michael Jackson nor Sarah Palin; it's about the sad fact that kids' IQs and reading abilities fall over the summer break because they are not, for the most part, reading or using their brains when they are not in school. He offers a list of ten of the "best kids' books ever."

I would add to his list:

-The Giver (Lois Lowry).
-Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson).
-Everything by Roald Dahl, especially Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and The BFG.
-Sideways Stories from Wayside School series (Louis Sachar).
-His Dark Materials trilogy (Philip Pullman).
-Indian in the Cupboard trilogy (Lynne Reid Banks).
-Encyclopedia Brown series (Donald J. Sobol).
-The Chronicles of Narnia series. (C.S. Lewis).
-The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and The Missing Piece (Shel Silverstein).
-Maniac Magee (Jerry Spinelli).
-Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh).
-Little House on the Prairie (Laura Ingalls Wilder).
-Shiloh (Phyllis Reynolds Naylor).
-The Velveteen Rabbit (Margery Williams).

I appreciate that Kristof's first thought about the summer achievement slide wasn't a policy idea such as lengthening the school year. Children and their parents must take charge of their own education during their breaks: they must become explorers and self-educators and resist the lethargic, easy option of becoming zombies in front of television and computer screens.

Over the years I've become more and more attracted to the idea that a central purpose of K-12 education must be to turn students into readers. And readers, that is, of books - not just blogs or RSS feeds or Tweets or "interactive stories" or graphic novels.

The sine qua non of self-education and lifelong learning is the habit of reading deeply, broadly, and well.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Jean Roemer on self-education

An excerpt from a rare book I stumbled upon in the University of Chicago's Regenstein library a few years ago:

"One of the chief characteristics of a good method consists in enabling learners to dispense with the assistance of a teacher when they are capable of self-government. It should be so contrived as to excite and direct their spontaneous efforts, and lend them to the conviction that they have the power, if they have the will, to acquire whatever man has acquired.

…The most extensive education given by the most skilful masters often produces but inferior characters; that alone which we give to ourselves elevates us above mediocrity. The eminence attained by great men is always the result of their own industry."

Jean Roemer
--Polyglot Reader and Guide for Translation