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.