Monday, July 20, 2009

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.