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The habit of self-education is one of life's most profound, and perhaps the least discussed, aspects of education.

Although I have spent much--some might say much too much--of my life in schools, I think of myself as largely self-educated. There are lots of us.

When I look back over my primary and secondary education, which by the standards of schools 25 years ago was neither especially bad nor particularly good, I recall that by the 3rd or 4th grade it was clear to me that the really vital, onrushing streams of my intellectual life would flow outside the confines of Greenwood Elementary School. As a 9-year-old, I knew that passionate intellectual tributaries, if there ever had been any at Greenwood Elementary School, had long ago slowed to a dreary trickle.

This is not to say schools didn't matter at all to me, or to other self-educators. For me, there have always been the few brilliant, funny, and excitingly hard-edged teachers who have meant so much: a buttery, sweet 3rd grade teacher who was exquisitely committed to the spirits of 8-year-olds, or an uncautious, funny 6th grade teacher who awakened passion in my pubescent, 10-year-old soul. Under teachers who believed in me, or who captivated my interest, I could learn anything, write anything, think extraordinary thoughts. With teachers who seemed conventional, ordinary, bound by the rules of school, or frightened by authority or the unusual, I mostly checked out and escaped into my own world of dreams, books, doodles, plans, and meditations on the linoleum tiles or the fashion missteps of the adults in school. Externally, I was average and unremarkable. Internally, I was disdainful, underperforming, and lost much of the time.

I was bored a great deal. I recognize this same tendency in my imaginative 9-year-old son now. "Henry gets lost in his own world," his teachers comment. "He doesn't seem to know what's going on." My son even briefly had a tutor who tried to give him ways of bringing himself back to the world in which adults wanted him focused. "Your mind is like a horse that constantly wanders off the path," this tutor would say. "Your job is to keep the horse on the path."

I was never good at keeping the horse on the path, largely because I didn't find the path of school very interesting. I had my own world, with its own compelling work. There were the one or two books I usually read each day, and my efforts to understand my mother and the confusing and tantalizing woman's world she inhabited. (This required constant investigation into her underwear drawers, closets, jewelry boxes, and personal papers.) There was a pioneer life, inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder books, which my friend Audrey and I created in Audrey's back yard. Audrey and I fashioned bonnets, cleared our prairie land (southern Pennsylvania suburban lawn), created fires under a pulled-together roof of forsythia-bush branches, journeyed to Dakota Territory to buy more lumber, tools, and supplies (sticks, an old metal rake, M & Ms in a wax paper bag). Authenticity was important to us: Audrey wore a dowdy, dark-blue apron dress, and I was always in a Quakerishly plain, to-the-ground gray cotton skirt with a wide, slightly too tight waistband. I can't remember which of us was dad or mom on the frontier--this was beside the point. The pioneer's need to wear long skirts was emblematic. We were transported to the 1880s.

As a further assertion of authenticity, I even wore this thready, dirty, totally unfashionable skirt to school a few times in the 5th grade. I was stared at a lot in the cafeteria, but I think I expected this. I was already a weird kid. I cared about the staring, but it mattered more that Audrey and I had our own world, with its profound impulses and internal sense of rightness. We understood implicitly how powerful and important our play was, and teachers and school weren't connected to this at all. School, the place in my life where learning was officially to take place, seemed without a glimmer of understanding.

ot all adults were tangential to what was vital, of course. Audrey's mother, far more available than my own, took us a few times a week to the Kennett Square library; we had read most of the books in our elementary school library. At the local library we would sit silently, well reined-in, very quietly chewing sour orange gum and reading our latest book selections. Librarians, often meek and peevish and painfully badly dressed, had an adult authority I could respect: They lived in a sacred world of books, and they understood the power of what Emily Dickinson called the "kinsmen of the shelf." Although I was not especially rule-abiding, librarians could usually see that I was one of them--a book girl--and they would cut me some slack.

I never knew why I was reading what I was reading, or how I chose it, but like most children, simply read what was interesting and compelling. I liked reading about the lives of people, so I read every biography in the Greenwood Elementary School library. (These biographies, needless to say, were all about men--guys like Davy Crockett. Molly Pitcher and Betsy Ross were the only women with whole books devoted to them. A Revolutionary War water carrier and a seamstress, with rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike named after them? No wonder feminism set my world right in college.) I loved New Yorker cartoons, and always searched for them. I wrote little essays on how glad I was that I didn't have to attend church on Sundays--my parents were locked in a deadly argument about atheism which never quite resolved itself into any churchgoing habits. I was interested in cannibalism, Nazis, marriage, death. None of this was covered in the primary school curriculum. For me, and for most devoted to self-education, a habit of working outside the official boundaries of school developed, and persists.

This habit of self-education is one of life's most profound, and perhaps the least discussed, aspects of education. Within the educational literature it is almost never mentioned, even obliquely or anecdotally. One reads about "motivating" students by matching materials to developmental levels and personal experiences, and about making curriculum more choiceful rather than externally imposed. Rarely, however, does the picture emerge of the student blistering with heat, on their own fiery transit through the material to which the instructor has added propulsion, but not the vividness of the launch.

I was aware that I was receiving a poor education by many standards; I went to school during a period in which most sequential American and European history courses were done away with in public schools. It was not until I was about 11 or 12, however, and my father presented me with a bag of books he thought I should read, among them Camus' The Stranger and a long, academic biography of Abraham Lincoln, that I recall feeling some responsibility about reading and the need to self-educate. Gradually I became aware that reading, and being deeply interested in a few things, changes who you are, and even involves some kind of systematic responsibility. In The Stranger, I was perplexed by Mersalt's lack of remorse about committing murder, and I sensed this was something very important, but didn't have a clue what it was about. Now I would say that I needed to know about the author's "philosophical and cultural surround."

I was impressed by Lincoln's biographer's observation that a political figure's exit from the world seals his reputation; all I knew about Lincoln was sketchy, romantic, or gory--exactly how many shots did Booth fire? And, although I'm still ashamed of how little I know about Lincoln, I now have a label for my "colonial, historically oversimplified view."

Like a bird who pecks its way out of the egg and peeps at the expanse of ground below, I felt a responsibility to try to fly. Privately, I began wanting to have read a lot, and to be responsible for having read a lot. I realized that it would be useful to have a grasp of historical periods, to have a kind of time and idea map, and to see how people's ideas influenced each other and in what ways.

It was only in the last few years, though, during a particularly acute graduate school experience, that I began to realize that intense periods of learning have many of the same qualities of sex. When it's good, learning can be filled with the same slow-building sense of desire, driven by the same wish to possess with exclusivity. It's urgent. Often at the cost of eating and sleeping, ideas propel and arouse: It seems absurd that libraries close at midnight, crazy that bookstores and copy centers need time to restock. Learning experiences like this require a climax--a few good insights, a conversation, a piece written which provides release, closure, and quietness. Acquiring and putting together ideas can be like Count Vronsky's and Anna Karenina's attraction--chemical, impossible to resist, life-altering.

Adults in the future will need constantly to enroll themselves in new curriculums. What will they choose? How will they do it? Will they feel joy?

Other adults around me share this feeling. I think of a friend, a successful New York City attorney, who has turned his passion for classical music into a deeply intelligent, wryly amusing classical-music newsletter. ("My practice is in the toilet," he chuckles good-naturedly.) My husband becomes interested in trees, and Charles Sprague Sargent's Silva of North America and The Hardwood Record suddenly appear on our bedside table. A colleague moves to the West Coast and starts a consulting business around an idea which seems critical to her: ending the culture of blame in schools. The 9-year-old friend of one of my children tells me about what distracts him in class: "I don't know why, but I like drawing World War II battles. I've read so many books about D-Day and I think about it a lot. It was the most interesting battle ever fought. I can remember every detail."

The impulse towards self-education is transforming, and has its own geography. A few summers ago my sister and I allowed ourselves to slip into a monthlong Jane Austen mania, in which we watched and rewatched every film version of Austen available, while rereading the novels until two or three in the morning. Finally, we had to break the addiction, as the duties of motherhood and work threatened to spin out of control. (Our husbands simply assumed we had gone mad.) The daughter of a friend becomes transfixed by medievalism and begins making chain mail. Another child builds a Native American long house in his woods.

During intensely interesting periods of self-education, there is "flow," that optimal state of involvement so powerful that work is performed effortlessly, emotional entanglements fade into the background, and we simply lose track of time. The work becomes so gratifying that we keep at it, even if no one is looking, noticing, grading, or giving a performance appraisal. For many adults, once this passionate path has been burned across the intellectual sky, good learning continues to resemble great sex. It's an impulse which demands regular satisfaction, and the practitioner becomes more adventuresome, less conventional, and more masterful with practice. One educational philosopher has written beautifully, I think, of the teachings of Socrates and the Platonic myths as "giv[ing] a vivid picture of the love of inquiry as arising from a sense of incompleteness and desire," rather than from external motivation. Just for the aliveness of it. And although I rate my own efforts at self-education superficial and incomplete, the impulse drums on.

So in a world in which the urge to self-educate were more widely discussed and celebrated, I might call a friend one morning and she'd say, "Sorry, I can't talk now because I'm reading We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, and I'm trying to understand how the massacres in Rwanda occurred." Answering machines might instruct: "We can't come to the phone now because we're thinking about the construction of Egyptian pyramids. We'll call back later." And rather than dampening those fires which light them from within, children might bring their coals of interest to school ("D-Day was certainly the most important battle of World War II"), where they could be banked up and turned into bonfires.

When I consider what I most hope for for my own children from school, it is not success in a conventional sense: attendance at prestigious colleges and graduate schools, and material rewards. I hope they gain the emotional grace and wisdom to understand themselves and others, which I think is related to intellectual development, and equally important, that they have profound interests which accompany them throughout life. As new models for the 21st-century learner take shape--for adults who live a very long time and who, while employed, must constantly retrain themselves--preparation in and out of school for habits of self-education seems pressing. Adults in the future will need constantly to enroll themselves in new curriculums. What will they choose? How will they do it? Will they feel joy? To look out over one's own mental landscape and be excited about what one might construct there is what makes life spicy. Bring on the cayenne.

It's never too late to find out what we might be interested in. We've got the rest of our lives to do it.

Kirsten Olson Lanier lives in Weston, Conn., and writes about education.

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Pages 36, 38

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Self-Education:
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