Teacher, Inspire Thyself
by Charles D. Hayes
education should be thought of not as something you get but as something
you take. And if, in the course of your self-education, you're going to use the
help of a teacher, that person had better be inspiring.
American educator John Holt was right when he said that “teaching is
not learning.” And so was Ralph Waldo Emerson, when he said that the
only role for a teacher is to inspire. For more than two decades, I’ve
studied myriad subjects with the intensity of a graduate student for the
sole purpose of better understanding the world before I have to leave
I’ve written five books on the subject of self-education and one
novel. While my focus has been on adult learning, I have discovered some
very important lessons about the role self-education plays in the lives
of children as well. I’ve learned that uninspired people cannot inspire
others about anything. Moreover, interesting people are people who are
interested in something other than themselves.
At the core of my philosophy of self-education is my conviction that
an education should be thought of not as something you get but as
something you take. This is not a posture of contempt for traditional
education, nor is it an attitude of belligerence toward the teaching
profession. What it amounts to, if you really think it through, is a
psychological paradigm shift of Emersonian proportions.
Thinking of an education as something you take, as naturally as your
next breath, is the heart of Emerson’s notion of self-reliance. He
speaks to us today, with even more urgency now than in the nineteenth
century, to see with our own eyes and to think with our own minds and to
live as if our lives and our learning really matter.
One would be hard-pressed today to find an educator on the planet who
professes to believe John Locke’s claim that the mind of a child at
birth is nothing more than a blank slate, and yet most educators still
behave as if it’s quite literally true. Perceiving that an education is
something we get fosters a passive, stand-and-wait attitude that
presumes helplessness unless others come to our aid.
Imagining an education as something you take gives rise to a dramatic
shift in expectations. Internalizing the notion that an education is
something you take is the psychological equivalent of taking a fireman’s
axe to the door of opportunity.
It means you don’t attend college simply for a degree, but because of
a thirst for knowledge fueled by an internal declaration that you can
and will achieve a first-rate learning experience, with or without the
aid of an institution. What matter most are your own expectations.
Having such an outlook means you are not dependent upon curricula, but
rather on your own eagerness for learning. It means your textbooks are
simply an introduction to subject matter and not a vaccination to
inoculate you against the need for further inquiry.
The adult education movement in America has many advocates whose
enthusiasm for learning is contagious. Many more, however, seem
fascinated with the theory of lifelong learning but in point of fact
don’t do much of it. I’ve enough experience to suspect that the same is
true when it comes to homeschooling and unschooling. The bottom line is
this: Uninspired people are incapable of inspiring others. Period.
People who profess to teach and who then demonstrate a lack of
enthusiasm for their work project boredom and insincerity. A person who
speaks and writes constantly about learning theory without actually
engaging in meaningful learning is like a cloud without rain, a flower
without bloom, a tree without leaves or fruit. Worse, in time, a posture
based upon theory without practice gives rise to an authoritative
prescription for how others should behave that’s very much like the
conditions which inspired the need for the home schooling movement to
The way to help others to internalize the philosophy that an
education is something to be taken is to leave a vapor trail of your own
interests so visible and powerful that anyone who comes near is caught
up in the wake. A Portuguese proverb makes this point loud and clear:
“Live to learn and you will learn to live.”
Developing strong interests is the only major force available for the
integration of one’s knowledge into something that can be characterized
as quality of life. Strong interests about subjects of any kind help us
master the dissonance we encounter in personal relationships and in
global affairs. The world has far too many people whose knowledge
remains as compartmentalized as the courses were that parked it there.
They live their whole lives with disconnected contradictions that they
store in memory but never work out. As a result they live on borrowed
opinion and have to ask authorities the critical questions they ought to
be asking and answering for themselves about how to live their lives.
Individuals who integrate their learning in an ongoing and sustained
effort to better understand the world work out their own solutions. They
live beyond the reach of gurus.
So, my advice to all those who would teach others is to make sure the
pilot light is lit in your own mind before you set out to ignite it in
others. It’s easy to say that an education is something we should take
instead of get, but few people appreciate the profundity of living as if
Now in his eighth decade of life, Alaska resident Charles D. Hayes has written five non-fiction books on the subject of
self-education and a novel. Learn about them at Autodidactic Press
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