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Teacher, Inspire Thyself
by Charles D. Hayes

An 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.

Teacher, Inspire Thyself: Self-Education and Inspiring People

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 it.

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 begin with.

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 it’s true.

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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