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September Scholar - self-directed learning as an adult

September Scholar
By Chuck Oberst

I am a retired engineer with a good bit of formal education and 25 years of self-learning. I began the self-learning experience while in my mid-40s. I had no goal in mind; I was just following my intellectual curiosity in whatever direction it led me. This hobby, self-learning, has become very important to me. I have bounced around from one hobby to another but have always been enticed back by the excitement I have discovered in this learning process. As Carl Sagan is quoted as having written, “Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.”

I label myself as a “September Scholar” because I began the process at mid-life and because my quest is disinterested knowledge.

Disinterested Knowledge

Disinterested knowledge is an intrinsic value. Disinterested knowledge is not a means but an end. It is knowledge I seek because I desire to know it. I mean the term “disinterested knowledge” as similar to “pure research,” as compared to “applied research.” Pure research seeks to know truth unconnected to any specific application.

I think of the self-learner of disinterested knowledge as driven to understand by curiosity and imagination. The September Scholar seeks to “see” and then to “grasp” through intellection directed at understanding the self as well as the world. The knowledge and understanding that is sought by the September Scholar is determined only by personal motivations. It is noteworthy that disinterested knowledge is knowledge I am driven to acquire because it is of dominating interest to me. Because I have such an interest in this knowledge, my adrenaline level rises in anticipation of my voyage of discovery.

We often use the metaphors of “seeing” for knowing and “grasping” for understanding. I think these metaphors significantly illuminate the difference between these two forms of intellection. We see much but grasp little. It takes great force to impel us to go beyond seeing to the point of grasping. The force driving us is the strong personal involvement we have to the question that guides our quest. I think it is this inclusion of self-fulfillment, as associated with the question, that makes self-learning so important – for all ages.

“If one individual in a thousand who has passed the age of 40 would become a September Scholar, we could significantly replace the wisdom lost by our commodified higher education.”

The self-learner of disinterested knowledge is engaged in a single-minded search for understanding. The goal, grasping the “truth,” is generally of insignificant consequence in comparison to the single-minded search. Others must judge the value of the truth discovered by the autodidactic. I suggest that truth, should it be of any universal value, will evolve in a biological fashion when a significant number of pursuers of disinterested knowledge engage in dialogue.


We develop as we gain experience – interact with the world. Self-learning is one way of interacting with the world. Through the process of reading, we apprehend the world and in this interaction a dialectic process develops. As I experience through reading, I attempt to make sense of the world and thus develop ever-richer and more sophisticated concepts. As I conceive this more sophisticated worldview, I am also creating a more sophisticated self. The word “conception” is an accurate word for the result of this experience. Just as the interaction of the two genders of all creatures result often in new life so does the interaction of reader and author.

There are books available in most community college libraries written by experts especially for the lay reader. I would guess that virtually all matters of interest are copiously and expertly elaborated upon by experts wishing to inform the public about every subject imaginable. Quantum theory and theory of relativity are examples of the most esoteric domains of knowledge accessible to most readers sufficiently motivated to persevere through some difficult study. For $25 a year, I am a Friend of the Library at my community college and thus able to borrow any book therein.

The experience the September Scholar seeks is solely determined by his or her own internal voice. The curiosity and imagination of the learner drive the voice. Unfortunately, those of us who participated in our formal education system have been left with little appreciation or understanding of our own curiosity and imagination. That characteristic so obvious in children is subdued and, I suspect, stilled by schooling to the point that each one attempting this journey of discovery must make a conscious effort to reinvigorate the inner voice. We must search to “hear” the voice, which is perhaps only a whisper that has become a stranger in our lives. But I have discovered that once freed again, that voice will drive the adult self-learner with the excitement and satisfaction comparable to any other experience.


I grew up in a Catholic family living in a small town in Oklahoma. My teachers were nuns and I learned how to read often by reading my Baltimore Catechism. The catechism is a small book, fitting easily in the back pocket of a pair of overalls, with a brown paper cover that contains the fundamental doctrine of the Catholic faith. It is in a question and answer format. I can still remember, after more than sixty years, the first page of that book.

Question: Who made you?

Answer: God made me.

Question: Why did God make you?

Answer: God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next.

Before I had read the adventures of Jack and Jill, I had learned answers to the most profound questions that have troubled humanity for more than 2,500 years. Such was the educational methodology that changed little for the next 16 years of my formal education. My teachers always told me what was important and what I must “know” to be educated. The “good student” learned early to understand that education was a process of determining what questions the teacher regarded as important and to remember, for the test, the correct answers to those important questions. Since I was not required to provide the questions for the test I never concerned myself with such unimportant trivia as questions. I could always depend upon the teacher to come forward with all the questions.

Now, I seek disinterested knowledge because I wish to understand. The object of understanding is determined by questions guiding my quest. These guiding questions originate as a result of the force inherent in my curiosity and imagination.

Unlike when I was in school, as self-learners, we must develop the ability to create the questions. We have never before given any thought to questions but now, if we wish to take a journey of discovery, we must learn the most important aspect of any educational process. We must create questions that will guide our travels. We can no longer depend upon education by coercion to guide us; we have the opportunity to develop education driven by the “ecstasy to understand.”

“To begin on the path to self-learning, one must make a change in attitude about just what is the nature of education (something that Life Learning’s readers have already likely done). Then one must face the world with a critical outlook.”


I suspect that most parents attempt to motivate their children to make good grades in school so that the child might go to college and live the American Dream (or equivalent). The college degree is a ticket to the land of dreams (where one produces and consumes more than his or her neighbor). I do not wish to praise or to bury this dream. But I think the value resulting from this mode of education is earned at great sacrifice.

Higher education has become a commodity. To commodify means: to turn (as an intrinsic value or a work of art) into a commodity (an economic good). I would say that the intrinsic value of education is wisdom. And it is wisdom that is sacrificed by our commodified higher education system. Our universities produce individuals capable of developing a great technology but lacking the wisdom to manage the world modified by that technology.

There is much to applaud in our higher educational system. It produces graduates who have proven their ability to significantly guide our society into a cornucopia of material wealth. Perhaps, however, like the Midas touch, this gold has a down side. The down side is a paucity of collective wisdom within the society. I consider wisdom to be a sensitive synthesis of broad knowledge, deep understanding and solid judgement.

How can a nation recover the intrinsic value of education without undermining the valuable commodity that higher education has become? I suggest that if one individual in a thousand who has passed the age of 40 would become a September Scholar, we could significantly replace the wisdom lost by our commodified higher education.

Knowing and Understanding

For a long time I have been trying to grasp the distinction between knowing and understanding. I think I have recently stumbled upon a new theory that might help me a great deal in my attempt to discover this distinction.

I have recently discovered a contender for paradigm within the cognitive science community. Metaphor theory has in the last 30 years begun to advance important discoveries regarding the nature of the “embodied mind.” This theory insists that much of our mental activity is unconscious and driven by the neural networks associated with body sensory and motor control networks. Metaphors are far more important to our knowledge and understanding than previously thought. In fact, we live by metaphor.

I have just begun to study metaphor theory and may change my mind but I am getting hints that this theory will be important for cognitive science and for me. It has already helped me to grasp the distinction between knowledge and understanding.

To get an idea of the distinction between knowing and understanding, we can examine the metaphors we commonly use for these two concepts. I “see” when I know and I “grasp” it or I “have a handle” on it when I understand. We can see much but we grasp little. We see at a distance but grasp only what is up close. We are much more intimate with what we grasp than with what we see. We might say “seeing is believing” but I do not think we are comfortable with saying “seeing is understanding.”

My interests tend to lead me toward such philosophical matters but the point is, each September Scholar determines what is important to her or him. Each person takes the path that fits for them. No one knows what that might be but the individual herself and often she will not create the same type of questions tomorrow as today.

From Net-worth to Self-worth

In this country, culture compels us to have a purpose. Our culture defines that purpose to be “maximize production and consumption.” As a result, all “good children” feel compelled to become successful producers and consumers. All “good children” both consciously and unconsciously organize their life for this journey. At mid-life, many citizens begin to analyze their lives and often discover a need to reconstitute their purpose.

As a popular saying goes, there is a season for all things. We might consider that spring and summer are times for gathering knowledge, maximizing production and consumption, and increasing net-worth; fall and winter are seasons for gathering understanding, creating wisdom and increasing self-worth. Getting a midlife intellectual life might also increase community-worth.

So I have been trying to encourage adults, who generally consider education as a matter only for young people, to give this idea of self-learning a try. It seems to be human nature to close the mind when encountering a new or unorthodox idea. Many of us seem to need an idea to face us many times before we can consider it seriously.

The self-learning experience I am suggesting is similar to any other hobby one might undertake; interest will ebb and flow. In my case this was a hobby that I continually came back to after other hobbies lost appeal. Fortunately, this hobby is virtually free, undeterred by age, not a zero sum game, surprising and exciting. Each discovery is a new eureka moment.

To begin on the path to self-learning, one must make a change in attitude about just what is the nature of education (something that Life Learning’s readers have already likely done). Then one must face the world with a critical outlook. A number of attitude changes are required as a first step. All parents, I guess, recognize the problems inherent in attitude adjustment. We just have to focus that knowledge upon our self as the object needing an attitude adjustment rather than our child!

I am not suggesting a stroll in the park on a Sunday afternoon. I am suggesting a Lewis and Clark Expedition. I am suggesting the intellectual equivalent of crossing the Mississippi and heading West across unexplored intellectual territory with the intellectual equivalent of the Pacific Ocean as a destination. I am suggesting that we provide the same kind of learning experience for ourselves as we have for our children.

Chuck Oberst is a retired engineer and a “September Scholar” living in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. He has five children living in various states throughout the United States. And he says he is a voracious reader of non-fiction with a great appetite for understanding, as guided by his imagination and curiosity.

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