Don’t Go Back to School: How to Fuel the Internal Engine of Learning
By Maria Popova
“The present education system is the trampling of the herd,” legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright lamented in 1956. Half a century later, I started Brain Pickings in large part out of frustration and disappointment with my trampling experience of our culturally fetishized “Ivy League education.” I found myself intellectually and creatively unstimulated by the industrialized model of the large lecture hall, the PowerPoint presentations, the standardized tests assessing my rote memorization of facts rather than my ability to transmute that factual knowledge into a pattern-recognition mechanism that connects different disciplines to cultivate wisdom about how the world works and a moral lens on how it should work. So Brain Pickings became the record of my alternative learning, of that cross-disciplinary curiosity that took me from art to psychology to history to science, by way of the myriad pieces of knowledge I discovered — and connected — on my own. I didn’t live up to the entrepreneurial ideal of the college drop-out and begrudgingly graduated “with honors,” but refused to go to my own graduation and decided never to go back to school. Years later, I’ve learned more in the course of writing and researching the thousands of articles to date than in all the years of my formal education combined.
So, in 2012, when I found out that writer Kio Stark was crowdfunding a book that would serve as a manifesto for learning outside formal education, I eagerly chipped in. Now, Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything is out and is everything I could’ve wished for when I was in college, an essential piece of cultural literacy, at once tantalizing and practically grounded assurance that success doesn’t lie at the end of a single highway but is sprinkled along a thousand alternative paths. Stark describes it as “a radical project, the opposite of reform … not about fixing school [but] about transforming learning — and making traditional school one among many options rather than the only option.” Through a series of interviews with independent learners who have reached success and happiness in fields as diverse as journalism, illustration, and molecular biology, Stark — who herself dropped out of a graduate program at Yale, despite being offered a prestigious fellowship — cracks open the secret to defining your own success and finding your purpose outside the factory model of formal education. She notes the patterns that emerge:
People who forgo school build their own infrastructures. They create and borrow and reinvent the best that formal schooling has to offer, and they leave the worst behind. That buys them the freedom to learn on their own terms.
From their stories, you’ll see that when you step away from the prepackaged structure of traditional education, you’ll discover that there are many more ways to learn outside school than within.
Reflecting on her own exit from academia, Stark articulates a much more broadly applicable insight:
A gracefully executed quit is a beautiful thing, opening up more doors than it closes.
But despite discovering in dismay that “liberal arts graduate school is professional school for professors,” which she had no interest in becoming, Stark did learn something immensely valuable from her third year of independent study, during which she read about 200 books of her own choosing:
I learned how to teach myself. I had to make my own reading lists for the exams, which meant I learned how to take a subject I was interested in and make myself a map for learning it.
The interviews revealed four key common tangents: learning is collaborative rather than done alone; the importance of academic credentials in many professions is declining; the most fulfilling learning tends to take place outside of school; and those happiest about learning are those who learn out of intrinsic motivation rather than in pursuit of extrinsic rewards. The first of these insights, of course, appears on the surface to contradict the very notion of “independent learning,” but Stark offers an eloquent semantic caveat:
Independent learning suggests ideas such as “self-taught,” or “autodidact.” These imply that independence means working solo. But that’s just not how it happens. People don’t learn in isolation. When I talk about independent learners, I don’t mean people learning alone. I’m talking about learning that happens independent of schools.
Anyone who really wants to learn without school has to find other people to learn with and from. That’s the open secret of learning outside of school. It’s a social act. Learning is something we do together.
Independent learners are interdependent learners.
She critiques the present boom of massive open online classes, or MOOCs, for their tendency to attempt replicating the offline experience online rather than building a new model for learning from the ground up:
Simply put, MOOCs are designed to put teaching online, and that is their mistake. Instead they should start putting learning online. The innovation of MOOCs is to detach the act of teaching from physical classrooms and tuition-based enrollment. But what they should be working toward is much more radical — detaching learning from the linear processes of school.
But that, Stark found, is missing the point. When she interviewed people who did go to school and asked what they most liked about the experience, they “unanimously cited ‘other people’ as the most useful and meaningful part of their school experience.” So, then:
Given the primacy of community in the experience of learning, the question of how to take the auto out of autodidactic is the first and most central question for learners.
Much of the argument for formal education rests on statistics indicating that people with college and graduate degrees earn more. But those statistics, Stark notes, suffer an important and rarely heeded bias:
The problem is that this statistic is based on long-term data, gathered from a period of moderate loan debt, easy employability, and annual increases in the value of a college degree. These conditions have been the case for college grads for decades. Given the dramatically changed circumstances grads today face, we already know that the trends for debt, employability, and the value of a degree have all degraded, and we cannot assume the trend toward greater lifetime earnings will hold true for the current generation. This is a critical omission from media coverage. The fact is we do not know. There’s absolutely no guarantee it will hold true.
Some heartening evidence suggests the blind reliance on degrees might be beginning to change. Stark cites Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh:
I haven’t looked at a résumé in years. I hire people based on their skills and whether or not they are going to fit our culture.
Another common argument for formal education extols the alleged advantages of its structure, proposing that homework assignments, reading schedules, and regular standardized testing would motivate you to learn with greater rigor. But, as Daniel Pink has written about the psychology of motivation, in school, as in work, intrinsic drives far outweigh extrinsic, carrots-and-sticks paradigms of reward and punishment, rendering this argument unsound. Stark writes:
Learning outside school is necessarily driven by an internal engine. … [I]ndependent learners stick with the reading, thinking, making, and experimenting by which they learn because they do it for love, to scratch an itch, to satisfy curiosity, following the compass of passion and wonder about the world.
So how can you best fuel that internal engine of learning outside the depot of formal education? Stark offers an essential insight, which places self-discovery at the heart of acquiring external knowledge:
Learning your own way means finding the methods that work best for you and creating conditions that support sustained motivation. Perseverance, pleasure, and the ability to retain what you learn are among the wonderful byproducts of getting to learn using methods that suit you best and in contexts that keep you going. Figuring out your personal approach to each of these takes trial and error.
For independent learners, it’s essential to find the process and methods that match your instinctual tendencies as a learner. Everyone I talked to went through a period of experimenting and sorting out what works for them, and they’ve become highly aware of their own preferences. They’re clear that learning by methods that don’t suit them shuts down their drive and diminishes their enjoyment of learning. Independent learners also find that their preferred methods are different for different areas. So one of the keys to success and enjoyment as an independent learner is to discover how you learn.
School isn’t very good at dealing with the multiplicity of individual learning preferences, and it’s not very good at helping you figure out what works for you.
Echoing Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has argued that “every child is a scientist” since curiosity is coded into our DNA, and Sir Ken Robinson, who has lamented that the industrial model of education schools us out of our inborn curiosity, Stark observes:
Any young child you observe displays these traits. But passion and curiosity can be easily lost. School itself can be a primary cause; arbitrary motivators such as grades leave little room for variation in students’ abilities and interests, and fail to reward curiosity itself. There are also significant social factors working against children’s natural curiosity and capacity for learning, such as family support or the lack of it, or a degree of poverty that puts families in survival mode with little room to nurture curiosity.
Stark returns to the question of motivators that do work, once again calling to mind Pink’s advocacy of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the trifecta of success. She writes:
[T]hree broadly defined elements of the learning experience support internal motivation and the persistence it enables. Internal motivation relies on learners having autonomy in their learning, a progressing sense of competence in their skills and knowledge, and the ability to learn in a concrete or “real world” context rather than in the abstract. These are mostly absent from classroom learning. Autonomy is rare, useful context is absent, and school’s means for affirming competence often feel so arbitrary as to be almost without use — and are sometimes actively demotivating. . . . [A]utonomy means that you follow your own path. You learn what you want to learn, when and how you want to learn it, for your own reasons. Your impetus to learn comes from within because you control the conditions of your learning rather than working within a structure that’s pre-made and inflexible.
The second thing you need to stick with learning independently is to set your own goals toward an increasing sense of competence. You need to create a feedback loop that confirms your work is worth it and keeps you moving forward. In school this is provided by advancing through the steps of the linear path within an individual class or a set curriculum, as well as from feedback from grades and praise.
But Stark found that outside of school, those most successful at learning sought their sense of competence through alternative sources. Many, like James Mangan advised in his 1936 blueprint to acquiring knowledge, solidified their learning by teaching it to other people, increasing their own sense of mastery and deepening their understanding. Others centered their learning around specific projects, which enabled them to make progress more modular and thus more attainable. Another cohort cited failure as an essential part of the road to mastery. Stark continues:
The third thing [that] can make or break your ability to sustain internal motivation … is to situate what you’re learning in a context that matters to you. In some cases, the context is a specific project you want to accomplish, which … also functions to support your sense of progress.
She sums up the failings of the establishment:
School is not designed to offer these three conditions; autonomy and context are sorely lacking in classrooms. School can provide a sense of increasing mastery, via grades and moving from introductory classes to harder ones. But a sense of true competence is harder to come by in a school environment. Fortunately, there are professors in higher education who are working to change the motivational structures that underlie their curricula.
Stark prefaces the interviews with a clear mission statement:
For those of you who have experience with learning outside of school, this book is a celebration of what you do. For those of you who haven’t, it’s a warm invitation to give it a try.
The interviews, to be sure, offer a remarkably diverse array of callings, underpinned by a number of shared values and common characteristics. Computational biologist Florian Wagner, for instance, echoes Steve Jobs’s famous words on the secret of life in articulating a sentiment shared by many of the other interviewees:
There is something really special about when you first realize you can figure out really cool things completely on your own. That alone is a valuable lesson in life.
Investigative journalist Quinn Norton subscribes to Mangan’s prescription for learning by teaching:
I ended up teaching [my] knowledge to others at the school. That’s one of my most effective ways to learn, by teaching; you just have to stay a week ahead of your students. … Everything I learned, I immediately turned around and taught to others.
She also used the gift of ignorance to proactively drive her knowledge forward:
When I wanted to learn something new as a professional writer, I’d pitch a story on it. I was interested in neurology, and I figured, why don’t I start interviewing neurologists? The great thing about being a journalist is that you can pick up the phone and talk to anybody. It was just like what I found out about learning from experts on mailing lists. People like to talk about what they know.
Norton speaks to the usefulness of useless knowledge, not only in one’s own intellectual development but also as social currency:
I’m stuffed with trivial, useless knowledge, on a panoply of bizarre topics, so I can find something that they’re interested in that I know something about. Being able to do that is tremendously socially valuable. The exchange of knowledge is a very human way to learn. I try never to walk into a room where I want to get information without knowing what I’m bringing to the other person.
I think part of the problem with the usual mindset of the student is that it’s like being a sponge. It’s passive. It’s not about having something to bring to the interaction. People who are experts in things are experts because they like learning.
The wonderful Rita J. King, whose diverse and prolific career spans investigative journalism in the nuclear industry, a position as Futurist at NASA, and an executive role in Manhattan’s Science House, recalls boldly defying the cult of credentials:
After I graduated, I wondered if I’d be perceived as less capable or desirable because I didn’t have an Ivy League degree. So I tried an experiment. When I looked for work, I didn’t talk about my education at all. I approached my career like an adventure, accepting work that led to other work and built on itself. I could have been a PhD from Harvard, or a high school dropout, nobody knew either way. It was a fun experiment to see the assumptions people made about my level of education, and also to see how much other people rely on having been educated at a prestigious university for social capital. There has never been a situation in which I needed to prove that I have a degree to get work. People never ask. I was a journalist.
She makes a case for context over mere content:
When you’re learning something, it’s really important not only to understand the system and context in which that thing functions, but also to look ahead and imagine what the world would be like with or without this thing.
Ultimately, she sees learning as a continuum rather than a finite progression with a defined beginning and end, something Susan Sontag touched on when she proposed her radical model for remixing education. King observes:
My career now centers completely on science, art, imagination, and business. I’ve learned about these fields through years of immersion. I continue to live and work that way. Life changes constantly, and flexibility is the best path to keeping your skills and perspectives current. Formal education is valuable in the right context but it tends to be rigid, which can put students at a serious disadvantage when they graduate from academia and enter the world. Each person is at a different stage in the learning process. We need to all take a step back and see ourselves on a continuum of the learning experience.
Scientific researcher and Singularity Institute director Luke Muehlhauser prefaces his advice with an important disclaimer:
Skipping school or dropping out of school is obviously a decision that should be made on a case-by-case basis. You want to come out of your education with certain types of competencies and not a lot of debt. But it has never been easier to learn without school. There are so many resources to become a generally capable and smart person and there is no trouble doing it outside of the school system at all. Your education should amplify your curiosity by giving you the opportunity to pursue things that you actually care about, and learning outside of school is ideal for that. Try to learn as many things as possible and not be afraid to fail quickly and keep trying, or switch tracks. You’ll get experience and valuable lessons in a variety of fields, and you’ll occasionally stumble across things that you thought you were going to be bad at, and it turns out you’re pretty good at.
Most people assume you need a PhD to publish in peer-reviewed books and journals, but it’s not true—I’ve published in peer-reviewed venues without even a bachelor’s degree, because I learned the material well enough on my own to engage at the cutting edge of human knowledge.
Software engineer, artist, and University of Texas molecular biologist Zack Booth Simpson speaks to the value of cultivating what William Gibson has called “a personal micro-culture” and learning from the people with whom you surround yourself:
In a way, the best education you can get is just talking with people who are really smart and interested in things, and you can get that for the cost of lunch.
Artist Molly Crabapple, who inked this beautiful illustration of Salvador Dalí’s creative credo and live-sketched Susan Cain’s talk on the power of introverts, recalls how self-initiated reading shaped her life:
I was … a constant reader. At home, I lived next to this thrift store that sold paperbacks for 10¢ apiece so I would go and buy massive stacks of paperback books on everything. Everything from trashy 1970s romance novels to Plato. When I went to Europe, I brought with me every single book that I didn’t think I would read voluntarily, because I figured if I was on a bus ride, I would read them. So I read Plato and Dante’s Inferno, and all types of literature. I got my education on the bus.
Public domain images via Flickr Commons
Published May 13, 2013