Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘education’

13 MAY, 2013

Don’t Go Back to School: How to Fuel the Internal Engine of Learning

By:

“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.”

“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.

Don’t Go Back to School is a stimulating read in its entirety and a fine addition to these essential books on education.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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22 APRIL, 2013

14 Ways to Acquire Knowledge: A Timeless Guide from 1936

By:

“Writing, to knowledge, is a certified check.”

The quest for intellectual growth and self-improvement through education has occupied yesteryear’s luminaries like Bertrand Russell and modern-day thinkers like Sir Ken Robinson and Noam Chomsky. In 1936, at the zenith of the Great Depression, the prolific self-help guru and famous eccentric James T. Mangan published You Can Do Anything! (public library) — an enthusiastic and exclamation-heavy pep-manual for the art of living. Though Mangan was a positively kooky character — in 1948, he publicly claimed to own outer space and went on to found the micronation of Celestia — the book isn’t without merit.

Among its highlights is a section titled 14 Ways to Acquire Knowledge — a blueprint to intellectual growth, advocating for such previously discussed essentials as the importance of taking example from those who have succeeded and organizing the information we encounter, the power of curiosity, the osmosis between learning and teaching, the importance of critical thinking (because, as Christopher Hitchens pithily put it, “what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”), the benefits of writing things down, why you should let your opinions be fluid rather than rigid, the art of listening, the art of observation, and the very core of what it means to be human.

14 WAYS TO ACQUIRE KNOWLEDGE

  1. PRACTICE
  2. Consider the knowledge you already have — the things you really know you can do. They are the things you have done over and over; practiced them so often that they became second nature. Every normal person knows how to walk and talk. But he could never have acquired this knowledge without practice. For the young child can’t do the things that are easy to older people without first doing them over and over and over.

    […]

    Most of us quit on the first or second attempt. But the man who is really going to be educated, who intends to know, is going to stay with it until it is done. Practice!

  3. ASK
  4. Any normal child, at about the age of three or four, reaches the asking period, the time when that quickly developing brain is most eager for knowledge. “When?” “Where?” “How?” “What?” and “Why?” begs the child — but all too often the reply is “Keep still!” “Leave me alone!” “Don’t be a pest!”

    Those first bitter refusals to our honest questions of childhood all too often squelch our “Asking faculty.” We grow up to be men and women, still eager for knowledge, but afraid and ashamed to ask in order to get it.

    […]

    Every person possessing knowledge is more than willing to communicate what he knows to any serious, sincere person who asks. The question never makes the asker seem foolish or childish — rather, to ask is to command the respect of the other person who in the act of helping you is drawn closer to you, likes you better and will go out of his way on any future occasion to share his knowledge with you.

    Ask! When you ask, you have to be humble. You have to admit you don’t know! But what’s so terrible about that? Everybody knows that no man knows everything, and to ask is merely to let the other know that you are honest about things pertaining to knowledge.

  5. DESIRE
  6. You never learn much until you really want to learn. A million people have said: “Gee, I wish I were musical!” “If I only could do that!” or “How I wish I had a good education!” But they were only talking words — they didn’t mean it.

    […]

    Desire is the foundation of all learning and you can only climb up the ladder of knowledge by desiring to learn.

    […]

    If you don’t desire to learn you’re either a num-skull [sic] or a “know-it-all.” And the world wants nothing to do with either type of individual.

  7. GET IT FROM YOURSELF
  8. You may be surprised to hear that you already know a great deal! It’s all inside you — it’s all there — you couldn’t live as long as you have and not be full of knowledge.

    […]

    Most of your knowledge, however — and this is the great difference between non-education and education — is not in shape to be used, you haven’t it on the tip of your tongue. It’s hidden, buried away down inside of you — and because you can’t see it, you think it isn’t there.

    Knowledge is knowledge only when it takes a shape, when it can be put into words, or reduced to a principle — and it’s now up to you to go to work on your own gold mine, to refine the crude ore.

  9. WALK AROUND IT
  10. Any time you see something new or very special, if the thing is resting on the ground, as your examination and inspection proceeds, you find that you eventually walk around it. You desire to know the thing better by looking at it from all angles.

    […]

    To acquire knowledge walk around the thing studied. The thing is not only what you touch, what you see; it has many other sides, many other conditions, many other relations which you cannot know until you study it from all angles.

    The narrow mind stays rooted in one spot; the broad mind is free, inquiring, unprejudiced; it seeks to learn “both sides of the story.”

    Don’t screen off from your own consciousness the bigger side of your work. Don’t be afraid you’ll harm yourself if you have to change a preconceived opinion. Have a free, broad, open mind! Be fair to the thing studied as well as to yourself. When it comes up for your examination, walk around it! The short trip will bring long knowledge.

  11. EXPERIMENT
  12. The world honors the man who is eager to plant new seeds of study today so he may harvest a fresh crop of knowledge tomorrow. The world is sick of the man who is always harking back to the past and thinks everything wroth knowing has already been learned. … Respect the past, take what it offers, but don’t live in it.

    To learn, experiment! Try something new. See what happens. Lindbergh experimented when he flew the Atlantic. Pasteur experimented with bacteria and made cow’s milk safe for the human race. Franklin experimented with a kite and introduced electricity.

    The greatest experiment is nearly always a solo. The individual, seeking to learn, tries something new but only tries it on himself. If he fails, he has hurt only himself. If he succeeds he has made a discovery many people can use. Experiment only with your own time, your own money, your own labor. That’s the honest, sincere type of experiment. It’s rich. The cheap experiment is to use other people’s money, other people’s destinies, other people’s bodies as if they were guinea pigs.

  13. TEACH
  14. If you would have knowledge, knowledge sure and sound, teach. Teach your children, teach your associates, teach your friends. In the very act of teaching, you will learn far more than your best pupil.

    […]

    Knowledge is relative; you possess it in degrees. You know more about reading, writing, and arithmetic than your young child. But teach that child at every opportunity; try to pass on to him all you know, and the very attempt will produce a great deal more knowledge inside your own brain.

  15. READ
  16. From time immemorial it has been commonly understood that the best way to acquire knowledge was to read. That is not true. Reading is only one way to knowledge, and in the writer’s opinion, not the best way. But you can surely learn from reading if you read in the proper manner.

    What you read is important, but not all important. How you read is the main consideration. For if you know how to read, there’s a world of education even in the newspapers, the magazines, on a single billboard or a stray advertising dodger.

    The secret of good reading is this: read critically!

    Somebody wrote that stuff you’re reading. It was a definite individual, working with a pen, pencil or typewriter — the writing came from his mind and his only. If you were face to face with him and listening instead of reading, you would be a great deal more critical than the average reader is. Listening, you would weigh his personality, you would form some judgment about his truthfulness, his ability. But reading, you drop all judgment, and swallow his words whole — just as if the act of printing the thing made it true!

    […]

    If you must read in order to acquire knowledge, read critically. Believe nothing till it’s understood, till it’s clearly proven.

  17. WRITE
  18. To know it — write it! If you’re writing to explain, you’re explaining it to yourself! If you’re writing to inspire, you’re inspiring yourself! If you’re writing to record, you’re recording it on your own memory. How often you have written something down in order to be sure you would have a record of it, only to find that you never needed the written record because you had learned it by heart!

    […]

    The men of the best memories are those who make notes, who write things down. They just don’t write to remember, they write to learn. And because they DO learn by writing, they seldom need to consult their notes, they have brilliant, amazing memories. How different from the glib, slipshod individual who is too proud or too lazy to write, who trusts everything to memory, forgets so easily, and possesses so little real knowledge.

    […]

    Write! Writing, to knowledge, is a certified check. You know what you know once you have written it down!

  19. LISTEN
  20. You have a pair of ears — use them! When the other man talks, give him a chance. Pay attention. If you listen you may hear something useful to you. If you listen you may receive a warning that is worth following. If you listen, you may earn the respect of those whose respect you prize.

    Pay attention to the person speaking. Contemplate the meaning of his words, the nature of his thoughts. Grasp and retain the truth.

    Of all the ways to acquire knowledge, this way requires least effort on your part. You hardly have to do any work. You are bound to pick up information. It’s easy, it’s surefire.

  21. OBSERVE
  22. Keep your eyes open. There are things happening, all around you, all the time. The scene of events is interesting, illuminating, full of news and meaning. It’s a great show — an impressive parade of things worth knowing. Admission is free — keep your eyes open.

    […]

    There are only two kinds of experience: the experience of ourselves and the experience of others. Our own experience is slow, labored, costly, and often hard to bear. The experience of others is a ready-made set of directions on knowledge and life. Their experience is free; we need suffer none of their hardships; we may collect on all their good deeds. All we have to do is observe!

    Observe! Especially the good man, the valorous deed. Observe the winner that you yourself may strive to follow that winning example and learn the scores of different means and devices that make success possible.

    Observe! Observe the loser that you may escape his mistakes, avoid the pitfalls that dragged him down.

    Observe the listless, indifferent, neutral people who do nothing, know nothing, are nothing. Observe them and then differ from them.

  23. PUT IN ORDER
  24. Order is Heaven’s first law. And the only good knowledge is orderly knowledge! You must put your information and your thoughts in order before you can effectively handle your own knowledge. Otherwise you will jump around in conversation like a grasshopper, your arguments will be confused and distributed, your brain will be in a dizzy whirl all the time.

  25. DEFINE
  26. A definition is a statement about a thing which includes everything the thing is and excludes everything it is not.

    A definition of a chair must include every chair, whether it be kitchen chair, a high chair, a dentist’s chair, or the electric chair, It must exclude everything which isn’t a chair, even those things which come close, such as a stool, a bench, a sofa.

    […]

    I am sorry to state that until you can so define chair or door (or a thousand other everyday familiar objects) you don’t really know what these things are. You have the ability to recognize them and describe them but you can’t tell what their nature is. Your knowledge is not exact.

  27. REASON
  28. Animals have knowledge. But only men can reason. The better you can reason the farther you separate yourself from animals.

    The process by which you reason is known as logic. Logic teaches you how to derive a previously unknown truth from the facts already at hand. Logic teaches you how to be sure whether what you think is true is really true.

    […]

    Logic is the supreme avenue to intellectual truth. Don’t ever despair of possessing a logical mind. You don’t have to study it for years, read books and digest a mountain of data. All you have to remember is one word — compare.

    Compare all points in a proposition. Note the similarity — that tells you something new. Note the difference — that tells you something new. Then take the new things you’ve found and check them against established laws or principles.

    This is logic. This is reason. This is knowledge in its highest form.

The rest of You Can Do Anything! goes on to explore such facets of success as the fundamentals of personal achievement, manual and mental production, the art of the deadline, selling by giving, mastering personal energy, the necessary elements of ambition, and more.

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12 APRIL, 2013

Anne Sexton’s Report Card

By:

“She had little patience for studying … she passed the time in math class by writing flirtatious notes to boys.”

Thomas Edison was once called “addled” by his teachers and dropped out of school after only three months of formal education, then forever changed the course of technology and earned himself a Congressional Gold Medal. Benjamin Franklin dropped out of school at the age of ten after two years of study, then went on to become a polymath and a Founding Father. Albert Einstein flunked out of high school at the age of fifteen, then proceeded to build the foundation of quantum theory and win the Nobel Prize in physics. The list goes on, but hardly does the evidence for the disconnect between academic performance and genius get more delightfully visceral than in Anne Sexton’s report card, found in Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (public library):

In the prologue to the first section of the book, covering Sexton’s early letters, Linda Gray Sexton, Anne’s daughter, and Lois Ames quote Anne’s own autobiographical recollection:

I went to Wellesley public schools, then to private schools, then back to public. By the third grade, my parents were told to give up on me. I’d never learn anything.

The editors paint a fuller picture:

When she reached the fifth grade, the school insisted that she repeat the year and she did. But the loss of familiar schoolmates left her feeling more isolated and unappreciated.

At one point, her teachers and the school authorities urged Anne’s parents to get psychiatric treatment for her. When the Harveys indicated their reluctance to embark upon such a threatening course, the school warned them that Anne might experience emotional problems later in life. Mary and Ralph Harvey decided to wait.

But Anne was masterful at disguising her suffering, both academic and emotional, with vigor:

She had little patience for studying; a precocious, headstrong adolescent, she passed the time in math class by writing flirtatious notes to boys. Her classmates remember her as happy, vivacious, and popular, but underneath, she later claimed, lurked exquisite pain which found an outlet in her role as the class rogue, one who laughingly braved all authority. Although her carelessness and lack of attention were the qualities most often mentioned by her various teachers, many of her report cards remarked on her verbal ability and intellectual agility as well.

Though Anne went on to become one of the most celebrated poets of the twentieth century, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and thus unsnarling the mythic correlation between early academic excellence and lasting cultural influence, she never transcended her teachers’ mental health admonitions. On October 4, 1974, at the height of her literary acclaim, Sexton had lunch with her editor to go over the final manuscript of her forthcoming poetry collection The Awful Rowing Toward God. She then returned home, put on her mother’s old fur coat, and stripped her fingers bare of rings. With a glass of vodka in hand, she walked into the garage, locked the door behind her, and started the engine of the car, ending her life by carbon monoxide poisoning. She was 45.

One has to wonder when our broken education system will finally recognize that learning the essential skills of mental health has much further-reaching, lifelong benefits than performing well on standardized tests of vacant memorization.

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