A (Very) Personal Note: Learning to be Taught, or Learning to Learn?

I was born in the late 1950s and grew up in the 1960s. (Btw I cannot help but pause here and reflect that those who think that today’s global environment reflects a lot of uncertainty (“this time it’s different”) need only review the 10 or 12 years from 1962 to 1974. As Mark Twain is reported to have said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”) My parents, who had gotten married at age 17 and 18 in the beginning of WWII, couldn’t afford the money nor the time to attend college—no one ever had in my family before my generation. But both of my parents were determined, wholly committed, that their kids would be able to access education that they hadn’t, as a ladder to the middle class.

There was a considerable age difference between the siblings in my family; my oldest sister left to go to college the year my youngest sister was born. Probably somewhat as a consequence of that, I spent a lot of time around adults. My parents were small business owners and it was very usual for me to go to work with my father on Saturday mornings, for example. The business and the people in it, were nightly topics of dinner conversation. I wondered why people were motivated to do what they did. I learned what later became my habit: to look behind behavior and ask “why?”

Lucky for me, my mother took a huge interest in my reading—breadth, depth, and understanding. I don’t really remember which came first, my ability and her interest, or her interest and my ability; I suspect it was the latter. We would go weekly, sometimes more, to the Carpenter Memorial Library where Miss Thorpe ran the children’s section. A feminist ahead of her time, she was a slim, strong, energetic woman, wisps of white hair escaping her bun, giving off sparks of positive energy having found her unique ability, always with reading glasses on a chain around her neck. She coached me, “Peter, you have one mind. And if you pay attention, you’ll learn by using your mind. Good. But if you read, well then you’ll have the ability to learn through all of the minds of each of the characters in the book. Your learning gets multiplied. By seeing the points of view of each of these characters your learning dramatically accelerates. You can go anywhere you want in your mind.”  It was ordinary for me to check out a foot-high stack of books, usually on Thursday of each week, first using my mother’s library card, and then my own. That library still shows up in my dreams. I discovered I loved learning.

Then, when I was 5 or 6, they put me in a classroom and made me stay there. I hated it. I have a passionate love of learning. But I realized either in kindergarten or first grade (at the latest) that while regimented rules-based education was all around me—the desire to learn wasn’t. Sure the kids in the front row were good at memorizing what the teacher chose to teach (“teacher, is that going to be on the test?”) And in rote memorization, they repeated what the teacher desired to hear, so one received approval for that, or gold stars, or good grades. I was utterly unwilling to give up my own liberty in learning, and force myself to inauthentically play that game—that game the teacher chose, the rules the teacher chose, that favored the obedient kid who sought approval and wanted to fit in—over others like me who just wanted to learn. To learn how to learn. I despised that kind of officious bureaucratic school then, and I despise it now.

When I went to 1st grade in September 1963, I was assigned to sit in the second aisle from the window, second to the last seat in the row, wondering why I had to learn only what the teacher dictated, why I was caged inside, allowed to go outside only when the bell rang to “play” approved games, usually separated by gender. Why were they endlessly obsessed with categorizing (reading groups included bluebirds, sparrows, and pigeons), why did I have to learn to repeat “see Spot run” or endlessly repetitively trace the cursive alphabet letters on lined paper when I really wanted to learn about say, sunrise and sunset?  Why were they more obsessed with categorizing us as kids, and as students than, say, encouraging that diverse character and temperaments are characteristics within each one of us as individuals? Why should any one of us belong permanently to any one of the types that these factory-trained teachers prescribed?

A couple months later, in November 1963 something big happened—with no warning, the President of the United States was murdered—shot to death. I remember on that day several teachers from other grades in Webster School coming into my 1st grade classroom, crying. I saw the incredible pain, the fear, the lack of understanding, the disbelief on their faces. I listened to their chatter. And it struck me. I thought ohhhh…so these adults don’t have the answers. They are afraid. Fearful of what just happened, anxious about the future, what happens now. Ruminating about what does it mean to them.

From that day on, I grasped that each of us is bumbling and stumbling through life, filled with fears and insecurities that no one but us has a clue about. On that day, I knew I didn’t have answers. Hell, I was 6 years old. But I had the aha moment that adults don’t have answers, either. In fact, from that early age, I learned that there were no adults. Nobody has answers. This caused me to pay attention, to read others’ emotions and empathize strongly, to ask questions about their motivations.

Over time, I began to see patterns of knowledge with similar themes across many domains—sometimes even to the molecular level. I learned that experts in domains are usually very limited in what they know and without a doubt they were the last to see domain consilience. I developed an ability, or perhaps it became a habit, of connecting the dots in different domains. In some domains I was clueless. In others I had superior knowledge and developed understandings beyond my teachers. I recognized that specialization was an artifact—first of the Industrial Revolution, and then of academia. I was interested in learning concepts from many domains and trying them out—applying them. In their application—succeed or fail—action was deep learning. And so over time I concluded we weren’t meant to be taught. We were meant to learn.

Eventually I “got” the fact that I was an N=1, and no one else’s school or learning needed be important to me, but I had to be able to learn from experience. I learned that truth and knowledge is not determined by consensus or probability, usually it is quite the opposite.

I am incredibly grateful to Miss Thorpe and my mom. Thanks to them, I developed the reading habit which directly led to connecting the dots across domains.



P.S. Is anyone in addition to me concerned about the rising generation being taught to memorize the same crap? But not learning how to learn? The experience I just related to you was fifty years ago. Yet the bureaucratic education system is still teaching kids how to be cogs in an economy that does not value cogs any more. It is teaching them how to be obedient and approval seekers for learning how to be taught (“is that going to be on the test?”), not learning how to learn.

Paraphrasing Seth Godin, the reality today is that there are plenty of countries and cultures around the world where people are willing to be more obedient, and work harder for less value than we will. So we will not “out-obedience” the rest of world. We will not be lower cost than the rest of the world. Anything previously worth memorizing is now easily able to be looked up online now. So our methods for teaching a “body of knowledge” are largely of little value.

In fact, the reason that we tried to force kids to memorize a body of knowledge was so they would get accepted to a popular college. But getting accepted to a popular college isn’t worth much anymore. Popular colleges don’t work anymore. Popular colleges aren’t the point any more. The question is: are we helping kids to learn where they have unique ability and potentially enthusiasm, (maybe even someday… passion)? Are we helping them to learn where they bring value and then to seek to negotiate to receive a slice of that value as compensation for what they bring? If so, those kids will be able to earn a good living. If not, sure they can follow the rules and wait around the “placement office” at the popular college for as long as they want waiting for someone to pick them. They are doomed to forever be undervalued.

Are we teaching kids first how to read, and second how to ask questions across domains? It strikes me it is an incredible privilege to teach. Are we living that?





Berger, Warren (2015). A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. London, Bloomsbury.

Brockman, John (2017). Know This. New York, Harper Perennial.

Godin, Seth. How to Turn Failure Into Success. The Tim Ferriss Podcast #255 (2017, July).  Retrieved from https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/tim-ferriss-show/the-tim-ferriss-show/e/177-seth-godin-on-how-to-think-small-to-go-big-46641529.

Lewis, Michael L. (2016). The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds. New York, WW. Norton.

Sternberg, Esther (2001). The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions. New York, WH Freeman.

Sullivan, Dan. What Surfing the Web Looked Like in the 1950s. The Multiplier Mindset Podcast (2017, March 16). Retrieved from http://strategicpodcasts.com/podcast/multiplier-mindset/episode/what-surfing-the-web-looked-like-in-the-1950s.

Watts, Alan (1951). The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for the Age of Anxiety. New York, Vintage Books.

West, Geoffrey (2017). SCALE: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability. New York, Penguin Press.

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