The term “autodidact” is usually reserved for those who, like Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, and so on, did not have the advantages of spending much time in school or the help of schoolteachers with their education.
I would like to suggest that every student is an autodidact, because only the student can decide what information to accept and retain. Re-education camps in the Communist world, from Korea to Vietnam to China, no doubt made claims that they could “teach” people things whether they want to learn them or not, but I would argue that the threat of force and social isolation used in such camps are not the teaching methods we are searching for in our schools.
And further, I would claim that even in re-education camps, students often indeed reserve private places in their minds about which their instructors know very little.
My main point is that the individual is the sovereign ruler of their own attention and the sole arbiter of what information they choose to admit and retain. Our system of instruction and examination has no doubt persuaded many sovereign learners over the years to accept enough of the knowledge we offer to let most of them pass whatever exams we have presented, but the cliché is that after the test, nearly all of that information is gone.
Teachers have known all this from the beginning, and so have developed and employed all their arts to first attract, and then retain, the attention of their students, and they have labored tirelessly to persuade their students that they should decide to attend to and make use of the knowledge they are offering.
One of the best arguments for having teachers be very well-grounded in the subjects they are teaching is that the likelihood increases that they will really love their subject, and it is easier for teachers to convince students of the value of what they are teaching if they clearly believe in its value themselves.
It should not be forgotten, however, that the mind is a mercurial and fickle instrument, and the attention of students is vulnerable to all the distractions of life, in the classroom and out of it. I am distressed that so many who write about education seem to overlook the role of students almost entirely, concentrating on the public policy issues of the Education Enterprise and forgetting that without the attention and interest of students, all of their efforts are futile.
It seems strange to me that so little research is ever done into the actual academic work of students, for instance whether they ever read a complete nonfiction book, and whether they every write a serious academic paper on a subject other than themselves.
For many reformers, it seems the only student work they are interested in is student scores on objective tests. Sadly, objective tests discover almost nothing about the students’ interest in their experiences of the complexity of the chemistry, history, literature, Chinese, and other subjects they have been offered.
There was a time when college entrance decisions were based on essays students would write on academic subjects, and those could reveal not only student fluency and knowledge, but something of their attachment to and appreciation for academic matter.
But now, we seem to have decided that neither we nor they have time for extended essays on history and the like (except for the International Baccalaureate, and The Concord Review), and the attractions of technology have led examiners to prefer tests that can be graded very quickly, by computer wherever possible. So, when the examiners show no interest in serious academic work, it should not surprise us that students may see less value in it as well.
The Lower Education teachers are still out there, loving their subjects, and offering them up for students to judge, and to decide how much of them they will accept into their memories and their thoughts, but meanwhile the EduPundits and the leaders of the Education Enterprise [Global Education Reform Movement = GERM, as Pasi Sahlberg calls it], with lots of funding to encourage them, sail on, ignoring the control students have, and always have had, over their own attention and their own learning.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
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