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On Self-Education

As part of our program, members at the Lyceum Institute are encouraged to suggest rich topics for our weekly Philosophical Happy Hour.  One member writes:

What is the value of self-education?  By this I mean education that one engages in, (either through books or courses) without the aid of a teacher.  I think there is value in it, as I likewise engage in it for various different subjects.  Most people need to do so in fact for their jobs or other necessary engagements.  I guess my problem is that this has become the default mode of learning for most people (mostly from what I believe is the failure of the education system).  One form of teaching that is very valuable is mentorship which, in most disciplines, does not exist anymore.  I feel like this is a problem because without good mentors it seems as though the only way to become proficient in something is to acquire it from complete scratch without any prior experience.

What do we mean by “Self-Education”?

The term “self-education” seems to propose, in one sense, a kind of paradox: for the word “education”, understood by its etymological roots, signifies “leading out-from”.  If one has read Plato’s Republic, the famous allegory of the cave doubtless comes to mind: for the philosopher leads the prisoner out from the captivity of dim light and shadow into the true light of day and intellect.  But can we lead ourselves out from anything?  Do we not need to be led by someone or something other, if we are to be led at all?

Conversely, it has been suggested—for good reason—that all education is, at least in some sense, “self” education.  The teacher cannot produce knowledge or understanding or learning in the minds of students.  Socrates may drag you kicking and screaming from the cave, he may even try to prop open your eyes, but he cannot make you see the truth of things.  The most intense efforts at extrinsically-imposed and tyrannical indoctrination might produce conformity or adherence, but they do not result in understanding.

As such, whatever we mean by education, it comes somehow through the agency of the self.  But what is this agency?

Discovery and Guidance

Human beings, among all animals, prove unique in their cognitive abilities.  Other animals—for instance, dolphins, chimpanzees, even dogs, raccoons, horses, etc.—might exhibit a kind of curiosity in the unfamiliar.  But this curiosity remains nevertheless reactive rather than proactive.  We seek out the unknown and, in that seeking, demonstrate the limitlessness of our curiosity, of our desire to attain knowledge rather than merely familiarity.  We incline towards discovery.

But the world extends in both breadth and depth far beyond our ability to discover all its secrets by ourselves.  We gain knowledge much faster together than separately, and faster still by learning from those who carry their discoveries forward from one generation to the next: who establish traditions of knowledge.  In practical fields, this knowledge might be of little significance beyond job performance, and its duration might be fleeting: technical standards that are obsolesced in a few years, theories that are quickly outdated, research that proves false, methods that turn out ineffectual, and so on.  Tasks rising from circumstance or situation rely upon momentary solutions rather than essential truths.  In world of work, therefore, provided that one has access to the correct repositories of information, the solutions can be discovered.

But for difficulties that do not admit of momentary solutions: can we rely upon ourselves to discover the correct answers?  Do we need guidance—someone to not only help us out of the cave, but subsequently to understand the strange new brilliant things we are seeing?

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We will be discussing this topic today (18 October 2023) and you are invited! Join our mailing list to receive an email or click the link below to join the session live (5:45–7:15pm ET).

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.