This is most certainly one of the more perplexing questions of our time. It is a perennial one having been with us, I would think, since time immemorial. Socrates (470-399 BC), for example, tells us (to paraphrase) that “to know your self is the beginning of all wisdom.” (1) We are shocked when we realize that we have consciousness and exist in the world.
This is comfortable in our adolescence, but as we age, we stumble upon that pervasive and lingering question. “Is everyone like me? Do they think like me? Do they feel like me? Am I awake?” We are then forced to conclude “I only know what I know.” My empirical world is only known to me. I cannot verify the reality of another person. I can guess at what they think or how they feel, but I cannot confirm that others perceive existence in the same way I do. My thoughts, feelings, and intelligence are my own.
“Who woke up this morning?” The obvious response is, “I did.” To be redundant: I cannot say with certainty that anyone else did or does, for that matter. I am alone. This is not the accursed predicament that we often read about. (2) It is actually a liberating realization. The reality that I construct through my five senses (the senses of touch, listening, seeing, smelling, and tasting) is mine alone.
This is extremely easy to describe, but profoundly hard to achieve. I am subject to the whims of my emotions: I do get sad, angry, afraid, etc. The great masters are, somehow, able to control how they are affected by this bombardment of frustrations and failures that we all encounter in life. I want to learn this skill. We all want to experience a wonderful state of peace and connectivity with the universe, I am sure.
Hence, I am free to learn to teach myself anything and everything I want, given my “givens,” (3) as the Existentialists (4) say. This is an amazingly freeing concept.
“You might think that you’re the type of learner who needs to hear a lecture on microbiology rather than read a book, or a person who couldn’t possibly learn how to write a limerick. A rigorous analysis by Christian Jarrett, a cognitive scientist and the creator of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog, finds little evidence for believing in learning styles. ‘Although each of us is unique,’ he notes, ‘usually, the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught.’
Novices learn better from examples; more expert learners benefit from solving problems. And combining activities, such as drawing a diagram of a cell after reading about it, improves learning for just about everyone.” (5)
There are, most certainly, numerous individuals in history who achieved great success by teaching themselves a skill. The great Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) worked most of his life as a government employee but taught himself the art of painting. (6) When I believe that I am my own teacher, my future will be a beautiful tableau that I create.
The great educator Maria Montessori (1870-1952) leaves us with a thought: Everyone in the world ought to do the things for which he is specially adapted. It is the part of wisdom to recognize what each one of us is best fitted for, and it is the part of education to perfect and utilize such predispositions. This is because education can direct and aid nature but can never transform her.
A closing thought: We are overwhelmed with a surfeit of information. It cascades on us from everywhere: we feel as if we are drowning in social media – and we are. What frees us, I believe, is the great belief in the beautiful me and authority that I give it: I take control of my learning and of the way I want to direct my life.
This can only be achieved, however, by utilizing the tools of meditation and introspection. The concept of the examined life is one well-lived. It is my unique piece of life and I have an obligation to develop it and then assist in the betterment of the Common Good. (Parts of this essay were first published in 2018)
To sum up: This week, we spoke about learning to teach yourself. This is a well-worn path that many accomplished individuals have walked. Our travels, therefore, will never be alone.
A philosophical question: Why do you forget everything you have learned when you sit to write the examination?
Just for fun – Mozart:
This week, please ponder how you have taught to teach yourself.
Every day look for something magical and beautiful.
Don’t be a wage slave – critical thinking is great!
Quote: The more you control your power to learn, the more magnificent will be your educational journey.
3) Existential psychotherapy is based upon the fundamental belief that all people experience psychic conflict due to their interaction with certain conditions inherent in human existence, which are known as givens.