Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Systematic and Serendipitous

The two concepts - systematic and serendipitous - sound like opposites, but as I evaluate my self-directed education over the past four years (or so!), that's exactly what it's been.

Systematic, because I identified the areas I needed to grow in - usually through some emergency or other (in the case of accounting and website design) or because I can see great potential in knowing more.

Other things - the things I guess you'd learn in a BA like philosophy and history - have come later on, because they didn't seem that relevant to start off with. When I began, I just wanted to learn things that would help me day-to-day. I didn't think about context much.

This year, more than any other, I've taken in big picture learning. I've read books all the way through - a huge achievement for me! I'm discovering the historical context for the present.

And then there's serendipity's role in my education. I guess it's actually Divine intervention, but I use serendipity both because it sounds nice and this blog is a fairly pluralistic forum.

There's serendipity on how I discover source material - how the jobs I'm working on, the books that happen to be up for review or hiding in second-hand stores combine to give me a comprehensive and unorthodox view of an issue.

I can say it's working for me, but the same thing turned into a formula wouldn't work (I don't think) for anyone else. It's completely unique to the individual.

So, does the combination of system and serendipity have anything useful to say in how people are taught? Or have I just been lucky?

A note on self-directed education - I know we've broached this subject before - mine wasn't particularly by choice; I just didn't have the money to do a degree when I wanted to. When I did have the money, I didn't find a course that seemed as valuable as the money I'd be parting with.

Better to let the hunger develop, then go in search of the right food, rather than eat any ol' thing and end up just feeling full and useless.


At 5:48 AM, Blogger M@ said...

I think that you've hit on a couple of very important points in the educational process.

I think structure is a very important part of education, and it's something that, as a student, you must learn to impose on yourself as you get to a higher level of learning.

The serendipity side of learning, though, is how an education goes from a knowledge of a bunch of facts or texts to an understanding how they fit in with the rest of the world. To some extent all research is serendipity; you read a critic's views about something because you want to learn something new about it.

When I was in university, I had a notebook for each course I was taking, and in addition to that I had another notebook that I would use for miscellaneous -- people's phone numbers, writing love poems to girls (success rate: ~5%), and most importantly, keeping a list of books and movies and CDs I wanted to get hold of. When I would run across something new that sounded interesting, I'd note it in the notebook and at some point look it up.

Then there's the library, which is a wonderfully serendipitous resource itself. I'd look up some name I'd noted in the notebook -- say, Mikhail Bakhtin -- and find his books on the novel. Then next to him was George Lukacs -- and a couple books on him too. And so on and so on. I mention those names particularly because it was that straightforward; both were important to my understanding of the novel, and I found them both on the same day in the same row of stacks in the library.

I think an education is only full with both qualities. Structure without serendipity, I imagine, is what you'd get from a bible college; you'd know the bible pretty well, and whatever brand of Christianity the college taught; but you wouldn't know much about the rest of the world, or about thinkers of other religious (or of non-religious) stripes. And there are several of those who are worth getting to know.

Whereas an education without structure would lead, at least in some cases, to an inability to think clearly. Almost any accomplishment requires structured, logical work. Without that structure, you might have achieved something, but communicating it to other people would be almost impossible.

One other note: I found that most of my teachers through my life have had either one approach or the other. The few who allowed me to follow up my crazy schemes and ideas, but demanded that I do so in a disciplined, academic manner, are the ones I remember and cherish, even if I haven't seen them in twenty years or more.

Wow, that's a long, roundabout way to say "Yeah, I agree!", isn't it?


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