It’s funny what you remember. I spent nearly nine years studying and then working at a prestigious research university. Our department had lots of meetings, most of which have, thankfully, been long forgotten. But I remember one meeting in particular. To be more accurate, I don’t recall the meeting per se, but one statement made during the meeting by the head of our department: “We are just smarter than other people.”
I was astounded at the conceit, although no one could tell from my blank, matter-of-fact expression – a skill that I learned practicing law. Even more astounding was the fact that the statement was simply not true. Certainly, I had met extremely intelligent and innovative thinkers at this university, but could it be said that the students and faculty were “just smarter than other people”? Not at all! During those years, I had met plenty of outstanding scientists and researchers from other prestigious and not-so prestigious institutions as well. During those years, I had also met less than impressive intellects at my university. Indeed, once one begins to believe that one is intellectually superior to everyone else, one’s ignorance is vividly revealed.
I found the same delusional thinking in law – people feeling good about themselves or others because of the law school they attended. Yet, I met numerous lawyers who graduated from second or third tiered law schools whose skills far outweighed their Ivy League counterparts. And I suspect it is the same for other professions as well, and even worse for many who carry letters after their name when they compare themselves to those whose names end at the surname.
Most telling, in my experience, of this widespread, warped way of thinking is that the most intelligent group of women whom I have ever had the pleasure of associating with are my stay-at-home, homeschool moms. We have doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and some whom I have no idea if they even went to college; many in our group have always been “just” a mom. As can be imagined, my decision to leave my prestigious university to stay home with my children was not viewed as particularly admirable by my colleagues. I dare say that some found my decision inconceivable and any respect they may once have had for me was instantaneously obliterated. Some comments suggested that I had somehow failed by choosing to stay home. Others thought I would go crazy, deprived of intellectual stimulation, inundated with bottles and diapers. They were all wrong.
Diplomas and a string of letters after one’s name are not inherently bad – indeed they can be beneficial to oneself and to society. But they are not synonymous with intelligence, nor the only educational path. Quite the contrary, educating oneself can prove to be far more useful and fulfilling and – with today’s technology – far easier than previously imagined.
Educating yourself: a few insights
One thing that can make self-education so rewarding is that it is often inspired. Time is something we all lack, in both practical and eschatological terms; we do not want to waste it on something that holds no interest or use to us. When one is inspired to learn something (as opposed to motivated) the drive is internal and the work seemingly effortless. The process itself is enjoyed, not just the attainment of a certain goal. This does not mean that motivation is not a legitimate factor in self-education, but being motivated suggests that there is a goal to be obtained, an external push encouraging you to commit the effort to obtain an ultimate reward. The process is a means to an end and not necessarily savoured. In either case, though, both inspiration and motivation can encourage one to embark on a certain educational path. For example, a chapter book that I wrote, The Great Race to Sycamore Street, involves a peach tree. Before writing that book, I had no particular interest in peach trees, besides that I like the fruit. But to make the story credible, I read numerous books and publications on growing and harvesting peaches. I now know far more about peaches than I need to know – probably more than a lot of people – but I was motivated because of the story that I wanted to write.
Educating oneself, in its truest sense, also requires thoroughness. Thoroughness has three components: (1) knowledge of one’s sources, (2) a variety of sources, and (3) a variety of perspectives. For example, Wikipedia serves its purpose, often a great place to start research, but it cannot be solely relied upon because of the manner in which it is set up. Eventually, one needs to hear what the established experts in the field have to say about a particular topic and from experts with differing opinions. For instance, I wanted to teach my children American history but could not find any curriculum that appealed to me. Most of the children’s books on American history whitewash the facts, ignoring the obvious flaws and sometimes the despicable behavior of some of our most cherished historical figures. The Native American viewpoint is notably silent. Islam in early American history is completely ignored. So, I ended up developing my own curriculum after extensive research and considerable effort.
Self-education requires patience and flexibility as well. There is generally no ready-made curriculum that you can be confident will give you the information that you need. You will have questions that may go unanswered for a long time and will go down routes that lead you nowhere. Other responsibilities may interrupt your progress. Teaching yourself is not like enrolling in a semester-long college course that is self-contained and time-limited. You must begin your educational adventure accepting that there is no sure path or definitive ending.
Perhaps most satisfying about learning on your own is that you are empowered, looking forward to your next topic of discovery and realising the benefits of being a perpetual student. I have heard people complain that they are bored. Bored! It is inconceivable when there is so much to learn – when we all need to be much smarter.
Coming up in part two of this article, insha Allah – the considerations and cautions with respect to self-educating on Islamic topics.
Hazards on the Road to Seeking Knowledge
Fahmeeda Gill examines the foundations that strengthen us in our search for knowledge.
J. Samia Mair is the author of five children’s books, the most recent Zak and His Good Intentions and The Great Race to Sycamore Street . She is currently working on sequels to both. She is a Staff Writer for SISTERS Magazine and Discover, The magazine for curious Muslim kids and has published in magazines, books, anthologies, scientific journals and elsewhere.