FLORIDA, July 28, 2012 — When most of us think about what it means to have a good education, chances are that visions of ornate academic diplomas come to mind.
Do any of these diplomas guarantee serious knowledge, though? How many people learn the bulk of what they know through firsthand experience or self-directed study?
Charles D. Hayes is one of America’s most prominent voices for lifelong learning; something which, needless to say, entails one educating him or herself. Having left high school in order to join the Marines, Hayes would study his way to become a noted philosopher. He has written a library’s worth about what it means to be an autodidact, as well as his views regarding state of contemporary society.
So, what does he believe about the future of the American Dream? How does self-education measure up to a traditional one? What is the appeal of ideology? Should politics be approached from a left-right perspective?
Joseph F. Cotto: Self-education, or autodidactism, is not a concept with which many are familiar. In a practical sense, how would you define this?
Charles D. Hayes: It is practical in the sense of how we actually live and learn. Many philosophers and educators characterize self-education as the only kind of education that really counts. Until a person begins to study of their own volition and is motivated by their own interests, real learning simply does not take place. In the eighteenth century a liberal education was expected of individuals through their own efforts. In those days, it was possible to teach at a college without having attended college if one had acquired the knowledge necessary, regardless of the method used to obtain it.
Cotto: How does self-education, in your opinion, measure up to a traditional, organized one? Which might be considered more rewarding, or beneficial?
Hayes: Until one begins to learn and develop a thirst for knowledge independent of institutions, one is living on borrowed opinion, so to speak. A traditional education organized over time by educators indeed offers the advantage of a well-thought-out curriculum, but until such time that students learn to do more than memorize and regurgitate, their schooling is simply an exercise of going through the motions.
What is studied won’t likely be retained. A strong interest defies the rules of memorization, and in time adding to one’s knowledge can become its own reward. Posing difficult questions to oneself, feeling confident that answers will be forthcoming, and then having them suddenly appear in one’s mind as a star-bursting epiphany is intellectually enthralling.
Cotto: One of the gravest concerns you have cited is credentialism. What is this, exactly? Why is it such a problem?
Hayes: Credentialism is essentially a fast track to legitimizing incompetence. Having a piece of paper to vouch for one’s knowledge and expertise doesn’t guarantee knowledge and expertise. Every individual with years of experience working for a living knows this to be true, and yet credentialism is still the rule in many occupations. Without that piece of paper, a competent person has little chance of being hired or promoted. Until demonstrated competence serves as the criteria for employment opportunity, egregious incompetence will be a common feature of the American workforce.
Cotto: Today, an increasing number of college graduates find themselves with a degree, but no job or means of retiring student debt. What do you think about the current state of post-secondary education in America?
Hayes: If something is not done in the near future to revolutionize the economics of higher education, the system is bound to collapse under its own weight. An education that requires a level of debt that amounts to indentured servitude to a financial institution, and that when completed will not warrant enough income to pay off the debt is simply not sustainable, and it doesn’t take much of an education to figure this out. Moreover, if education really is the one thing America needs most to prosper, as is so often claimed, we should figure out how to provide it free or at the lowest cost possible.
Cotto: In the past, you have written much about the American Dream. Considering our country’s dire economy and polarized political atmosphere, what are your present opinions on it?
Hayes: The American Dream is increasingly an existential conundrum. More often than not, it rests on the acquisition of a certain amount of material goods, the scramble over which keeps people at political odds over the process. In my view, the value of the American Dream rests in the dreamer’s; ability to create a vision above and beyond the accumulation of material goods. This involves acquiring the knowledge critical for responsible citizenship and self-management. Pursuit of a dream without the intellectual ability to recognize the difference between needs and wants, and to act accordingly, is likely to end in disappointment.
Cotto: Whether they should be rooted in theism or politics, various ideologies often attract droves of willing participants searching for a universal truth of some kind. In the long run, what do you think that this does to any given society?
Hayes: If only it were true that what we are witnessing is a universal search for truth. In my opinion, it is anything but. For the majority, the search seems to be for affirmation of one’s group or affiliation as the right one and the disparagement, if not the actual demonization, of others. What is underway is an identity crisis writ-large. Politics, though ideological, has become less about ideology than about whose side one is on, especially for the far right. When politics is first and foremost about identity, facts don’t matter, and offering them as a means to persuade is futile.
Cotto: Across the world, untold billions rely on faith just to get them through the day. Said faith might be in the divine, another person, or a social construct. What are your opinions about the concept of faith in general?
Hayes: Faith is a euphemism for illusion. This is not simply my opinion; it’s a statement of fact. All you have to do for verification is to begin questioning the faithful. That said, I don’t think it’s out of the question to consider that some degree of illusion is necessary to navigate one’s way through life. Nevertheless, faith is also bound to group identity, and identity wrapped in illusion can be a very dangerous thing, if it is not tempered with thoughtfulness and a humanitarian education.
Cotto: Here in the United States, we are gearing up for yet another presidential election. During this year’s Republican primaries, many marginal candidates found popular favor because of their adherence to “true” conservatism. When it comes to political matters, do you find that the traditional left-right spectrum is a valid way of approaching complex matters?
Hayes: The only way to solve complex problems, in my view, is to care more about solutions than whose side is presenting them, and we are currently nowhere near the kind of sentiment that would make this a reality. Moreover, there is not much on the horizon except the possibility of catastrophe that will likely inspire the collective will to bring it about. My hope, which I laid out in September University, is that the baby-boom generation will reawaken in response to their impending mortality and apply the Civil Rights activism of the 1960s to leaving the world a better place for their progeny.
Cotto: Generally speaking, how do you envision that the next quarter century will play out for the United States?
Hayes: I’m hopeful and worried. My worry is bound up in the previous question. If we can’t get past severe political polarization, we are going to self-destruct through acts of spite.
Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering exactly how it was that you came to be an autodidactic philosopher. Tell us a bit about your life and career.
Hayes: I grew up in the 1940s and ’50s in Texas and Oklahoma, joined the Marines at 17, and later became a Dallas police officer in my early twenties. The communities I grew up in were racist to the core. I didn’t begin my aggressive quest to become self-educated until I moved to Alaska in my mid-thirties. Working in the oilfield on Alaska’s North Slope, I had a schedule that offered equal time off for hours worked.
At first I used my free time to study current events until I reached what I consider a critical mass of dissonant knowledge about the world. From there my study became its own reward. It was such a life-changing experience and it altered my worldview so dramatically that I try to share the experience with others as much as possible. I try to point out the absurdity of racism whenever the opportunity arises, and I encourage everyone to develop their own self-reliance so that they’re no longer beholden to others’ thinking.
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