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All Education is Self-Education

News flash for first year students:  All education is self-education.

At least, that is what Hans Georg Gadamer thought.  Gadamer, a premier European philosopher of the 20th century who is best known for drop-kicking the field of philosophical hermeneutics into existence, insisted in his old age that this was the point he had been making throughout his entire philosophical career.  I think Gadamer is right.

Let’s think about it for a minute.

Here you are at Millersville assigned to take courses with august persons like me with decades of learning and life experience and letters backing up our names.  We are supposed to be educating you, right?

You expect to receive the wisdom handed down from on high.  You walk into class with fresh notebooks and some sort of writing utensil all set to copy whatever you must know (especially if it is “on the test”) and you lean back in your chair in a position designed only to catch whatever the faculty throw.

I do hope that you also expect to internalize — and perhaps even remember — both the arcane and practical lessons you are learning.

As helpful as all this might seem, it does not sound much like self-education to me.  Gadamer was pretty skeptical about the “sage on the stage” model of teaching and learning.  He called lectures “a dangerous atavism of our academic lives” and insisted that all learning occurs through conversation.

While there is a lot of lecturing going on at Millersville, most instructors believe that faculty-student and student-student interaction enhances understanding, and all instructors know that if a student is not working at least as hard as the faculty member, then a lot of learning is unlikely.

The “education as conversation” view is why we employ a common reading as part of our MU orientation.  We asked you to read “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” and offered to engage you in conversation about it.

Of course, maybe you were too cool or too busy to bother, because after all nobody is watching you now and you can lay around, play Guitar Hero, get a pedicure or drink yourself silly whenever you want to and you will not get detention for it.

Well, you are right that you won’t get detention, but you are sure-as-shooting wrong that you do not lose out by not showing up.

I do not care whether or not you like the book, though I do wish you had read it.  It is witty, engaging and right on the mark with respect to the inner and inter-working of thought and feeling in one’s mind.  What do you gain by showing up to talk with others – any others – is the kind of encounter of minds and hearts and bodies that (I hope) you imagined college might be about.

This habit of bringing all of yourself to the educational table your instructors are setting is not something most of you have experienced before. And you will not start wrestling with interesting ideas and hard issues on cue. It is not a habit formed overnight.

Like any other disposition, it requires time and attention and the reinforcement that interest rewarded offers.

First, of course, you have to get to the table.   Millersville sets a remarkably rich table of curricular specialties and extracurricular fare.

For those who attend class faithfully and take advantage of film series, concerts, and nationally-recognized speakers, there are innumerable opportunities for the kind of conversation that Gadamer commends as integral to education.

There are important places and spaces for substantive conversation outside of the official MU program – in dorm rooms, over cafeteria meals, on street corners, in the library stacks, at any gathering where diverse others come together. The table is set.

Getting you – all of you — to the table is the first step; it is a step nobody but you can take.

Once there, there are risks.   Some subjects and skills are acquired tastes; they will not look, smell, feel or taste quite right at first.   Keep chewing.  Take a second bite.

Do not leave the table just because something is new or difficult to appreciate.  Eventually you will figure out what you like and do not like, but you’ll also see some things that seemed unappetizing become a regular part of your intellectual and professional diet.

There are financial troubles in the world and in the university that will limit educational possibilities in the days to come (more on that in a future column), but this one thing costs nothing and pays off big time:   students, staff, and faculty will talk among themselves about the world, about their lives, about the ideas they use to make sense of those lives.

If we do that, we will all be and become educated.  And that’s why we’re here.