Taking Control of Our Own Learning

An Interview with Visionary Ronald A. Gross, by Pat Wagner
The Bloomsbury Review, September 1992

The curious and the concerned who are wondering about what happened to education in this country can refer to the works of Ronald A. Gross. With the able collaboration of his wife, Beatrice, and other innovative educators, Ron has been producing books, magazine articles, academic papers, and newspaper columns about radical school reform since the sixties.

However, unlike most of his fellow travelers, he has not let his visions of American education turn him into a Cassandra. he does not stop at the warning of the demise of America because his particular agendas are not being implemented within the context of public education. Instead, he has helped create a positive vision of people of all ages taking control of their education and doing it without the benefit of formal schooling. His entrepreneurial approach, which includes marketing bestselling tapes on creativity and introducing appreciative audiences to the musings of Socrates (who appears at events in appropriate attire, equipped with a can of diet hemlock), might not sit well with some ivy-covered educators. However, it is safe to say that books like The Independent Scholar's Handbook (Addison Wesley, 1982) and The Lifelong Learner (Simon & Schuster, 1977) have changed the lives of thousands of people.

He still writes and currently presents provocative and entertaining programs on thinking, creativity, and learning to international audiences. His latest book, Peak Learning (Tarcher, 1991), is an easy-to-use guide to adult learning without the benefit of a classroom. This interview is excerpted from a taped conversation between Pat Wagner and Ron Gross on July 2, 1992.

The Bloomsbury Review: One of the things I enjoy most about your work is your optimism about education. Why are you optimistic?

Ron Gross: I'm optimistic because of the potential of the individual mind, not because of any sanguine view of how systems of education work. When I was working at the Ford Foundation some years back, I was able to have a hand in funding educational change in schools and colleges, but I came out of that experience with the feeling that that was not where to put the emphasis. The emphasis needed to be on energizing the individual mind. Once that was turned on, learners could take care of themselves pretty well. The more important thing to do was to turn people on to the promise of learning.

TBR: Give me an example of how education can be driven by personal desire.

RG: My own learning tends to be organized around projects. I'm currently immersed in the role of the brain in learning, something about which there are a lot of new findings. I'm preparing to attend a conference on the subject in South Dakota, out of which I will then design some kind of program to teach what I've learned and to put people in touch with the potential of their minds.
   My project becomes learning what I need to do to accomplish some teaching, some writing, some greater activation of my own brain. The result isn't just that I know certain new things, but that I can do things and that I can help other people in certain ways. The goals are not just "I want to learn this and that" but "I want to be able to produce this piece of writing or this piece of teaching."

TBR: You're one of the seminal people who have pointed out learning for adults and children doesn't just take place just in the classroom. Have you gotten much feedback from your colleagues in the university community?

RG: My interest has been in what I call "independent scholars"—that is, the people in intellectual life who are not part of the university system. A small number of people in academe are aware of what we're doing, and they seem to find it refreshing and life-affirming. They tell us there's no place on campus where they can discuss general intellectual matters without being accused of jumping their departmental boundaries. In the last twenty years since the whole independent scholarship thing started, there has been a massive shift in the direction of realizing that the real actino in intellectual life is going on at least in large part outside the universities.

TBR: A lot of people I meet who are thinking about extending their education are gun-shy about going back to college. That's something you address in your book Peak Learning. You inspire people to say, "Go out and learn, and it doesn't matter that it's not happening within a university." What are a couple of your favorite tips for people who are thinking, "I want to learn something, but I don't want to sit in a classroom"?

RG: First, I applaud the impulse for more learning. I think that getting instructed in a classroom should be regarded as one possibly serviceable mode of learning what you want to learn ...

TBR: We're not damning with faint praise, are we? It's one way to do it, right?

RG: Going to the classroom is maximally useful if first you decide what and how it is that you do want to learn, and you go to the classroom looking for that. If you go there because you're not quite sure what you really want to know about this subject or why you want to study it, you haven't really articulated your learning objectives. If you figure, "Well, the teacher will solve that issue for me," that's a formula for getting the least amount possible out of a classroom experience. Always ask, "What's the best way for me to learn this?" Even if you then decide at the end of that process that going to a classroom is your best mode, you will do that in a way that will be efficient and effective for you.
   Meanwhilem you will have given thought to whether there are some other entrancing ways that might be more convenient, economical, efficient, and might correspond better to your learning style. You can investigate listening to audiocassettes in your car on the way to work in the morning or joining an association. You might consider going to a conference where you're going to be immersed for two or three days in the subject with people who want to share their enthusiasm, knowledge, and understanding. You might decide that a wonderful individual tutor or apprenticeship situation is ideal. Or you might decide that a particular set of readings is better for you. By considering all of those possibilities, you will become aware of some wonderful resources that may be very profitable alternatives to the classroom, and at least will send you to the classroom very well prepared.

TBR: Talk a little bit about some of the things you've been doing with libraries and how you see libraries fitting into this.

RG: Well, I love libraries, of course. And I mean that not just in a sentimental sense, but in a rather ruthless public-policy sense. First, I believe that if we really believed in lifelong learning, we would reallocate some of the resources that currently go into schools and colleges and put them into libraries and other community-based agencies and programs at the disposal of learners—whatever their age, whatever their status, etc.    I think libraries should get more money, even if we have to make hard choices between libraries and higher-education systems and even schools. Second, I think libraries have a tremendous role they're not fulfilling that goes beyond providing information resources—being a place where people can come together for a meeting of minds, where there can be discussion, dialogue, conversation, debate, in a wide variety of fields. So I've been starting salons in libraries. There is something of a movement of salons popping up around the country. They've been appearing in bars and people's living rooms and places like that, but the best place for them is in libraries, where they are visible and available to the whole community, and where all the resources of knowledge and wisdom are available to inform their discussions. I've also been working with elders in libraries, bringing together older adults in a program called "Lively Minds." The library is a base for getting their minds active and energized as a way of keeping young, fullfiling themselves, and making more of a contribution to society. I see the library as playing a wonderful role in activating minds, as a great contribution to both the people as individuals and to the health of the commonwealth.

TBR: There are two other kinds of adult learning I'd like you to touch on, and they're very different. One is the high-tech area, with things like interactive video and computer programs and Jones Intercable doing the Mind Extension University. On the other hand, there is the kind of education that happens in those public meeting places where people gather to work out ideas.

RG: The high-tech is very important and it's a reminder that we live in what I call an "invisible university"; that is, we each have at our disposal intellectual riches that could not be assembled by the greatest kinds and emperors of previous times. Each of us has access to libraries and resources literally at our fingertips by means of a computer keyboard. This exceeds anything Alexander the Great could bring together to inform him and his court. There's a real skill to mastering the information environment. Basic training for living intellectually in our time is mastering that information environment and knowing how to pluck out of it the things that are going to be most useful to you. The whole high-tech opportunity gives us both an opportunity and a responsibility—that we have to rise to the occasion by mastering ways to make this something that is at our disposal rather than something oppressive where we have the feeling that we're always behind. That;s another reason for forming strong goals for your own learning. People ask me, "How do you keep up with all these different fields you're in?" My answer is, "There's no way to keep up—your have to be our ahead."
   The only way is to set yourself out ahead of the curve and then use the stuff as it emerges that fits into your trajectory. That's how I feel about the high-tech opportunities. As to the public places, we need to revive what Oldenburg calls "the great good places"—the places where people could come together and reflect and discourse and argue and proclaim and announce what they've learned and share it with other people and learn from the learnings of others. For my money the library's about the best place in any given community for that to happen. So I would like to go even further than librarians already have in "unshushing" the library, having places where there's a lot of jabber and talk and contention and debate and dialogue.

TBR: You're not just a writer, you're a performer. What about the work you do keynoting conventions and conferences around the country, actually around the world? How does being in front of audiences impact your work as a writer and a researcher about education?

RG: The primary way is to reinforce my basic idea that the challenge for the teacher is to ignite the minds of the learners. Given the diversity of audiences and the way people's minds work, just getting up and giving a speech is not a very effective way to convey ideas, share understanding, or inspire people to action. What I have to do, no matter how large the audience—even if it's literally in the thousands—is to figure out how this group can be activated so they are engaging with the ideas themselves. Talking with each other, even if it's just to the person next to them, for example and engaging in mental experiments and experiences within their own heads. For my money, the conventional fifty-minute speech is obsolete. There is no reason to get a big group of people together just to hear you read from a manuscript. That takes us back to medieval times when the manuscripts were still so scarce that there was only one for the teacher to read, and the students would copy down what they could because they couldn't get their hands on it themselves. The printing press made the idea of going someplace and standing up and reading a prepared text obsolete. The whole knack is to find ways to get them to be actively engaged themselves in discovering what you want them to be thinking about.

TBR: I was just at an organizational meeting for an international education conference, and the people in the room were innovators in education. Much to my horror,, the designed a three-day conference that was basically one long high school. Are many people who talk about innovative education unable to put those kinds of ideas in practice?

RG: It seems so. We all like standing in front of a group with everyone looking at us and listening to us, so it's really easy to deceive yourself that a lot's going on within each individual head. My experience is that not much is going on, and that's why, for me, Socrates is the great model of the teacher, because he doesn't lecture. He asks questions in such a way that people begin to discover things they hadn't realized about themselves and about the subject at hand. If you keep that model in mind, then it's easy to remember that you should never be in front of the group with them all looking at you and just receiving some information. Joseph Campbell used to tell his students at Sara Lawrence that you've got the rest of your life for the reading, so let's just come to class and talk and have fun. And I think speakers should feel the same way. People have the rest of the conference to do the reading.

TBR: I want to ask about your relationship with Socrates. Some of our readers might not realize that you've been acting as sort of an agent and promoter for Socrates. That might confuse some people because they don't know he is still around. How did you and Socrates meet?

RG: How did we meet? Well, we never have actually met, interestingly enough. We've never been in the same room at the same time ...

TBR: Is that an emotional thing for you?

RG: No, it just doesn't seem to have worked out that way. What usually will happen is that I'll be working with a group and then, later on, Socrates will turn up, usually with some severe reservations about whatever it is I've been talking about to the group. He tends to feel I put forward these ideas as if they're something new or futuristic.

TBR: I didn't want to pull one of my old talk-show-host tricks on you, but we were planning to talk to Socrates briefly about this, and I'd like him to address that. Are you pleased with how Socrates relates to modern audiences?

RG: I think he is the model of effective teaching, recognized as such by teachers down through the ages. But they've rarely been able to replicate his styles and his effectiveness, of course. So I think he's a very salutary influence, both on teachers and on learners, because basically he says everything ... well, let me leave it to him to say that. But what he did says everything, really, that I have to say about learning: that it's lifelong, that you learn from everyone, that you learn by inquiring yourself and talking to other people. He did it all.

TBR: If someone was reading this article and wanted to start working on a subject that he or she had never delved into before, what's the first step?

RG: They can take a single piece of paper and put down on it in any form—words, images, a so-called "mind map"—everything they know, think, or fell about the subject. Even if it's a subject they think is completely new to them, if they're this intrigued by it, they already know, feel, and have intuitions and thoughts about various aspects of it. Then, they can go back to that piece of paper several times over the course of a few days and see what patterns evolve in terms of what really interests them about it. Then, I would suggest they do everything they can to fall in love with the subject. that is, do everything they can to become infatuated, let their romantic involvement with the subject take over. Whitehead used to say there are three phases to learning anything: romance, precision, and generalization. And the first phase should be romance, and you should let yourself enjoy that.
   I would suggest they do the most fun things in connection with that subject. That can range from reading wonderful children's or young adult books about it to reading the biography of the inventor of the whole subject to hanging out at a bookstore or a hobby shop or association office that is deeply involved in the subject to catch enthusiasms and share excitement. Just give full vent to that romantic phase of the learning process. And only after that, begin to think about how to learn what they want to know about the subject.

TBR: Thank you, Ron. I let Socrates listen in on this conversation, and I'm going to ask him to step forward and make a couple of remarks, about our conversation and what he thinks about the educational process. Socrates, are you there?

Socrates: Yes, I am, Pat. It has been hard for me to keep quiet all this time while Gross carried on so. He is a bright your chap, but definitely limited in the sense that he seems to think all of this stuff is new and fresh ...

TBR: He gives you credit ...

Socrates: Well, yes, but he hardly acknowledges the fact that we know all of this in fifth-century Athens. This is what we called paedia, the philosophy of learning what life is about. I devoted my days to speaking with my fellow citizens throughout the city, to learning from everyone I met and to rasing questions about what is mentally the good life, what excellence was in different trades and professions and crafts of men, how to build a good city—that was for me the whole of life. I did that my entire life, up to the moment of my death. I did it by being actively involved with other people, by asking questions, buy setting myyself the goal of understanding certain things. and so it seems to me that in fifth-century Athens, we were doing all the things Ron has been talking about. I am intrigued by those high-tech aspects of the invisible university. I would have greatly relished having those available for my own learning. I was always first in line when any new guru or sophist cam to Athens, because I had a great hunger for new intellectual meat. And so I would have been the first to try these technological innovations myself.

TBR: How does it feel to address modern audiences? What's the difference between them and the audiences you engaged with in Athens?

Socrates: Very little. I find today the same reluctance to think hard aobout the tough issues, the same succumbing to distraction by what you calla the media, what I called the shadows in the cave. You may recall that I pictured most people as living their enitre lives in a suberranean, dark cave, where all they coul see was shadows cast on the back wall of the cave, and they were never allowed to turn around and see that behind them was a great, blazing fire that was casting these chadows, let alone get out of the cave and see what things looked like in the light of the suun. It seems the only difference is that now you can change the shawows by switching channels. Most people still live their lives largely in terms of shawodw and illusions, ant there's the same reluctance I found in fifth-century Atherns to pose tough questions about what makes a good life and how to build a good society and then address those questions together.

TBR: Thank you, Socrates.

Socrates: Ah, thank you, Pat. Good to get in may last word. I appreciate that.