Some things need to be memorized. For example, you can’t learn a martial arts kata by reading a book, and you can’t learn to carve an eagle by watching an online video. You might gain insight into the approaches and processes but will not perform well because muscle memory is required. And the way to get that is through practice.

But while the memory of these sorts of things is made ductile by practice and repetition, not all learning works this way. We shouldn’t have to be involved in a near-fatal car accident to learn that driving under the influence is dangerous. But that seems to be the tuition method many people use when learning all sorts of things we could learn by observation. Otto Von Bismarck said it best: “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

Some are listless at best when it comes to this type of learning. But learning from others is the least painful way of proceeding regarding things with nasty consequences.

So here comes the confession part of this post. Even the casual reader of my blog understands that I am famous for heavily treading where angels go with only the lightest of steps.

So I’ll end this post with the advice my father often sprinkled on my self-inflicted idiocies, afterward as medicine and advice: “Do as I say, not as I have done.” Good luck!

The worst education money can buy

A recent poll showed liberal art and social science grads as among the top regretters of the degree programs they had chosen. Among some, this has encouraged the entrenched believers in “hard-edged” degrees to say the equivalent of I told you so. I guess it’s soothing to know that you made the right decision even though your hard-edged and tightly skill-designed degree marks you for obsolescence within a decade of graduation.
Those with less STEM orientation in our degrees have had to develop certain agility regarding our credentials. For instance, my sciences as an undergrad were heavily loaded towards computer programing, statistics, and earth sciences. I saw these as directly relevant to my research interests as an anthropologist. In grad school, I was among the few who could utilize DARPA ( pre-internet computer network) or run over to the science center and do a statistical analysis on a data set.
As a teacher, I’ve seen older STEM degree types awaken to interests in art, social science, and literature that they missed as students in programs where experimentation outside hard subject material was not encouraged. After all, you need to get a job.

For two years, I taught anthropology courses to nursing students in a bachelors of science program at a small university. Perhaps because of my background in healthcare, I developed an approach that supplemented our regular curriculum with related material on attitudes towards health and healing in the cultures we studied. As practitioners, I pointed out that they would run into many healthcare issues that were cultural in origin. For example, some variables could be cultural variations in pain tolerance, attitudes towards specific procedures, and sexism.

My point is that a blind frogmarch towards one goal in life or education winds up impoverishing us. Most better quality educational institutions recognized this years ago and attempted to rectify disciplinary tunnel vision with core programs or course distributions that encouraged some exposure to other areas. But unfortunately, I think the problem has been that many have belittled these approaches and encouraged students not to see them as serious enrichment to their lives but as mere tickets to get punched en route to the degree.

A significant change has been the shift from receiving an education as the goal of attending college to one of just getting employed.
Part of this is the high cost of education and the diminishing probability of paying for it over a lifetime of work.

The high cost of schooling and the over-emphasis on specialization are trends that run counter to the genuine need for an educated populace. One makes a genuine interest in education an overly expensive sacrifice and the other shackles minds into narrow prisons.


When I was about ten, the owner of the building where my father was Super gifted me with a slightly obsolete but complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica, he’d replaced this older set with a brand new one for his children. So the Britannica soon was set up on shelves in a small basement room called my “laboratory.” I conducted mayhem, anatomical dissections on a chicken, and the like there. 

Already on the outs with the New York City Public School system for being noncooperative, I now plotted further acts of non-conformism by peppering my classes with vast newfound knowledge of the Reformation, Darwin, Edmund Burke, and Athenian democracy. To astound a history teacher, I dredged up the Defenestration of Prague as an example of what could happen to authority figures who get out of control. Since my gaze wandered to the window, he interpreted this as a threat. The principal called my father and advised him I was at it again.

Finding that just a little knowledge is dangerous and intoxicating, I dived deeper into Britannica. It was like knocking on the door of a vast storehouse of knowledge and having the portal swing open wide. My teachers disagreed. I would pepper classes with requests for further information on topics based on articles in the Britannica. My father was told I threatened the basis of the curriculum worked out by wiser heads than mine. One day I came home and found the door to the laboratory padlocked.

My history teacher looked especially smug in the following weeks. My father seemed relieved that he had no further requests to visit the school. I grew silent in class, which made the teacher happier.

My father was lax in the storage of his spare keys. A Super has many locks and needs spare keys for emergencies. Therefore, the spares need to be where they can easily be found. I located a spare key hanging from a stanchion about a week after he installed the lock. Waiting till my father was occupied, I quietly made my way in and returned to my studies. 

Having learned that people in authority liked to suppress inconvenient knowledge and control access to knowledge, I was careful in revealing what I knew. I also learned that authorities would use dupes to silence those who inconveniently threaten their lock on information. Finally, I also learned that all the above could be subverted; if you were careful.

Somebody once said that one of the benefits of a lousy education is the constant pleasure of discovery. But, of course, this only works if your joy of discovery survives the effort to destroy it.

Mr. Gloss

For most of us, sixth and seventh grade fall into the half-light zone of twilight. Too much came afterward for us to remember much more than fading recollections of what happened. In fact, most of us would gladly eschew any intense investigation into those awkward days. Shudder!

I have to say that I have gladly forgotten most of those pre-high school days. They represented the beginning of a determined attempt on the part of the New York City school system to package me, tape me up, and ship me off to storage. I turned out to be challenging to teach.

Surprisingly, one teacher retains a name and vivid recollections of his appearance and take on life. That person is the joyous Mr. Gloss. Mr. Gloss appeared in music class daily in his signature bow tie and houndstooth tweed jacket. He was always waving his hands, gesturing, smiling, and encouraging. Somehow, and this was the unique part, he seemed to exude the confidence that every glee club member, everyone in the band, and all who just casually showed up would be an incredible artist.

Mr. Gloss just seemed to exude this positive attitude daily, despite the lack of involvement on the part of many students. He was one of the first to exclaim how thrilled he was that I had taken up the guitar. He had labored tirelessly to involve my interest first in the violin and then in the flute, so perhaps he was just plain grateful that some seed had sprouted – at last.

Not long ago, the subject had come up in a conversation about which teachers we remembered. There were glowing recollections of high school teachers who’d made a difference. But unfortunately, high school for me was a blank spot between junior high and going to be a folksinger in Greenwich Village. The City of New York had successfully warehoused me, and not being willing to be wheeled into their storage, I had walked out.

So when the memories of Mr. Gloss came pouring out, I was more than a bit surprised. Then I thought about it. All the emphasis was placed on academics in school. How well do you perform in math, science, and language? The message we got was that these were what would make us successful in life. – make money.
But the music and art teachers gave a gift that probably was not aimed at profit. On the contrary, they directed us towards inner richness that made us more complete individuals. And yes, some of us turned this into economic gain as well.

Appreciation and participation in some form of art and music is one thing that does not depend on your ability to spend on it. You come equipped with hands, feet, and a voice. Instruments have been improvised since the first musician discovered percussion. It’s one thing that elites can not rob from you even if they selfishly emulate you.

It’s all aided and abetted by someone like Mr. Gloss. So take the time today to thank that person for the gift.


My vocabulary was large. My lack of formal education equaled it.
And that was the problem. As a self-taught and community, educated scholar, my professors ran the gamut of Colombia, Boston College, and the Bowery. They were displaced ascetics, random college dropouts, and those who’d won their doctorates on street corners and coffeehouses. That was par for the course, so to speak, for the 1960’s scene in which I was involved.
The problems were threefold: lack of discipline, random coverage, and many times have never heard the word I was using because I’d never heard it in a discussion. I fractured perfectly sound statements by terrible mispronunciations of words like abstemious. To this day, I can think of about three ways to murder hors d’oeuvres, one of which is faintly obscene.
When I made it to college, a few of my peers found it easy to abhor me for this habit. They’d made the entry to college via more traditional routes: application from high school, SATs, professionally edited essays, being a legacy for dad, or having pops make a large contribution to the school.
From them, I learned a new word – arriviste -which I promptly and deliberately mispronounced.

State of the Art

It may have seemed as though I flit about Boston University’s world my first two years there. But there was a method to it.
I enrolled in an expanding series of English courses that explored the development of the “city” through world literature. I needed some science, so I began taking geography courses. Eventually, I gravitated towards political science, history, and then Anthropology. The nice thing about my hunt and peck style of coursework turned out how the information gleaned in one applied to the other. As my fund of general knowledge grew, I did specialize; in anthropology. Years later, when I left anthropology for other professional pursuits, I was grateful for the broad and deep fund of education Boston University had given me. I had multiple capabilities and knowledge.

In recent years, the type of education I received has fallen out of favor as more specialized education tracks have developed. The success of strict specialization depends on the “state of the art” in the industry in which you studied. You can quickly become redundant in an age where the educational system has become a factory conveyor belt for business. Being perceived as too old, too stale, or unable to continue learning can be fatal. The phrase “lifelong learning” seems to come along in the nick of time, conveniently. It allows professionals to hop on the academic conveyor belt to another degree or specialization.

I’m not sure that this attacks the underlying problem.

These are some of my observations. After starting my business as a woodcarver, I found myself not only producing but also teaching. For my week-long classes, I set up a library of art, carving, design, and books on other topics. I also brought with me the widest variety of carved samples that I could. I always encouraged students to take a break and use the library.
Over the years, I witnessed many talented lawyers, engineers, and others dig into topics that they had never gotten exposed to in school. More than a few of my students were in my class because they had sensed that they needed new directions. They were canny enough to begin the exploration process on their own.
Among the things I learned early in my education was that there could be a synergy among seemingly unrelated items. To an extent, this has become a keystone concept for interdisciplinary studies. There can be some exciting results of specialties running together. My first brother-in-law was an engineer and mathemetician for NASA. He became an enthusiastic amateur Archeologist. After dinner one night, he showed me some studies he had done on a Virginia midden ( ancient trash heap) that explained how the material had gotten deposited by the colonial settlers. I believed he used it as the basis for his thesis in archeology.
These sort of synergies only occur when people get exposed to multiple streams of knowledge. To end with a very bad mangling of a trope from Ghostbusters, you need to cross the streams.

An Education

Today, the school would tell my parents I had an Attention Deficit or other learning problem. A plan for my education would unfold. In those days the teacher or principal would inform my parents I was lazy, dumb, or deviously hiding my talents. This led to being “warehoused” in high school. The schools told my parents I could never finish anything. 

No one noticed around age twelve, I began self tuition on guitar, and by sixteen, I started performing at coffeehouses. The guitar became an act of revenge on my teachers; they’d say: “look how good you are on the guitar. If only you’d put this effort into ( insert subject name here).” My sneer became a trademark method of communicating my disdain for them and their education methods. 

High school’s stress guaranteed I was too ill for years to eat anything substantial till noontime. When they expelled me, I promptly relocated to New York’s Greenwich Village and the Beat and Folkie scene flourishing there. I did not look back.

Life in the Village was not just about playing at the coffeehouses. It was about understanding the intellectual and artistic background of life. You’d be sitting with a fellow habituate listening to a discourse on Proust one day, Aristotle the next, and Steinbeck the day succeeding. As a performer, there were intense daily sessions with peers practicing and exchanging techniques. It was a free eclectic university. I carried around two things: the book I was reading and my guitar—every day.

The next year was a compressed “hello/goodbye” whirlwind of greeting the new and leaving the old – A self-renewal pattern. Education became more of a matter of community involvement than teachers in a classroom.

I went back to school about five years later but perversely skipped the high school diploma for bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. work. One potential employer asked why I listed no high school diploma. I asked, ” does it matter?” his reply? “Yes.” ” But you can see that was I was cum laude with honors in undergrad and did extensive grad work?” ” We require a high school diploma.” I unearthed my high school sneer for him and quickly left.

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