A psychotic aversion to self-learning?

A psychotic aversion to self-learning?

This is a post I have recently placed on the Philosophy forum and I would like an opinion about my conclusions from individuals more understanding of the science of psychology.

There is strong evidence that our educational system has graduated students with a neurosis directed at self-learning; there seems to be a strong aversion to serious scholarship that is without an educational institution’s imprimatur.

What is neurosis?

Becker says “isn’t the development of the ego the key to the general problem of neurosis?” The ego grows by putting anxiety under its control; thoughts and feelings are dangerous for the existence of the organism, [b]ergo the ego “vaccinates itself” with small doses of anxiety as a defense mechanism against anxiety.

The ego controls our levels of anxiety by a restriction of our allowed experiences.[/b] The ego develops by “skewing perceptions and by limiting action”. The ego grows by “a dispossession of the child’s own inner world”. The ego’s technique mechanism is one of the best, it is self-deception. The child’s humanization is accomplished by giving over her aegis to the parent. Are the child’s educational efforts at humanization also accomplished by giving over its intellectual aegis to the teacher?

Our motives are buried deep in the unconscious and are veiled by our ignorance of our self. “One’s motives reside in his skewed perceptions, in the way he dispossess himself of genuine self-reliance”; Freud discovered “conscience as limited vision and as dishonest control over one-self…Neurosis is merely a process of interference with simple animal movements, of the blocking of the forward momentum of action.”

Neurosis blocks our most “eager and engrossing acts, acts of an excited infant [and of an excited adult] in a world of wonders”. The result being that we all tend to earn a sense of support passively, by “renouncing action and the satisfaction of making [our] own closure on action.”

Quotes and ideas about neurosis (not about self-learning) are from “The Birth and Death of Meaning”—Ernest Becker

I have been posting for three years and have always wondered why I constantly received responses that avoided a discussion of self-learning, which is one of my favorite topics. The responses I receive are mostly off subject quibbles or learning stopping questions.There are two types of questions, one is designed to facilitate learning and the other, like yours, is designed to stop learning cold.

Why, I asked myself, is the subject of self-learning always given the stop-learning-cold response. I have finally found the answer. People give this response of avoidance and denial because our educational institutions have instilled this fear of self-reliance in the matter of learning. After all of my attempts to comprehend this avoidance of the issue of self-learning I have finally found the answer.

Self-learning is considered egotistical by most people. I mean seriously. If people know things about themselves they might learn how to conduct themselves in a more selfish manner and not just a manner productive towards the state’s interest! [-X

This is what I mean by self-learning.


I am a retired engineer with a good bit of formal education and twenty five years of self-learning. I began the self-learning experience while in my mid-forties. I had no goal in mind; I was just following my intellectual curiosity in whatever direction it led me. This hobby, self-learning, has become very important to me. I have bounced around from one hobby to another but have always been enticed back by the excitement I have discovered in this learning process. Carl Sagan is quoted as having written; “Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.”

I label myself as a September Scholar because I began the process at mid-life and because my quest is disinterested knowledge.
Disinterested Knowledge

Disinterested knowledge is an intrinsic value. Disinterested knowledge is not a means but an end. It is knowledge I seek because I desire to know it. I mean the term ‘disinterested knowledge’ as similar to ‘pure research’, as compared to ‘applied research’. Pure research seeks to know truth unconnected to any specific application.

I think of the self-learner of disinterested knowledge as driven by curiosity and imagination to understand. The September Scholar seeks to ‘see’ and then to ‘grasp’ through intellection directed at understanding the self as well as the world. The knowledge and understanding that is sought by the September Scholar are determined only by personal motivations. It is noteworthy that disinterested knowledge is knowledge I am driven to acquire because it is of dominating interest to me. Because I have such an interest in this disinterested knowledge my adrenaline level rises in anticipation of my voyage of discovery.

We often use the metaphors of ‘seeing’ for knowing and ‘grasping’ for understanding. I think these metaphors significantly illuminate the difference between these two forms of intellection. We see much but grasp little. It takes great force to impel us to go beyond seeing to the point of grasping. The force driving us is the strong personal involvement we have to the question that guides our quest. I think it is this inclusion of self-fulfillment, as associated with the question, that makes self-learning so important.

The self-learner of disinterested knowledge is engaged in a single-minded search for understanding. The goal, grasping the ‘truth’, is generally of insignificant consequence in comparison to the single-minded search. Others must judge the value of the ‘truth’ discovered by the autodidactic. I suggest that truth, should it be of any universal value, will evolve in a biological fashion when a significant number of pursuers of disinterested knowledge engage in dialogue.


We develop as we gain experience—interact with the world. Self-learning is one way of interacting with the world. Through the process of reading we apprehend the world and in this interaction a dialectic process develops. As I experience, through reading, I attempt to ‘make sense’ of the world and thus develop ever-richer and more sophisticated concepts. As I conceive this more sophisticated worldview I am also creating a more sophisticated self. The word ‘conception’ is an accurate word for the result of this experience. Just as the interaction of the two genders of all creatures result often in new life so does the interaction of reader and author.

There are books available in most community college libraries written by experts especially for the lay reader. I would guess that virtually all matters of interest are copiously and expertly elaborated upon by experts wishing to inform the public about every subject imaginable. Quantum theory and theory of relativity are examples of the most esoteric domains of knowledge accessible to most readers sufficiently motivated to persevere through some difficult study. For twenty-five dollars a year I am a ‘Friend of the Library’ at my community college and thus able to borrow any book therein.

The experience the September Scholar seeks is solely determined by his or her own internal ‘voice’. The curiosity and imagination of the learner drive the voice. Our formal education system has left most of us with little appreciation or understanding of our own curiosity and imagination. That characteristic so obvious in children has been subdued and, I suspect, stilled to the point that each one attempting this journey of discovery must make a conscious effort to reinvigorate the ‘inner voice’. We must search to ‘hear’ the voice, which is perhaps only a whisper that has become a stranger in our life. But, let me assure you, once freed again that voice will drive the self-learner with the excitement and satisfaction commensurate to any other experience.

I grew up in a Catholic family living in a small town in Oklahoma. My teachers were nuns and I learned how to read often by reading my Baltimore Catechism. The catechism is a small book, fitting easily in the back pocket of a pair of overalls, with a brown paper cover that contains the fundamental doctrine of the Catholic faith. It is in a question and answer format. I can still remember, after more than sixty years, the first page of that book.

Question: Who made you?
Answer: God made me.
Question: Why did God make you?
Answer: God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next.

Before I had read the adventures of “Jack and Jill”, I had learned the answers to the most profound questions that has troubled humanity for more than twenty-five hundred years. Such was the educational methodology that changed little for the next sixteen years of my formal education. My teachers always told me what was important and what I must ‘know’ to be educated. The good student learned early to understand that education was a process of determining what questions the teacher regarded as important and to remember, for the test, the correct answers to those important questions. Since I was not required to provide the questions for the test I never concerned myself with such unimportant trivia as questions. I could always depend upon the teacher to come forward with all the questions.

I seek disinterested knowledge because I wish to understand. The object of understanding is determined by questions guiding my quest. These guiding questions originate as a result of the force inherent in my curiosity and imagination.

The self-learner must develop the ability to create the questions. We have never before given any thought to questions but now, if we wish to take a journey of discover, we must learn the most important aspect of any educational process. We must create questions that will guide our travels. We can no longer depend upon education by coercion to guide us; we have the opportunity to develop education driven by the “ecstasy to understand”.

I suspect that most parents attempt to motivate their children to make good grades in school so that their child might go to college and live the American Dream. The college degree is a ticket to the land of dreams (where one produces and consumes more than his or her neighbor). I do not wish to praise or to bury this dream. I think there is great value resulting from this mode of education but it is earned at great sacrifice.

The point I wish to pivot on is the fact that higher education in America has become a commodity. To commodify means: to turn (as an intrinsic value or a work of art) into a commodity (an economic good). I would say that the intrinsic value of education is wisdom. It is wisdom that is sacrificed by our comodified higher education system. Our universities produce individuals capable of developing a great technology but lacking the wisdom to manage the world modified by that technology.

How can a nation recover the intrinsic value of education without undermining the valuable commodity that our higher education has become?

I think that there is much to applaud in our higher educational system. It produces graduates that have proven their ability to significantly guide our society into a cornucopia of material wealth. Perhaps, however, like the Midas touch, this gold has a down side. The down side is a paucity of collective wisdom within the society. I consider wisdom to be a sensitive synthesis of broad knowledge, deep understanding and solid judgement. I suggest that if one individual in a thousand, who has passed the age of forty would become a September Scholar, we could significantly replace the wisdom lost by our comodified higher education.

Knowing and Understanding

For a long time I have been trying to grasp the distinction between knowing and understanding. I think I have recently stumbled upon a new theory that might help me a great deal in my attempt to discover this distinction.

I have recently discovered a contender for paradigm within the cognitive science community. Metaphor theory has in the last thirty years begun to advance important discoveries regarding the nature of the ‘embodied mind’. This theory insists that much of our mental activity is unconscious and driven by the neural networks associated with body sensory and motor control networks. Metaphors are far more important to our knowledge and understanding than previously thought. We live by metaphor.

I have just begun to study metaphor theory and perhaps will change my mind but, as of this moment, I am getting hints that this theory will be very important for me and for cognitive science. It has already helped me to grasp the distinction between knowledge and understanding. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable of this theory to give detail now but, if you are interested, you might do a Google to begin your journey for understanding metaphor theory.

To get an idea of the distinction between knowing and understanding we can examine the metaphors we commonly use for these two concepts. I ‘see’ when I know and I ‘grasp’ it or I ‘got a handle’ on it when I understand. We can see much but we grasp little. We see at a distance but grasp only what is up close. We are much more intimate with what we grasp than with what we see. We might say ‘seeing is believing’ but I do not think we are comfortable with saying ‘seeing is understanding’.

My interests tend to lead me toward such philosophical matters but the point is, each person determines what is important to her or him. Each person takes that path that ‘fits’ for them. No one knows what that might be but the individual herself and often she will not create the same type of questions tomorrow as today.

I pointed out earlier that the September Scholar was driven by an interest in disinterested knowledge. You might add to that paradox that the September Scholar seeks disinterested knowledge because s/he is engaged in a journey of understanding of both the self and the other.
From Net-worth to Self-worth

In the United States our culture compels us to have a purpose. Our culture defines that purpose to be ‘maximize production and consumption’. As a result all good children feel compelled to become a successful producer and consumer. All good children both consciously and unconsciously organize their life for this journey.

At mid-life many citizens begin to analyze their life and often discover a need to reconstitute their purpose. Some of the advantageous of this self-learning experience is that it is virtually free, undeterred by age, not a zero sum game, surprising, exciting and makes each discovery a new eureka moment. The self-learning experience I am suggesting is similar to any other hobby one might undertake; interest will ebb and flow. In my case this was a hobby that I continually came back to after other hobbies lost appeal.

I suggest for your consideration that if we “Get a life—Get an intellectual life” we very well might gain substantially in self-worth and, perhaps, community-worth.

As a popular saying goes ‘there is a season for all things’. We might consider that spring and summer are times for gathering knowledge, maximizing production and consumption, and increasing net-worth; while fall and winter are seasons for gathering understanding, creating wisdom and increasing self-worth.

I have been trying to encourage adults, who in general consider education as a matter only for young people, to give this idea of self-learning a try. It seems to be human nature to do a turtle (close the mind) when encountering a new and unorthodox idea. Generally we seem to need for an idea to face us many times before we can consider it seriously. A common method for brushing aside this idea is to think ‘I’ve been there and done that’, i.e. ‘I have read and been a self-learner all my life’.

It is unlikely that you will encounter this unorthodox suggestion ever again. You must act on this occasion or never act. The first thing is to make a change in attitude about just what is the nature of education. Then one must face the world with a critical outlook. A number of attitude changes are required as a first step. All parents, I guess, recognize the problems inherent in attitude adjustment. We just have to focus that knowledge upon our self as the object needing an attitude adjustment rather than our child.

Another often heard response is that “you are preaching to the choir”. If you conclude that this is an old familiar tune then I have failed to make clear my suggestion. I recall a story circulating many years ago when the Catholic Church was undergoing substantial changes. Catholics where no longer using Latin in the mass, they were no longer required to abstain from meat on Friday and many other changes. The story goes that one lady was complaining about all these changes and she said, “with all these changes the only thing one will need to do to be a good Catholic is love thy neighbor”.

I am not suggesting a stroll in the park on a Sunday afternoon. I am suggesting a ‘Lewis and Clark Expedition’. I am suggesting the intellectual equivalent of crossing the Mississippi and heading West across unexplored intellectual territory with the intellectual equivalent of the Pacific Ocean as a destination.

I have observed the same effect among my peers; however, I have a different hypothesis as to its source.

I think that, because people only learn to learn in an institutionalized setting, and because that setting is considered unpleasant (socially and personally) by most people, they develop an aversion to the whole process of learning, in any context.

It’s sad as f**k.