Last weekend I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho for the first time. Yes, I know it is not new by any means and I would guess that many of you have read it long ago. There are many layers that one can read into the story but I would like to point out two that struck me.
I think most people would say that the overall theme of the story is pursuing one’s passions and dreams. The obvious question to me is “do we allow space in schools for pursuing dreams?” It seems to me that we are too busy covering curriculum and meeting standards. I am sure that I have said it before, but I hate standardization. The reason is that standardization drowns out passion and crowds out dreams.
The thing that struck me most about the book was about the channels of learning in the book. Santiago learns in many ways: reading, from experts (the king Melchizedek, the gypsy, the crystal shop owner, the Englishman, the leader of their desert caravan, and finally the Alchemist), from experiences, from following his heart, but most of all from nature. He learns from watching his sheep and camels. He learns from the desert. Contrast Santiago to the Englishman who primarily learns from books. I think the Englishman represents Western text-based learning whereas Santiago is a more ancient, Eastern, holistic learning from nature. Santiago learns by living life and observing life and nature everywhere. Western schools need to be more like Santiago.
Santiago also reminds me of my favorite childhood author, Louis L’Amour. He was a western writer and I loved his stories. In his memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, L’Amour details his “education.” Much like Santiago he left home when he was 15 and explored the world. He had jobs as a boxer, sailor, lumberjack, elephant handler in a circus, skinner of dead cattle, assessment miner, a tourist guide in Egypt, and a tank officer during World War II. He sailed the world and was shipwrecked in the West Indies. The other thing that L’Amour did was read-all of the time. Let me share some quotes from his memoir:
This is a story of an adventure in education, pursued not under the best of conditions. The idea of education has been so tied to schools, universities, and professors that many assume there is no other way, but education is available to anyone within reach of a library, a post office. or even a newsstand…
Somewhere along the line I had fallen in love with learning, and it became a lifelong romance…
this book is about education, but not education in the accepted sense. No man or woman had a greater appreciation for schools than I, although few have spent less time in them. No matter how much I admire our schools, I know that no university exists that can provide an education; what a university can provide is an outline, to give the learner a direction and guidance. The rest one has to do for oneself.
If I asked what education should give, I would say it should offer a breadth of view, ease of understanding, tolerance for others, and a background from which the mind can explore in any direction.
Education should provide the tools for widening and deepening of life, for increased appreciation of all one sees or experiences. It should equip a person to live life well, to understand what is happening about him, for to live life well one must live with awareness…We can only hope they come upon an issue they wish to pursue.
To me this is another example of how all of our ideas to “change” education are really not new. Leading thinkers understood this years ago before computers even existed. I can’t help but think that L’Amour would find even less use for schools as they still exist today with the easy access to knowledge through the internet. Lous L’Amour was a self-made man in many ways, but he understood that learning is available for anyone who passionately pursues it.
My favorite quote is his reasoning for dropping out of school and leaving home: I left for two reasons, economic necessity being the first of them. More important was that school was interfering with my education.
He goes on to explain how the factory model of school would not let him skip basic classes and take higher classes that he was more interested in. So he dropped out and pursued his own learning. He later says, that dropping out is a good option only for those who are willing to read hundreds of books on their own. Certainly does not seem to be watering down learning, does he?
How can we create a climate that encourages students to dream and pursue passions rather than “interfere with their education?”
PS: I was very surprised to hear my pastor tell this story to close his message today. It sounds to me like “The Alchemist” used this as the basis of its plot.