The Alchemist and Louis L’Amour

By Alexandre Baron

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.

By Sandy Redding

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?”

8 thoughts on “The Alchemist and Louis L’Amour

  1. Paige Bryant

    Hi Michael,
    I am one of Dr. Strange’s students from EDM 310 T the University of South Alabama. I very much enjoyed your post. I think the fact that school sometimes gets in the way of people pursuing their dreams is one of the biggest problems with our school system. Many of my family members (who are teachers) warned me about the fact someone like me wouldn’t do well in an environment where there is no freedom. Although it may be difficult, I plan on trying to fit in as much freedom, adventure, and creativity into my “lesson” as possible. What else are students there for anyway? The quadratic formula is great, if you’re in a profession that uses it on a daily basis. But I think that life lessons, and the motivation to continue learning, and curiosity for life will better prepare the student for the future. I will only have these students for one semester (more than likely), which means the time I have to make an impression isn’t very long. Would I rather stuff facts in their heads that they are going to forget by Christmas break? Or should I equip them with the tools to be successful in life? The first may look good on ACT scores but the latter will truly prepare them for…anything. Once the school systems stop placing so much emphasis on test scores and more on actual learning, we will be one step closer away from hindering students from pursuing their dreams.
    I will be reflecting on your posts on my blog by 11/7/10. Again, I enjoyed your post very much. I would like to hear more about how you “de-westernize” your classroom atmosphere. Everyone says my outlook on my future educational relationships with my students is naive. I would like to think that I will stay this positive and not turn into a “busy-work” teacher who teaches to the book. So if you have any tips I would love to hear more. Thanks for posting.

    Paige Bryant

  2. concretekax

    Paige, thanks for the comment and I like your enthusiasm and attitude. I don’t think you are naive, but your viewpoint will be challenged by the stresses of teaching. My biggest recommendation is to find a mentor with the same attitude in your building, if possible. On top of that become active on-line with others who can inspire and encourage you.

    There are hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers around the world teaching this way. And they share their best ideas and their struggles daily through blogs, twitter, and other ways.

  3. Darlene Staimpel

    Hi Michael,

    My name is Darlene Staimpel and I am in Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class at the University of South Alabama. I have posted a couple of comments on your past posts. I really enjoyed this post the most. I agree that we need to start helping our students reach their goals and passion instead of suffocating them with facts that they will never remember.

    I have read so many comments about teachers that don’t think we should have technology in the classroom. Everyone is entitled to an opinion but I disagree. Technology is our future and we should change our way of teaching, our way of thinking and help our students embrace the change. Children are learning so much more than when I was in grade school. There are so many different media types that keep their attention their attention. I think more and more students are getting excited about school because of the technology.

    I also love the quote: “I left for two reasons, economic necessity being the first of them. More important was that school was interfering with my education”. I, as an educator will never interfere but offer encouragement and promote learning through collaborating with other student (in class or via the web). Oh, how I can’t wait to teach!!

    I will be reflecting on your post on my blog. Feel free to stop in and say hi!
    Thank you for sharing and I, as always, enjoy reading your posts!!

  4. cody.coleman14

    Hi Michael,
    My name is Cody Coleman and i am in Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class. In reading your post i found myself at a little bit of a disadvantage because i have personally never read The Alchemist. In hearing your discussion on it though, it sounds very interesting.
    Your question of do we allow space in schools for pursuing dreams really got me to think. I personally think that high schools do not. I agree with you 110% when you say that you hate standardization and that most schools are too busy only trying to cover the curriculum and standards set by the state. I think that yes schools should have to follow certain guidelines and teach to certain standards, however there should be room for students to expand explore different areas and ideas. My father is a physics and engineering teacher at a high school here in Baldwin County, Alabama and he is most of the reason why i want to become a teacher. He teaches his students to learn by experience, by hands on work, by doing, not so much by simply reading out of the book, assigning some problems for homework and repeating day after day. He helps the students to explore different areas of engineering in such things as pneumatics, hydraulics, electricity, and even air conditioning. All of this experience and hands on work helps the students to look and see if this is really for them or not. And most students who take him for his engineering 1 class are back to try and get into his year 2 and 3 classes. I think schools schould be more focused on yes teaching the basics, but also on what the child will use and need in order for the student to succeed in life.
    I too love his quote of “More important was that school was interfering with my education.” I believe that it is the standards and curriculums that schools must follow that turn kids away from schooling, hurt their chances of finding what they really want to do, and even make them drop out and leave school for good.

    If you would like you can review my comments on My Blog.
    Thanks for posting.

  5. Caitlyn Lord

    Hi Michael

    I am also in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class. I really enjoyed reading your post!! You have successfully inspired me to read “The Alchemist” over Christmas break. I was also inspired by your description of one of your favorite authors. He seems like a brilliant man who was years before his time. I believe he is absolutely correct in saying school interfered with his education. I too believe that teachers are trying to meet criteria for curriculum and standards that have been set for them, and therefore they cannot focus on developing creativity or passion in children. I am going to become an elementary school teacher, and I think it is my job to not let students forget about creativity. Creativity is often overlooked or pushed out of the way in schools to make room for structured learning. Everyone must learn the same thing at the same pace (in my county, students are tested every quarter to ensure they are on the same page) heaven forbid a student want to learn something outside of the curriculum, because there is no time for that. There is no time for anything other than what is pre-planned for teachers to teach. I do not necessarily blame teachers for this, but I do feel like the teachers who want to change “the system” are just talking about it and not changing it. I want to change the way the school system works, and it seems like Louis L’Amour and I have a lot in common. I don’t foresee a reason to drop out of school, but I do see a need for change in the school system. I think the way to create a climate that encourages students to dream, is to not stop dreaming ourselves. If we accept the rules the system lays down for us, then our students have to accept these rules. I think if teachers, parents, students, and principals challenge the way we teach, a change will have to be made. Insisting on allowing students to pursue their dreams is the only way to ensure that they will be able to follow their dreams!

    You can check out more of my opinion of this topic at my blog. I believe you already have the link from another post you made, if not the address to my blog is

  6. JoshuaKingEDM310

    I’m amazed at how cohesive this post is to what we’ve been learning in EDM310. You are right the ideas to change education really aren’t new, and I think we need change now more than ever. We just watched a video about Dan Brown (a University of Nebraska student who dropped out of school because school was interfering with his education).

    I have really taken to heart some of the L’Amour quotes (posted my favorites on my blog) Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

    Josh King an EDM310 student

  7. Abby Smith

    Hello Michael,

    I am also a student of Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class. I have never read “The Alchemist”, but your description of it is very interesting. I think the question you have given about allowing space in schools for pursuing dreams should be a question more people in education should be asking themselves and others. I agree with you that many teachers are too busy covering curriculum and meeting standards. I think that you’re right that standardization drowns out passion and crowds out dreams. People tell children that their imagination is endless, but when they get to school, it’s not their imagination that is being tested or encouraged. I think it’s very important to encourage imagination and creativity in our students. I think that when this is what is encouraged, it’s also when some of the best work is accomplished. All of the wonderful advancements our society has had over the years weren’t accomplished due to people thinking like everyone else, standard way of thinking, rather, it was due to people thinking like nobody else, creative and imaginative way of thinking. I believe that there are many channels to learning, and I think that our students should experience more of these channels. Unfortunately, all of them they aren’t able to learn through the many ways that L’Amour learned through. Instead, we have to provide these channels for them.
    I loved the quote you gave from L’Amour about what education should provide. I think it is so true that one must live with awareness. Thank you for sharing your views with us. I will be writing a reflection of your blog on my blog. If you wish to read it, the address is
    -Abby Smith

  8. concretekax

    Thanks again to all the comments from EDM 310. It is easy to agree with me that passion is more important than standards and mandated curriculum. But in reality the pacing charts can overwhelm your intentions.

    So a challenge to you: What specific things will you plan to do to allow kids to pursue their passions? If you do not plan/carve out space for it you will become too busy and it will not happen.

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