education philosopher

Review of Bach’s “Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success”

Posted in Book reviews, Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on July 23, 2009

(3 of 5 stars) 41B8pROK7bL__SL500_AA240_

The original title for this book was School Kills. While James Bach changed the title, there is still some of this very message in his book. Bach is not as anti-school as he is a believer that the best learning is that a person does on their own because they want to.

Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar alternates between chapters outlining Bach’s theory of learning (a very Montesorrian free-flowing approach) and autobiographical chapters detailing his fall from high-school as a drop out to his rise in the computer world – all due to the kind of self-motivation and passionate learning he was disallowed from in high school. At times, Bach can come off as a bit cocky and conceited, like when he tells us of memorizing hte first 41 digits of pi just for kicks (reciting them for us again), or when he explains why he doesn’t “know how to talk about things that don’t matter.” (kindle edition, loc. 1798)

I have mixed feelings about this book, especially as a teacher. One the one hand, I was and am very much one of the buccaneers Bach talks about. I coasted in high school, went to a non-academic music college, discovered learning on my own, read constantly, and now have two masters degrees and am in pursuit of a PhD. Bach is certainly correct that the best learning – that which is often discouraged in school – is that which one does passionately on their own.

On the other hand is the question that Bach does not much address as to whether this approach would set as many kids up for failure as success. It is evident from Bach’s book that he was strongly motivated and had an uncanny sense of self-discipline. I have met too many students whose motivations (for anything) was low enough that I would not trust that if they guided their own education, they would come up short of what they needed. Also, there is a question which has existed ever since Montessori pioneered the student-directed education theory about whether students should be the judge of what information they will need to learn. Self-education may be a good idea for some, but do others have the motivation and forethought required to guide their own education? These are open questions that I found to be unconvincingly handled in Bach’s book.

Whatever your take – or if you don’t have a take at all – this book is an interesting read. Bach is very open and introspective, and writes in a very inviting first-person style. And for those interested in hearing Bach’s view of education applied (dare I say) systemically, check out Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling.


3 Responses

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  1. James Marcus Bach said, on July 24, 2009 at 2:33 am

    Thank you for reviewing my book. I’m eager to expand my grasp of this subject by encountering contrasting ideas.

    I actually tried hard, in several chapters, to address the motivation issue head-on. I wrote specifically about “follow the energy” “plunge in and quite” and various other heuristics that deal with that. In fact, I have little self-discipline, as I tried to explain in several different chapters, and in several ways. I don’t succeed with discipline. I succeed with passion. Passion-based living is inconstant, by its nature, but I’ve made it work because it’s what I have.

    It seems to me that a lot of folks who fret about “success” have a definite idea about what that means for them, and then expect everyone else to have the same goals. But, who are you and I to say what some student “needs” for “success”? Each of us is the only possible arbiter of that for ourselves. (Yes, this goes even for children. My son hasn’t gone to school in years.)

    I don’t accept that reading, for instance, is a necessary skill. It’s a skill that is very important to me, in the way that I live, yes. But I can’t honestly say that a life without reading is a life wasted. There are many dimensions to life and many ways of valuing it. I don’t believe it’s right for an educational self-proclaimed elite to dictate that all other people must strive for the same kind of education they seek for themselves. That is not the way of a free society– that’s a colonial mentality. That’s 19th century imperialist thinking.

    And ultimately, motivation is simply not a problem. Life is the motivator. Stop worrying about how people might live in a way you don’t approve, and focus on offering what you can offer to people who might appreciate it.

    I’d love to see an educational system based on abundance and free access, not based on compulsion, fear, and artificial hoops set up by people who have been “educated” to see kids as weak, stupid, helpless, and dangerous.

  2. Todd Bryant said, on August 12, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    A compelling argument, however given the established fact (or belief) that there is a link between education and poverty the question remains: Are will willing to allow people and families to get there on their own IF it means that those who don’t might succumb to the worse elements of society? I for one believe that a hybrid approach may be beneficial; allowing a base level of education for all and the potential for greater opportunity to those who seek it. If we do that then we move something square into the public sphere: The choice to be educated…welll.

  3. KevinCK said, on August 21, 2009 at 2:53 pm


    This is one reason I am uncomfortabloe with the “open source” model of education, where each student, to some degree, is left to pursue his or her individual track without interference.

    Not only do students have different access to resources, but also different levels of selfl-motivation, self-discipline, cognitive capacity, etc. Some students may have access to computers; others don’t. Some students have the self-discipline (or the guidance) that will push them towards mastery of difficult things, others do not. Some students may be smart enough to teach themselves to read or know how to access resouiiirces that can hellp them; others may not.

    Bach, and Gatto’s, methods tell all of these folks that they are simply on their own. Even as a libertarian who believes that society cannot and should not attempt to alleviate all disparities, I can certainly see that societal provisions for education may be a good way to ensure a more even playing field.

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