Independent, Unorthodox Learning – For Life

I’ve been thinking a bit about IndieVolunteer these days, and I think I have a new vision. I started IndieVolunteer approximately 3 years ago, right when I was deciding to drop out of school for a bit and set off on a journey to explore my interest in social issues and a potential career in development work. IndieVolunteer fit my vision then – I was frustrated about the lack of resources to help me, someone who didn’t want to do a “volunteercation” nor wanted to pay to volunteer at all, and was particularly looking for small NGOs who actually really needed help – but right now I’m at a stage where I’m thinking beyond volunteering and beyond NGOs. I think that volunteering might be the door into this world, the policy and development world, and for that I’m forever grateful, but I can’t (and I’ve stopped) write anymore about volunteering and NGOs. That’s simply not what I do anymore. These days, I’m much more interested in the bigger, structural problems that create large social inequality, and the movements that would generate the most change in the shortest amount of time, which I believe are the women’s empowerment movement, and the movement to provide education for everyone.

So I’m brainstorming ideas for a new website/resource hub, that similar to IndieVolunteer, would inspire people to think outside the box a bit, but instead of about volunteering and traveling and NGOs, be about development issues and social movements. Ideally, I would like to explore the important intersections between politics, development policy, and academic research on social issues. I feel that the development world has recently realized that functional partnerships are absolutely necessary, not only between different agencies, but also between these agencies and the state, as well as private companies. Alone, we may get there quicker, but together, we will go further. Moreover, these partnerships could deal with the inefficiencies that each one of these sectors faces on its own, and also scale up proven solutions because there are more resources at the table.

This is what is going on in my life and in my head now, and I’ll write more about this when I have a better idea of what this will look like. I’m looking for people who are interested in joining on this project, so please comment on this post or send me an email at annphoebehao@gmail.com if you share this vision of an interdisciplinary, critical approach to understanding contemporary development policy and work!

I wanted to write this post for another reason though, and that is because I just read this review of a new book called Don’t Go Back to School. Kio Stark never finished her graduate degree at Yale, and she found that people hired her based on ability and her compatibility with the culture, not for her degree. Moreover, she found that she learned much more outside of the traditional college environment, especially when it comes to postgraduate degrees, which are essentially professional training for professors. Stark also crowd-raised this book, which is revolutionizing the publishing industry, because books that perhaps wouldn’t get picked up now still have a chance – authors today can self publish using a variety of crowd fundraising platforms and cheaper publishing mechanisms.

Don’t Go Back to School is a manifesto for learning outside formal education, not a piece designed to fix the education system, but rather to flourish outside of it. The interviews in the book revealed four key common tangents: learning is collaborative rather than done alone; the importance of academic credentials in many professions is declining; the most fulfilling learning tends to take place outside of school; and those happiest about learning are those who learn out of intrinsic motivation rather than in pursuit of extrinsic rewards. The first of these insights, of course, appears on the surface to contradict the very notion of “independent learning,” but Stark offers an eloquent semantic caveat:

Independent learning suggests ideas such as “self-taught,” or “autodidact.” These imply that independence means working solo. But that’s just not how it happens. People don’t learn in isolation. When I talk about independent learners, I don’t mean people learning alone. I’m talking about learning that happens independent of schools.

[…]

Anyone who really wants to learn without school has to find other people to learn with and from. That’s the open secret of learning outside of school. It’s a social act. Learning is something we do together.

Independent learners are interdependent learners.

So how can you best fuel that internal engine of learning outside the depot of formal education? Stark offers an essential insight, which places self-discovery at the heart of acquiring external knowledge:

Learning your own way means finding the methods that work best for you and creating conditions that support sustained motivation. Perseverance, pleasure, and the ability to retain what you learn are among the wonderful byproducts of getting to learn using methods that suit you best and in contexts that keep you going. Figuring out your personal approach to each of these takes trial and error.

[…]

For independent learners, it’s essential to find the process and methods that match your instinctual tendencies as a learner. Everyone I talked to went through a period of experimenting and sorting out what works for them, and they’ve become highly aware of their own preferences. They’re clear that learning by methods that don’t suit them shuts down their drive and diminishes their enjoyment of learning. Independent learners also find that their preferred methods are different for different areas. So one of the keys to success and enjoyment as an independent learner is to discover how you learn.

[…]

School isn’t very good at dealing with the multiplicity of individual learning preferences, and it’s not very good at helping you figure out what works for you.

Speaking from my own experience, I 100% agree with Stark about many things. Although I wasn’t necessarily bored in school – three years ago, I was an anthropology major at the University of Southern California who was just starting out on the anthro track after a disillusioning stint as an economics major at business school, and anthropology was liked a vibrant, colorful universe compared to the drab gray vision of how business school analyzes the world – I knew that I could be really learning, learning about practical things, and answering questions that I had deep inside my heart about myself and what I wanted to do with my life, if I could only somehow get out of this bubble that is called academia. Leaving school was the best thing that I ever did for myself, and I still talk about it enthusiastically to anyone who will listen. I used my savings, and worked and scrimped to survive, and lived and traveled all over the world. More than fulfilling some of my life dreams and living in countries that I had always read and dreamed about, I learned more than I had ever learned before in my life. I  feel that my life education truly began when I did an exchange in Ecuador when I was in 17, and then it  began again when I left USC at the age of 18. To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing. I was an 18 year old, traveling alone, with very little money, and most of the time even fewer plans. I eventually turned 19, and then 20. Now I’m 21 and back in school – I started at New York University last September. But I’ll give you an idea of the experiences that I had during my time away from school that were the most illuminating and useful learning experiences of my life.

– Volunteering for a small, local NGO in Cuzco that the local policemen started in order to take care of and educate Cuzco’s many street kids
– Going to France after having only taken one French class in my life and becoming fluent in French
Living and working in the amazing literary community of Shakespeare and Co in Paris. I have never met so many people who are as passionate about reading and writing as I am. We all slept together on makeshift beds on the second floor of the bookstore, walked Colette, shelved books and consequently took them out to read them during the day, and took turns sharing the key at night so that we could enjoy Parisian nightlife.
– Working full-time at Abercrombie & Fitch for three months when I returned to New York to save up to leave again. I had to live with my mother and I was working a dead-end and extremely superficial job. I learned how most recent college graduates must feel like. Working full-time at my high school job was a sobering experience and I saved, saved, and saved.
– Interning for the Hay Literature Festival Cartagena. I can’t even describe this experience. I learned so much from all of the lectures and conversations. I was a personal assistant for Joumana Haddad, Alessandro Barrico, Phillipe Claudel. Philip Glass, Olivier Assayas, the Buena Vista Social Club were all part of the Festival. Probably Joumana Haddad most impacted me – her book Killing Schzeradade is a controversial and strong critique of the widespread perception of Arab women.
– During all of this, I was independently reading, and writing on IndieVolunteer. The books that most impacted me were Mountains Beyond Mountains, Half the Sky, Sex, Time and Power.
– I went back to Ecuador to visit my host family. I learned that there is nothing more important than a family who loves and supports you.
– I went to China with my mom to visit my sick grandfather and my aunt. I had an argument with my mom at this time, and left abruptly, unplanned, to go to Hong Kong by myself. Then I got into an extremely complicated situation where a man that I had met on the train who I had trusted to give me good directions and help me get to Hong Kong, ended up convincing me to go to a province in the complete opposite of Hong Kong with him, and as I didn’t know China at all, I trusted that he was helping me and I went with him. This was the only time during my two years away from school, traveling alone, that I felt that I was in extreme, urgent, blatant danger. We ended up in God knows where, in the outskirts of a city that I later found out was one of China’s trafficking capitals, in a province where they speak a dialect of Chinese that I don’t understand. I learned that emotions can greatly impair our judgment, and that many girls who are trafficked are actually picked up because they are runaways, vulnerable, and looking for help. I began to investigate the theme of trafficking and the status of women in China, and I was appalled.
– In Hong Kong, I somehow ended up applying to intern at the HK Art Fair, and I got it! This experience made me fall in love with the contemporary art world. I had always loved art, but I had never met gallerists, artists, and other contemporary art aficionados as I did at the Fair. Moreover, I felt completely comfortable in the culture, and made friends who would later serve to be very useful in helping me find internships and job opportunities.
– I randomly found out that I had credit with Air France so I went to Barcelona. I fell in love with the city, and I somehow discovered a mini Colombian community there. A Colombian woman who was doing her Masters in International Development invited me to take a mini Conflictology course with her. Those were 5 intense days of workshops, lectures, interactive games, and vibrant discussion. I was the youngest person there, and everybody else was a professional or Masters student in the field. I was thrilled – this was the moment when I realized that I truly wanted to do this. If I had gone to Barcelona randomly, and somehow stumbled upon this, it just meant that I was searching for it, and the universe actually does provide you with what you need.
– I was a Facilitator and a Youth Delegate to a UN conference in Doha. This was my first time in the Middle East… it’s hard to describe how I felt and what I learned, but I think every American HAS to go to the Middle East. We are so horribly miseducated about this part of the world.
– I went to study in India for 4 months. Studying at a local Indian university was eye-opening. The academic level was extremely high. The buildings were extremely run down. The students were extremely leftist. And then New Delhi is just extreme in every sense.
– Jaipur Literature Festival. Listening to the world’s greatest economists, writers, journalists talk about globalization and contemporary challenges made me appreciate having chosen to learn about India in this moment in time.
– I decided that I wanted to do something about the atrocious trafficking of women and girls that I knew was going on in India and Thailand and many other countries in this area, in plain daylight. I went to Cambodia to visit the Somaly Mam Foundation, an NGO that rescues, rehabilitates and educates survivors of sex trafficking. This led to an internship at the Somaly Mam Foundation at the New York City foundation office.
– I was chosen to attend the United Nations Alliance of Civilization’s annual summer school in Portugal. I met amazing youth activists from all over the world, working in distinct fields but with a common vision. The summer school focused on intercultural dialogue and inter religious understanding and about 60-70% of the participants were from the Middle East. I learned a lot about what is currently going on in Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, etc.
– Books that I read that were extremely illuminating at this moment included, Vagabonding, A Thousand Splendid Suns, White Tiger, Giovanni’s Room, 8 Minute Meditation, New Earth, and The Road of Lost Innocence.

Writing that – you can get a sense of how much I learned over the course of 2 years. I couldn’t write that much about what I learned from my undergraduate education. Of course, once I began to learn in this unorthodox way, I wouldn’t be content returning to a traditional undergraduate education. So I transferred to New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where I can study anything that I want, as long as I later craft a “concentration” and defend it in a sort of thesis-like presentation in my final year. This semester I am studying in Buenos Aires, and next semester I will be in Paris. I will graduate in New York.

Gallatin is imperfect, and NYU is very much imperfect. But it doesn’t matter. Once you realize how addicting learning is outside of school – scratch that, once you discover what you are truly passionate about and what you will willingly learn on your own initiative, you will always push yourself to learn in unconventional ways, and for the rest of your life. Even though I am here in Buenos Aires with NYU and not as an IndieTraveler, or IndieVolunteer, I still have tons of opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. And that I am! I’m studying Portuguese on my own (and practicing with my Brazilian friends), learning tango, independently researching the history of abortion in Latin America for fellowship proposals, and just living with my Argentine host family and hanging out with my friends here.

I don’t think Stark is saying – don’t go to school at all. Education is important. But she is saying, don’t take the traditional route of an undergraduate, masters, phD if it doesn’t apply to what you want to do in life. More importantly, don’t go through life blindly. Open your eyes to all the amazing learning opportunities you have around you, to free cultural activities to cheap lessons in your local community center, to your international friends who can teach you something about a different culture. The people who have the most meaningful and happiest lives are those who set themselves up to always learn something new, for the rest of their lives. I have a theory – these are also people who get jobs. And they probably get the more interesting ones, at that.

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One thought on “Independent, Unorthodox Learning – For Life

  1. Wow! Your life is a testimony of what learning should be! That it is never linear, and never routine but rather tailored to our unique character. I am glad a friend showed me this link. Seeing that learning was more of a collaboration came as an epiphany for me in my undergraduate years, and now has become a complete conviction for me. Looking forward to a collaboration with you , I have ALOT to learn from you!

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