“The caterpillar is condemned to crawl, but the butterfly has the potential to soar above with an all-inclusive view of the world. As humans we complete our caterpillar stage when we reach mature physical growth. If we are to soar like the butterflies, we must do so through the development of our minds” - Charles D. Hayes
It’s triteness is irritating to say the least.
My fervor for auto-didacticism culminated just a few years prior to getting my hands on the work of Charles D. Hayes. After reading Self-University - I felt like Charles was a long lost friend. He is single handedly responsible for shaping my existing beliefs about institutionalized education and the importance of auto-didacticism. After a few immersing sessions with his wisdom – I changed my entire approach to learning and actually felt perfectly OK with having zero interest in school.
It’s a pity that more people aren’t aware of his work.
I invite you to a front row seat as we dive into his ideologies and the interesting origins of his thought process.
The following is a recent conversation I had with Charles.
DW: What is the main message you would like your readers to grasp when reading your books?
CDH: In a nutshell: Think of an education not as something you get but as something you take.
DW: How does one develop a self-directed curriculum?
I think each person should come up with their own method guided mostly by one’s interest. Most of the books I read lead to another and another and another. In time, titles of books in areas that I’m interested in become so intriguing and tantalizing that I can’t wait to get my hands on them. Some of the most prestigious colleges in the country, like MIT, have practically all of their curricula online for anyone to read at no cost. Based on my own personal experience, developing strong interest in a subject is not something that necessarily happens spontaneously. A deep curiosity kicks in only when your knowledge base is significant enough to make the new information meaningful. When one achieves a critical mass of knowledge, new information becomes self-reinforcing, as does the reward of adding to one’s comprehension.
DW: A common theme among your books is to spend more time learning about your own self instead of studying some field in the hopes of securing a career in the future. Can you elaborate?
CDH: I would modify that advice today with the caveat that until one has a fair amount of knowledge of the external world, it is not possible to gain valuable knowledge of one’s inner world. So much about human behavior has been learned in the past two decades that I believe we are on the cusp of a whole new way to think about ourselves. That said, most of the research to date accounts for a small percentage of the world population, one with a decided Western slant. The more we study other cultures, the easier it is to put our own culture and life in perspective.
DW: What are your predictions for the future of institutionalized education and is it a necessary element in modern day society?
CDH: I have great affection for institutions of higher learning. I find it an exhilarating experience just to walk onto a college campus. I also believe, however, that it is insane to maintain an educational system where it is necessary to become an indentured servant to a financial institution to get a college education. It seems outlandish that a country that claims to need an educated citizenry more than anything else has not figured out how to make college free to anyone capable of matriculating. An existential education is free for the taking for anyone determined to know what every person should know to live a fulfilling life. In my view, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy are not electives, unless one elects not to be a complete human being. Traditional education is intent on the mass manufacture of human doings, not human beings. In the future something has to give with regard to higher education resulting in a mountain of debt. If we ever learn to judge competence in practice instead of paper credentials, the system we have now will collapse under its own weight.
DW: How would you define “Intellectual Maturity” and how would one reach such state?
CDH: Knowledge of the world makes reflection possible, which enables a person to dispel some of the existential angst that’s built into the human condition. In my view, human beings need to know as much as possible about all human beings. This means that the humanities can’t be considered electives, unless we don’t care about how people turn out or what kind of lives they lead. Achieving intellectual maturity involves learning how to compensate for our hard-wired propensity to act tribally. We default too easily to ethnocentrism, contempt, and outright hatred when we are confronted with what seems like too much otherness. Our educational system is focused more on creating human-doings than human-beings. As I see it, one achieves intellectual maturity by developing the ability to cope with existential angst without needing to find other people to blame for one’s feelings of insecurity.
DW: Before becoming an author, you lived in Texas and served as a U.S Marine and as a police officer before embarking on a career in the oil industry. Can you contrast your experiences and how they sculpted you to be the person you are today?
CDH: Sad to say I grew up in a racist community. I was no exception until my mid-thirties, when I began to study a wide range of subjects during breaks from my work on Alaska’s North Slope oil fields. My experience in the Marines kicked up some cognitive dissonance with regard to the worldview I was born into but not enough to relieve me of the prejudice that I thought reflected reality. The same applies to my stint as a police officer in Dallas, Texas. I was about 23 when I joined the department, and at the time I think we had a civil service policy that wouldn’t hire people as police officers after age 35. Now I think one shouldn’t be a police officer until age 35, unless one can show proof of intellectual maturity. My experience with self-education dramatically changed my worldview, and now one of the main themes that I stress is to rid society of the debilitating malignancy of bigotry and racism. We human beings are predisposed to abhor too much otherness. To be forewarned of this educationally is to be forearmed against it. In spite of our great technological advancement, we are still equipped with Stone Age minds, and it takes an existential education to compensate. An existential education is simply a liberal education that works as intended by enabling a person to use reflection as an antidote to contempt. If the person I am today at age 69 were to meet the person I was at 21, the two would have nothing in common except their birthplace and childhood memories.
DW: What are your thoughts on religion?
CDH: I am an agnostic unless pushed, at which time I’m an atheist. I grew up in a religious community, but I recall listening to sermons as a child and having doubts that the minister knew what he was talking about. Believing in an afterlife, in my view, is equivalent to arranging one’s brain patterns in a way that matches up with a doctrine that says a person can live forever without the use of that very brain. The fact that people can believe this and that they will kill others who see things differently is something that to my mind is very hard to fathom. We can’t re-acquire consciousness when our brain stops functioning, no matter what thoughts were in there before. Those who assume life will be better in some celestial neverland expect to be excused from taking responsibility for making life better here. Such beliefs beg to be relieved by an existential education.
DW: How would you define self-reliance? Do you see any trends that may be shifting us away from it in modern day society?
CDH: This is a tough question and an easy answer escapes me. Our society and all societies are more interdependent than ever before. We still celebrate a mythic Horatio Alger past, where people did alone what actually required lots of cooperation and assistance, and yet today, an absence of initiative is glaring in many sectors of society. I think this circles back to the value of an existential education that can put one’s predicament in life in the kind of perspective that makes options clear along with the actions necessary to put them in place. I believe an Emersonian stance toward life is the best default position one can take, which means looking to one’s self first and foremost, regardless of the circumstances one encounters in life. Having a penchant for self-reliance constitutes a large part of the price demanded for achieving authenticity. That said, contemporary economics requires a safety net that helps people maintain their self-reliance when economic alternatives are clearly not possible. When large numbers of people who strive to be self-reliant find themselves unemployable in a depressed economy, they need a hand up, not a handout, but we don’t seem to do the former because of political pettiness. This is where our Stone Age minds kick in, and finding someone to blame without mustering enough generosity to solve the problem is the easiest way out.
DW: Many pundits bring up the notion of “finding one’s passion” when asked for advice about doing something worthwhile. Despite the cliched advice, an alarming number of people fail at figuring out what their passion is in life. What are your thoughts on finding one’s passion and what advice would you give someone who is still searching?
CDH: My advice is don’t ever give up. Let your casual interests lead you along until the resonance of what you are studying sparks your emotions. Pay attention to what you get excited about and what you get angry about when you are discussing issues. If you find yourself watching the same movies over and over, it may be insightful to examine your favorite parts for clues about what you really care about at a subconscious level. Also read, read, read.
DW: If you could recommend one or two books that has been the most instrumental in your own development as a human being, what would they be and why?
CDH: I found The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant so inspiring that I read it several times in succession, and the same with Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave. Durant’s book was a mind opener since it was my first introduction to philosophy. In The Third Wave, the simple notion that Toffler could contrive such a big picture view of the world was enthralling, and it made me want to do so as well. I also find the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson so rich as to be intellectually intoxicating. Herman Melville is my favorite author of fiction, and Moby Dick is one of the most interesting books I have ever read for insight about what can be hidden in the depths of text.
DW: What were some challenges you’ve overcome? What was the process like?
CDH: Early on in my self-education, I found it difficult to let go of the biased worldview I had assumed reflected reality when I was growing up. I used to argue passionately about certain subjects, but in hindsight I can now see that I didn’t know enough about them to discuss them at all. This makes the old saying “the fewer the facts the stronger the opinion” ring true. In time, though, I learned that the world wouldn’t end if I let old assumptions give way to new ideas. It became thrilling to see the world differently. Thus the journey, not the destination, became the reward, so to speak.
DW: How should one approach personal growth?
CDH: Start with your contempt, your prejudices, and the things that foster your sense of insecurity. Learn enough about these issues in order to dissipate them, and it will make room for a better life minus a lot of unnecessary anxiety. If you can learn to love what you have instead of what you want but don’t need, it’s hard to fail. It takes a lot of work and thoughtfulness to get there. The first step, I suppose, is to learn to define success in your own way instead of looking to others. Think about how disappointing and disillusioning it would be to awaken some day and find that for the whole of your life you had been dancing to an arbitrary tune written by strangers. It’s even more disheartening to learn that this is precisely what most people do unless they have applied some very serious introspection to their own motivation. Metaphorically we are like toy tops in that the spin society adds to our lives in the beginning continues without question, unless we encounter significant emotional events that cause us to reassess our life’s trajectory. I don’t know anyone personally who I could say has mastered this aspect of life, including myself. It’s a never ending task like housekeeping. You have to work at it constantly in order not to be overly influenced by external expectations that may or may not serve your best interests in the long run.
Dilanka’s Note: If anything here resonates with you, I encourage you to check out some of his books. They are excellent.
Charles D. Hayes is a self-taught philosopher and an impassioned advocate for lifelong learning. At age 17, he dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Marines. After four years of duty, he became a police officer in Dallas, Texas, and later he moved to Alaska, where he has worked for more than 35 years in the oil industry. In 1987, Hayes founded Autodidact Press, “committed to lifelong learning as the lifeblood of democracy and the key to living life to its fullest.”