He loved to learn but he hated school.
Does that sound like any of your children? Does it sound like you? If you answered yes to either or both of those questions, I think you’d like Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar.
Author James Marcus Bach wrote this book to describe the way he learns and why he thinks it’s important to share how he learns with others. Why should we care? Well, he’s a pretty accomplished guy for a high school dropout. At 20 he got a job as a software tester at Apple Computers, where he became the youngest manager and one of the very few who didn’t have an undergraduate degree, much less a graduate degree. These days he’s a highly respected expert in the computer field and often is addressed as Dr. Bach because people familiar with his work believe he must be highly (i.e. formally) educated.
When he first got the job at Apple, he studied to learn his craft and to keep up with his fellow (college-grad) employees, but his concerns about the latter were unnecessary:
At first I thought I would learn a lot from the other testers. There were more than four hundred of them in my building. But talking to them revealed a startling truth: nobody cared.
Almost nobody. In the first six months I worked at Apple, out of all the testers in the software testing division, I met maybe ten who were also reading testing books. The rest muddled through without much ambition to master their craft. It was clear that catching the college kids would not be difficult, after all.
The pattern I experienced at Apple would be confirmed almost everywhere I travelled in the computer industry: most people have put themselves on intellectual autopilot. Most don’t study on their own initiative, but only when they are forced to do so. Even when they study, they choose to study the obvious and conventional subjects. This has the effect of making them more alike instead of more unique. It’s an educational herd mentality.
Meanwhile Bach voraciously read everything he could about software testing, and other subjects that might help him in his thinking. No one forced him to do this. This was how he had always learned. But for most of his childhood, his way of learning was not acceptable. He chafed at the drills, tests and lectures that made up his education in junior high and high school. This was a young man who was thrilled to discover in seventh grade that the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had outlawed slavery or “involuntary servitude”:
Aha! When schoolwork is involuntary servitude, it’s illegal.
Of course my teachers told me that the amendment does not apply to children. I did not have the wit or skill to make a proper verbal answer at that time…..It occurred to me that the school could not control my mind. My cooperation with school was entirely by choice. I was free to cooperate, or refuse, so long as I accepted the consequences.
And there were consequences. Once Bach decided to skip homework and fail tests on purpose, the results created trouble between him and his mother and stepfather, to the point that his mother sent him to live in a local motel when he was 14 because he had threatened to shoot his stepfather, who kept fighting with him about his behavior. With no one to force him to go to school, he became truant and soon dropped out. An older brother helped him move to another state, where he got his first programming job. He became an “emancipated minor” at age 16. Five years later, he would be working at Apple.
Bach devotes much of this book to describing not only how he learns, but also how he learned how he learns. I think the moral here is that when a person is motivated to learn, he can learn almost anything. There’s a message here for homeschooling parents, who often feel pressure to teach their children using the same methods and materials that are used in the public schools. Bach’s example shows that kids can be trusted to learn if they’re given the opportunity to do so (or if they’re motivated enough to take that opportunity without permission.)
In this book, Bach offers many ideas for learners that will encourage and inspire them.
Now in his 40s, Bach’s success is proof that self-teaching works. Using the motif of a buccaneer, someone who pursues what he wants (in this case, knowledge), Bach shares what he has learned about learning and how it got him the career he has today:
I didn’t go to school to discover the connections between testing and other fields. Most of it I didn’t find even in books about testing. I simply approached my craft with a buccaneering attitude. I scouted, I struggled with authentic problems each day, I procrastinated, I plunged in, I incorporated each of the eleven elements and heuristics of buccaneering into my process. As a result, a specific career path (the field of testing) unfolded before me. One will unfold before you, too. I reinvented testing for myself, and made myself into a unique brand among testers. Any buccaneer can do this in any chosen field.
Does Bach regret dropping out of school and making his own way by learning on his own? In his book’s acknowledgements chapter, he says:
Finally, I’m grateful for my son Oliver, who has surpassed me by dropping out of seventh grade.
This book is a thought-provoking read for parents and young people alike.