A lesson learned from James Bach

About “Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar” (James Bach)

I just finished James Bach’s “Secrets of a buccaneer-scholar” and it hit home in a weird way. I’m not an unschooler or a high school dropout, but I could still relate to a lot of things in his book. It was a tremendous read, giving me instant flashbacks to the days of yore.

As a young kid, I constantly skimmed through encyclopedia volumes that were lying around the house. I wasn’t “studying” from them, I was just fascinated by what I thought was all the knowledge of the universe compiled into 14 volumes. I let my mind wander while looking at the pictures, jumping randomly from subject to subject. When something looked fascinating enough to stay with it for a while, I dove in and read through the whole entry. I didn’t understand all of it, but I didn’t really mind. Most of the time it was just superficial browsing anyway – I blamed it on my short attention span. But as I was doing it more frequently, it became more systematic. Once in a while, I came across things that I previously ignored, but all of a sudden did seem interesting enough to investigate. Things I had previously read helped me to understand new things as well. I learned that I remembered lots of information without trying to. It just sticked because it was so damn interesting. I did the same thing with all the world maps and globes I could get my hands on. They really got my imagination running. The result is that I’m still bursting with trivia that spill out on the most inconvenient moments. It’s great in the occasional quiz, though.

I always thought that was a bit awkward. Not many kids I knew read encyclopedias and atlases in their spare time. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy school, but this kind of exploratory learning felt more natural to me. There was hardly any effort involved. It was pretty chaotic, but it was a learning style that fit me like a wet suit. 

As an adult, I am facing the same problems: I like to learn and educate myself, but in an almost impractical and inefficient way. I see interesting ideas and sources of knowledge everywhere, and this overwhelms me – so many things to learn, so little time! I purchase far more books than I can read (thanks for that, Paypal & Amazon). I start reading books but do not necessarily finish them. My reading isn’t very linear. I tend to get distracted often and feel the need to switch to something else. I procrastinate more than I would like. At this very moment, I’m trying to read nine books at the same time.

I used to feel bad about all this inefficiency. Until I finished James Bach’s book, a couple of hours ago.

It put things in perspective. It all makes a bit more sense to me now. Apparently it *is* okay and natural to let your mind wander. Allow yourself to be distracted. James calls it the “Follow your Energy”-heuristic: go with the flow of what engages your curiosity. Stick with what is fun and fits the natural rhythms of your mind. But in order to be more in control of your learning, combine it with the “Long Leash”-heuristic. Let your mind drift off, but in a controlled manner – keep it on a long leash. Remind yourself that you are on a mission and gently pull on the leash to regain focus again. 

These are just a couple of examples, but there’s more where that came from. In a way, a lot of the principles or heuristics described in the book reminded me of the young kid trying to work his chaotic way through that wealth of interesting information out there.

James Bach describes his pattern of learning with the “SACKED SCOWS” acronym:

  • Scouting Obsessively (…I discover the sources and tools I will need)
  • Authentic Problems (… engage my mind)
  • Cognitive Savvy (…means working with the rhythms of my mind) 
  • Knowledge attracts Knowledge (…the more I know, the easier I learn) 
  • Experimentation (…makes learning vivid and direct)
  • Disposable Time (…lets me try new things)
  • Stories (…are how I make sens of things)
  • Contrasting Ideas (…leads to better ideas)
  • Other Minds (…exercise my thinking and applaud my exploits)
  • Words and Pictures (…make a home for my thoughts)
  • Systems Thinking (…helps me tame complexity)

According to James Bach, a Buccaneer-Scholar is

“anyone whose love of learning is not muzzled or shackled by any institution or authority; whose mind is driven to wander and find its own place in the world”. 

So, am I a Buccaneer-Scholar? Maybe, I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t a rebel kid at war with the educational system – I actually enjoyed most of my time at school. I am not radically unschooling my kids, as James is doing. I wasn’t a whizz-kid either. I don’t think that’s the point. But I do love to learn new stuff, and preferably in ways that do not really make sense. At least, they didn’t until today.

Thank you, James.


6 thoughts on “A lesson learned from James Bach”

  1. It’s not the radical unschooling from James. He put it to me in that way, that there are people attracted to public schools and who can learn from them. Personally, I am one of these. Yet, I still identify with most of his ideas and seem them in play when I learn. Personally, I consider myself to be a self-educated person, also. 90% of the knowledge I need from day to day was gathered after leaving university. So, the passion to learn new things should never disappear. It’s just that each of us has to find their particular place for learning. James found it in self-education at home, I found it between university and self-education. The key is to keep your mind trained to do so.

  2. I feel almost the same. There is a difference, I like more learning in a group. Then on my own.
    The desire to learn new things is just as James says.
    I did finish the book 5 days ago and It was fun to read.
    Buccaneer scholar is someting I strongly believe in.

    Pascal Dufour

  3. Hi Zeger,

    Thank you. I’m glad I can be of service.

    BTW, I feel surprised that I have not known of your blog until now. Interesting stuff! You’re the only sapient testing blogger in Belgium that I know of.

    — James

  4. @Markus
    Thanks for your reply.
    Self-education is a continuous process, that everyone tackles differently, I guess. I found out that the stuff I “learned” as a kid acted as a catalyst for later learnings. I also found the things I learned at the university to be of little value in everyday life. The quality of teaching was sub-par, too. No dialogue – strictly a one-way communication.

    Thanks for your reply.
    True, learning in group can be fun too. If you’re in the right group, of course – one that stimulates all participants, one that is a learning environment where people feel safe and are allowed to fail.

    Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.
    My blog is pretty new, I started it mid-december. Glad you found it worthwile!

    — Zeger

  5. There is perhaps no field where institutional learning is less successful, and individual and passionate pursuit of one’s interests is more important, than the field of language learning. I speak 11 languages, having learned Cantonese, Portuguese, and Russian in the last 7 years in my spare time. I am now working on Korean. I will be 65 in October and run an international lumber trading company.

    For language learning, attitude, time (especially dead time while doing other chores) and attentiveness are all you need. The teacher can only inspire, but cannot teach. The brain will learn, is designed to learn, but does so on its own schedule.

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