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.
on August 26, 2009
James Bach is a high-school dropout who achieved a successful career as a consultant and trainer in the field of software testing. In "Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar," he shares some of his thoughts about his career, his self-education, and his general philosophy of life. Note the repetition of the pronoun: this book is all about *him*. Examples: "Other minds exercise my thinking and applaud my exploits," "My mind is free," "I can learn on purpose while also creating opportunities to learn by accident," "If I try to understand, but fail, that's progress."
I wanted to give the book a positive rating, because I agree completely with the author's core advocacy of constant lifelong learning. However, in reading it I was put off by the book's random organization, banal mottoes, relentless self-promotion, and ranting against formal education. I think it is likely to appeal almost exclusively to readers who share the author's unorthodox cognitive style and point of view. In short, it was written by a maverick drop-out to be read by other maverick drop-outs. If that fits your situation, you might enjoy reading it.
on September 7, 2009
When I began reading this book, I had very high hopes for it. James Bach achieved a lot in the field of software testing during a time when the field was being invented, and the amount of learning required of anyone who wanted to keep up was tremendous. Since he succeeded in such an intense learning environment and this book is presented as a guide to help other people further their education without the aid of a structured program, I thought that there might actually be something here that could change the way I think and pursue knowledge.
In structure, the book alternates between chapters that attempt to outline the way the author approaches learning, and chapters that provide snapshots of his life at various points, and how his life came to turn out the way that it did. In theory this layout works just fine, since we would be learning about his techniques in parallel with beginning to understand how he developed them. In practice, the descriptions and incidents of his life don't always tie back into the theme of the book in a meaningful way, and at times he seems to veer off into wanting to take space in the book to defend things he did as a teenager that could just as easily have been left out entirely.
There's a certain stream-of-consciousness quality to the book that gives the sense that the author didn't always have a very clear idea of how he was going to go about moving from one point to the next. He frequently wanders off into tangents that seem to be intended to illustrate his thought process, but while mildly interesting really don't end up adding very much to his message.
The theme itself, of being a buccaneer, had some promise. He uses it as an analogy for the way that someone should ideally educate himself in the world today, moving through the vast seas of resources in libraries and the Internet and grabbing onto and taking whatever parts are useful or inspiring without allowing yourself to settle into one place and one set of expertise and get comfortable. It does, unfortunately, get stretched too far and also becomes the excuse for several of the tangents that are never tied back into the theme of education in a very satisfying way.
A lot of what I felt while I read this book made a lot more sense later on, when he talks a little bit about how he came to write the book. It seems that his family members had been suggesting to him for years that he should write it, and he sometimes had to corner himself into getting chapters finished by telling people that they would be sent on specific days. Having finished it, and given myself a few days to mull over the content, my overall impression is that most of the problem here is that it was an author who seems never to have had a burning desire to write either an autobiography or a book that would guide people to educate themselves. That lack of a singular passion behind one topic leaves you with a book that tries to do both things at once, without really giving either one enough control of the narrative to make the overall result coherent.
Having said all of that, it may seem strange that I still gave this book even 3 stars. The autobiographical parts are very interesting, and had he committed himself to just writing that and finding insight into the way his life developed, he could have written a great autobiography. For the parts on self-education he does say some useful things, and certainly dwells more on some critical topics (such as issues with insecurity, failure still being progress, and sometimes needing to back off and give yourself time) than I've seen from similar books in the past, so that was a good thing.
On the whole, I'm glad I read it but it definitely doesn't fall into the 'must read' column. It's more the sort of book that I would advise a friend to think about borrowing from the library one day, or maybe pick up later in a used or paperback edition, than one I would suggest they run out to buy immediately.
on June 28, 2012
I bought this book a while back after reading an article and it mentioning this book. I honestly expected more from this book. While inspiring it was a bit dull and tended to over analyze things to the point that I just got bored with the book and put it down. He mentions how he grew up and what led him to live this "self educated" life and landed him a job at Apple. I'm a big advocate of self education so this book resonated well with me, but for me it just wasn't enough to fully get through the book.
If you were to approach most successful people from any field (from pop stars, to CEOs) I think that you would find that the common denominator is an unusually high level of drive and focus. The author, is an incredibly successful software tester and businessman who was able to secure top jobs and innovate the field without so much as a high school diploma. He did this through self-education (learning everything there was to know about his chosen field.
Bach derides the traditional education system which did not serve him. Certainly things worked out well for him. However, if you were to examine the rates of success for most high school dropouts (granted most drop out for different reasons) results are different. In the same way that not every high school basketball player is going to be the next Michael Jordan - Bach is unique in his success.
I think the best way to interpret this book is that everyone must take responsibility for their education (whether in school or out). With focus and self-study you can go far (farther if you have a degree - for most people).
Sadly the book is very short on the "how to" offering little prescription for how wannabe buccaneers can do what Bach did.
I'm the type of person who prefers a structured learning environment. Along with the military, college helped me get my act together and prepare for a career in the IT field. However, James Marcus Bach took a different path. He dropped out of high school, became his own teacher, and emerged as a software testing expert. As the cover blurb indicates, the author values "self-education and the pursuit of passion" much more than academia. I like the idea of pursuing my passion, so I got "Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar" to see what I could plunder from it. I discovered some doubloons of wisdom, but was ultimately left idling in the doldrums.
Mr. Bach cloaks his self-education system in the language and mannerisms of buccaneers, better known as pirates. He admires their freewheeling style, entrepreneurial nature, and zest for life. Knowledge is to him like booty is to a buccaneer. To that end, the author has constructed a structured approach to learning that he believes can help anyone realize his or her passion. Some of the book is dedicated to the specifics of Mr. Bach's learning style; the rest provides a biographical take on his methodology's evolution and how it helped him, a high-school dropout with no college degree, become a sought-after software tester.
I admire Mr. Bach's drive and the fact that he is the captain of his own soul. His creativity, ambition, and resourcefulness are enviable, and it looks like he's done well in his chosen field. But did those personal qualities, combined with good timing, contribute as much (or more) to his success as buccaneer scholarship? He acknowledges that he got into software testing on the ground floor, when geeks with attitude and self-taught knowledge could take the helm and run the ship. Nowadays it would be somewhat harder for a non-credentialed young adult to gain opportunities in a mature information systems field with many formal certifications and academic standards in place.
Iconoclasm is a good thing, and being a lifelong learner and explorer is better than rigid thinking and stagnation. However, I question the usefulness of a learning approach that seems tightly bound to a certain quirky personality type. As for academia, Mr. Bach damns it with faint praise and links it to passivity, lack of creativity, and drone-like behavior. But my college experience was quite the opposite. Indeed, didn't higher learning institutions contribute to the production of the resources he used for the personal and professional growth that enabled him to create his own system? This isn't the first time I've seen people without formal education dismiss it as unnecessary and inferior. Perhaps Mr. Bach protests too much?
"Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar" is a fairly short read that contains the author's do-it-yourself approach to vocational actualization. Self-starters will be encouraged, and I was entertained by Mr. Bach's eccentric approach to life. But for the less entrepreneurially inclined or those who need some direction, consigning a high-school or college education to the briny depths isn't the best course of action. Who would you bet on in a fight: a motley band of Somali pirates, or a highly-trained Navy SEAL team? You get the drift, matey.
BIAS ALERT: First let me confess a huge bias of mine. I'm SICK of the whole Pirates thing. I love Disney's Pirates and am a sucker for the movies, merchandising, etc. But let's face it, the whole "talk like a pirate" thing has been beaten to death. In fairness though, Bach admits that he had an extended interruption while writing this book, so perhaps the pirates metaphor hadn't been completely wrung out at the time he started writing. (/end rant)
I'm fascinated by Bach's account and description of his personal learning path. However, I don't believe his approach would work for everyone (just like formal education didn't work for him). We're all different and we all respond differently to various methods of learning. I do believe that his style is probably better suited to adult learners than elementary, high school, or college age learners. It takes a certain amount of maturity to be disciplined enough to make independent learning productive (and accurate). I also look back at my own education and know that I benefited greatly from some of the required classes that I hated--there's no way I would have studied much of the material in my general ed. courses if they hadn't been required.
I also suspect that Bach has an advantage of a few IQ points over the average learner. I'm guessing that much of his father's creative genius rubbed off on him (see Jonathan Livingston Seagull).
All in all, I think most of us can learn a great deal from Bach's personal story and I think we'd all do well to challenge ourselves to be more flexible in our own learning. However, I think it's a dangerous notion to encourage our younger students with their energy-drink addled brains to drop out of school and "do their own thing". Their skulls are polluted enough as it is with today's false notions of self empowerment. I guess the shame of it is that our high schools and universities don't employ the same caliber of instructors as in years past, so the four year degree doesn't carry the credibility that it should. There truly is no simple solution. Bach's methods certainly do provide a healthy way to balance out today's watered down education system. Again, the danger would be in encouraging the more "average" students to drop out of school in favor of Bach's DIY method.
This is a most unusual story. The book is basically about the life and education of the author, James Marcus Bach. James dropped out of school in the 10th grade. He was a rebel. He did not conform to, fit in with or believe in the formal educational system. It did not work for him. So he dropped out.
But he became highly successful in a field where most people reach success after achieving advanced degrees. James considers himself a buccaneer and compares himself to the pirates of the Caribbean.
I believe most of us have a bit of the buccaneer spirit in us. Most of us will be able to identify with James on some level.
A lot of the criticism he levels at the educational system is valid. The system does not focus on really educating so much as cramming students with information which may or may not be useful later in life.
James quickly learned that he could only dig really deep into subjects where he had some special interest. He educated himself.
By any standards, James is at the top of his field and must be considered a success. He gives four reasons for his success:
"I invested time and passion in my own education."
"I developed a method of self-education that fits my temperament and the rhythms of my mind."
"I work in a field that values competence and good ideas more than paper credentials."
"I found mentors and colleagues who helped me gain the confidence to present my ideas in a compelling way."
This book is not about creating excuses for not getting an education. James says, "Education is important. School is not." If you wish to excel in any field, you must get a good education in that field - from school or from self-education.
While the story is very interesting, it is also about James. I do not believe that very many people would be able to model his behavior and achieve the same results. His path worked for him but is very unlikely to work for many others.
Interesting story but I do not feel like it is the model for most of those struggling with school.
on September 24, 2009
I was drawn to this book because of my own belief that self-education is the best form of education. You have to find what you are passionate about in order to succeed. Everything else is going through the motions. The author found this out himself that there are fields where an ability to learn and a self-created hunger for knowledge is more important than a formal education. There are many people who I have encountered that just simply want to coast through life. Get their spouse, the dog, the house, the 1.5 kids and most importantly the 9 to 5 job that pays for all the former. This book is not for them. Period. Just like the New International Student is not for everyone. What the book does very well is show that it is possible to live outside of the norm. This isn't exactly a new concept, but I think it is good to be reminded of success stories like this or Tim Ferris (4 Hour Workweek), Chris Guillebeau (The Art of Non-Conformity); and Josh Kaufman (Personal MBA). The author is as humble about his accomplishments as Tim Ferris is, so not at all. There is a lot of self-promotion in the book and its a bit overpowering at times. I kept saying to myself, yah, yah, I get it you're cool - you beat the system.
The basic premise of the book is good though - follow your heart, your passion and take responsibility for your own future.
on February 4, 2010
First, the good: Bach is dead-on when he describes the gap between formal education and the workplace. I worked for many years in IT and telecom, and have masters degrees in both, and yet everything I needed to know for my jobs I learned ON THE JOB, not in the classroom. The ability to find the information you need when you need it, be able to absorb, evaluate and apply it, is a crucial skill. Unfortunately many folks coming out of formal education are unable to apply what they know (ask any engineer nearing retirement age). HOWEVER, I also recognize the need for structured education up to a certain point. A basic curriculum ensures that you have an essential foundation of skills and concepts/ knowledge before you begin your self-education path, and the role of formal education is to "begin at the beginning" to ensure there are no big gaps in your knowledge on your way to learning bigger and better things. Being able to transfer that knowledge to real-world problems should be an essential part of that basic education. Unfortunately, Bach's childhood experiences and lingering anger and contempt for the "school system" diminishes an otherwise valuable message.