†††††††††††††† I was sixteen years old when I woke up.I was wandering around the lower floor of a big public library when all of a sudden I stopped, stood still, and had the strange sensation of several ideas crystallizing in my mind at once.One was that I realized I had been living my entire life rolling along mindlessly in a groove I didnít even notice.I felt like I was a character in a play whose role I never chose but was simply cast into and started playing without even realizing it.I wasnít an individual as much as I was simply a consequence of my environment and my past.

†††††††††††††† I got the same impression when I looked at everyone around me.Everyone else seemed to be living in grooves.They lived the same from day to day, year to year.And the lives were so similar I couldnít believe they were actually chosen out of free will.I reasoned that everyone else must roll in the grooves set before them the same way I had been rolling in mine.

†††††††††††††† As if that wasnít enough, all of this was coupled with the second realization that I was getting things wrong.I was occasionally learning things that contradicted what I had believed, what I had been told was safely true.They werenít earth-shattering contradictions, just facts and ideas that suggested my view of things was shallow, incomplete, and, at times, simply wrong.I distinctly remember a book on the COINTELPRO papers that gave me this feeling.††

†††††††††††††† The two of these together worried me because almost everything I believed, I didnít believe for a reason, I just believed because they were part of this groove I was in.And if some things were wrong, how could I be sure about any of the others?And even if I had reasons, what assurance did I have that the reasons were true rather than just part of my inaccurate, immature view of things?In fact, when I got down to it, what security did I have in anything at all?

†††††††††††††† Itís hard to explain because most people can brush this sort of thing aside as philosophical nonsense or theyíll think to themselves, ďI know what I knowĒ and continue on mindlessly.But if you understand what Iím talking about, youíll get this deep, uneasy feeling of a dread uncertainty in your stomach and it wonít go away.

†††††† ††††††††When it came down to it, I had to accept the fact that I was, for all intents and purposes, entirely ignorant about everything.The chance my infantile view of things was correct was so obviously small that I threw it out and accepted the fact I would need to start from scratch.

†††††††††††††† I started with a few questions.They turn out to be questions philosophers deal with, but I wasnít doing them as exercises for a philosophy class.I had them for real.There were basically two: What can I trust to be true?Is there any place, any bedrock, from which I can start that I know wonít be yanked out from under me?Also, I have this life in front of me, so what should I do with it?Out of all of the possible paths, is there a path I should take?And if there is a right path, how do I know what it is?

†††††††††††††† The second of these appeared because I had stopped rolling in my groove and was instead just standing there, looking around at the surrounding vast flatland of everything that was possible with life.I know this is close to the sort of bookmark ďIf you can dream it, you can do itĒ drivel, but the fact is that the spectrum of all thatís possible in this world is huge.And it wasnít the sort of spectrum like, ďWell I could be a chemistry major or an engineering major.ĒThat would just be seeing a bunch of grooves.What I saw was simply flat land where possibilities like, ďWell I could spend my life eating Oreos and playing badmintonĒ were there just like all of the others.The spectrum is huge and the variety is enormous when you stop seeing just the grooves everyone rolls in.

†††††††††††††† So I had these daunting questions and nothing but complete ignorance facing them.So I thought, ďWell, Iíll just have to learn everything about everything.Otherwise I might miss the path Iím supposed to take and Iíve only got one life to try, so I donít want to screw it up by missing the path.ĒKnowing nothing better to do, I figured that since there are books on just about everything, if I could read a representative sample of these books, I would get at least some view of everything.I knew libraries were obligated to cover most subjects, so at the public library I began at the top row of the first shelf, at 000.I pulled out the book, looked at it, and read over what it was about.If it seemed like it was something important to know and it was written well, I kept it and went on to the next book.I did this until I had five or six books (which only took me a few rows to accomplish). I took the books home, read them in a few days, returned them, and went back to the library shelves where I left off.I know it sounds absurd, and I guess it is, but thatís what I did.I just went though the public library stacks that way.††

††††††††† †††††Itís hard to describe how much I gained from doing this.I learned a tremendous amount and everything I learned pointed towards more ideas to explore.Things began to make much more sense, especially the confusions I had carried with me for years.My view of the world and everything that was possible to do within it expanded beyond recognition.And everything around me acquired a depth and richness that I had before been completely unaware of.

†††††††††††††† To me, this sort of exploration of ideas and possibilities is the only sensible education.The more time I spend in structured attempts at education, the less ultimately valuable I think they are.Itís sort of like taking a bunch of second graders to an amusement park and doing everything as a group of thirty.Itís too confining, too restricting, too uncomfortably lock-step.What you should do instead is make sure everyone has a map and just let them go.It requires trust and a realization that even though a few kids will getlost and waste their day wandering around hopelessly, this is more than offset by the freedom given to everyone else.

†††††††††††††† Of course, intellectual and existential exploration donít have the immediate pleasures that amusement park rides do.If you give freedom and time to a group of young people and with it they sit around and talk about who got drunk when and how, this process isnít likely to happen.I assume thatís why most educational situations are very controlled.To do the sort of thing Iíve written about takes self-discipline and if you donít have that, I donít know what to tell you.

 

††††††††††† In looking back, I realize that what I did took time and effort and patience and discipline, but when I think about the sort of dumb, mindless, constricted, pathetically conformist person I would be if I didn't read all that I did and learn all that I learned, I have the feeling I escaped with my life.