I once had a student who made a disparaging comment one day that set me thinking about education and educators, and how we, as constantly maturing individuals creating cultures and societies, really learn anything.

He sat on the side of the room as far away from everyone as he could get, a common position for those who don’t really want to be in a school anyway. He silently fumed from the day class began until the day he departed, sometime in the middle of the semester. Grayish from the temples to the chin, he must have been a prematurely aging man because he seemed too young for his appearance. He had a thin, wiry, wild-haired Einstein style.

One evening he complained that everything he’d ever learned he had had to teach himself. His general attitude seemed to be that instructors and schools are simply marketed storefronts and aren’t useful to anyone who really wants to be educated.

I didn’t take his comment personally; the comment didn’t seem aimed at me, and in fact, I more or less agree with him. After all, it’s the learner who must filter information and accept or reject guidance and find a way to use classroom and life experience to his or her benefit, whether age 5 or 50.

Learning takes some thought and a reasonable attempt at storage, which only the person receiving the information can do. A lecturer can deliver an eloquent discourse about the nature of the modern psyche in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but if the listener decides to take a holiday of the mind, then there’s not much that can be done about it.

My Einstein-ish student showed no interest in Conrad’s often discussed phrase the “The horror! The horror!” – the dying words of his protagonist – but his question about the worthiness of formal schooling in general remains valid. I was never assigned Conrad’s novella about a good man’s journey into “darkness,” but I did take the time to consider his words when I read it on my own many years after graduating from college.

The best learning is a personal experience, and though we need wise guides to keep us going in the right direction, at the end of the day we must follow our own paths. Guidance to that path takes many forms, from lectures about the nature of plants given by studied botanists to conversations with home gardeners who never took a formal class.

Two of the most respected American writers of the 20th century, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, didn’t learn their craft or their insights in classrooms. Faulkner got much of his material setting on a bench listening to his neighbors in Oxford, Mississippi’s town square. Hemingway found his muse in arenas of life and death, from battlefields to bullrings.

 One of the most brilliant students I ever taught was a silent, chubby-cheeked young man, also out of the mainstream, who had been homeschooled by this mother and didn’t need anyone to explain a writer’s point of view. Yet he took direction, submitted flawless papers and never revealed his thinking process.

I am not recommending the abolishment of schools, of course. Who even remembers learning to read or add or multiply? Yet we all did; the rote took hold in varying degrees, whether we were truly engaged in the process or not.

 When reviewing grammar rules to remedial English students, I often remind them of verb conjugation, an early elementary school lesson. I ask them if they recall ever conjugating verbs and none has claimed such a memory. Nonetheless, most of the time, their subjects and verbs agree in number, as they should. I only have the faintest memory of such instruction, yet I teach it today. When I have grammar questions, I take down my trusty handbook and look up the answer.

It is a generally conceded fact in contemporary America that long years of schooling from prekindergarten to some kind of career training are the best guarantee – though not foolproof – of a comfortable, successful life. Yet, using myself as an example, even though my graduate school education secured a teaching position, there isn’t much of those two years that I can directly connect to what I do in the classroom each day.

I draw on my own reading, my working experience, interaction with other educated people and media outlets and all those buried, no longer remembered days in classrooms, learning things that I know but no longer remember how I know or where I learned them.

Often students educate me about historical facts. I will ask which history class they obtained their knowledge, only to learn that they didn’t learn it in a class or a textbook. They learned from the History Channel or a TV-produced documentary. Learning often comes from what was once regarded as “the Boob Tube,” sometimes in subversive formats, such as Archie Bunker’s anti-heroism in the 1970s hit series “All in The Family.” Archie’s self-assured, yet embarrassing rants about race and class taught millions of TV viewers still adjusting to the 1964 Civil Rights Act about the ugliness of intolerance.

So in a nutshell, that discontented student in that long ago Short Story and Novel class was partly right. He wasn’t likely to remember much about that literature class a year later, but hopefully an absorbed sentence or two from Conrad’s novella would have generated deeper thought about the nature of good and evil that he might not otherwise have had.