At AVS alumni panels I’ve often observed phenomenal young adults wowing audience members, and for years I’ve wondered. There’s got to be some connection between their self-assurance, passion, curiosity, initiative, persistence, responsibility (et cetera) and the time they each spent at Alpine Valley School—but what exactly is that relationship? Apparently ordinary youth arrive at our school and, over time, emerge as stunning paragons of the successful, fulfilled life. Still, a degree of mystery persisted: how does this transformation occur?
Thanks to James Marcus Bach, I now have a better idea how the magic happens.
In his book Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success, Bach builds a convincing case for letting individuals direct their own learning. Weaving personal history with a detailed explanation of his own principles of self-education, Bach vividly reveals the inner workings of the self-educated mind.
The book’s title derives from Bach’s admiration for certain qualities of the seventeenth-century buccaneers: the strength of spirit, resourcefulness, and camaraderie with which they pursued the riches of their day. Buccaneer scholars are those who, wary of hierarchy and arbitrary authority, plunder knowledge wherever they find it. To quote Bach, “success is not about what you know, it’s about what you can discover and create. It’s not about what you are, but about what you are becoming and what you can cause to happen. It’s about learning.”
Buccaneer scholars “may learn from a teacher or a formalized syllabus, but on [their] own terms and in [their] own time.” They “move between and among subjects without respect for disciplinary boundaries.” “Skeptics who play with beliefs and try on philosophies,” they “create [their] own models of the world, or pluck from other thinkers as [they] see fit.”
You may dismiss this as a romantic, Disneyfied vision, wondering what role the buccaneer scholar has in civilized, 21st-century success. There is, however, a great deal of substance behind these quotes. As suggested above, Bach lays out very methodically and concretely the elements of his self-education, which include constantly scouting for information, seeking authentic problems, experimenting with and contrasting ideas, tapping into other minds, and seeing the big picture.
Most helpfully, Bach offers several heuristics, or guiding principles, for effectively navigating the seas of knowledge. Among these are Follow the Energy, Long Leash, Cyclic Learning, Procrastinate and Push, and Obsess and Forget. Unfortunately, space does not permit an elaboration of these “habits of the highly effective buccaneer,” but they essentially boil down to aligning one’s efforts with the natural workings of one’s mind and psyche. In this context, Bach employs the metaphor of sailing to great effect: to be successful, one must understand the mechanisms of one’s own learning, working with the wind rather than against it.
That’s perhaps the richest treasure of this book: instead of being merely one more exposé of a brilliant mind, Buccaneer Scholar offers a host of practical, immediately applicable tips for anyone who wishes to take charge of their own learning, their own life and success. Perceived liabilities such as laziness, procrastination, and failure are turned around, becoming strengths. (On laziness, Bach writes: “If you were very hungry, would you make the effort to eat, or would you be lazy and starve? I don’t believe in lazy. You just need to find what you’re hungry for.”) Mostly it’s a matter of balance: knowing when to let go and when to push, knowing how to set your own goals and benchmarks to ensure adequate progress in your chosen direction.
One key way that Sudbury students resemble buccaneer scholars has to do with balancing individual autonomy and a sense of community. We all know humans are social animals: Bach distinguishes between buccaneers and more mainstream types of collectives through the metaphor of herds and packs, or crowds versus collaborations. As he puts it, “in a hunting pack, independence and teamwork go together.” While “the organizing principle in a herd is fear,” “a pack sees itself as surrounded by opportunities.”
In the end, what matters aren’t nifty analogies but whether this has any bearing on how to craft a successful life. In other words, is the buccaneer scholar relevant to 21st-century education? Here again, Bach’s clarity is refreshing. In what he terms a “knowledge worker” economy, job seekers thrive to the extent that they can improvise and promote themselves; traditional credentials matter less and less. In contrast, Bach advises building a portfolio and establishing a reputation by getting your work out there as widely as possible, demonstrating your value and networking: this is where the emerging job market will be found.
So the magic of Alpine Valley School turns out not to be magic at all. The reason our alumni are such amazing examples of vibrant, capable, successful adults is not because they’re gifted or privileged or self-selected: it’s that they were allowed to discover and develop the power of self-education. Sudbury students figure out how their minds work, how to work with their natural inclinations; they learn how to connect with others and make their own destiny. It isn’t always easy: as James Bach says, “life is less convenient for those who chart their own course.” But the payoff—an authentic life of meaning and fulfillment—is more than worth the journey.