My 7 tips for students of anything (but especially magic)

Harry Potter charms class
Hmph. Teacher’s pet.

A couple of months ago there was a bit of a to-do regarding various attitudes toward teaching and students in the occult community, especially the WMT. (See for example here, here, here (and also the comments), here, here, and also here, although the last link doesn’t address the issue of the original proposed “ten tips.”) As a former teacher of academic subjects, now a student of the occult, I thought I’d turn the telescope around and offer a holistic point of view. I was inspired by the 10 tips format, but since some of the original points were redundant in my view, I have condensed my list to 7.

1. You know a lot of stuff. Your teacher knows more.

It’s not a matter of hierarchy or of your relative ages, grades, or statuses. Quite simply, there’s a reason you wanted a teacher–you wanted to be taught. By definition, if you accept someone as a teacher, you are accepting that they probably know a lot more about this subject than you do. But occult learning isn’t grade school–no one should force you to accept anyone as your teacher. A good teacher is an eternal student, and will learn from their students in a reciprocal exchange. At the same time you should respect the amount of time, energy, and work that has gone into forming their expertise. If you already knew the material, you wouldn’t be here.

2. When you ask a question, listen to the answer. That’s what you came here for.

Every student should feel comfortable asking any question, including ones that challenge the teacher. However, it should always be remembered that the goal of the question is to further learning. I once took an online free course about Mexican curanderismo. Venturing into the student discussion forum, I witnessed a display of immaturity that I found embarrassing as a fellow student. One student–a self-described Wiccan–had started a discussion to complain about one of the teachers using the word “witch” in what he took to be a pejorative manner. (The curandera had stated that curandero/as are not witches.) Now, from my point of view, the teachers were graciously offering–free of charge!–to share their knowledge with us. Since no one was forcing us to take this course, all of us students were presumably there by choice to seek that knowledge. To then try to control the teachers’ use of language seemed bullying and self-aggrandizing to me. Especially bearing in mind that because of the subject matter, the teachers were frequently moving back and forth from Spanish to English terminology, but also attempting to make concepts from Mexican, Spanish, and Southwest Native American cultural contexts intelligible to Americans. It would have been perfectly appropriate to ask for elaboration of what the concept of “witch” means within the context of curanderismo, to open a dialogue about differences in terminology and religious perspective. It also would have been an excellent opportunity for the Wiccan student to examine his own biases and “triggers.” But he only wanted to make himself the center of attention.

3. Not every question has an answer. Even when there is an answer, the teacher’s job is not necessarily to give it to you.

When I was teaching this was probably my biggest frustration. After 12 or more grades focused on passing standardized tests, my students came to me believing that teaching is all about giving students facts, and learning is the memorization and prompt forgetting of those facts. It is unfair to expect students to transition from that style of “learning” to the old-fashioned humanistic model of the university, but that’s what we have to deal with. I found that many of my students had effectively been cognitively hamstrung by never having developed the neural networks for basic critical thinking or logical inference. In school, they learned half-assed memorization and obedience to authority; outside school, they learned that accuracy is irrelevant, and what matters is what makes you feel good or who can shout their opinion the loudest. Coupled with their belief that teachers are service providers who work for the students’ parents (as taxpayers), late-20th century “special snowflake syndrome,” and our tl;dr culture, you have a recipe for misery for both teachers and students.

From a more empathetic standpoint, imagine how scary it is for a student who has never learned to make logical inferences to suddenly find themselves in a milieu where their grade depends on being able to weigh competing arguments and thoroughly explore material that may challenge their personal beliefs. To discover that life is full of questions without answers, leading only to more and more refined questions, must be utterly unnerving. No wonder most bury their heads in the sand and carry on pretending. That doesn’t mean this trend should be allowed to grow unchecked–what passes for civilization is already showing signs of disrepair due to these failures of the educational system.

When I was a kid, if I didn’t know what a word meant, my teachers told me to look it up in the dictionary. But I didn’t stop there. I didn’t just look up the meaning–I also learned the word’s etymology and its component parts (prefix, root, suffix, etc.). I did this because I always wanted to know more and understand better. As a result, whenever I encounter an unfamiliar word–sometimes even in foreign languages–I am frequently able to figure it out based on its components. If you have accepted the reality of magic, that attitude should sound familiar. You should already have experience with looking beneath the surface, doing your own research, and breaking with convention. You should have figured out that nothing worth having comes for free (it might not cost money, but it always involves work). You should regard pushing and stretching your abilities as fun, because magic requires a lot of it.

4. The student’s role is very important, and should be taken seriously.

Good teachers regard it as a solemn responsibility to guide the next generation. It’s such a big deal, it can lead to big egos. Students should never feel embarrassed by a relative lack of expertise but should recognize the gravity of the project they are undertaking and their role as the next generation of teachers.

When I was teaching university courses, I frequently heard that the problems of academia would be fixed if it were treated as a marketplace and the students as customers, with teachers forced to compete for their attention. In fact, this is the root of the meltdown of the Western educational system currently in process. The undergrad students I knew mostly regarded class as onerous, the teacher as a terribly boring burden to be endured. If the teacher had to cancel class for some reason, students were thrilled. When was the last time you went into a retail business looking for a good or service for which you had already paid an extravagant amount, and were happy that no one showed up to serve you? Exactly. University is not a “service,” teachers are not “knowledge-delivery solutions,” and students are not “customers.”

It is well to remember that undertaking magical learning is a great responsibility, but no one forced it on you. You wanted it–now embrace it.

5. Use discernment in choosing a teacher.

Since no one is forcing you to take on a particular teacher, make sure you choose a good one, who recognizes your unique gifts and wants to see you bloom to your full capacity. Make sure what they are teaching is worth learning. That said, nobody’s perfect.

6. Do the work.

You have to do the work, no one else can do it for you. It’s hard because it is by nature challenging. Anything worth learning will take you apart and put you back together again in a new configuration. Anything worth learning forces you to take a long hard look in the mirror.

7. Keep your sense of humor, fun, and adventure.

You’ll need them all.

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6 thoughts on “My 7 tips for students of anything (but especially magic)

  1. Regarding teacher student dynamics, while it is important, what of the necessity of learning through experience? Pathei mathos the concept is called. Given the occult is such a subjective experience, enforcement of teacher student dynamics leads to dry revelation, as opposed to the individual experiencing it themselves. As a result we end up with groups such as the Golden Yawn.

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    1. I think direct experience is of the utmost importance, but I was addressing the teacher-student dynamic by itself because I consider that a separate topic. My view is that there are certain things that can be taught, and others that can’t, and for those that can only be learned through experience, there isn’t any guidebook. First because the seeker has to walk their own path, second because the knowledge can’t be put into words and only inadequately symbolized, and finally because the potential teacher can’t assume their UPG is going to apply equally to others.

      But regarding the teacher-student dynamic specifically, I don’t think any aspect of that relationship should ever be enforced. There is too much temptation to establish hierarchy and once that has been established, too much temptation to abuse the relationship. Everything in me rebels against the idea of submission to a guru or even watching others do it.

      But I think that if and when a student chooses to take on a teacher, there has to be sufficient humility and vision on both sides for the student to actually listen to what the teacher says (which doesn’t mean they have to agree, merely that if they have chosen a teacher they would not be doing themselves any favor to then ignore them; otherwise why bother?) and for the teacher to put the student’s needs before their own. Instead, too often what I see on both sides is a sense of entitlement and a desire for coddling instead of wisdom.

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      1. The issue often lies in looking for a teacher- those who set themselves up as teachers in the occult world are usually the fruitiest of fruit bars with an arrogance to match! As such, much time can be wasted.

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