As my work is becoming more known in general, I now tend to get a lot more correspondence than I used to, and the incoming tides of emails highlights to me a major issue that is developing on the horizon of magic. And that issue is minds, curiosity and how they work. I am sure the issue how been out in the world for longer than I realize, and I am only just seeing it as I connect more and more with people. But it is an issue that worries me for the future of magic: many in the younger generation do not seem to know how to learn. And I am sure by the length of this blog entry, many will glaze over as ‘it has a lot of words’ in it.In the west, mainly the USA and the UK, there have been series of shifts in educational practice, along with societal and economic changes. All of these changes have affected how young people learn, how they discover and how far they are willing to stretch themselves in order to satisfy their curiosity. In the age of bullet points, wiki info bites, google and internet click bait, coupled with education systems that work through swift testing, multiple choice questions and battery farm training, it seems the end result is a generation with strong thumbs and a very short attention span. But the biggest result is a generation that does not know how to learn. Yes I am generalizing, and as in each generation there is good and bad, but after thirty years of teaching various subjects, this is the first time I have seen it displayed so strongly – and it bothers me. It bothers me as a mother and is really bothers me as a magician.
There are many jokes on social media that express this issue with comments like: “let me google that for you” as a witty come back to someone asking a simple question that they should be able to answer for themselves with a little time and research. It would seem that the system has molded a generation to expect something to come to them, to be chewed and predigested for them, and that if it is not instant, then it is not worth bothering with. Add to this the fact that few education systems in the west these days look into any subject in any real depth, if at all. I am continually astounded by people not knowing where world cities are, or which cultures developed in which country, and with comments like, “wait… Egypt still exists? Like with Pharaohs and stuff?” Sigh.
What is happening is that for the only time in the history of our species, the total collective knowledge of the world is available at our fingertips, while at the same time we have millions of young people who do not know how to access it. Yes they can access the web and websites a lot faster and more efficiently than my generation can, but they cannot find the information nor can they absorb it. The innate curiosity in a young adult is hobbled by the inability to know how to learn. Self-education is a skill within itself, and was a major component in education systems until recently. If you burned with a question, your teacher would tell you to go away and look it up. That would mean endless days buried away in libraries browsing from book to book, finding ones to add to an already oversized reading pile, pen and notebook clutched in anticipation of finding a gem of knowledge. Such activity forms the basis of research skills, which in turn is teaching the young person how to teach themselves.
When I was growing up, and also in my twenties, it was common to hear people say, ‘oh I taught myself how to….’ People would teach themselves new languages, new skills, new subjects that were not available in school or college. It was also the post war parent generation of ‘fix it yourself and make do’: I grew up learning that attitude from my parents and in turn, learned how to fix my own appliances, my own truck, my own wiring and other aspects of house building. I learned how to learn under my own steam.
What has all that got to do with magic? Everything. Particularly in today’s world. When I was twenty, finding texts on magic was like trying to find a four leafed clover. And when you did find something, you devoured it, loved it, tended it and re read it until it fell apart. And then you tried really hard to understand what the hell it was about, what the fancy words meant, what it referred to when you came across a mention of something that you did not recognize. The only option then was to haul ones ass down to the central library in a city, and spend days trying to find the missing links mentioned in a book. With any luck, and if you kept our eyes peeled, you might find someone else hovering furtively around the ‘other’ section in the religions and beliefs area. If you were really brave, you might even ask them, in stammering tones.
Now everything is out there. And I mean everything. From the sublime to the psychotic, from intelligent to sheer fantasy, from silly to critically important. There is no filter, there is no guide, and most importantly, there is no discernment. Why? Because there is no learning, there is no reference point beyond Hollywood and fantasy games. And even the fantasy has slipped and let the young down. There was a time that fantasy and fiction writers would research their work in great depth, so that the fantasy was born out of old mythology, ancient history and magical mysteries. This was one of the doorways into magic for young people. First something would catch their imagination, and then they would want to know more and begin to dig.
Now, a lot (not all) of fantasy is based on, well, pure fantasy, with no roots in anything. But it is still treated as having its roots in the Mysteries and myths. When you pair that with a young person who has no understanding of history, of mythology, or archaeology, or religions, and also does not know how to research for themselves, then you have a problem.
And that problem is making itself known in magic (and out on social media). When a young person comes across something on a click bait website, they have no way of discerning if what they are looking at it based in fact or fiction. The fact that they do not know how to learn and research for themselves, leaves them in the position where they just believe everything they see. That transfers into the magical area when the younger generation becomes interested in magic.
Over the last twelve months I have spent a good two hours a day of my down time answering emails that I cannot believe people have actually written. The issues with these emails fall into two categories; one of not being able to discern, and the other of not being able to learn. With it comes a dynamic of entitlement. ‘I am entitled to know, therefore you should drop everything and teach me’.
Not only is that sense of entitlement rude and irritating, it reveals a deep underlying problem: the unwillingness and inability to learn for oneself. That should alarm every magical teacher around the world. The magical knowledge we have today, the real knowledge, not the crap that is churned out en masse for the commercial market, is scattered, fragmented and often hidden in plain sight. There is only so much that a teacher can point out to a student, and then the student must be able to garner the rest of the knowledge for themselves.
That process of research, experimentation and curiosity is one whereby the student learns the knowledge in a holism, with practical understanding and context. That moves them up a step on the magical ladder.
Facts alone, like recipe rituals, have no place in magic. The Mysteries cannot be accessed like fast food, they are powerful, deep and ancient dynamics that take a lifetime to grow within an individual. There will always be those who simply wish a spell for this or that, or a glittery pedestal to stand upon, or a magical fashion accessory. There will always be the casually curious. Such people have always been on the periphery of magic and always will be. What concerns me is the young person who has a deep burning desire to ‘know’, who feels magic is in their bones, yet they do not have the self-learning skill that is so necessary in magic.
I feel that this is something that teachers and lodges need to address and be acutely aware of. Yes there are still young ones who have been raised and educated in a way where they have the skills necessary for self-learning, research and discovery, but they are becoming far fewer than they should be. And one of the ways to address this is to include training in the skill of how to learn, how to research, how to question, how to discern: such skills should be an integral part of early magical training. Along with a solid dose of ‘you are not that important’ – the amount of times people have emailed me, total strangers, with no introduction, no background info, not even a name, just a text speak sentence like: ‘tell me about eastern magic’, or ‘can you explain what magic is’, ‘can you tell me about Kabbalah but only in a few sentences as I am really busy and I don’t like to read a lot (yes, really….)’. The best one was, ‘I want to know what is in one of your books, but it has a lot of pages, so can you just bullet point it for me’ (I shit you not).
These and other sad but hilarious emails highlight this sense of entitlement (you don’t know me, but I want you to spend your whole day explaining something to me), along with the inability to learn for themselves. For instance, one question, ‘is there magic in India, if so what is it and how does it work”. Apart from the fact that you cannot truly answer such a question without writing a whole book, there is a thing called the internet, with amazing things called ‘search engines’ that one can use. Starting with a couple of words like, ‘magic’, ‘India’, and then maybe adding in, ‘mythology’, ‘mystics’, you can spend months reading various texts and books available on line. And the absolute joy of this is that you can focus in on one aspect that catches your eye, and search that, which opens up another vista of information. And on and on it goes. It’s called research.
Only then will a person slowly start to build discernment, and be able to separate the bullshit from the gems. It’s a process. And that process starts with curiosity, the willingness to read, digest, discover, ponder, look further, check facts, and check sources (and recognize the total bollocks): those steps slowly edge the person in to the subject matter. It’s called learning. It is very useful at times.
As I am sure you can now guess from this entry, which is half rant and half appeal to the magical education world, the launch of Quareia has brought numerable people to my ‘virtual doorstep’, people who have both depressed me and inspired me. What has saddened me is I can immediately tell the age and location of the person simply by how appropriate or not their communication is.
This, I suspect, is going to become more and more of an issue for magical schools in general. And if the school is heavily dependent on student fees for its survival, there is a real risk that they young ones will not be pulled up, will not be told it is not ok, and most important of all, will not be shown how to develop the skills that they need. Just as many universities in the UK and USA now have to have a semester of English and math to bring them up to literate and numerate levels suitable for undergraduate education, so too magical schools are going to find themselves having to teach their students how to learn before they can really teach them anything of worth.
The one thing I have learned from decades of teaching is that you never ever go down to the student level to make them feel comfortable; to do so may make the student feel better, but they will never gain a high level of skill. You bring the student, often kicking and screaming, up to your level. It will not make you popular, but if they hang in there with you, and you are willing to get up behind them and push them, then they will gain not only solid magical skills and knowledge, you have given them the greatest gift you possibly could have: the ability to learn and to know that they can learn and achieve to the highest levels if they apply themselves.
So if you are reading this and you are one of the people who expect or want learning to drop into your inbox readily packaged with a nice bow, think again. That is a habit you need to break.
It will be tough going, as learning such a foundational skill as ‘how to teach oneself something’ is harder the older you get. But trust me, if you really want to climb such a ladder as magic, then it is a skill you cannot do without. And if you are trying to develop such a skill, you will find that teachers of magic are far more likely to be patient with you, and will try to help you without hobbling you.
And if you are a magical teacher, don’t give up on these young ones, but realize that before you can teach them anything of magical value, first you are going to have to teach them how to learn. It is like potty training – its messy, frustrating, infuriating at times, but they have to learn and not ‘doing for them’ is a part of the teaching mechanism. Let them struggle a bit.
Its good for them.