“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
William Butler Yeats
“Wide reading is not valuable as a kind of hoarding, an accumulation of knowledge, or what is meant by the term ‘a well-stocked mind’. It is valuable because in the process of being affected by one powerful personality after another, we cease to be dominated by any one, or by any small number.”
We would like to best think of Abraham Lincoln in light of his wisdom, his calmness under insurmountable amounts of pressure, and his bawdy humor. Little would we know that the man who toiled to end slavery in the United States battled long bouts of crippling depression, having suffered breakdowns as a young man, not even daring to carry a pocket knife for fear that he might take his own life.
Lincoln had a deep private life that he kept reserved — The deaths of his mother, sisters, his fiancée, and his two sons, profoundly affected him. As his burden of mortality grew heavier, he learned to carry on regardless of it.
He withdrew into himself often, but his heartwrenching tragedies constructed in him incomparable reservoirs of compassion and resolution. As the longest and darkest days of the Civil War dragged on, when nearly everyone around him had lost heart, his commanding general Ulysses S. Grant would say, “The President has more nerve than any of his advisers.”
Definitely, what made him a great man was his character — One that was forged through hardship and most importantly, his self-education. Since he was a boy, Lincoln was a voracious reader — He would devour newspapers, and as a young lawyer he would study the works of Euclid late into the night to deepen his understanding of logical argumentation — Whenever he could, he would be reading just about anything he could get his hands on, taking on a wide range of genres to open up unexplored vistas of knowledge.
In the company of his peers, Lincoln was funny, full of stories, frequently quoting poetry and passages from books in his conversations — Whatever he read, he read thoroughly and well, and never forgot it.
An ardent student of Shakespeare’s works, his reading even impacted him as a politician, as he thought of politics as a vast theater and an intimate society, full of unique characters and principles of human nature — Lincoln had a keen knowledge of them, knowing just which chords to strike and when– His timing and patience governed by that understanding.
To quote Sidney Blumenthal, a biographer of Lincoln, “The coming of the Civil War was the making of Lincoln. Of course, he did not anticipate that it was coming even as events were preparing him for it… It was through his self-education that he developed himself intellectually for the task he could not imagine.”
The Civil War was a terrifying chapter in time when everyone was deathly scared, uncertain of the future — For all they knew their world was going to end. The nation called for a leader with a strong heart and a sharp mind, and Lincoln was just the right man to step up to the plate. The rest, as we already know, is history.
“Knowledge is power”, as the famous saying goes — Only that it isn’t totally true. Knowledge is only potential power, until it is applied and acted on, not while it is being hoarded and shelved.
Much of our learning in the classroom is driven by whether we are tested on it — Often having little to do with showing that we care or know the material, but more about proving that we have spent time reading it or doing the work. So we are tested with questions on relatively insignificant areas of the text, such as, “Who was the Portugese general who led the invasion of Malacca?” or “Name the characters in Chapter 7”.
Long years spent regurgitating information in the classroom setting could be a huge reason why most people hate reading, or even learning — Because it’s strongly connoted with rote memorization of the material and the eventual forgetting of it.
Most people have not invested in their self-education, because they haven’t experienced what it means to read for themselves, and not for the teacher.
As the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad wrote in his book “The Challenge”, if you do not have knowledge, you will be defeated by those who do.
While you are stuck in the same race to nowhere, some well-learned people out there are able to stop and see the greater picture of everything — Living on opportunities that you have never dreamed of, and contributing to the world in much more unique and meaningful ways.
And that is why in this article, we will touch upon two types of knowledge that we must constantly strive to attain, namely the knowledge of our craft, and knowledge of the human condition — Combining these two is the core of producing great work, and learning them should be essential in your pursuit of self-education.
Welcome to the Machine
“I’ll know my song well before I start singing.”
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Musician Tom Morello grew up in the small town of Libertyville, Illinois. Born from a colored family, he experienced racism and injustice firsthand, from which he learned the courage to stand up for himself and for what’s right. Morello always felt that music was “a tether,” something that “made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my worldview or in my small town.” Near the end of high school, Morello had developed a love for the guitar and “a great revolutionary fervor” to raise awareness of distant social issues and to arm people with the desire and knowledge required to bring change.
This passion led him to enroll in Harvard University and take on an honors program in social studies. He said, “I went there with the explicit purpose of steeling my resolve to create revolutionary change in the world. I didn’t go there to become a doctor, I didn’t go there to become a lawyer. I really went there to know as much as I could about the levers of history and how I might be able to grab onto one and pull it.”
Initially, balancing schoolwork and mastering the guitar led to “serious time-management challenges”, as he often brooded if he was “wasting my time in the stacks of Widener Library when I should be spreading the message, playing barrooms across Ohio.”
Over time, however, this contrast slowly started to appear as a harmony. Morello began to feel that music was his innate vehicle for the political ideas he honed in class. The more time he spent devoting himself to the guitar — Sharpening his techniques, playing in cover bands, writing songs — Schoolwork felt less like a separate vocation or a distraction than “a way to arm myself intellectually.” Today, he relishes his memories of “practicing guitar for four hours a day in a stairwell, trying to read Max Weber at the same time.”
Tom Morello is best known for his creative guitar playing techniques, often using plenty of guitar effects, feedback, and distortion to create unique, robotic sounds — Making him not only the guitarist of his band, but also the DJ.
Some time after graduating from Harvard, Morello formed Rage Against the Machine with bandmates Zack de la Rocha, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk. Conflating Morello’s galvanizing guitar playing, the loud pounding drums, the groovy bass, and the defiant lyrics and vocals of de la Rocha — What resulted is an addicting brew of funk, hip hop, and hard-rock that refuses to be categorized into a single genre, as they boldy voice out their anti-authoritarian and revolutionary political views in their music.
Decades earlier in 1964, Marshall McLuhan published his book “Understanding Media : The Extensions of Man”, which laid out one of the most radical ideas in communications theory, that “the medium is the message.” In McLuhan’s view, how a message is delivered is more important than the message itself, and that the effect of a medium is quite independent of the message — For example, in a newspaper it doesn’t matter what you say, because the printed word makes you react a certain way. If the message brings an effect on you, it’s coincidental.
As McLuhan wrote his book, he was thinking of newspapers, radios and TV. But if we broaden the definition of medium, it could apply to music, and more modern means such as Youtube and the Internet, in fact.
While McLuhan would say that the message is irrelevant, Rage plays in such a way that the medium and the message go hand in hand.
In an interview, Tom Morello said that “One of the important things about Rage is that we are able to seduce some people in with the music, who are then exposed to a different political message.”
Less analytical members of the audience would focus more on their medium — The upbeat, furious instrumentals — And listen to their lyrics in a more universal tone — The key takeaway being “You should be angry.” Rage’s songs act as anthems for their personal struggles, as everyone has their own machine to rage against : The government, their job, or any form of injustice around them.
But more attentive listeners could appreciate the richer experience in that Rage has a very specific political agenda, which is brilliantly layered through their use of universal and vague phrases in their songs. For example, when de la Rocha sings “Testify”, people can choose testify to anything they wish, even though the song is a strong critic on Western imperialism, which is evident in the lyrics :
“Mass graves for the pump when the price is set, when the price is set”
Or in “Bulls on Parade”, the catchy choruses and Morello’s guitar playing fuel their message of cutting military spending to fund social causes. The song plays,
“Weapons, not food, not homes, not shoes
Not need, just feed the war, cannibal animal”
Rage Against the Machine has also participated in a number of political protests and other forms of activism, even playing free shows to vocalize their views — Most famously, the band played at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in protest of the two-party system.
Commenting on music as their medium for social activism, de la Rocha said, “I’m interested in spreading those ideas through art, because music has the power to cross borders, to break military sieges and to establish real dialogue.”
“It is important that the artist should be highly educated in his own art; but his education is one that is hindered rather than helped by the ordinary processes of society which constitutes education for the ordinary man…It is of course not the actual information acquired, but the conformity which the accumulation of knowledge is apt to impose, that is harmful.”
Tom Morello and the members of Rage Against the Machine are incredibly well-read, and if their musicianship doesn’t suffice to convince you of that fact, they even released a broad list of recommended books on their website in 1999, in line with their album “Evil Empire” — Encompassing literary fiction, political philosophy, even children’s literature — Ranging from titles such as “Guerilla Warfare” by Che Guevara and “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn to “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck and “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss.
Put simply, their songs aren’t mindless rants or aggressive for the sake of being aggressive — They know what they’re talking about. They really, really do.
The lessons from Morello and Rage Against the Machine are twofold :
Firstly, don’t accumulate your knowledge. Instead, be active with it — Echoing George Bernard Shaw’s maxim, “He who can, does; He who cannot, teaches.” If you can’t put it into a form of concrete practice, at least make the lives of others a little better by educating them about it.
Secondly, invest greatly in your self-education — Besides being dedicated to your personal growth, educating yourself on your craft and on human nature are just as important.
The Japanese swordsman Yagyū Munenori wrote in “The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War” that “To learn all the sword strokes, the physical postures, and the focus of the eyes, to thoroughly learn all there is to learn and practice it, is the spirit of consummating knowledge. Then, when you have succeeded in learning, when everything you have learned disappears from your conscious mind and you become innocent, this is the spirit of perfecting things.”
As you diligently master every aspect of your craft until it becomes second nature, Munenori wrote, you’ll reach a peak on the curve where “You are detached from your learning yet do not deviate from your learning. Whatever you do, your action is free.”
Learn, learn, learn, then forget everything and play.
It’s worth remembering that it starts with the mountainous task of learning and practicing — Only after you have built your vocabulary and your repertoire, you are free to play the game the way you want and create new things, just as how Rage created new ways of playing music and spreading social awareness.
“Our Age of Anxiety,” Marshall McLuhan reflected, “Is in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools and yesterday’s concepts.”
The world is calling on you to create new ways of adding value — To make a change, to help the needy, to end the many urgent crises around you. And right now, your input is more needed than ever — Would you want to turn the calls down just because you’re lazy to start by picking up a book and reading it?
Life is very short, and it’s great to make the best use of it by making at least one person smile before you leave.
Drawing on Rage Against the Machine’s call to arms in “Guerilla Radio”,
“It has to start somewhere
It has to start sometime
What better place than here?
What better time than now?”