Teaching, mentoring, and how no one does it alone

A Hacker News thread on a post called The wrong question: “I want to learn to code, what should I do?” included this bit in response to a suggestion that people who want to learn should simply consult the Internet:

don’t just point [people who want to learn how to program] at Google. Tell them YOUR story […] and […] what YOU would do differently […] Use your friends[. . .]

These are good bits of advice. I would also encourage folks here to realize just how far programming is from what most people do all day.

In the thread, you could find/replace “programming” insert any number of other activities, like “writing” (the one I’m closest too), and find a good fit for this advice. (Try it now with music, photography, cooking, or math, and you’ll get the same effect.)

Theoretically, someone who wants to learn a topic, like writing, in great depth could be a Steppenwolfe and teach themselves without any direct interaction from others—or anyone apart from the Internet hordes. But it would be so damn difficult and time consuming that they’d be better served by finding a friend—any friend—who is already at least moderately proficient and getting that friend to read their stuff. If people could simply learn on their own from non-interactive sources like libraries and web forums. But those sources appear to be a complement to, not a substitute for, real life interaction.

I try to live this by example. I’m a grad student in English lit, so when I tell people I spend a lot of time writing and they reply by saying, “I write” or “I want to write better” and are curious about what’s going on, I’ll talk about my experience and what I’ve done and so on. If they want me to read their stuff I will, provided they pass the (very low) barriers described here. I don’t think most people are going to master a skill without personal interaction / guidance and reading / working through problems on their own.

Certainly that’s been true of my experience: a lot of what I’ve learned about writing came from conversations with people. Those people often weren’t “professionals,” like teachers or professors, but those conversations were often more valuable than formal education. They became literary friendships, even when they had a mentor / mentee quality to them.

The mentor / mentee or master / apprentice or teacher / student paradigm exists for a reason. Yeah, a lot of its official manifestations in the school system don’t work real well, but they persist because they do serve real purposes for people who want to be come experts. The real world is very high bandwidth, and I don’t see virtual sources completely supplanting individual or small-group work for a very long time—if ever.

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