The particular example which I chose and which created so much interest, was this: in the United States of America it was discovered that there is another way of teaching than the way which we have normally been accustomed to.

Other, that is, than the way of indoctrination and of tension, repetition and anxiety: 'do it again, do it again'. And if this method of learning can be applied to human beings as it has been applied to animals, then our whole idea about education will have to change.

I will summarise the method: it was discovered that if you take cats, and you teach them how to perform simple tasks, it takes a certain time because cats are difficult to teach; they have very little attention-capacity and they are not interested in trying to learn. They are not, therefore, taught very much.

A group of cats were taught certain things, to perform various tasks, and it was recorded how many hours it took to teach these cats.

Then the researchers took one of the 'educated' cats and they put it in a room with 'uneducated' cats, of the same age and of the same group, of the same family, and they discovered that the cats which had not been educated learned from being in the presence of the educated cat and watching it.

They learnt fifty times faster than the other cats. In other words, they learnt by association with the educated cats, only fifty times faster. The interesting thing is that when these experiments were first published in England, the man who wrote the article - the popularisation of this work - ended it with some significant words.

He said that it was possible that we are now learning why, in the Middle Ages, great artists and great thinkers used to have disciples with them all the time who simply adored the master and stayed with him, waited on him. They worked with him, and they learned; and they became masters in their turn, and therefore it may be that we are rediscovering a method of learning which is superior for certain purposes to our present-day methods of education.

Today, particularly in the Western world, it is difficult to apply this method of teaching to humans, and the reason for that is extremely important to observe.

The reason is that if you want to learn from a contemporary man or woman who is at the top of a profession, the only way you will be taught is by a mixture of propaganda and repetition and anxiety.

This will interrupt the learning system; he will not be content for you to learn from him as he goes about his daily work; you will not move into his house and live with him and learn from him, because this is considered to be inefficient. In fact, the truth is that the man who is an expert nowadays is too vain, too full of self-importance, and he insists first, generally speaking, on transferring that to you, his sense of self-importance. This interrupts the learning process.

But the cat which learnt didn't feel anything - not 'I am a great cat because I have learnt' - therefore he could communicate. And so you will not find it easy to learn certain things from a Westerner nowadays because he just feels that his learning gives him some kind of importance.

This in turn is a barrier between you and him. And now you see the wisdom of the people in the past who taught us all, you and me, that we should have humility towards our teacher because this means that you are open to whatever he or she can teach. But unfortunately the tradition perhaps did not insist so strongly upon the humility of the actual teacher, and therefore the learning process has effectively been interrupted. We can, though, reclaim our heritage in this respect.

It will not have escaped your attention that the habit of people to sign their work and to become well known as artists in their own name is a modern one; that none of the ancient artists put their name on their work. And the names of the people who produced the great objects of art of the past are totally unknown.

On a visit to India I seized the opportunity to talk to one or two spiritual teachers there. When I went to see one of them, a very important one, I was sitting with him when an American gentleman who had made great sacrifices to come there, was announced.

He said to this guru, as he is called, 'Tell me, what is a guru? How can I recognise a guru? Who is the greatest guru in the world?'

That is all he wanted to know. In that respect this American gentleman's questions were very much paralleled by my own postbag.


(Knowing how to know, prologue, Idries Shah)