A Self-Study Course?

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]

There is a single term that is perhaps the first term used in most descriptions of A Course in Miracles. It is also perhaps the most universally used. Everyone uses it, no matter what their persuasion is. That term is “self-study.” If you are going to describe the Course to a new audience, you will most likely begin your description with some version of “A Course in Miracles is a self-study course.” Beyond the fact that there are three volumes and that the material was scribed (or channeled) by Helen Schucman in cooperation with Bill Thetford, its self-study nature might possibly be the most agreed upon fact about the book as a whole.

When you first hear the title, A Course in Miracles, you naturally wonder who teaches this course and at what school do you take it. The term “self-study” answers those questions, indicating that you learn it on your own, not from a teacher, not at a school. It implies that the Course is a book you purchase and then study in whatever way you want. No one is guiding your study, as would be the case in a formal schooling situation. You are the one in charge. You approach your study of the Course however you want.

Few would question this obvious idea. It is a foundational lens through which everyone views A Course in Miracles, and this lens was handed to us by the term “self-study.” That term, therefore, has exercised an immensely powerful influence. It has shaped our whole perspective on what the Course is. It has had the authority to do so, I believe, because it has seemed to have the stamp of official approval. It has been repeated so often, for so long, by such “official” sources, that we assume that the term is either in the Course or was given directly to Helen by the author of the Course.

This article is an examination of that term. Where did it come from? How valid is it? What does the Course itself say about it? Ultimately, this article is about the power of lore or tradition about the Course to shape our view of the Course. If an idea has been handed down to us from the very beginnings of a spiritual path or movement, we tend to automatically take it into our minds and build the rest of our picture around it, accepting those pieces that fit with it and rejecting those pieces that don’t. Therefore, it is all the more important to know where the idea actually came from.

In the case of the term “self-study,” it does not come from the Course itself. The Course never uses the term. It never calls itself a self-study course, not once. Perhaps, then, the term was given to Helen Schucman through inner guidance. However, I have combed the published guidance that Helen received from Jesus apart from the Course and the term “self-study” cannot be found there. Maybe, then, this term comes from unpublished guidance of Helen’s, even though I have been told that there is not a great deal of relevant guidance still unpublished.

In searching for the origin of this term I have asked our two most significant living links with the origin of the Course: Judith Skutch-Whitson and Kenneth Wapnick. As most Course students know, both Judy and Ken were closely involved with the Course’s scribes and played pivotal roles in bringing the Course to the public in published form. I thought that, if this term came from as-yet unpublished guidance that Helen received, they would know. Or at least they would know how the term came to be. Unfortunately, however, neither Judy nor Ken were able to remember where it came from. Ken’s best guess was that Helen came up with it-on her own, not from Jesus’ guidance.

The origins of this term may simply be lost to us now. Yet one thing seems clear: It did not come from the author of the Course. Either someone around Helen or perhaps Helen herself simply thought this term up.

This raises a more important question: Is this term accurate? Is A Course in Miracles a self-study course? In my mind, this means: Does the Course describe itself as a course in which one’s study is self-guided, in which one is self-taught? Even though the Course does not use the word “self-study,” does it include the concept? I would have to say that the answer to this is a definite “no.” There is no place in the Course where it says that the student is meant to study the Course by oneself, without the guidance of anyone else.

Yet, remarkably, the Course is not silent on this issue. It actually does address whether to study by oneself or under the guidance of someone else. And what it says about this is fascinating and extremely significant. Those of you who are familiar with my writings probably already know where I am heading. Volume III of the Course, the Manual for Teachers, does speak about studying the Course under the guidance of someone else. It never says anything about studying the Course in a school. But it does speak about more experienced students of the Course playing the role of teacher or mentor to newer students of the Course. I have been putting forth this argument for quite a few years now and have been gathering more pieces of evidence along the way. Here is a summary of my evidence at this point:

  1. By calling itself a manual for teachers, the Manual clearly implies that it is for teachers who will guide pupils through this particular course’s text and workbook.
  2. In its first two sections (“Who Are God’s Teachers?” and “Who Are Their Pupils?”), the Manual says that the teacher will shepherd particular pupils along a specific path, and that this manual is for teachers who will shepherd pupils along this path, A Course in Miracles.
  3. The Manual always calls the learner a “pupil,” not a “student.” A pupil is a person who is learning something under the close supervision of another person. The Manual’s pupils, then, are learning A Course in Miracles under the supervision of another person.
  4. According to the Manual, pupil and teacher are in their roles because of their differing degrees of experience with A Course in Miracles. This shows that the Course is what is being taught by the teacher to the pupil.
  5. The Manual invents its own special term for the relationship in which a teacher instructs a pupil in his path of awakening (“the teaching-learning situation”). This demonstrates the distinct and important nature of this concept in the Course’s system.
  6. Six of the Manual’s final sections counsel Course teachers in how to shepherd their pupils along the Course’s path. They instruct teachers on how to respond to various needs of their pupils, such as determining which volume of the Course the pupil should begin with.

Of course, to show that each of these six points is really true would take a great deal of explanation, which I am not going to include in this brief article. My purpose here is only to raise the self-study idea to question. And simply listing these six points, I believe, accomplishes that. For if even one of them is true, is not a fabrication or misunderstanding on my part, then we can be sure that A Course in Miracles was not written as a self-study course. The author spoke about students studying it under the guidance of a teacher, the very opposite of self-study. If my points are correct, he even based a whole volume of the Course on this idea.

Perhaps, however, Jesus only envisioned some students being guided by a teacher, maybe even a small minority of students. What clues, therefore, can we find in the Course for how he saw students beginning the Course? There are only two sections in the entire Course in which he refers to beginning students of A Course in Miracles, Sections 24 and 29 in the Manual. Perhaps our clues can be found in these. Significantly, in both sections he portrays beginning students of the Course as pupils of a Course teacher, which suggests to me that this is how he envisioned a beginning Course student. This is how he pictured someone entering into the study of A Course in Miracles: as the pupil of a Course teacher.

When I go over this evidence from the Manual with people, one of the most common things I hear is that, in essence, we can simply dismiss this evidence. Why? Because we know that the Course is a self-study course. Jesus told Helen that it was. Earlier I mentioned the phenomenon in which ideas passed down from the beginnings of a path become cornerstones of our view of that path. They become the standard by which we accept or reject other ideas about the path. Here is a classic example of that very phenomenon in action.

And what a stark example! In this case, our “cornerstone”-the idea that the Course is a self-study course-is little more than a persistent rumor. It didn’t come from Jesus at all, in any way, shape or form. We just made it up and passed it around and repeated it over and over until it became an accepted “fact.” So, on one hand there is this persistent rumor. On the other hand, there is what the Course itself says. There is what might well be a whole pattern of teaching in the Course in which the Course portrays itself as a program administered by teachers, by those who are experienced in its way of salvation. And what happens when these two hands meet? The groundless rumor simply rules out what Jesus says in the Course itself. The rumor has become a more powerful authority on the Course than the Course is on itself.

To me this is a fascinating example of how we form our pictures of our spiritual paths. Another example is the formation of Christianity. Mainstream New Testament scholarship has held for decades that Jesus did not teach that his death was intended as an atonement for the sins of humanity. Yet after he died, his disciples started passing this idea around. And since it came from them, the idea carried a powerful authority. Soon, an idea he never taught became the central teaching of the religion that grew up in his name. A great irony, yet one that has been repeated again and again in the history of spirituality.

If such a thing has happened so many times in history, what would keep it from happening with the Course? Why couldn’t we have done with the Course something analogous to what the early Christians did with Jesus? My suggestion is that we simply open our minds to this possibility; open our minds to the idea that the Course was not written as a self-study course. Just let it in as a possibility. For the time being, don’t worry about all the additional questions that this raises. Don’t get caught up in issues of how to find a teacher or whether to become a teacher, or what changes this will require in the Course world. You can deal with these later, after you have made a firm decision about what the Course really is.

For now, let’s just see what happens to our picture of the Course if we discard the self-study idea. Quite simply, discarding this idea changes the whole face of the Course, the very nature of the Course. How so? It says that the Course is not meant to be a book one buys from the bookstore, takes home and studies in whatever way one wants. It suggests that, in the author’s eyes, the Course was meant to be a path one receives from one’s teacher. This is quite a massive shift in perception. Are our minds large enough to accept a shift of this magnitude? Can we let in a whole new view of our beloved spiritual teaching? Are we up to it?

Perhaps, just perhaps, we have much to gain thereby. “Self-study,” I believe, has been more than inaccurate. From the beginning it has left Course students alone in a trackless wilderness, through which they must navigate on their own. It has left them wandering about in confusion, not knowing what to do with this massive, sophisticated, challenging book. In response to their need, a large array of study aids has been developed. There are study groups, books, tapes, newsletters, centers. All of these aids are concrete testimony to the insufficiency of self-study. If self-study was enough, why would we need these aids? Yet have they truly filled the void left by the self-study idea? I don’t think so. They are certainly far better than nothing, yet we are still not seeing the kind of advanced, miracle-working students the Course fully expected to turn out.

To make this more personally relevant, think about the various problems and confusions you have had with the Course. Aren’t these why you have sought out books, tapes, study groups, workshops and centers? Haven’t you sought these out because self-study was not enough for you? On the other hand, is it possible that every one of your problems with the Course could have been better solved through the loving, personal help of an experienced teacher? Could it be that the plan Jesus sets forth in the Manual is the answer to all problems that Course students encounter? Could it be that his way is better than ours?

And therefore, isn’t it time that we seriously reconsider the idea that A Course in Miracles is a self-study course?