Is this a Self-Study Course? Evidence for the Role of Teachers of Pupils in A Course in Miracles

As students of A Course in Miracles, we all know that even though its title might give one the impression that it’s a formal course that one learns under a teacher, it’s actually a “self-study” course. You learn it on your own, since we are all teachers and students of each other. Unlike traditional religion, this course has no spiritual authorities telling you what to believe.

That is why I was bowled over when I first noticed the Manual for Teachers talking about teachers teaching the Course to pupils. Even though I had never noticed it before, there it was in black and white. That was back in 1991. In the ensuing twenty-five years I have many times reexamined the evidence I saw back then, and I still can’t get around it. It really is there in black and white. Indeed, along the way I have noticed additional evidence. This article, then, is my attempt to summarize that evidence as I now see it.

1. Jesus never called this a “self-study” course.

Probably the most common and most basic description of the Course is that it’s a “self-study” course. This says very clearly that you are not guided through it by a teacher. Rather, you guide yourself through. This seems to settle the matter right away.

Not so fast. The Course was actually never called a “self-study” course by its author, not in the Course itself and not in any of the personal guidance that Helen wrote down. A number of years ago, I tried to find out where the term came from. Here is my report of that in an article titled “A Self-Study Course?”:

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 I thought that, if this term came from as—yet unpublished guidance that Helen received, they would know.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.

Not only does the term not come from Jesus, but the concept doesn’t either. Nowhere does the Course say “students guide themselves through this material on their own.”

This opens up new possibilities. If we are not bound to the self-study description, then we can open our minds to what clues the author of the Course does give us for how he saw his course.

2. The title “Manual for Teachers” implies that it’s a manual for those who teach this course.

We all know that a conventional teacher’s manual is for teachers who will teach to students that course’s text and workbook. Shouldn’t we assume, then, that this manual for teachers is for that same purpose?

One might counter that the Course could have dramatically redefined the meaning of “manual for teachers.” Yet it certainly didn’t do that with “text” and “workbook.” A standard textbook sets forth the basic conceptual material that a course is trying to teach. Merriam-Webster defines it as: “a book used in the study of a subject: as a :  one containing a presentation of the principles of a subject.” That fits the Course’s text to a tee. A standard workbook is “a book that contains problems or exercises and that students use to practice what they are learning in a class” (Merriam-Webster). That’s exactly what this course’s workbook does.

Likewise, a teacher’s manual is a book that helps the teacher in teaching a particular course to students. Here is a definition I found online: “Teacher’s Manual is a printed book sold with a set of students’ books that gives the teacher answers to questions and teaching suggestions.”

As I said, the Course could potentially have radically redefined what a teacher’s manual is, but unless we have specific evidence that it’s done that, we should assume that its teacher’s manual, just like its text and workbook, roughly fits the standard meaning of the term. We should assume, in other words, that its teacher’s manual is an aid to teachers in teaching this particular course. Based on the two-fold definition above (“give the teacher answers to questions and teaching suggestions”), this would mean that the Manual’s Q&A format is meant to provide teachers the right answers to questions that come up in teaching this course. And it would mean that the Manual’s teaching suggestions—which we’ll see later—are meant to help teachers, again, in teaching this course.

3. The opening four sections of the Manual describe the teacher-pupil relationship.

The opening four sections provide the foundation for the entire Manual. Significantly, they sketch the following process:

  1. Someone becomes a teacher of God (M-1.1).
  2. He is given a particular course to teach, a specific form of the universal course: “There is a course for every teacher of God” (M-1.3:1). In context, this refers to a course for him to teach, as is made clear later in the same paragraph: “It can be taught by actions or thoughts; in words or soundlessly; in any language or in no language; in any place or time or manner” (M-1.3:6).
  3. Pupils are chosen for him and sent to him because the course he teaches is the course they need to learn: “They were chosen for him because the form of the universal curriculum that he will teach is best for them in view of their level of understanding” (M-2.1:2).
  4. Once the pupils find him, the two of them join in a holy relationship whose common goal is the learning of that course: “Those who would learn the same course share one interest and one goal” (M-2.5:7).
  5. Through this relationship, both advance. The pupil becomes a teacher (M-2.5:8) and the teacher becomes an advanced teacher (M-4.1:6).

Clearly, whatever the particular “course” is, it is at the center of the relationship. It is what the teacher teaches. It is what the pupil has come to learn. It is what joins them together. The learning of it is what advances them forward.

What is significant for our purposes here is that, though this pattern is generic—it applies to teachers “from all religions and from no religion” (M-1.2:2)—the Manual says that it is a manual for teachers of a particular course: “This is a manual for a special curriculum, intended for teachers of a special form of the universal course” (M-1.4:1). This manual, then, is intended for teachers of A Course in Miracles.

This line is very significant. It takes that generic pattern—in which a teacher of God teaches a particular course to a pupil—and applies it to this course. That can only mean the following:

  1. There are those who become teachers of God (in this case, presumably through practicing A Course in Miracles)
  2. And who are then meant to teach this course—A Course in Miracles.
  3. Pupils are chosen for them and sent to them because those pupils need to learn A Course in Miracles, and that is what this teacher teaches.
  4. Once such a pupil finds such a teacher, the two of them join in a holy relationship whose common goal is the learning of A Course in Miracles.
  5. Through joining in the learning of A Course in Miracles, the pupil becomes a teacher (M-2.5:8) and the teacher becomes an advanced teacher (M-4.1:6).

Here, then, is the foundational description of the teacher-pupil relationship. The fact that it is laid out in the opening sections of the Manual says that this relationship is foundational for the Manual.

4. Later sections specifically advise teachers on how to teach the Course to their pupils.

As we saw, a teacher’s manual is supposed to have “teaching suggestions” for how a teacher should teach that particular course. And we find exactly that in the Course’s Manual for Teachers. Sections 17, 18, 23, 24, 29 all contain guidance for how a teacher of the Course should deal with his pupils. All of these sections specifically refer to both “teacher” and “pupil.” And in two of them we see unmistakably that what the teacher is teaching and the pupil is learning is A Course in Miracles.

The first of these is section 24, “Is Reincarnation So?” Here is the key paragraph:

For our purposes, it would not be helpful to take any definite stand on reincarnation. A teacher of God should be as helpful to those who believe in it as to those who do not. If a definite stand were required of him, it would merely limit his usefulness, as well as his own decision making. Our course is not concerned with any concept that is not acceptable to anyone, regardless of his formal beliefs. His ego will be enough for him to cope with, and it is not the part of wisdom to add sectarian controversies to his burdens. Nor would there be an advantage in his premature acceptance of the course merely because it advocates a long-held belief of his own. (M-24.3)

Here we have a very clear situation. We have a teacher of God who is teaching something to others. The others are not named in this paragraph—all we can see is that there are some who believe in reincarnation and some who don’t: “A teacher of God should be as helpful to those who believe in it as to those who do not.” But these others are specifically named later in the section: “He [the teacher] might be advised that he is misusing the belief [in reincarnation] in some way that is detrimental to his pupil’s advance or his own” (M-24.5:5). So “those who believe in” reincarnation and “those who do not” are specifically this teacher’s pupils.

We can also see that the something that is being taught by teacher to pupil is A Course in Miracles. We can see that in sentences 4 and 6, in their mention of “our course” and “the course.” These are obviously references to A Course in Miracles. The Course is also mentioned three additional times in this section: “It cannot be too strongly emphasized that this course aims at a complete reversal of thought” (4:1), “The emphasis of this course always remains the same” (6:1), and “This is the sole criterion this course requires” (6:12). This section is not just about reincarnation; it is specifically about how reincarnation relates to A Course in Miracles.

The meaning of this paragraph now becomes clear:

In teaching A Course in Miracles to your pupils, it would not be helpful to take any definite stand on reincarnation. You want to be as helpful to those pupils who believe in it as to those who don’t.

First, those who don’t believe in it: As a pupil gets involved with the Course, his ego will be quite enough for him to cope with, and it’s not wise to add the extra burden of asking him to accept non-essential concepts with which he has difficulty.

Second, those who do believe in it: As a pupil is deciding whether to fully accept the Course, it is not advantageous for him to prematurely accept the Course just because it advocates his own long-held belief in reincarnation.

In either case, then, it’s not helpful to teach your pupils that reincarnation is part of the Course.

This, then, is an undeniable snapshot of teachers teaching their pupils A Course in Miracles.

Section 29, the final section in the Manual, is even clearer about A Course in Miracles being what is taught by teacher to his pupils. Let’s look at parts of the first two paragraphs:

While it is called a manual for teachers, it must be remembered that only time divides teacher and pupil, so that the difference is temporary by definition. In some cases, it may be helpful for the pupil to read the manual first. Others might do better to begin with the workbook. Still others may need to start at the more abstract level of the text.

Which is for which? Who would profit more from prayers alone? Who needs but a smile, being as yet unready for more? No one should attempt to answer these questions alone. Surely no teacher of God has come this far without realizing that. The curriculum is highly individualized, and all aspects are under the Holy Spirit’s particular care and guidance. Ask and He will answer.

This is universally taken to mean that students of the Course can start with the Text, Workbook, or Manual first, depending on the guidance they receive from the Holy Spirit. But is that what it means?

If we take this passage this way, as being entirely addressed to the new student, several problems arise. First, we are ignoring the language about “teacher” and “pupil,” which suggests that the new student here is the pupil of a teacher. Second, we have a student who apparently decides that he is not ready for any of the three volumes. But he doesn’t know anything about what’s inside their covers, so how can he know he’s not ready? He must have an amazing connection with the Holy Spirit to receive guidance about a book he knows nothing about. Third, this student also decides that instead of the Course he just needs only “prayers” and “a smile.” Does that mean that instead of doing the Course he just focuses on praying and smiling? That seems rather weird, especially the smiling part. Fourth, the person who is meant to ask the Holy Spirit for guidance about which volume the new student starts with is the “teacher of God” (2:5), and we have just been told that “time divides teacher and pupil,” which means that the pupil, though he will be a teacher in time, is not a teacher now. So the new student is not a teacher, but it’s the teacher who is supposed to ask which volume this student should begin with.

No, the real meaning of this passage is very different than the conventional interpretation. The situation is this: You are a teacher of the Course who has a pupil. This pupil is brand new, so he faces the question of which volume of the Course is appropriate for him to begin with. Is the abstract level of the Text best for him? Is the practical level of the Workbook what suits him most? Or should he begin with the Manual? After all, since he himself will one day be a teacher, the Manual is not inapplicable to him.

There is, however, an even more basic question here: Is he ready for any of them? Is he even ready for A Course in Miracles? Maybe this particular pupil just needs you to pray for him, or just offer him a smile. Perhaps at this point the Course is simply beyond his readiness, and he needs your blessing in a different form.

So now we have four very different options, one of them being he shouldn’t even be a student of the Course at this time. How do you know which one is right? After all, the answer will be very different depending on the pupil. The only way you can know is to ask the Holy Spirit. “Ask and He will answer.”

This picture is almost shocking in its difference from the self-study model. In the self-study model, you get the Course and you guide yourself through it from start to finish. It’s a self-guided journey. Yet here in this passage, from the very beginning your journey is guided by a teacher. You begin by approaching a teacher and he seeks guidance about whether you are ready for the Course and, if so, which volume you should then start with. Here, the teacher’s guidance is so fundamental to the journey that it determines whether you even embark on this particular journey.

In both section 24 and section 29, then, we see snapshots of a “teacher” who is specifically teaching “this course”—A Course in Miracles—to his “pupils.” In the first, he clarifies to his pupils the relationship between the concept of reincarnation and the Course. In the second, he guides his pupils in how they should begin the Course and in whether they should begin the Course. If we don’t think the Course talks about teachers teaching A Course in Miracles to their pupils, what do we do with these passages that describe exactly that?

5. The word is “pupil” not “student,” and you cannot be a pupil of a book, only of a teacher.

The Manual overwhelmingly prefers the word “pupil.” It refers to “pupil” (or “pupil’s” or “pupils”) twenty times. In contrast, it only mentions the word “student” three times (referring to students in more conventional settings). When we encounter the word “pupil” in the Manual, I suspect we automatically translate that into “student.” But the two words are actually significantly different.

A student is defined (by Merriam-Webster) as “a person who attends a school, college, or university” or “a person who studies something,” or very simply “one who studies,” for instance “a student of politics.” So to be a student simply means to study something, probably in a school setting.

A pupil is defined (by as “a person, usually young, who is learning under the close supervision of a teacher at school, a private tutor, or the like.” To be a pupil, you have to be studying under a person.

The two words have so much overlap that you can find a number of websites where someone raises the question of what the difference is between them. The best answer that I found was this:

Both “pupil” and “student” refer to a person who is studying, usually in a school. A pupil is under the close supervision of a teacher, either because of youth or of specialization in some branch of study (a kindergarten pupil; the pupil of a famous musician). A student is a person attending an educational institution or someone who has devoted much attention to a particular problem (a university student; a student of politics).

Thus, whereas you can be a student of a book or even a general subject, you can be a pupil only of a person. We see this reflected in the Manual itself. In eighteen of its twenty references to “pupil,” the pupil’s teacher is mentioned in the very same sentence. In the remaining two references, the teacher is mentioned in the immediately preceding sentence.

When the Manual talks about pupils, then, it always frames them as studying under a teacher, in keeping with the meaning of the word. In the early sections, they are studying under a teacher of a course—any course. In the later sections, they are studying under a teacher of the Course. Either way, the Manual is not talking about students guiding their own study. It is talking about pupils being taught by their teachers.

6. The difference between teacher and pupil is level of experience with the Course.

If you look at how the Manual portrays the teacher’s relationship with the Course and the pupil’s relationship with the Course, you see an interesting thing.

Pupils, as we already saw, are characterized as new Course students. Section 24, on reincarnation, speaks of pupils in their initial phase with the Course, trying to figure out what it teaches, trying to come to an acceptance of it, struggling with their ego reactions to it. Section 29 speaks of pupils in their very first encounter with the Course, facing the question of what volume they should begin with or if they are ready for the Course at all. Pupils, then, are characterized as new or relatively new students of the Course.

Teachers, on the other hand, are qualified for their role by virtue of having completed the Course proper—the Text and Workbook. Here is what the Manual says about this:

How much time should be so spent [in morning meditation]? This must depend on the teacher of God himself. He cannot claim that title until he has gone through the workbook, since we are learning within the framework of our course. (M-16.3:5-7)

To make sense of this, we need to remember that the Workbook always talks as if you have read the Text before doing the Workbook. Lesson 161, for instance, says, “This thought is surely reminiscent of our text, where it is often emphasized.” So completion of the Workbook here must mean completion of the Text and Workbook.

Now the passage makes sense. All it’s saying is that you can’t be a teacher of this course until you have completed this course. What could be more logical than that? So, this key sentence—”He cannot claim that title until he has gone through the workbook, since we are learning within the framework of our course”—means the following: “Since we are talking about the learning of this course, you cannot claim the title of teacher until you have completed the course (meaning, the Course proper—Text and Workbook).” Again, what could be more logical?

Imagine that I told you that a certain teacher is qualified to be a teacher by virtue of having completed A Course in Miracles. And then I told that his pupils are pupils by virtue of the fact they are new to A Course in Miracles. If I then asked you what the teacher is teaching to his pupils, what would you say?

7. The Course coins a special term for this relationship: “teaching-learning situation.”

In reflection of the importance of the relationship between teacher and pupil, the Manual uses its own special term for that relationship: the “teaching-learning situation.” It uses this in the key opening sections (actually, 2-4) in which it is describing the relationship between teacher and pupil. The teaching-learning situation is a situation composed of a teacher and a learner (the Manual also calls the pupil “the learner”—see M-2.5:8). To be more precise, it is a situation in which the teacher learns through teaching, and the pupil teaches through learning.

Its first use is here: “When pupil and teacher come together, a teaching-learning situation begins” (M-2.5:1). In other words, they form a situation in which teaching and learning take place. The Manual goes on to use this term seven times in all, telling us along the way that God’s plan for salvation is actually “the teaching-learning plan of salvation” (M-2.2:1) or simply “the plan of the teachers.” The plan for the world’s salvation, in other words, rests on teachers teaching their pupils. That’s where salvation is born, and from there goes out into the world.

8. The Course sees following teachers as how we find our way in life.

It may seem to us that this idea of being mentored in the Course by a teacher goes against the Course’s whole focus on each person’s responsibility for his or her own individual mind. Yet the Course is full of references to people being guided along a particular way by other people. In the early dictation, Jesus mentions parents guiding children, therapists guiding patients, the clergy guiding believers, and teachers guiding pupils. In the latter case, he says that “all of the miracle conditions we referred to at the beginning”—the miracle principles—apply to this role. He mentions teachers instructing students in the classroom, in material that was initially meant to encourage Bill to embrace the role of teacher of students (T-4.I). He also mentions teachers in the context of religion and spirituality: he refers to Christian teachers in Chapter 3 of the Text (T-3.I.4:5), teachers of various spiritual paths in the opening sections of the Manual, and teachers of religion in the Psychotherapy supplement (P-2.II).

This pattern includes formal teaching situations as well as informal ones. For instance, we are told that a teaching-learning situation can occur between two students who form a friendship (M-3.2:5). Given that a teaching-learning situation is by definition a relationship between a teacher and a learner, one of the students in this relationship will actually be the teacher and the other will be the learner. But will they think of it that way? Probably not.

There is also a reference to people learning the world’s categories of “good” and “bad” judgment from a teacher: “At any time the student may disagree with what his would—be teacher says about them, and the teacher himself may well be inconsistent in what he believes” (M-10.1:8). Think of the people who taught you how to make “good” judgments. Did you think of them as your teachers? Whether you did or not, they were.

This principle goes beyond people who actively teach us and includes people we merely look to as role models. In the Course, Jesus asks us to take him as our model (“I am your model for decision”—T-5.II.9:6) and goes on to mention this seven more times, saying that this makes us his disciple (“those who accept me as a model are literally my disciples”—T-6.I.8:6). Note the statement with which he originally introduced the discussion of him as our model: “You understand the role of models in the learning process, and the importance of the models you value and choose to follow in determining what you will to learn.” When he says “You understand,” he is referring to Helen and Bill who, as psychologists, understood the importance of positive role models in shaping our thought and behavior, particularly as children.

If you add all this up, you reach a conclusion that, however strange it may seem at first, is really rather obvious: We make our way in life primarily by following others. These others may be formal teachers, they may be informal teachers, and they may just be role models we watch. Yet whichever is the case, most of the time they are walking ahead and we are following behind. We are not carving out our own trail; we are walking along theirs.

If this is the way people proceed in life, both for good and ill, why wouldn’t God’s plan make use of this same pattern?

9. The home of true religion is the relationship between spiritual teachers and their pupils.

Following a teacher is not only the way we proceed in life, it is also the way true religion works. There is a very important section in the Psychotherapy supplement about the relationship between religion and psychotherapy, called “The Place of Religion in Psychotherapy” (P-2.II). In this section, Jesus says that “formal religion…has no real place in religion” (P-2.II.2:1). Instead, he basically calls “formal religion” an oxymoron, an attempt “to join contradictory words into one term” (P-2.II.2:2).

So religion as we know it is not true religion. The real temple of God on earth, this section says, is not a church building, but a relationship: “Relationships are still the temple of the Holy Spirit, and they will be made perfect in time and restored to eternity” (P-2.II.1:5).
So what is the relationship that is the temple of true religion? It is, of course, the teacher-pupil relationship, which throughout this section is paralleled with the therapist-patient relationship. You can see this in the following passage, and can also see that the teacher-pupil relationship is under the heading of religion and the therapist-patient relationship is under the heading of psychotherapy:

Some forms of religion have nothing to do with God, and some forms of psychotherapy have nothing to do with healing. Yet if pupil and teacher join in sharing one goal, God will enter into their relationship because He has been invited to come in. In the same way, a union of purpose between patient and therapist restores the place of God to ascendance, first through Christ’s vision and then through the memory of God Himself. (P-2.II.5:2-4)

The parallels between these two relationships is why Jesus can say “At the highest levels they [religion and psychotherapy] become one” (P-2.II.2:5). They become one because the advanced teacher and the advanced therapist are both doing the same thing. Both are working within the temple of a holy relationship, and within that temple, both are merely passing on genuine sanity to the person in their care.

Therefore, we not only make our way in life by following a guide, we also find psychological health by following a guide. And we also find God by following a guide. This is the way it’s always been done. Indeed, here is the beginning of the entry for “Spiritual Guide” in the Encyclopedia of Religion:

Since ancient times, the figure of the spiritual guide has stood at the center of contemplative and esoteric traditions. It would appear that all such traditions stress the necessity of a spiritual preceptor who has immediate knowledge of the laws of spiritual development and who can glean from the adept’s actions and attitudes his respective station on the spiritual path as well as the impediments that lie ahead.

When Jesus surveys religion on earth, he sees real religion happening in the holy relationship between teachers and their pupils. Why wouldn’t he rest the learning of this course on that same holy relationship?

10. The teacher-pupil relationship is an example of the saving value of one-to-one holy relationships.

The Course places immense importance on holy relationships, calling them “the source of your salvation” (T-20.VIII.6:9). You could say that they are the main place where salvation happens. The Text says, “In this world, God’s Son comes closest to himself in a holy relationship” (T-20.V.1:1). Psychotherapy says, “A one-to-one relationship is not one Relationship. Yet it is the means of return” (P-3.II.4).

Most students of the Course do not realize that when the Course talks about holy relationships, it has a very specific pattern in mind. We can see this pattern in the three extended discussions of holy relationships in the Course. Each of them is about either a specific relationship or specific type of relationship, so as a result we can get a very precise idea of what the Course means by the term. The first discussion is in the Text, and originally addressed Helen and Bill’s joining in the common goal of demonstrating a better way. The second is in the Manual, and (as we’ve seen) is about teacher and pupil joining in learning the same course. The third is in the Psychotherapy supplement, and it’s about therapist and patient joining in bringing healing to the patient.

The pattern, then, is one in which two people join together in a common goal, a goal that transcends their separate interests. By joining in this goal, they invite the Holy Spirit into their relationship, and He then guides them to the goal of reaching holiness together.

It is completely natural, then, for the teacher-pupil relationship to be vitally important to our learning. Holy relationships are the source of our salvation, and the teacher-pupil relationship is a key example of a holy relationship.


Let’s quickly look back over the ten points:

1. Jesus never called this a “self-study” course.

This first point clears the decks, giving us room to see what the Course itself has to say about whether it is self-study or taught by teachers.

2. The title “Manual for Teachers” implies that it’s a manual for those who teach this course.

3. The opening four sections of the Manual describe the teacher-pupil relationship.

4. Later sections specifically advise teachers on how to teach the Course to their pupils.

5. The word is “pupil” not “student,” and you cannot be a pupil of a book, only of a teacher.

6. The difference between teacher and pupil is level of experience with the Course.

7. The Course coins a special term for this relationship: “teaching-learning situation.”

These points present evidence that the Manual for Teachers talks about teachers who are teaching A Course in Miracles to pupils.

8. The Course sees following teachers as how we find our way in life.

9. The home of true religion is the relationship between spiritual teachers and their pupils.

10. The teacher-pupil relationship is an example of the saving value of one-to-one holy relationships.

These final points show that it’s quite natural for the Course to emphasize the teacher-pupil relationship, given the importance it places on teachers and on relationships.

Together, these ten points say that this relationship is openly and unambiguously discussed in the Manual, that it fits within a larger context in the Course about the importance of teachers and relationships, and that the “self-study” term cannot negate it, since that term doesn’t come from Jesus.

A Course in Miracles does indeed, therefore, talk about teachers teaching the Course to pupils, about a system of Course mentorship, if you will. This seems to be the Course’s answer to the student’s obvious need for support on this challenging and sophisticated path. This is, in fact, the only such support explicitly mentioned in the Course’s own pages. Why, then, are we not united in acknowledging this key idea and trying to put it into practice?


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