To Leo Buscaglia, all of life is learning, and that means learning from the bad along with the good.
Buscaglia, known internationally for his best-selling books on loving and human relationships, was incredulous as he told of being in a Baltimore hotel elevator with a baseball star. When the player stepped out of the elevator, he was surrounded by 8- and 9-year-old fans, including one wide-eyed boy who asked his hero to sign his baseball card.
"The player told the little boy, 'Buzz off,' " Buscaglia said, shaking his head. "It would have taken no longer to sign the card than to say 'Buzz off.' The boy was crushed.
"That is the saddest kind of behavior."
The anecdote led Buscaglia to one of his favorite topics: education, what we learn and how we learn it.
"I have been a teacher myself all my life," he said, moving from his small desk in an assistant's office in Pasadena to a chair closer to his visitor. "I have an intense passion to share with people. Our only salvation is in knowledge, in learning.
"The minute we stop learning we begin death, the process of dying. We learn from each other with every action we perform. We are teaching goodness or evil every time we step out of the house and into the street."
Buscaglia, on leave as a professor of education at USC, where he earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees and teaching and administrative credentials, stressed the need also for teachers of specific skills.
"There is a lot of focus on education now," he said, "on internal as well as external education, how to make ourselves better.
"These are very difficult times. When I attended high school, my school was rated the highest in the city. It is now the lowest. When the neighborhood changed, the school went down. But we must give every student an appropriate education. I would hope the schools would change, would keep up their standards.
"We also cannot blame everything on the schools. The best students come from homes where education is revered, where there are books and children see their parents reading them.
"We all share this responsibility (for education). Yet how many times do you hear people say they voted against a school bond issue because 'my kids are through school.' That is a provincial attitude."
Buscaglia said that general education is taking the lead of special education--his field of expertise--in moving to individualize teaching for each student.
Individuals, Not a Mass
"We need to recognize children as individuals and not see them as a mass," he said. "Special education has to be individualized and it has been a model for regular education.
"Biologically and physiologically we are not equal. Some of us learn better at different times of day. Some learn best visually, some auditorially, some tactilely, by touching."
Asked about the flight of some pupils to private schools, Buscaglia described the movement as a "pity. A private school can never give a child what a public school can in terms of resources. . . . This country was built on the concept of public schools." He said improved quality of public schools would diminish the attraction to private institutions.
"It's a big job but we can do it," he said. "We must recognize that we have fallen behind. This country used to be No. 1 in inventions, in creating things. Now we are 20 or 30 down the line of nations.
Making It Better
"If there is a place where learning is not taking place, we have to do something together to make it better."
To further improvement, Buscaglia said that teaching as a profession must be made more attractive to young people, both financially and as a steady and fulfilling career. He spoke of recent years when school populations were down and teachers couldn't find jobs; now a new baby boom is creating jobs for teachers. He also talked of a need to decrease teacher burn-out and to pay teachers better.
"I know that sounds hopeful, but all my work is hopeful," he said with the ready smile that punctuates most of his statements. "There is no such thing as being too optimistic."
Buscaglia's philosophy of life is intertwined with his concerns for education, and the two are seldom separated for very long. He will discuss both at 8 p.m. Friday at a benefit to raise funds for scholarships for the USC School of Education, whose Alumni Assn. will sponsor his lecture on "The Loving Alternative" at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. As is his custom, he will meet with audience members after the program.
On Best-Seller List
Buscaglia, whose latest book, "Loving Each Other" (Slack/Holt, Rinehart & Winston), has been on the best-seller list for 33 weeks and placed fourth in The Times Book Review list this week, said the key to education is recognition of each person as a unique human being.