Recently I was going through older blog entries of an author I admire, and she claimed to be an autodidact. I had to look the term up because it was new to me. Here’s what I found,
Autodidact – a self learner.
Autodidacticism is education without the guidance of educational masters or institutions. Generally, autodidactics are individuals who choose the subject(s) they will study, their studying material and the studying rhythm and time.
So that got me thinking. Is this a common thing? There have been a number of writers through the ages who were largely, if not completely self-taught. Western powerhouse Louis L’Amour read incessantly, anything he could get his hands on, while he worked as a young man and kept the practice through adulthood. His library when he passed was said to be immense. Lovecraft, author of weird science-fiction, was plagued by ill-health but blessed by intellect and taught himself by reading. Sir Terry Pratchett and Mark Twain were also self-educated writers. Herman Melville, best known for Moby Dick, engaged in self-directed learning through his life in literature, aesthetics, criticism and art. Ray Bradbury, author of fantasy, horror, science fiction, and mystery novels, graduated from high school but did not attend college. In regard to his education, Bradbury was quoted as saying:
“Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”
I feel better about the number of hours I’ve spent in libraries!
So with all those famous writers claiming the title autodidact, why was the term new to me? While I had no answer to that question, I turned to the internet once again, this time Encyclopedia Britannica. Just like its paper cousin, the site holds vast amounts of knowledge on hundreds of topics in various sciences, geography, history, pop culture, philosophy, literature, religion, politics, law, and so much more. I could spend hours there, just soaking up all that knowledge!
As so many others have, I recently acquired a copy of Michelle Obama’s book ‘Becoming’. (I admire her for so many reasons, but that’s another blog post) In her book, the Former First Lady reminisces about how she met her future husband, and how taken she was by his dedication to community, and giving hope to people. She talked a little about sitting in on a community meeting he spoke at as a community organizer. I remembered hearing the term when Barack was running for President, but I didn’t know what it was and let the learning opportunity slip by. Mrs. Obama also spoke about being inspired by Barack’s deep thoughts on social justice. Another topic I know nothing about. But I did some cursory research on it, and then fell down a rabbit-hole into political philosophy. I was inspired to stretch beyond what I knew, all from a few passages of an autobiography.
I’ve never thought of myself as an autodidact, but I’ve always loved learning about the topics I found interesting. Perhaps that’s why school and I never really hit it off. But now, as an adult, I regret not being a more engaged and driven student. There are a number of places to learn on the web, some free and others for much less than college or university would cost. Online learning has many advantages, especially in these times of Coronavirus. A search of any web browser for online education, or even a short hop to Wikipedia and a search for ‘List of MOOC Providers’ yields a staggering number of educational resources. Not all are free, mind you, there is some weeding involved. Visiting OpenLearn also proved interesting. My point is that between encyclopedias and free or cost-reduced learning resources, our thirst for knowledge doesn’t have to be limited by a lack of funds or where we live or our economic circumstances. We cannot, and should not, use or situation in life as an excuse for not knowing. Don’t understand politics? Put some time in and study how it should work so you know whether or not your local politics are working for you. Want to further your knowledge in a topic that might give you a better foothold at work? Dedicate yourself to learning about it! Don’t have a clue what you’re passionate about? Wander through the Encyclopedia Britannica until you find something that grabs your interest! You might discover a curiosity about the lost art of scrimshaw.
You just never know until you go looking.