Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Struggle of a Grown-up Autodidact

I had always believed that people enjoy being an autodidact, that is to say 'a self-taught student'. I had been one past the age of 12, as had most of my friends, and as had hundreds of young people I met at home education clubs and festivals. As I grew up, I would further meet people who had been to school, but had had it about them to learn what they knew, and what they were brilliant for, by themselves.

What being an autodidact, particularly from a young age provides, is a freedom to pursue and nurture your own interests in a way more efficient and pleasant, for you are in charge of the learning style and the when, wheres, and hows. Of course, people who are so familiar with it being someone else's job to take care of what they learn for them, always get confused at this point. You'd have to be naturally (unusually) ambitious to not just waste your time and do nothing, they say.What they miss is that, if you look back at my description, you will notice I said the words 'your own interests'.

There is much more to say to defend autodidactism, this has barely scratched the surface of why it is an important way of conducting yourself as an individual. But, this is not why I am writing today. I'm writing because it occurs to me that there is a way that people don't enjoy being an autodidact, and it is one of the most important ways they should. That is, most people, even those given the chance to, don't enjoy thinking for themselves once they're grown-up.  

What exactly is the difference between you being in charge of your learning and someone else? It's not the use of teachers, or books, or documentaries, or labs, or computers, or indeed any learning resource. It is a question of who is managing the decisions of what, when, where and how to learn. Implicit in this, is in fact what autodidactism is at it's core: thinking for yourself.  

The difference is really one of the difference between man A and man B. Man A reads a book because he has a particular need met in advancing his learning through content promised in that book. He hears about the book from others, and engages with their recommendation to read it critically to gauge if it is really the book for him. When he reads it, he is as critical with the author's words. He adapts the parts he likes, he fixes the parts he finds broken, and he takes nothing it says on faith. Man A, is a man who's thoughts are so his own that they don't match perfectly with anyone else's, not even his greatest influences. 

Man B is told he should learn X, and takes it on faith. Is told he should read book Y to do so, and takes it on faith. And assumes the book true, on faith. His thoughts are not his own thoughts, they are other people's slipped inside his brain. 

The sad truth is, as fun as it is to be an autodidact when you're a child and parents take care of your food, and housing and so on, the older you get, the less fun it is to think for yourself. Wouldn't it be so much easier to toe the line for your career. Or to say what your friends say, so that you have some. Or to just let someone tell you how to live, because its such a scary thing to have to work out at the very time you need to already know the answer.

This attitude is a myth, it's always better to think for yourself, doing so will always give you more control over what happens in your life.There are problems involved in doing so, but they are all soluble in their own ways. But it is a myth many autodidacts grown-up must buy into, for it happens time and time again that a grown-up audodidact will try to find people to think for them, or will let the crowd around them think for them.

I am currently finishing up university. Some people I know who support autodidactism don't agree with university, they mistake it for school. It's not, university is as coercive to how one should learn as having a library card is, or as using a shop to buy your food is to what you eat. I have been here because I want to think for myself about the education resources university provides, and I am pleased with how I have done so. But it worries me that some autodidacts go to give up on being an autodidact. Equally it worries me, the autodidact that haven't gone to university, for I know a good few of them who seem to have just found a group, intellectual or cultural, to tell them how to live (and therefore what to think). (This is in fact much worse than the university problem, because university has more self-criticism than a group of people tend to).  

But what worries me the most is that it doesn't seem to be said enough that being an autodidact (someone who thinks for themselves) gets harder now. That it isn't quite as simple as it was when we were children. And admitting it/being conscious of it, is an important part of considering it, and considering critically how one wants to proceed. 

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