An autodidact is a self-taught person. Someone like Will Hunting, Frida Kahlo, or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Many people listed as autodidacts have been thoroughly schooled, and they dilute “autodidact” to mean merely one who got into their career atypically. I unapologetically favor a narrower definition that better suits my own identification with the term. I’m a person who has been disserved by formal education systems, and whose curiosity has been punished by them. I went to college out of a resigned dread that the credentialers had won, that there was no way for me to have a fulfilling career without a four-year degree.
Autodidacts “teach themselves,” but this is obviously a metaphor. Autodidacts are neither pupils nor instructors. They don’t attend or deliver lectures, complete assignments, get grades, or graduate. They don’t have classmates. They don’t prepare lesson plans or lecture notes. No particular institution plans, monitors, or interrupts their progress. Their whole life is their only occasion to learn.
The self-educated cannot expect their learning to be significant to others. It’s easy to give yourself a patchy, unrefined education; to be a dilettante, dabbler, amateur, impostor, or anything less than authoritative. Nevertheless, many are devoted to their studies despite going unrecognized by others, willing to content themselves with self-acceptance. And they savor the notion that authority isn’t what it seems.
But sometimes even the most self-accepting autodidacts begin to confuse their kind of scholarship with that practiced by conventional scholars. They get resentful and frustrated. So while it’s true that one can learn by oneself, this is not sufficient for happiness.
Not so fast
I’m not professionally trained in computer science or software development. Sure, I took a few courses in college to satisfy my electrical engineering requirements. But I’m still working in a profession outside of my educational credentials.
I get smug that my current job is an outgrowth of my personal interest in computing. In 2013, I was fortunate to have befriended someone who would help me get started with Arch Linux. Linux turned out to be the computing environment I always wanted, that with Windows I failed to procure. Arch Linux, like the original Unix, is a programming environment; it exposes the distinction between users and developers as a myth of commerce. Busting that myth allowed me to be myself in new ways. Mathematics and electrical engineering are interesting, but difficult and remote. Computers give quick feedback, ready tools, and plentiful knowledge.
The smugness ends when I think of the vast resources my education consumed, and how infrequently I recourse to it. I resent that my university, with its imperialist diploma, wants to take credit for my success, and has the gall to solicit donations while I’m paying back the loans. Let’s be honest: I’m lucky. Privileged. College gave me half an excuse to be interviewed for my first job, and then it became irrelevant. Businesses care about a person’s ability to adapt to business operations. You get no points for grades, specialized coursework, or “public Ivy” branding.
Our education systems are superb preparation for schooling. Yes, you incidentally learn useful things. By happenstance, your interest in a subject, such as differential equations, coincides with your coursework. Perhaps liberal arts electives find you broadening your concept of the world. Despite the advertising, schooling has no monopoly, no patent, on enrichment or curiosity. People who value these experiences will seek them out anyway. School does not make genteel what is essentially provincial.
College is useful insofar as it provides resources and opportunities for people to have their sought experiences. But formal education is the superfluous gatekeeper of careers.
To read Ivan Illich in the midst of my college years was an irresistable danger. His blazing critique of schooling didn’t console me as much as I wished it could. At bottom I wanted not to lambaste an enemy, but to achieve a social insight, an explanation of the status quo, which might empower me to uproot it.
The tensions that motivated me then are now dim, as I enjoy comfortable remote work for a company that values me. I feel an unfinished duty to pay my success forward to others. But my peers didn’t dissent. Perhaps the illusion works for them.