The first thing I ever published online was a piece about autodidactism. I imagine the last piece I ever write in this lifetime will be about autodidactism. And every piece in between, if you look carefully, has this leitmotif of self-education running through it like letters through a stick of Brighton Rock.
I hold my beliefs lightly as a rule- nearly everything is provisional and subject to change- but my belief in the value and necessity of reading and learning and trying to figure things out for myself is one that has endured. For better or worse.
And if you have found yourself here, reading this sentence in this moment, then I am quite confident that you are of a similar disposition. So let’s talk a little about this business of self-education.
The Old Nightmare
What has prompted me to want to tackle this subject is that last night I had the old familiar nightmare. I am sure that you have had it to. I found myself, of a sudden, in an impossibly vast echoing room, a sports hall of some sort, where desks where lined up in rows and columns as vast and seemingly endless as battalions of troops and officers goosestepping past a dictators balcony. Desks and plastic chairs and the backs of heads as far as my eyes could take in. A slow ticking clock. A booming, ominous voice front and centre saying ‘you may begin’
You know how this story goes.
I look down at my own desk in front of me. I am not prepared. I have not studied. The question paper is a blur, the sentences on it are in some language I can’t read, or that doesn’t exist. My heart beats louder and faster. I panic.
I wake in a dark room, my heartbeat thudding in my ears. I look at the thin sliver of moonlight that cuts across my bedroom ceiling from a crack in the curtain. I snort a single laugh. I am near middle age, I haven’t sat an exam in over a decade and yet mass schooling still has it’s tentacles wrapped around at least a part of my psyche.
Perhaps you are the same. In fact I am quite certain.
The Best Years Of Your Life
‘I don’t hate school’ the child tells his father in the old joke ‘it’s just the principal of the thing.’
Of course that line works better when it is told to you rather than when you read it. But it’s true. The principle of school is the problem. And I am talking in generalities here. The whole educational mess that Zoom and Google classroom has wrought in the last year as a byproduct of The-Virus-Who’s-Name-We-Shall-Not-Speak is a side issue that’s beyond our purview here today.
I’m talking about the time before that. When things were quote-unquote normal.
I hated school when I was a kid. No, that’s a lie. I tolerated and endured school when I was a kid like the minimum security warehousing operation that it was, and it’s only in subsequent years that the hatred has fomented as I reflect on what a monumental waste of time it represented.
And I was fairly popular, as far as it goes. The various subcultures looked on me with something between fondness and tolerance, which is probably all you can ask for. I played in bands, I coasted to good but not remarkable grades in spite of bare minimum effort, I had the dangling cigarette and looking through eyebrows pseudo-James Dean affectation down pat. I had fun. It was fine.
But like I say, it’s the principle of the thing.
Everything of value I learned during that time period, and indeed subsequently, came as a result of me reading an extracurricular book in my free time. In fact, there are many things that I learned from schools- especially the more implicit meta-lessons or what people today call ‘mindsets’- that I have actively had to make efforts to unlearn or suppress.
As well as robbing you of your childhood, school instills a bunch of bad habits and mental frameworks that you then spend your twenties trying to untangle and then remove. It’s like the old timer prisoner in the Shawshank Redemption who instinctively asks for permission to pee while working at his dayjob following his release. The system has done a number on him. He’s not the same as he was before he went in.
Now I’m being a little hyperbolic for effect here, but not by too much if we’re being truthful.
So what point am I trying to make with this faintly depressing train of thought? Well it’s simply this- if school, or indeed life, is a succession of vaguely prison-like institutions (and I’m not explicitly saying it is but I’m not not saying that either) then the shovel with which you dig your escape tunnel- psychologically if not actually- consists of self-education.
Now don’t misunderstand me, because misunderstand me I fear you will. I’m not talking about tertiary education credential gathering here. I’m not talking about ‘self-improvement’ or ‘self-development’ activities with a particular financial or personal end goal in mind. Although all of that is fine. What I am talking about is becoming a learner in the truest sense. What I am talking about- to borrow Twain’s distinction- is education as opposed to schooling. What I am talking about is real learning.
Maybe it’s an innate and temperament specific thing and we here are simply a self-selecting sample. But what is at the cornerstone of everything I am trying to articulate here today is the concept of curiosity. And curiosity from what I can see seems to have largely gone the way of telephones with cords and cars that are not monochrome. It seems to have died a death for the most part.
There are some truly incurious people around if the snap judgements that people provoke in me while I go on my daily constitutionals are anything to go by. If the inane conversations I endure on trains and on buses are anything to go by.
Their utterances provoke a thousand different questions in my mind- along the whole spectrum that spans incredulity to insatiable intrigue- but the questions go unasked. People don’t seem to care. Saying something to say something. Waiting for their turn to pass the baton in the informational relay race that spans from spurious media source to the final, most doggedly out-of-the-loop citizen.
The bulwark against being a mere node for noise is to foster curiosity. Is to read based on whim and not outcome. Is to be one of the very, very, very few who actually read primary sources or attempt to find the spring from which the vast rivers of certain thoughts originates (whether good or bad).
It’s a decision ultimately. If you can read, you can read the good stuff. People imbibe more information than at any time in human history. I have spoken to people and heard accounts of people putting in double digit hours daily simply skimming timelines and listening to podcasts and watching video. Admittedly this is all content rather than art but time is time. Hours spent doing one could be hours spent reading the good stuff instead, the stuff found in books that have stood the test of time.
But I’m not going to twist your arm. You either instinctively see the value in this or you don’t. You are either an autodidact or you are not. Either option is fine, I don’t gain anything really from convincing you either way.
But what I do know- and this is a lesson learned from the expensive school of experience- is that if you are of an autodidactical bent (making up words is an autodidact trait) then trying to blunt your curiosity for the sake of appearing normal will eat you up inside. Limiting your learning to set themes and topics rather than following where your instinct takes you will eat you up inside.
So you can do what you want. But if things are a bit flat and listless right now there is a good chance that part of the solution could be to reignite that dormant curiosity and to explore a new topic based purely on whim. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And the difference between work and play is the same as the difference between schooling and true self-education.
May your learning never end,
Until next time,
The Commonplace is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
great piece tom! reading on whims was a standout for me as I try to follow this as much as possible. it is wonderful and freeing to know that one can pick up a book and drop it as soon as it bores you. "read what you love until you love to read" by @naval on twitter was a good tweet and i feel you just expanded on a bit.
This essay gets a very countercultural charm to it if you realize that lately "education" and "online courses" both melted into just another way of profitting from content-junkies at the interwebs. Every single content creator wants you to learn from THEM, ultimately, but most (if not all) have not stood the test of time as you mention here. Currently, as a law student (if I permit myself to be identified as such, for I don't really like the "law" part of it), we look to understand the principles of things before going in to the details of treatieses, manuals etc.
And developing a great skillset around critical thinking, whim-driven reading and better judgment, you really wont get past the copycat phase of your education. Hell, it might even let you expedient enough to finish your grad if you think about it hahahah