On Being an Autodidact

An autodidact is a self-taught person. Someone like Will Hunting, Frida Kahlo, or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Although, a lot of people listed as autodidacts have actually been thoroughly schooled, too. Including them dilutes “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 study 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 the lack of recognition 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.