Excuse me, are you an autodidact?

“How would you know unless you have been taught?” echoed hollowly in my memory as I recalled what some supposedly senior person had intoned from a supposedly high place. Yes, of course. I would also ask a question such as “How old are you?” and if you gave me an answer, say, “Sixty-five”, I would follow up with “How do you know? Did you look at the atomic clock on the wall of the delivery room when you emerged from your mother’s womb?”, to which you would of course reply that your birth certificate said so. In other words, someone told you how old you were, and as you continued to grow up and observed how dates and times of birth were recorded for other newborns, perhaps including your own, you concluded that what your parents and birth certificate told you were probably correct, and that you are indeed sixty-five years old. Yes, we were all born altricial, as the term goes, and needed to be fed, cleaned, hugged, played with, and given instruction in how to live our best lives. Then, in very short order, we began to think and reason for ourselves, come to our own conclusions and decide where we would like to go. That first statement was abhorrent to me because it demanded the sort of reverence for a human being which ought to be given only to God. All leaders, meaning all older persons, need to commit to teaching, training, coaching and modelling for younger persons with a view to making those younger persons we are responsible for greater than ourselves. It was at the same time that first abhorrent statement floated out of the recesses of my mind that the term “autodidact” emerged as well. I remembered hearing that term on one of the GoodFellows’ episodes and did indeed manage to find it. I embed it here, starting from 24:35 and you can stop at about 30:15. This GoodFellows episode was actually covering viewer mail, so a lot of other topics were also discussed, but I think you would benefit greatly from this portion on being autodidacts, and that’s also part of the title of this episode.

I think we ought to actively encourage each other to be autodidacts. We do have this thing called “Lifelong Learning”, which seems to me to dictate “Back to school” for working adults all the way to retirees. I don’t object to going “Back to school” but I do object to the stance that it’s the only way “Lifelong Learning” is to take place. Yes, one can still be an autodidact when one is subjected to formal schooling, provided the sages running the school actively encourage people to ask questions and even disagree violently on sage “solutions” and “answers”. Academic rigour demands questions, discussions and, yes, even debates and perhaps a fistfight or two. I have yet to perceive the effects of autodidacts amongst my fellow citizens, although I have met a few. A few is comforting to me, but definitely not enough. How do we encourage more?

One way is of course to study examples from history. The excerpt below is taken from Jack Weatherford’s “Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world”, Chapter I. Read it and see if you agree whether Genghis Khan and most of the Mongols of his time could be called autodidacts.

Genghis Khan’s ability to manipulate people and technology represented the experienced knowledge of more than four decades of nearly constant warfare. At no single, crucial moment in his life did he suddenly acquire his genius at warfare, his ability to inspire the loyalty of his followers, or his unprecedented skill for organizing on a global scale. These derived not from epiphanic enlightenment or formal schooling but from a persistent cycle of pragmatic learning, experimental adaptation, revision and driven constant by his uniquely disciplined mind and focused will. His fighting career began long before most of his warriors at Bukhara had been born, and in every battle he learned something new. In every skirmish, he acquired more followers and additional fighting techniques. In each struggle, he combined the new ideas into a constantly changing set of military tactics, strategies, and weapons. He never fought the same war twice.

What do you think? Is always being an autodidact essential for human flourishing? Would you like to come and teach me why or why not? You’re welcome!

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