The dangers of autodidacticism

by Rob Horning

31 October 2006


As someone who tried to figure out things that were way over his head at a very early age (in elementary school I tried to build a working ATM machine from post-it notes and paper clips), I have a romanticized notion of autodidacticism, of the fortifying rigor of trying to teach yourself things not for anyone’s approval or for good marks or for career advancement but for the sheer expression of curiosity, which will then have become something like a pure expression of the life-force. Having balked at becoming a professional academic, I also have a vested interest in imagining that being in graduate school for a long time with no degree to show for it is a badge of honor, proof that I was in it for the love of learning, that I wasn’t going to sell out by finishing that dissertation. I think some legitimate gripes can be made about professionalization—it distorts the incentives behind performing various kinds of research, for instance—but these are no excuse for a full-scale retreat from the conventions of knowledge certification. Communicating ideas and having them ratified by the attention of others is integral to learning anything. (That’s largely the reason why I write this blog.) Without that one plays at going through the rituals of learning in order to foment pleasing daydreams—about mastering electronics, about being able to build furniture, learning Hebrew, programming in Java or whatever.

The Internet has ushered in something of a golden age for autodidacts, because it provides both the free information and the sheltered universe necessary for autodidacts to thrive. Autodidacticism does not purify education; it’s just self-protection. And it easily slips into dilettantism, where one explores a subject only up to the point where it requires some discipline. Autodidacticism is probably as much about miserliness and fear as it is about curiosity—it’s often an attempt to amass a kind of theoretical power from knowledge while preventing oneself from ever having any occasion to test it. It’s an expression of a fantasy about knowledge—that it is not socially created but is instead laden with inherent value, like gold, and can be possessed and cherished in isolation. Autodidacts withdraw knowledge from the social circuits and contexts that make it useful and meaningful—that facilitate the exchange and syntheses that produce knowledge—and hoard it, using it to seal themselves off completely from the judgments of peers.

At 3 Quarks Daily, Justin E. H. Smith, a philosophy professor, shares a saddening exchange he had with a self-taught crank, in which he makes many insightful remarks about the plight of the autodidact. He prefaces the exchange with this apt question: “Why, oh why, would anyone choose the parasitic social role of the self-trained loner philosopher, who enjoys none of the social capital of the professional, and who inevitably will be unable to communicate with anyone whose opinion carries any weight at all in society, never having learned the appropriate behavioral and lexical cues that make communication possible? What are the social factors that make these men (and they are always men) possible?” (I’ve ventured my answer above—you begin by wanting the illusion of authority without the danger of failure and end up in the hermetic world of the outsider artist who has invented his own language and mythos and who mistakes incomprehensibility and obscurity as proofs of superiority—call it the Gaddis conundrum.) Here Smith highlights that influence (or recognition) rather than information mastery alone is the typically the point behind education, and professionalization is the means by which influence is organized —influence is a form of capital, subject to scarcity, and there’s an economics to its management. Influence is produced, distributed and consumed according to socially constructed rules; but the dream of the autodidact crank is a short-cut around those rules: the power of the novel idea is supposed to trump all social processes by the sheer explanatory power of its insights, yielding the lone genius the resepct of society without his having to build the coalitions to give his ideas currency. Once again, for the crank, ideas are not currency and their value is not contingent—they are inherently valuable and precious, like gold or diamonds.

After Smith is insulted by his correspondent—who wrote that Smith’s refusing to entertain his radically comprehensive ideas about the nature of civilization was a “failure to uphold truth” and “a betrayal of your duty, your community, and yourself”—he replies with some bitter medicine: “It is not at all surprising that no one has been interested in ‘refuting’ what you have to say. What you have to say seethes with outsider frustration. It is a call for attention, not an invitation to dialogue.” To needlessly extrapolate: When one spirals too far into autodidacticism, one’s yearning for recognition can become totally distorted and all-consuming. The crank becomes fixated on getting recognition precisely for ignoring the accepted methods for procuring it, and the pursuit obscures the possibility of actual communication. Everything becomes personal, yet the autodidact believes he is transcending petty problems like personalities and networking and so on.

Naturally, the crank did not take this well, and Smith made a final attempt to reach the crank by holding up a mirror to him, describing him as “the autodidactic outsider who retires from an intellectually undemanding career in which he was never able to cultivate stimulating idea-based relationships, and at some point gets it into his head that he has something far more important to say than he in fact does.” This is a fate I personally fear, and one of the reasons I’ll periodically return to Marx’s idea of importance of meaningful work as the basis for human fulfillment. Many jobs are in fact designed to prevent idea-based relationships, while the jobs that do foster such relationships seem to be increasingly held by a clique, which only intensifies the outsider feelings that produce cranks like Smith’s interlocutor. At some point the gap between those with the ability, the social/cultural capital, to work within the system to procure social recognition, and those without becomes unbridgable, despite the enormous opportunity afforded by the Internet for communcation among people of different levels of professional qualification. Internet-assissted autodidacticism seems as though it would permit sincerely interested people find the conversations that could enrich them, and certainly it does that, but it also becomes another forum in which the self-obsessed can glumly experience their neglect and pyrrhically revel in the absence of conversation—it permits the illusion of communication without requiring a writer to make any efforts to obtain an audience; it allows one to be ignored on an even grander scale.

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