I was listening to a podcast presenting a brief biography of Andrew Carnegie the other day, and although I’m somewhat familiar with the man, and very familiar with his legacy of libraries, I think the philosophy that led him to establish more than 2500 libraries bears repeating, and often. He believed that compiling knowledge in a library, and then making that fount of information available to all, would give those who had the motivation to learn the means to do so. Anyone could learn, he believed, if they could only access the tools. In an era before the internet was dreamt of, when paper books were expensive and sometimes elusive, libraries were temples of education for the masses.

More than that, “He that cannot reason is a fool, He that will not a bigot, He that dare not a slave.”   Andrew Carnegie, who worked tirelessly for the end of war, believed that through exposure to books and knowledge, men would gain a greater understanding of one another, and a tolerance for the previously unknown cultures spread across the world. Modern criticism of the man who rose to wealth from unimaginable poverty (at least to most modern US citizens) ignores that he attempted to create a path for anyone to follow in his footsteps, not just those who were born into wealth or the aristocracy.

Books passively on the shelves in beautiful buildings are not enough on their own, however. As we know from the homeschooling experience with the Junior Mad Scientist for the last year, you need to also have the motivation to take down a book and read it. We can give her stacks of books that will help nourish her brain and expand her education. We can’t force her to comprehension of those books, even if we stood over her while she made the motions of reading them. In order to take in the information she needs to be willing to learn. And, in addition to books, we have podcasts, videos, Khan Academy… the list goes on and on. So much that it’s like drinking out of a firehose, as someone said about the internet in general. No wonder she’s a bit overwhelmed at times when we discuss her progress and goals!

I’ve talked before about my autodidactism. I like to learn stuff, and when some subject catches my interest, I’ll focus on that for a time, absorbing as much as I possibly can. My First Reader, when I talked about this ability to focus in on something, snorted and told me it was more like obsession. Maybe… but as I gathered in more and more, I started to see fascinating webs of patterns that connect seemingly unrelated topics. Food, for one I’ve written about many times here on the blog. Recipes and digging into ‘where did that dish come from?’ leads to history, culture, and the ecology of nations. What about microbes? well, besides being found practically everywhere, they impact far more things than we’d dreamed of prior to the last decade. Back pain? Might be tied to the acne bacteria. Crop failure? viroids. Depression? might be gut bacteria. And on and on and… but I digress. It’s so easy to fall down the rabbit hole of research and lose myself there, but I have to remember to come up for air and to get stuff done.

I don’t know how to pass on this passion. I’ve tried, and in some small measure I’ve succeeded. I’ve tried to set an example by my actions. But the motivation button isn’t one I can reach to press. They have to get it on their own. And when they do, they will find that they have stacks of books, a mother who will happily buy them more, and when they outstrip the resources at home, the Carnegie libraries are still available to them.

Not to mention the internet, which is both the greatest boon in history to the autodidact, but also the greatest hindrance. First, you learn critical thinking. Then, you look for information on the ‘net. Because if you skip that first step, you’re going to run into the ‘fake’ stuff. Which has always been out there. It’s even been in libraries. But there were filters in place that could stem some of the tide of crap. It’s not all bad. There’s so much to learn, and so little time, and everyone learns in different ways that the ‘net enables those who can’t necessarily read a book and then do whatever it is. Like the essay I wrote the other day, about the forensic study of 3D printed guns. Videos on how to make guns with simple tools were posted in comments, for those who can’t just read the directions and visualize. Apprenticeships where the learner watched the master have just moved from a limited number of students able to crowd around him, to the thousands and hundreds of thousands who can download the video. Still, though, as my son is slowly learning (he’s a bit stubborn. gosh, I wonder where that trait came from?) you need that journeyman phase where you replicate those video-taught skills with your own two hands. Simpler methods might be watch-and-do, but moderate or complex skills require practice. Which is what we’ve been encouraging the boy to do. Just because he watched a video does NOT mean he knows how to keep an ant colony alive (or in it’s cage. Which I keep telling him he may not have in the house!).

It’s out there. You just have to want to learn. There’s no excuses. If you can put in the effort, you can have the education, with no money needed. For ease and stay-at-home comfort, minimal investment of having internet run to your house… but if you’re broke? The library has books, and the ‘net, and videos… Some even have 3D printers these days!



5 responses to “Autodidactism”

  1. As a kid, I recall reading (I think it was in The Final Encyclopedia, maybe? Don’t matter) about the globe pooling all their resources to build a moonlet-sized satellite computer containing the repository of all human knowledge, Of course, you had to be a famous in your field, post-PhD-level researcher to get selected and approved by the committee in charge of allocating time spent with this massive supercomputer, hop on a rocket and spend even a few hours on this magic machine. I used to daydream about such a machine, and would have given ANYTHING to be able to spend a day with it. So much more powerful than my mere set of World Books. (Note how this setup was operating according to the best practices paradigm of the 60’s, when a computer was a giant timesharing mainframe, as opposed to the decentralized network we have today.)

    NEVER, in my wildest fantasies, did I expect this computer would be available to every Joe BagaDonutz, in a form that could easily drop into a pocket.

    We are truly living in a magical time.

    1. Orvan Taurus Avatar
      Orvan Taurus

      We didn’t get the predicted future. In some ways, we got a far better one. Alas, in others, not even as good.

  2. Heh World Book! Still have them…somewhere. They were pretty frustrating in depth.

    “the greatest boon in history to the autodidact” I keep trying to eat it fast before it melts.

    1. Orvan Taurus Avatar
      Orvan Taurus

      In the 1970’s, family was given a set from 1950 (Aunt’s family had them) *and* many of the yearly update books for the 1950’s and 1960’s which were fascinating snapshots of those years. The encyclopedias were so-so at ‘modern’ stuff if they even had it, and were often a fascinating look back. WWII information (unclassified, duh) was fantastic, being so chronologically close to the event. But the updates? Wow! I wonder if they still do that…

      1. Mine would have been from the 60’s, iirc. I should dig them out and give them to the grand-kids.