Issue #12: education

The autodidact

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by Nigel Warburton on July 11, 2016

My grandfather was remarkable. A bright working-class child from the north of England, he had left school in his early teens to work in a paper mill. His job was weighing the huge spools of paper that came off the production line. As he waited for each spool to appear, he took advantage of the supply of paper and taught himself to draw. Eventually one of his bosses spotted his talent, and had him trained as a commercial artist to work on advertisements for the firm.

Meanwhile, at home, he taught himself to play the piano and accordion, and joined a dance band, playing local gigs. After one late night event in Manchester, he overslept. When he clocked in late for his job at the paper mill the next morning, his manager threatened to dock half a day’s wages. My grandfather lost his temper, and told him where to go. He was sacked.

The Depression was a bad time to be unemployed. He played to his strengths, though, and became a professional musician, eventually accompanying top stars, including David Whitfield, who went on to have number one chart hits. His musical career included appearances on the Johnny Carson Show, and a Royal Variety performance at the London Palladium. Later he became an ‘A and R’ man, producing Paul Simon’s first LP The Paul Simon Songbook (though he was less proud of this than I am). He even appeared on the panel of a 1960s television talent show.

Any success my grandfather had was self-made. He taught himself the skills in drawing and music that allowed him to make it.  He was a genuine autodidact. He devoured non-fiction books while on tour. Like many autodidacts, his reading was both eclectic and eccentric. Fortunately for me his taste included the works of another autodidact, Colin Wilson, whose book about existentialism, The Outsider, he passed on to me, and so triggered my interest in philosophy. Perhaps through reading Wilson’s other work he became fascinated by the occult and parapsychology: in later life he was convinced that if you placed a razor blade exactly a third of the way up inside a scale model of the Giant Pyramid of Cheops, then it would spontaneously re-sharpen itself. In later life I remember him sitting in his favourite armchair, watching the television, wearing his cardboard pyramid as a hat. I asked him what he was doing. “Sharpening my wits,” he replied, with a twinkle in his eye. I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not. I’m still not sure. After his death I found a correspondence course in popular singing he’d written – a nice coincidence because at the time I was writing correspondence courses in philosophy for Britain’s The Open University.

Autodidacts in my grandfather’s era had to work very hard to teach themselves anything. They had to seek out books and correspondence courses, many of which were very expensive. Today though, we seem to be in a Golden Age for autodidacts. The Internet has made information about almost any subject freely available, in the form of videos, podcasts, downloadable files, or even entire online courses complete with feedback. Many of these resources are of a very high quality; some provide a better education than you would get in most conventional universities, particularly those which can no longer afford to include small group teaching or individual tutorials in their curriculum.

Yet there is still something special about being in the same room with someone teaching you face-to-face, and most autodidacts realise that they are missing out on this. Given the chance, they would be in the room too. There are many things you can learn at a distance, but some things seem to require a presence. It is hard to pin down exactly what in-the-room learning provides that distance learning rarely achieves, but one aspect is surely flexibility. Long ago Socrates commented about the inflexibility of the written as opposed to the spoken word: in the Phaedrus Plato has him pointing out how writing can appear intelligent, but gives precisely the same answers whoever interrogates it. Teaching materials and books are similarly incapable of making sensitive responses. A good teacher might tailor what he or she says to the people in the room, but a one-size-fits-all book, podcast, or video doesn’t allow that degree of responsiveness. Of course some of these aspects could be provided in a video link, but for some reason that doesn’t usually feel quite as good as the presence of a teacher in the same room.  Perhaps it will when teachers can appear virtually as holograms, apparently in the same space as us, but we’re still waiting for that technology.

What the autodidact lacks is the physical presence of an experienced teacher. Where a teacher is a brilliant exponent of the subject or technique you are learning there is the chance for significant non-verbal learning at a pre-conscious level, as well as the opportunity to ask questions and to interact. I’m not sure why this works better when you are in the same space as the teacher, but my experience has been that it does seem to, particularly in philosophy. Teaching can be showing as well as saying, and being in the presence of a brilliant person can be a lesson in itself that we absorb almost without realising at the time this takes place. I know that seeing the philosopher Bernard Williams in debate, casually dropping the line, “There are five good criticisms of that”, and then running through all five one after the other, “and fifthly…” made me realise what quick thinking on your feet could be like. Similarly, in a few hours discussing Machiavelli and Hobbes with the philosopher and intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, and witnessing his effortless recall of key lines and phrases, his knowledge of historical milieu, his understanding of how particular contexts shaped meaning and reception of ideas, I learnt more about intellectual history, and what it would take to be good at it, than I could from reading books for months in a library. A good philosopher has a nose for the questions that will be interesting and worthwhile to pursue.  Yet how can you train your own nose to discriminate like that? To see an outstanding thinker in action can be a bit like watching a great tennis player, who without thinking just knows which shot to play. That in itself won’t make the spectator a great tennis player (or philosopher), but it does, nevertheless, communicate in a very direct way what excellence involves.  Of course, much of this can be mediated via videos and audio recordings too, at least in principle. But the truth is that more often than not something is lost.

As any university teacher knows, a passionate autodidact is worth a hundred mediocre students going through the motions of studying. What autodidacts have, and so many conveyor belt students lack, is a passionate desire to learn and to improve that can drive them on to greater things. Without the drive to learn, the inquisitiveness, and the desire to find out more, higher education is little more than finishing school for the privileged. Yet it would be sentimentality to think that teaching yourself to do something is somehow better than being taught by good teachers. Some autodidacts do indeed manage to excel, but we should recognise that this is usually despite having to teach themselves, not necessarily because they have had to do so.

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