Autodidact and Attempted Polymath – what on earth?

Someone may have read my heading and wondered what this was about, so here are my brief musings.

An “autodidact” means, effectively, someone who is self-taught. “Self-taught” implies the end of (or lack of) formal education, and “self-teaching” is usually in adulthood, and generally over areas of thought or skills that have not been the subject of formal education. Most of what we learn does not fall within the boundaries of “formal education”, which, as a former practitioner, I see as (at best, and significantly) as attempting to intervene in learning processes. At its worst, this closes down processes of understanding; at its best, it helps to open them up. An autodidact has either been deprived of some of the benefits of formal education, or has sought to (or been forced to) go beyond its limits.

A common perception, I suspect, is that an autodidact is a working-class person who had been deprived of (and maybe by) formal education, and thus learns for themselves. My background is middle-class, and I attained what might seem to be reasonable achievements in formal education. Yet, most of what interests me, and even much of what I taught to others (some as postgraduate level) was self-taught. So – I am an autodidact, at least over what matters to me. Noone taught me a thing about waterways (or other transport) history, and conservation and environmental issues, and I have no paperwork to qualify my knowledge and understanding of those fields. I felt for a long time that this was a serious weakness, a glaring lack, but now I think that it can be put to good use. I write unconstrained by the boundaries and norms (at worst, the knowledge and practice silos), and will probably offend all practitioners in their assigned fields.

Like the idea of deschooling, with which I have some sympathy, there is a danger in romanticising the idea of the autodidact. So I will merely record that that is my perspective, from necessity. If I am to understand this world, it could not come from the 17 years in which I was subjected to full-time formal education; it had to develop during and after those years.

Ralph Dumain’s site on autodidactism (see the links on the right) is a remarkable resource, by an autodidact who nonetheless insists that the autodidact should not be viewed in some romantic guise. His background, I gather, is a librarian – increasingly an endangered species.

I suppose attempted polymath proceeds from the idea of the autodidact. “Attempted” is easy to explain – because to try to be a polymath is all that can be achieved, at least by someone like me. It’s an unattainable goal, one whose achievement cannot be objectively measured, or indeed known. Personally, the more I understand, the more I realise how little I do understand. Among many regrets, it is that the accessibility of the Web has developed late in my life, and indeed that the internet is used for creating and purveying rubbish rather than being seen as a means to secure a modicum of self-education.

While I am slightly suspicious of the institutional setting from which this derives (see I do think that this statement sums it up: “Polymathy, like all genius, is not about acquiring complete knowledge, but about building a select knowledge base and successfully applying it to a creative purpose, resulting in a tangible work.” This is something of a departure from the loftier idea from ancient Greece, of the polymath as someone with great knowledge of a number of fields, able to synthesise that knowledge. I’d like to be the latter, but suspect that, if I had not been diverted by the pressures of formal institutional education, I might have attained the latter.

More later perhaps.


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