BY: Aletheia Luna

Ray Bradbury, Frank Zappa, Stanley Kubrick, Benjamin Franklin, Malcolm X, Julian Assange … some of the greatest and most successful people in history were (and are) not only autotelic, but also autodidacts.

As author and autodidact Helen Beatrix Potter once noted: “thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of my originality.”  In a world where formal education is the only respected form of learning, it’s no wonder that many of us opt to dish out thousands of dollars to be “taken seriously”, over the more contemplative and powerful form of self-education. In fact, many of the most passionate and talented writers, artists, film directors, philosophers and musicians were vehemently against traditional forms of education.  Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein and Margaret Mead were all highly talented self-learners who spoke up against the innumerable limitations of formal education.

Bertrand Russell, for instance, was once recorded saying that “men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education“, and Henry David Thoreau was attributed to saying “what does education do?  It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.” So with all this talk against formal education, what’s so good about informal education anyway, and how exactly can we become an “autodidact”?

Anyone Can Be an Autodidact

If you watch TED talks just for the heck of it, read self-help books just because you want to, and are a Wikipedia enthusiast because you’re curious about learning something new, chances are that you’re already a self-directed autodidact.

In essence, anyone with a lust for knowledge can be an autodidact, and since you’re reading this article, it isn’t too far of a leap to say that you’re an autodidact as well.  Congratulations!  You’ve just joined the ranks of some of the most creative and innovative people in the world.  And all because you don’t shudder and internally retch at the thought of ‘lifelong learning’.

Why Education Makes You Stupid

I quit university for a number of reasons.  One: I hated it.  Two: I learned very little.  And three: it was slowly poisoning my love for self-directed learning.  In fact, during my years at university, I stopped reading, I stopped inquiring and I stopped doing what I loved the most: writing.

Really, all passion, drive, and curiosity to learn about the mysteries of life slowly evaporated during my years in formal education.  The days, weeks and years of homework, assignments, mandatory readings and exams slowly drained me of my creativity and lust for life, like a cancerous tumour.  Thank god I finally came to my senses one day, thank god I quit.  For good.

Luckily, I’m not the only socially deviant “college dropout” who holds these sentiments.  In fact, many people, from J.K. Rowling, to Mark Zuckerberg never completed college or university.  And of course, not all college drop-outs do well in real life – that’s a misconception.  But there’s nothing wrong with being a quitter to me, so long as the choice is justified, deliberate and reasonable.  And hating formal education is a reasonable reason.  This is why:

1.  It imposes pressure on you. 

Basically, the rule is “if you don’t do this by this time, you’re screwed.”  This is not a very healthy approach towards education at all.

2.  It creates immense amounts of stress. 

I remember the feeling of pure, breath-taking freedom that came with quitting university forever.  It was as though a heavy mental burden had been lifted, and I suddenly came to realize how much psychological tension the whole institution had put me through.  The amount of anxiety you have to deal with while studying is completely unnecessary.

3.  It robs you of all of your time.

Hours of dutiful reading, hours of highlighting textbooks, hours of strained eyeballs staring hopelessly at Microsoft Word.  Forget cultivating any meaningful interests or hobbies, studying eats up your energy, time and life.

4.  It robs you of psychological freedom. 

During my stint as a university student, I noticed this bizarre phenomenon happening inside of me.  Whenever I stole a few minutes or hours for myself, I often felt guilty and edgy, as though I was doing something illegal.  Basically, my mind was craving to study, not out of free desire, but imposed fear that I was somehow slacking off, or not working hard enough.  Talk about servitude.

5.  It motivates you with fear. 

Do you want to end up as trailer trash? … No?  Get a college degree!  Do you want to end up as a toothless, drug-addict with leprosy? … No?  Get a college degree!

Basically, we are taught from a young age that if we want to be special, successful or amount to anything important in life, we must slave away for 3-4 years to earn a slip of paper that entitles us to a “bachelor” or “masters” title.  Most people go to college either out of parental obligation, or paranoia.  Both are motivated by fear.

6.  It kills your creativity. 

Everything in colleges and universities are predetermined, from the syllabus, to the resources, set readings and excursions.  College tells you what to do and expects you to implicitly follow.  You must walk within their strict boundaries at all times; use their limited materials to answer their limited questions in their limited formats.

Wild, unbridled curiosity is discouraged.  Dull-minded conformity is encouraged instead.

7.  It makes you narrow-minded. 

Getting a college degree gives you bragging rights, and more often than not causes you to become unaccepting towards self-taught learning.  This can easily be observed in the older and more traditional generations of people who believe that education you pay thousands of dollars for is the only legitimate “serious” form of education.

This snub-nosed perception makes it hard for any autodidact these days to obtain reasonable positions in well-paying jobs.  In the end, it’s the formal way, or the highway.  Freedom of thought is not allowed, instead, thought must be captured and monetized to be relevant and respectable.

8.  It prevents you from becoming an intelligent, inquisitive person. 

As Albert Einstein was recorded saying “one had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind, whether one liked it or not.  This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problem distasteful for an entire year”.  If even famous physicist Albert Einstein was turned off science by formal education, imagine what effect it has on us!  I still hear people, to this day, whining things like “I loved psychology … but since I’ve started studying it, I detest it!”

Even I experienced this with my “library science” studies.  I love libraries and what they stand for, but after the years of studying to become a librarian I truly came to understand the meaning of the word “abhor”.  The fact is, formal education crams a bunch of knowledge into your brain and expects to make a professional out of you.

Sure you have finally gained your socially acceptable degree, but the years of stress and dutiful learning have created a rigid, institutionalized brain.  Furthermore, those of us who have undergone the torture camps of education will understand how nauseating the word “education” becomes after graduating.

Who the hell wants to become a “lifelong learner” and much less an autodidact, after experiencing the psychological horrors of a formal education?  It took me quite a while to get interested in self-directed learning again, after serving my time at university – it took about a year and a half.  Unconsciously I identified any form of education with classrooms, exam papers and hours spent squinting at dry textbooks.

Slowly I realized that obtaining knowledge doesn’t have to be excruciating and burdensome.  And I’m glad I did.  Many people, however, come out of college and never look back.  They’ve already put up with the back-breaking labor of gaining “knowledge”, so why go back?  Why bother to continue learning at all?

How to Become an Autodidact

Self-teaching is a much different experience to institutional-teaching … thank heavens.  It can be an invigorating, absorbing, inspiring, enlightening and captivating experience, and one that often requires very little, if no, money.

Not only can auto didacticism make you smarter (sexier), more creative and more enthusiastic about life, but it can also give your life meaning, direction and the possibility to become a master of whatever your heart or mind desires.

The autodidact is a person who is not restrained by lifeless, repetitive, fear-induced learning, but one who can freely explore the world with ingenuity, uniqueness and passion.  They learn out of a deep inner desire to learn, and not just because they have to.  In fact, the autodidact’s approach to education is highly intelligent: learn whatever you wish out of free-will and you will absorb and retain much more knowledge than the poor college fellow.

Plus self-directed learning not only gives you the knowledge to deal with life’s problems much more effectively, but it is also non-discriminative.  Any person of any intelligence level with any amount of money can become one.  Never think that you have to get into debt to learn anything.  Knowledge should never be tied up in bureaucracy.  Knowledge is free, and should remain that way.

So how can we become autodidacts?  It’s quite simple really, and actually very enjoyable.  Here, I have given a variety of examples, which I hope you can add to below.

  • Watch documentaries.  Think TED Talks, David Attenborough, the Discovery Channel,
  • Read far and wide.  Read what everyone else reads and you will think the way everyone else thinks.  Get curious and adventurous.  If you usually read fiction, try reading biographies, psychology, or occult non-fiction books.  This will help to open doors and open your mind.
  • Subscribe to RSS feeds and newsletters.  Do this selectively: it’s annoying being bombarded with thousands of emails each day
  • Visit your local library or museum.  Libraries and museums often have events running every month, some free, others charge a small entry price.  I love the library because of the wealth of free information it possesses.  It’s also the perfect place for the introvert to spend a comfortable and quiet afternoon.
  • Online courses.  I’m not a big fan of any kind of course, but some people benefit from structured learning.  Most online courses are relatively inexpensive and are also study-at-your-own-pace, so the nasty stress element is removed.
  • Local workshops and seminars.  Look in the social section of your local newspaper and chances are you’ll see a variety of workshops and seminars advertised.  Most center on self-help techniques, and there is a lot to be gained from a couple of hours of intensive listening.
  •  Get out there!  Walking around and taking mini bus or car trips to places you’ve never been to before may provide the perfect opportunities to learn or see something new.

Adapted for The FAIR Digest by: Leviticus James