How To Become A 21st Century Autodidact

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Go to college! Get an education!

The above sentiments are commonly found in company with one another. In the present age, pursuing a university degree is bound up with the enrichment of mind. We have taken a curious turn in the last half century. The increasing access and availability of post-secondary schooling has made going through it a necessary condition of being considered educated. The meritocracy that we are constantly told about has little to do with merit in the sense of intellectual ability. It is instead a byword for those who have attained a four-year college degree.

The autodidact—the self-educated man—is no longer held in the esteem he once was. He has little prospect of advancing in business, government, or the professions. For a society that holds Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass as heroes, as almost saint-like figures, we maintain a very strange attitude to the method of education largely responsible for making them what they became.

Why is the autodidact out of favor? The short answer is numbers. Society is big, its population huge. Organizations have too many people to choose from, so they must somehow narrow the field.

A college degree shows that a person is reliable enough to complete basic tasks and has the perseverance to see an undertaking through. Those who graduate from one of the higher ranking schools are viewed as being able to do these things to an even greater degree.

In reality, this is not necessarily the case. In my own experience—as someone who has gone to a supposedly elite school—the only things that those who have gone through such a system share are ambition, drive, confidence, and skill in networking. The development of intellect—the power and quality of mind that allows one to think, speak, and write clearly, coherently, and logically—is not a guaranteed result of graduating from a university.

It is nevertheless futile to resist the conditions and circumstances of modern society. That is why I believe a modification of what it means to be an autodidact is necessary.

You should pursue a four-year degree. You must possess this paper if you are to get anywhere in the world. Think of it as a union card, a way of showing the powers that be that you belong to the club.

When it comes to a genuine improvement of mind, only your initiative will do. Going to college is an opportunity to throw yourself into ideas, debate, and conversation. You must view lectures and reading lists as so many scattered elements of a foundation that will constitute your true education.

Self-education is the only true education. Wide and constant reading of books, the sorting and analysis of ideas, and the testing and evaluation of arguments, both yours and those put forward by others, is the only real path to a well-formed mind.

What does all this mean in practical terms?

It means discerning the basic categories of thought and drawing up a reading list consisting of the best that has ever been written in them. Literature, history, philosophy, science, and politics—no matter your major, find out the ancient and modern classics in each of these categories and start reading them.

This is of course a life-long project. It cannot end once you’ve completed your degree. Committing yourself to an open-ended project of reading and learning about the world after you have finished your college degree will make you a 21st century autodidact.


About Christopher Reid

Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.

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