what’s the opposite of autodidact?

In his Life is Hell comic, Matt Groening once did a series on education where he went through the various stages. He titled the comic about grad school “Grad School: Some People Never Learn,” which I always thought was funny. Self-mockery aside, it’s interesting to think about how long I’ve been a student, and how much of being a student at 32 is the same as being a student at 5.

Our culture celebrates autodidacts. It talks constantly of “disrupting” education. It insists always that we need to radically reshape how we teach and learn. It treats as heroic the rejection of teachers and traditional mentorship. The self-help aisle of the bookstore abounds with writers who insist that they truly learned by rejecting the typical method of education and became, instead, self-taught, self-made. It’s an unavoidable trope.

What amazes me about my own education is just how far that is from the truth for me personally. I’ve learned how I learn, and it’s pretty simple: teachers teach me. That was true in kindergarten and it’s true now that the end of my doctorate, and the end of being formally educated by others, is rushing up ahead of me. I can’t tell you how often I have found myself feeling lost and ignorant, only to have patient, kind teachers take me through the familiar processes of modeling and repetition that are cornerstones of education. I’ve just left my graduate statistics class, where I often feel like the slowest person in class, but where I always end up getting there, thanks to steady and reassuring teaching. When I don’t get what I need from class, I go to office hours, or I go to the statistics help room, where brilliant graduate students eagerly share knowledge and experience with me. None of this is fundamentally any different than when Mrs. Gebhardt taught me to cut shapes out of paper or when Mr. Shearer taught me simple algebra or when Mr. Tucci taught me to read poetry or when Dr. Nunn taught me to write a real research paper. The process is always the same, and in every case, I have succeeded not through rejecting the authority of teachers but by accepting their help, by recognizing their superior knowledge and letting them use it to enrich my life.

They say that great men see farther than others by standing on the shoulders of giants. I have been enabled to see as far as some because they have collectively reached their hands down and pulled me up.

4 Comments

  1. “Trainable”? I tried googling antonyms for “Autodidact”, and not much came up. Apparently there’s no good one-word antonym for “autodidact”, at least in English (I’m sure the Germans have something – they always seem to).

  2. I distinguish between self-teaching and reading on one’s own. Teaching yourself to program a computer would be typing stuff into a REPL or making up programs and seeing what they do. Reading SICP, without being enrolled in an institution of higher learning, should be called something else.

    1. Or take fencing. If you taught yourself you’d have a lot more scratches and spent more time (but potentially a novel perspective) than if you got a book on swordplay from the library and read a master rather than listening to him in person.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *