In Praise of Autodidacticism

Photo by Sylvain Pedneault

I was born and raised in a town that recently ranked as the worst place in the nation to live, due to unemployment. My father relocated to the Imperial Valley of California before I was born. He went there to run experimental community-oriented education programs in a school for troubled teens located three blocks north of the U.S.-Mexico border. In the second week of his tenure, students burned the school to the ground.

He went on to receive one of California’s highest awards for education, as well as to testify at trials for drive-by shootings. In the end, his approach to education succeeded in changing the lives of many troubled and disadvantaged students. Conventional schools had given up on them. His new approach succeeded with two key elements: a community of support, and an emphasis on practical skills. He is still remembered fondly as an agent of positive change.

Coming from this background, I adopted the idea that all education is ultimately self-education; that it is my responsibility to seek out books, people, institutions, and other resources to learn what I need, when I need it, on a practical basis. This is part of why, despite a lifelong love of computer programming, I left the computer engineering department at a top school after the first year.

I stayed on as an employee of the university’s innovative self-paced computer science program, learning and teaching languages to other undergraduates. Rather than listen to professors read from texts at set times in lectures, I knew I could find and read the same texts for myself–exactly when I needed to do so to solve a real-world problem. Rather than tackle theoretical assignments in labs, I decided to take on my own programming projects with concrete results.

As Sir Ken Robinson points out in his TED talk, there is an entire generation coming up behind me with similar ideas about education. Having grown up with the power of unbundled, just-in-time content on the internet, they seek the same qualities in an educational model, and find the existing paradigm stifling. Yet also, far from wanting to just sequester themselves away in a dark room with a book, they organize real-time communities around interests as unique as they are.

The key elements that galvanized “at risk” teenagers toward positive change in my father’s school are the same ingredients that an entire generation now craves. This generation is equally “at risk”–of taking up a variation on the ’60s slogan encouraging them to “turn on [the iPhone], tune in [to Facebook], drop out [of lectures].” The time has come for specific, practical, just-in-time education, organized around virtual social communities, to optimize how an entire upcoming generation of self-teachers will learn. And this would seem to put traditional institutions of learning “at risk” of being consumed in a conflagration of radical change.

Yet it is the institutions, and not the teachers, under threat. The experiences I had as an undergraduate in the English department, by contrast with the conveyor-belt approach to teaching engineering, involved meaningful connections with brilliant professors, the likes of which I could not have experienced anywhere else. Surely, though, professors like Stephen Booth or Robert Hass would be just as inspiring to engage with virtually, as I did later with mentors in my graduate creative writing program.

People are priceless. A good teacher can change your life like no one else. Imagine the power they will have to transform lives–especially in under-served communities–once we finally begin to tap the full educational potential of the digital age. Now that is a fire worth starting.