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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Autodidacticism (also autodidactism) is self-education or self-directed learning. An autodidact is a mostly self-taught person, as opposed to learning in a school setting or from a full-time tutor or mentor.

A person may become an autodidact at nearly any point in his or her life. While some may have been educated in a conventional manner in a particular field, they may choose to educate themselves in other, often unrelated areas.

Self-teaching and self-directed learning are not necessarily lonely processes. Some autodidacts spend a great deal of time in libraries or on educational websites. Many, according to their plan for learning, avail themselves of instruction from family members, friends, or other associates, although strictly speaking this might not be considered autodidactic, unless the emphasis is placed on collecting specific information as opposed to being guided in a general course of study by a teacher figure.

The term "self-taught" is something of a journalistic trope these days, and is often used to signify "non-traditionally educated", which is entirely different, as the flow of information and its focus is usually governed by the teacher or educational source and not the student.

Inquiry into autodidacticism has implications for learning theory, educational research, educational philosophy, and educational psychology.


Autodidactism in fiction

The earliest novels to deal with the concept of autodidacticism were the Arabic novels, Philosophus Autodidactus, written by Ibn Tufail in 12th-century Islamic Spain, and Theologus Autodidactus, written by Ibn al-Nafis in 13th-century Egypt. Both deal with autodidactic feral children living in isolation from society on a desert island and discovering the truth as they grow up without having been in contact with other human beings.

In The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987), Jacques Rancière describes the emancipatory education of Joseph Jacotot, a post-Revolutionary philosopher of education who discovered that he could teach things he did not know. The book is both a history and a contemporary intervention in the philosophy and politics of education, through the concept of autodidacticism; Rancière chronicles Jacotot's "adventures", but he articulates Jacotot's theory of "emancipation" and "stultification" in the present tense.

The 1997 drama film Good Will Hunting follows the story of autodidact Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon. Hunting demonstrates his breadth and depth of knowledge throughout the film, but especially to his therapist and in a heated discussion in a Harvard bar.

One of the main characters in The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, is an autodidact. The story is told from the view point of Renee, a middle-aged autodidact concierge in a Paris upscale apartment house and Paloma, a 12-year-old daughter of one of the tenants who is unhappy with her life. These two people find they have much in common when they both befriend a new tenant, Mr. Ozu, and their lives change forever.

Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea depicts an autodidact who is a self-deluding dilettante.

In the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, Ekalavya is depicted as a tribal boy who was denied education in the science of arms from royal teachers from the house of Kuru. Ekalavya went to the forest, where he taught himself archery in front of an image of the Kuru teacher, Drona, that he had built for himself. Later, when the royal family found that Ekalavya had practiced with the image of Drona as his teacher, Drona asked for Ekalavya's thumb as part of his tuition. Ekalavya complied with Drona's request, thus ending his martial career.

On the television show Criminal Minds, Supervisory Special Agent Dr. Spencer Reid is an autodidact with an eidetic memory, meaning that he can remember and easily recall almost everything he sees (this, however, only applies to visual information). He holds doctoral degrees in mathematics, chemistry, and engineering. He also holds bachelor degrees in sociology and psychology, and is working on completing another in philosophy. He is known on the show for being a genius; he has an IQ of 187 and is certainly the smartest member of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit stationed at Quantico, Virginia. Most of his autodidacticism comes from reading books, which he prefers over traditional forms of education, including schooling. He reads at a rate of 20,000 words per minute.

Notable autodidacts

Artists and authors:

  • José Saramago Nobel Prize of Literature. His parents were unable to pay his studies at early age, and he was forced to abandon the baccalaureate. At the age of 13, he began to study mechanics to repair cars. He continued the next thirty years working as a locksmith for a metal company, and in an agency of social services. His first novel (Terra de pecado) was published in 1947 without any success at all. He stopped writing for publication, although he continued doing manuscripts for himself. At the end of the '60s, he joined the Communist party, and after the fall of the Fascist dictatorship in Portugal of 1974, he was the director of the nationalized newspaper Diario Noticias. Just a few years after the putsch of the left wing failed in 1975, he began to write again to survive. In that point of his life, the fame came.[1] In 1998 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • The visionary artist and poet William Blake was an autodidact. He was initially educated by his mother prior to his enrollment in drawing classes and never received any formal schooling due to his rebellious temperament.Instead, he read widely on subjects of his own choosing.
  • John Clare was self-learned and rose out of poverty to become an acclaimed poet.
  • Forensic facial reconstruction artist Frank Bender is self-taught. His well-known forensic career started off with a day trip to a morgue, asked to try to put a face on the deceased, brought measurements home, created a successful facial reconstruction that led to his first (of many) IDs. He took only one semester of sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.[citation needed]
  • Nazeer Naji, a top Pakistani Urdu news columnist and intellectual best known for his progressive writings has never attended any formal school because of the abject poverty of his parents. He has been in the journalism for 50 years, started many popular magazines including Akhbar-e-Jehan and also served as the speech writer for the former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
  • The popular writer of science fiction, fantasy and children's books Terry Pratchett is quoted as saying "I didn't go to university. Didn't even finish A-levels. But I have sympathy for those who did".{[2]}

Actors, musicians, and other entertainers:

  • The musician Frank Zappa is noted for his exhortation, "Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you've got any guts. Some of you like Pep rallies and plastic robots who tell you what to read."[3]
  • Playwright August Wilson dropped out of school in the ninth grade but continued to educate himself by spending long hours reading at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library.[citation needed]
  • Penn Jillette, a member of the comedy and magic duo Penn & Teller, declared both he and his partner Teller to be autodidacts in an episode of their television series, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!.[5]
  • Christopher Hughes, the winner of Mastermind, International Mastermind, Brain of Britain, and a current member of crack TV quiz team the Eggheads is almost entirely self educated. After leaving Enfield Grammar School at 15 he spent all his life working on the railways in the capacity of driver or station master. He is one of only four people ever to have won both Mastermind and Brain of Britain.[6]. On a couple of occasions on "Eggheads" he has referred to himself as "The Autodidact's Autodidact".
  • Modern Pashto poet Ameer Hamza Shinwari though not educated in the regular manner, was able to establish his career through self-education.
  • Robert Lewis Shayon, early radio producer, author, television critic for Christian Science Monitor and The Saturday Review, and Ivy League professor, never had a college education.[citation needed]
  • David Bowie, singer, musician, multi-instrumentalist, actor, and painter, has never trained in any of the mentioned fields and only received a few singing lessons in the 1960s (as reported by his former manager, Ken Pitt). As a teenager he took some lessons on saxophone by Ronnie Ross. All other instruments (including piano, keyboards/synths, electric/acoustic guitar, harmonica, koto, limited bass, and percussion), he taught himself. His paintings and sculptures were created (and exhibited) without any formal art school training. He took a few lessons in movement and dance with the Lindsey Kemps Dance company but trained himself in mime.[citation needed]

Scientists, historians, and educators:

  • Michael Faraday, the chemist and physicist. Although Faraday received little formal education and knew little of higher mathematics, such as calculus, he was one of the most influential scientists in history. Some historians[7] of science refer to him as the best experimentalist in the history of science.
  • Physicist and Judo expert Moshe Feldenkrais developed an autodidactic method of self-improvement based on his own experience with self-directed learning in physiology and neurology. He was motivated by his own crippling knee injury.[citation needed]

19th century British scientist.[citation needed]

  • Gerda Alexander, Heinrich Jacoby, and a number of other 20th-century European innovators worked out methods of self-development that stressed intelligent sensitivity and awareness.[citation needed]
  • Mythologist Joseph Campbell exemplified the autodidactic method. Following completion of his masters degree, Campbell decided not to go forward with his plans to earn a doctorate, and he went into the woods in upstate New York, reading deeply for five years. According to poet and author Robert Bly, a friend of Campbell's, Campbell developed a systematic program of reading nine hours a day.[citation needed]
  • Vincent J. Schaefer, who discovered the principle of cloud seeding, was schooled to 10th grade when asked by parents to help with family income. He continued his informal education by reading, participation in free lectures by scientists and exploring nature through year-round outdoor activity.
  • Buckminster Fuller, a self-proclaimed comprehensive anticipatory design scientist, was twice expelled from Harvard and, after a life-altering experience while on the edge of suicide, dedicated his life to working in the service of humanity and thinking for himself. In the process he created many new terms such as "ephemeralization", "dymaxion", and "Spaceship Earth".
  • Jane Jacobs wrote books about city planning, economics, and sociology with only a high school degree and training in journalism and sternography, plus courses at Columbia University's extension school.
  • While Karl Popper did receive a college education, he never took courses in philosophy, and he did his initial work in the philosophy of science during the late 1920s and early 1930s while he was teaching science and math in high school. He then turned to the social sciences and attempted to transform them as well, again without any formal training or official mentoring. The best source for this story is Malachi Hacohen's book "Karl Popper: The Formative Years, 1902-1945".


  • Kató Lomb, one of first simultaneous interpreters of the world, spoke more than ten languages fluently and she learnt them by gleaning their rules and vocabulary from books (mostly novels), as she described in her book Polyglot: How I Learn Languages (2008), originally published in Hungarian in four editions (1970, 1972, 1990, 1995).
  • Christopher Langan, is an autodidact whose IQ was reported by 20/20 and other media sources to have been measured at between 195 and 210.

See also


  1. ^ Interview: José Saramago: Nada está mejorando, BBC Mundo, June 22, 2009. (In Spanish)
  2. ^ "Freak Out" album liner notes, ca. 1965
  3. ^ "Freak Out" album liner notes, circa 1965.
  4. ^ Arnold Schoenberg Center (Halsey Stevens interview)
  5. ^ Penn & Teller: Bullshit, Episode 3-06 "College", first aired May 30, 2005.
  6. ^ UK Game Show Records,
  7. ^ Russell, Colin (2000). Michael Faraday: Physics and Faith. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Further reading

  • Brown, Resa Steindel. The Call to Brilliance: A True Story to Inspire Parents and Educators. ISBN 0-9778369-0-8.
  • Cameron, Brent and Meyer, Barbara. SelfDesign: Nurturing Genius Through Natural Learning. ISBN 1-59181-044-2.
  • Hayes, Charles D. Self-University: The Price of Tuition Is the Desire to Learn. Your Degree Is a Better Life. ISBN 0-9621979-0-4.
  • Hayes, Charles The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning. ISBN 09621979-4-7.
  • Hailey, Kendall. The Day I Became an Autodidact. ISBN 0-385-29636-3.
  • Llewellyn, Grace. The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education. ISBN 0-9629591-7-0.
  • Rancière, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford Univ. Press, 1991. ISBN 0-8047-1969-1.
  • Solomon, Joan. The Passion to Learn: An Inquiry into Autodidactism. ISBN 0-415-30418-0.

External links



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