Thom Stark‘s very specific disassembly of some careless arguing from Richard Carrier, included this passage:

Being an autodidact is a good thing…, but it can also be a very bad thing, because when we teach ourselves, we only know to ask the question we think of by ourselves. We tend to only read the material that interests us, or answers our specific questions, and that means we haven’t read all those boring textbooks that are essential to providing us with an adequate grasp of the field.

Which struck home. I have a B.A. in theology (where I focussed on languages), but I’d say 99% of what I know I acquired by reading since graduating. Like Carrier, I am often convinced of my correctness for no better reason that it hasn’t occurred to me that I might be wrong. Being a passionate auto-didact, I suspect, is linked to intellectual arrogance. Something which I have called Carrier out on before, but of which I also regularly partake.


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2 responses to “Auto-didacts

  1. I absolutely love your confessions like this. It is such a tendency that makes you delightfully safe and a wonderful teacher.

    BTW, my son (13 years-old) has just started learning trigonometry on Khan’s Academy and Python on (I am working on this with him too) but is this really “autodidactic”? Well, it is outside of formal school (not mandatory) and initiated by himself (“auto”), but the cool thing is that he reads and hears the opinions of others AND he escapes the echo-chamber of our family and his father’s opinions to some degree.

    When we are teaching ourselves, aren’t we reading others and hearing their voices too? But the problem is, we may only select to read what confirms our opinions. Hmmmm, just thinking outloud.

  2. Ian


    Yes, I think the important part, for the purpose of this post, is that you guide your own learning at some level: you chose the books to read, the courses to view, etc. Probably not as much of an issue in programming Python, as when mastering a large literature.

    I don’t know… I’m no expert on auto-didacticism!

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