5 Myths About Being an Autodidact

Have you ever heard people refer to themselves or others as autodidacts? Today I hear quite a few people describe themselves this way as if it were a largely genetic trait like having blue eyes or being a certain height. “Some people are autodidacts,” they explain. “Others are genetically predisposed to depend upon others for their learning throughout life,” they seem to suggest. Others use the term “autodidact” as interchangeable with genius. Still other people reserve the word for the few and rare people throughout history like Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci. Yet, perhaps there is value in keeping our minds open to a broader understanding of what it means to be an autodidact, recognizing the potential in every learner and helping people bring out their inner auto-didacticism. To do that, let’s take a moment to dispel five common myths.

All autodidacts are geniuses.

There are certainly some fascinating and inspiring examples of people with incredibly high IQs who also happen to be autodidacts, but the term is certainly not limited to those who score off the charts in traditional IQ tests. An autodidact is, in the basic sense of the word, a self-taught person. The term comes from two Greek roots that mean self and teaching. It has nothing to do with your raw or natural cognitive abilities. It does have to do with embracing an approach where you own and pursue your learning.

Either you are born an autodidact or you are not.

Some people seem to have higher natural propensities for curiosity and other traits closely associated with the personal pursuit of learning, but I’ve yet to see any evidence that autodidacticism in the broader sense is simply the result of a collection of genes. We can learn to grow along the spectrum toward autodidacticism. Becoming an autodidact is a about cultivating a commitment, habits, and mindsets more than living out some genetically pre-determined path for your life.

Autodidacts must always be anomalies.

Traditional education systems do not largely celebrate, nurture or create space for autodidacts in the making. In fact, this approach to learning may well be frowned upon in some formal contexts. This perspective has become so prominent that some treat the autodidact as an aberration…an oddity. It just isn’t normal. That is only because the system doesn’t know what to do with it. When we look at spaces created to nurture self-education, we see that it is far from an anomaly. It can even be celebrated as the standard way of learning. In other words, what we consider normal or an oddity is contextual. Go to more self-directed learning communities and dependent learning is the oddity.

Autodidacts don’t go to school.

Most do go to school. Some flourish in school. Some don’t. However, there are plenty who embrace a self-taught approach to life while also taking advantage of a formal schooling experience. In some ways, that is represented in what I write about self-blended learning. The connected and digital worlds are helping even more people begin to discover the benefits, what this looks like and how it is possible for them.

In addition, there are many instances where a person gets a more traditional education in many areas but cultivates a more autodidactic approach to learning in other areas of one’s life, perhaps skills and knowledge not focused upon in formal education. Consider the budding hacker who never takes coding classes, the history major who becomes a gifted sales executive or stock broker, the high school student who teaches herself to sing and play a half-dozen instruments, or the young woman whose fascination with nature leads her to become a self-taught outdoors woman and naturalist.

In addition, it is the autodidact who pushes knowledge forward in the world, venturing into fields that don’t have formal areas of study in academia or elsewhere. They are the groundbreakers. They might participate in formal education, but sometimes they are launched into the life of an autodidact because their curiosity does not align with the formal curriculum.

Autodidacticism is a rarity.

Much of the innovation in our world depends upon a spirit of autodidacticism. Our world is full of people who are self-taught in one or more domains of their lives. While we often reserve the world for someone who seems to be self-taught across many domains of learning, the truth is that all of us are autodidacts in one or more areas, even if it is in simple skills that we use around our homes. Any of us can expand that approach to new domains, using it to develop greater skill and ability in the arts, academic subjects, solving complex problems in the world, personal finance, starting a business, personal health and fitness, building stronger and healthier relationships with other people, or maybe pursuing a social innovation in the world.

The time is ripe for an autodidact revolution, and those who embrace it will find their lives enhanced and their opportunities expanded.

Posted in heutagogy, self-directed learning | Tagged ,

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).

2 thoughts on “5 Myths About Being an Autodidact

  1. Robert Columbia

    Good points. I consider myself both an autodidact and a traditional learner. Self-blended learning is something that I do! I never realized that it had a name! Some of the coursework that I have taken has been invaluable in helping me master certain things (e.g. calculus), but I have found that other things have been best learned in the real world (doing) or from books. Traditional “brick and mortar” schools aren’t going away – we still need them. Competency-Based Education (CBE) will help us route students into the right paths and not keep them paying money that they don’t have for the privilege of being taught things that they already know or could have learned on their own more efficiently.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thank you for the comment, Robert. I may well have coined the phrase “self-blended”, at least in the way it is used here. So, that might explain why it is new to you :-). In terms of CBE, there are certainly affordances and limitations that continue to shape the debate.

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