Sunday, June 19, 2016

`We Are All Autodidacts'

“People certified with degrees from what the world considers the best universities and colleges sometimes forget that we are all autodidacts, on our own in the endless attempt to patch over the extraordinary gaps in our knowledge.”

School too often gets in the way of learning. I’m fortunate to work in the engineering school of a university, where the lingua franca is mathematics. Just as English majors once were expected to know their Shakespeare and Milton, budding engineers had better make differential equations second nature. You know them or you don’t, and if you don’t, consider a career in psychology or some other pseudo-science. Here is a typical profile for a young engineer: He or she is “good at math,” builds obsessively with Legos, likes making things and solving problems. Their sensibilities tend to be active and pragmatic, not passive and self-absorbed, and are equally at home in theory and application. For them, the physical world is a dynamic place, and they are trained to think and act with comparable dynamism. I envy some of these kids, not their brothers and sisters in the humanities, and not because lucrative careers await them, but because they graduate knowing something – hard, unyielding, non-debatable, non-subjective knowledge.

The sentence at the top is from Joseph Epstein’s “Wisdom on the Installment Plan,” his review of Everything Explained That is Explainable, Denis Boyles’ history of the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910-11). Any positive mention of autodidacticism gets my attention, and Epstein’s final phrase is particularly good: “the endless attempt to patch over the extraordinary gaps in our knowledge.” That’s one of the benefits of working with engineering students, though HR doesn't mention it. With age comes awareness of our undeniable ignorance. There’s so much we have failed to learn, often out of complacency and laziness. It’s easier to congratulate ourselves on what we think we know, especially the orthodoxies we inherit so credulously. It takes a special sort of mind, a balance of skepticism and humility, to learn from scratch, weighing and assaying, listening to those who came before us. Dr. Johnson writes in The Rambler #121:

“I have been informed by a letter, from one of the universities, that among the youth from whom the next swarm of reasoners is to learn philosophy, and the next flight of beauties to hear elegies and sonnets, there are many, who, instead of endeavouring by books and meditation to form their own opinions, content themselves with the secondary knowledge, which a convenient bench in a coffee-house can supply; and, without any examination or distinction, adopt the criticisms and remarks, which happen to drop from those, who have risen, by merit or fortune, to reputation and authority.”

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