Autodidact is a straightforward borrowing from Latinized Greek by way of French: “self-taught.” It suggests less a pedagogy than a way of seeing the world, at once humble and presumptuous. You can go through life inattentively or you can observe, read and ask questions. The latter approach virtually immunizes you against boredom. After Guy Davenport’s death in 2005, The New Criterion rightly called him “an autodidact of the old school,” which is almost redundant. He was the opposite of a careerist. Davenport once wrote that “what I liked in reading was to learn things I didn’t know.” He said he wrote not for critics or fellow academics but for “people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.” Though a longtime university instructor, he prized knowledge.
One of my readers is teaching himself Italian, using Dante, dictionaries and grammars, and an online program. Another is learning to play the piano and is skilled enough, he tells me, to “mutilate” Debussy. A third, who writes computer programs for a living, is memorizing some of Shakespeare’s sonnets – “to keep myself sane at work,” she says. On Wednesday, a reader in Montreal who is translating from the German a history of Weimar-era hyperinflation sent me a passage he translated from Alfred Polgar’s Hinterland (1929). None of them works for a university. Half a century ago Davenport warned that we inhabit “an age when a college degree is becoming a certificate of illiteracy.” Too many of us are intimidated or impressed by that parade of initials after a name.
Of course, there are risks associated with self-teaching. It can be like conducting an experiment without a control. One can “discover” knowledge already widely known. The self-teacher can easily become an uncritical user of the internet, a dilettante or a crank -- tendencies often countered by a good teacher. In a 2010 essay, “The Uses of a Liberal Education,” the poet Catharine Savage Brosman, who taught at Rice, Tulane and elsewhere for more than forty years, writes: “[S]elf-teaching— reading, reflection, short courses, exchanges with others. Autodidactic training is now better than much of what can be purchased.” The alternative:
“Four expensive years," Brosman writes, "with little to show except arcane erudition, mental agility, and awareness—quite some holiday, right? What, however, is the social and political price of ignorance, blindness, incompetence, and the total neglect of our patrimony? Alas, we see too well.”