The Return of the Autodidact
My first real grown-up job was working for a small newspaper. This was in the mid 90’s, and the place was wringing the last drops of value out of early 1980s technology. Edited stories were printed out — office printers! — and then keyed in to typesetting machines by actual ink-stained wretches.
A lot of the reporting staff were young people like myself — recent college graduates, mostly English majors, who wanted to be professional poets but couldn’t find any openings in that line after the recent recession. I started out writing obits. Three per hour, fifteen hours a week. And before long I was trusted enough to write about ribbon cuttings and local-boy-made-good stories and other signs of life.
But I loved it and particularly loved learning about the history of bailing twine and chewing gum operations like this. And what I discovered is that small local newspapers were built by people similar in temperament to myself but quite different in educational background. Back in the day, newspaper reporters were as often as not dropouts from traditional education. The prototypical reporter from the generation before mine was underachieving, smart, a quick study, quick with his or her wits, energetic in a way that might be described as ambitious, maybe thwarted by class or sex prejudices, but probably also thwarted by their own lack of direction. In all likelihood, they were misfits in school, and, for better or worse when it came to reporting the local news, they had chips on their shoulders about authority.
But let’s summarize the character more generously as autodidactic, the independent, highly motivated, self-directed learner who never stops indulging new interests and – in the romantic American stereotype, at least – uses that alternative education to best more credentialed rivals.
Today, some are autodidacts by necessity. For instance, the under-appreciated immigrant unable to afford school but bootstrapping themselves into the American dream with their own innate talents and smarts. But others are autodidacts out of preference because they don’t respond well to formal educational environments. Often we assume they act out because they are so smart that they get bored with the material.
Maybe, sometimes. My own impression from my teaching experience is that these students – self-sabotaging in my class and excelling in others or vice versa – has more to do with their inability to separate their interest level from their motivation. Anyone who is interested in a subject is going to be more motivated to learn it on the terms that schools require, but most of us are able to commit even when the interest level is low. For autodidacts, in my experience, less than 100 percent interest equals zero commitment.
And traditional educational environments set a lot of terms. Apart from the expectations within a given classroom while the class meets, there are the expectations that in order to get a diploma or degree a student will take a number of courses outside their major, the value of which is rarely perfectly clear to the student.
I’m not criticizing those expectations myself. I happen to believe in the “well-rounded” approach to a liberal arts education. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with a student not getting why a class is important until years later. The best of a college education in my view really does require the requirements, and some of the most influential courses in my life were ones I never would have enrolled in on my own lookout.
But it doesn’t suit everybody, obviously. Thus the high-school dropout and college dropout.
And in recent generations, the dropout doesn’t have a place in the world the way they might have in the past. The black sheep without a degree in recent years is unlikely, for example, to get a job as a cub reporter they way my elders back at the newspaper did. Heck, I’m unlikely to get a job like that anymore without, these days, a master’s degree in journalism. In short we have a credentialing inflation bubble.
Nevertheless, Americans still cling to that romantic model of the dropout who hacks the system and finds success. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, for example. You don’t need a college education, say my students, annoyed with the world-at-large for making them attend my class.
Maybe, I answer. If any of you are sitting on ideas as good as the GUI, Microsoft or Facebook. Or if those three examples over a thirty year period in a nation of 300 million citizens count as persuasive evidence, which it won’t, by the way, in the papers you’ll be turning in for this class. In the meantime, the thousands of jobs those three autodidacts created almost always require college degrees.
That’s what I tell my students to get them through the semester. But honestly, I think things are changing. The autodidact is making a comeback.
It’s always been possible to self-direct your education and develop a lot of genuinely valuable knowledge and expertise outside the traditional classroom. But now it’s possible to do it in ways that are recognizable and verifiable. Any motormouth can claim to be a “big reader” who has studied up on a given skill and “loves learning about computers.” That’s just not going to be a persuasive case to employers. But now that same motormouth can point to the sequence of four computer science MOOCs they completed and a portfolio of final projects submitted to those MOOCS, along with peer evaluation the other participants gave him or her. And that’s a much more persuasive case.
It remains to be seen how the marketplace will respond to these autodidacts, but employers would be foolish not to take a look. This kind of talent has always been out there, but there was an evaluation and sorting problem. Employers had no way of telling who was for real except to hire someone who seemed to have the right stuff and hope they were able to cut it. The ability to evaluate and sort among the autodidacts is growing. MOOCs and other non-traditional education tools are creating a massive opportunity to exploit an unrealized value in the marketplace.