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Author Topic: Of autodidacts and magpies
skdadl
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posted 20 September 2004 12:19 PM      Profile for skdadl     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
How did you learn what you know?

And by "what you know," I mean just about anything -- yes, I mean academic and/or professional training, but also avocational things, any kind of skill that you have needed or that just interested you.

I'm having an insecure moment, so I thought I'd ask you to help me think it through. Does it ever happen to you, that you read some magisterial commentary on something or other, or listen to a wise and witty speaker, and think to self, "Self, you're a fraud. You thought you knew something about this topic, but really, your shabby little education is in truth just a cobbled-together affair, magpie gatherings that you've manufactured into a private system of understanding because all the grand old classical systems of training were gone or inaccessible to you by the time you came along, you poseur/euse." ?

Well, anyway, that's what I was thinking, so that's what I hoped others might meditate upon here.

I have known a few autodidacts who ended up being much more splendidly learned than anyone who had come more easily through a classical system of education and mentorship -- but even those people, maybe especially those people, seem to me never quite to get over the fear of being a fraud, sometimes maybe seem driven by it.

Thoughts?


From: gone | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged
DrConway
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posted 20 September 2004 12:32 PM      Profile for DrConway     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I must be one of the only people I know who's never read any of "The Great Classics" in any systematic sense. I've read Gulliver's Travels, 1984 and Brave New World, but pretty much nothing else that's considered a "Great Tome" (TM) written by some dead white guy. Sorry if calling Rousseau a dead white guy offends you, skdadl.

Most of what I know is actually not that systematic. I can tell you that, oh, for example, you can get away with only needing oxygen at one-fifth normal atmospheric in a space suit in outer space, but that's because I read that in an Isaac Asimov novel from which my handle happens to come from.

So, yeah, I also have the occasional oh-crap-my-knowledge-sucks issue when someone comes along and splendidly expounds on a topic.

However, you, poseur/euse, skdadl? You constantly make references to erudite books and movies about which I know nothing. So in the hierarchy of abtruse knowledge I would suspect you exceed me in the literary sector.


From: You shall not side with the great against the powerless. | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged
Trisha
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posted 20 September 2004 01:33 PM      Profile for Trisha     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Most of what I know comes from reading and experience and I really don't know how much I don't know. I often feel inadequate or like a fraud, especially around people with formal education. I'm not blind to the fact that a lot of formal knowledge is outdated or based on textbook cases so there are also times I believe that my input is of real value.
From: Thunder Bay, Ontario | Registered: Apr 2001  |  IP: Logged
Loony Bin
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posted 20 September 2004 04:12 PM      Profile for Loony Bin   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I've learned a lot of stuff in school, but not all the stuff they expected me to, and some stuff they probably didn't expect at all. I learn a lot from my parents, particularly my mother, who likes to explain or at least contemplate how things work and why they are the way they are (something I learned to do from her also). I learn everyday from watching other people and paying attention to the ways they interact, the experiences they can share with me, how they live.

I'm of the opinion that everyone's experience and knowledge is valuable. I know that I don't know everything, but I want to know as much as possible, so I'm open about not knowing. I'm more comfortable being curious and asking questions than I am pretending that I know what's going on.

I've also learned a lot from books I read--for school, and for/of my own interest.


From: solitary confinement | Registered: Feb 2004  |  IP: Logged
Mr. Magoo
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posted 20 September 2004 04:31 PM      Profile for Mr. Magoo   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I often feel like a fraud, mostly because

a) I'm actually out of my element at work these days

b) I'm make more than most of my friends

c) I'm a "Knowledge Worker", so at the end of a day I can't look at a new well I dug or a shed I built, or even a freshly mown lawn

Some days it stresses me out and I wonder if maybe I should be teaching ESL in Japan or something, and other days it energizes me and keeps me on my toes.

One thing I've learned though, and that's that being a bit of a fraud can open doors that eventually lead to you being less of one.

As an example, much of what I know about computer networking comes from hanging out and chatting with the network guys and gals. But you can't just walk up to them all ignorant-like and start asking questions. You're not part of the in-crowd.

But if you can drop a few key phrases, jargon mostly, then you might 'pass' for one of them and be admitted. Instead of asking "hey, what's all this networking stuff all about?" and marking yourself as too far behind to ever catch up, ask "Is 'dot-two-hundred' always the default gateway?" or "does the firewall pass packets on port 443?". You'll be treated like one of the club, and can get busy listening and learning. Knowing just a little bit about something has gotten me "in the door" more often than I know.

It's also how I keep from looking like a whipped husband or a space alien when the topic of sports comes up.


From: `,_,`,_,,_,, | Registered: Dec 2002  |  IP: Logged
Contrarian
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posted 20 September 2004 04:53 PM      Profile for Contrarian     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
skdadl and everyone: I think feeling like a fraud is part of the human condition; more and more often I am struck by the feeling that my brain has become petrified - especially when I start a post and forget what point I wanted to make, if I had a point to make in the first place.

Didn't Socrates figure out that it's better to know that we don't know something than to think we know something we don't really know? [And that is probably from a Mary Renault book, though it could also have come from a sermon or a columnist or a conversation long ago.]

Anyway, relax! You do not need to know everything; you just need to know where to find it if you need it.


From: pretty far west | Registered: Jul 2004  |  IP: Logged
bittersweet
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posted 21 September 2004 02:09 AM      Profile for bittersweet     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
It sounds banal, but...the amount of energy and time devoted to a subject--by whatever process of education--is often the crucial measure of what separates a truly magestarial command of a subject from a limited one. In turn, that means that the willingness to devote (or sacrifice) such energy and time often has to do simply with one's natural preferences. All things being equal, if you love learning about the history of the Middle East, you will spend relatively more time and energy at it than others, and become, perhaps, magisterial when commenting on the subject. The way you become magisterial is of less consequence.

I think it isn't so much the quality of education that matters most, but the quality of innate, unexplainable curiousity that stimulates and provokes us to acquire wisdom about a particular subject in the first place.

And because this theory consistently makes me feel good about my own situation when confronted by smarter people, it must be true. I now pass it along to you, gratis.

Me, I like to daydream; I'm always keen to gaze at the indeterminate distance, most willing to sacrifice endless hours (with almost no energy at all!) to become magisterially absent-minded. And I certainly don't blame my education. School is where I learned to like daydreaming so much.


From: land of the midnight lotus | Registered: Apr 2002  |  IP: Logged
skdadl
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posted 21 September 2004 09:14 AM      Profile for skdadl     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
These are all such great replies, thoughtful and realistic at the same time. I can usually do column A pretty well; my weakness is column B, also called keeping things in perspective.

bittersweet, I often come through by thinking just that, just what you've said so well. If I may be allowed to supplement it, though, with a short socialist whine: there is a pretty direct relationship between time/energy spent in focused study and degree of mastery, but time is something that becomes just too expensive for most of us pretty early in our lives, as soon as most of us leave school, actually. And yes, many people keep on keeping on, following their noses and their bliss whenever they can snatch some free time even to recognize that they have an interest to follow. A very few people take major risks, leaving all security behind -- but most of us are too attached to living some semblance of ordinary social life to do that.

End socialist lament. *sob*

For your bag of tricks, Mr Magoo: A friend I first met years ago when we were teaching at a summer retreat together confessed that much of what we were teaching was entirely news to her, but she operated on the principle that you should never enrol in a course if you can smooth-talk the administrators into letting you teach it instead.

quote:
It's also how I keep from looking like a whipped husband or a space alien when the topic of sports comes up.

So what do you think of the DH, Magoo?


From: gone | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged
steffie
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posted 21 September 2004 09:42 AM      Profile for steffie     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Some great points raised here, to be sure. Add to them, this: people we view as "masters" of a subject; who we cower in the greatness of, or shrink from in shame of our own inadequecies, all have their own feelings of inadequecy! It is the human condition.

The other great point is which hierarchy one chooses to compare oneself to. On babble, I feel like a novice oftentimes, but that doesn't stop me from learning what I can from people who really know their stuff. I'm privy to the ponderings of teachers, lawyers, editors, linguists, and a great wealth of other artists.

If I compare my knowledge to my chums when I was at university, then I would rate as somewhat of a "master". I was at least 10 if not 15 years older than these (mostly female) students; often I was the same age as the professor! But, next to these girls I possessed a wealth of life experience, with a child, job, etc. Unlike them, I came to the academy with a renewed energy and focus I couldn't have adopted when I was their age, back when I first went to college. I felt really good about myself when I was around them.

However, when trying to make "small talk" with the profs, say, at a social event, I would feel myself shrinking with every allusion I missed. Their majesty held a spotlight on my ignorance, I felt. In year 1 of university I wanted to become a professor. By year 4 I had convinced myself I didn't have what it takes to get a Ph.D.

One last point: what's the difference between having no self-doubt whatsoever and being an egomaniac? Doesn't a measure of self criticism temper our natures somewhat?


From: What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish? | Registered: Mar 2003  |  IP: Logged
Agent 204
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posted 21 September 2004 11:38 AM      Profile for Agent 204   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
A lot of what I've learned comes from my own reading as well. I'm one of those geeks who mostly reads nonfiction, so I've accumulated a lot of knowledge about many subjects in addition to things I've learned as I drifted through school. Unfortunately to date I haven't learned enough about any given subject to be gainfully employed in a meaningful job, hence the huge amount of call centre work on my resume. I'm currently going to Conestoga College in an attempt to change that.
From: home of the Guess Who | Registered: Nov 2003  |  IP: Logged
bittersweet
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posted 21 September 2004 02:56 PM      Profile for bittersweet     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
A supplement to skdadl's supplement, and to steffie's "mature student" anecdote...

The way each person blooms and becomes (perhaps) masterful is not only related to the catalytic quality of her own innate subject preferences, but to her general state of readiness for the task. Financial readiness is easy to identify, but equally important and less obvious is the state of one's confidence, period. One's emotional maturity determines the capacity to marshall all the potential resources of heart and mind and even body to the ordeal of becoming truly masterful at something. The expense required is not only time and money, but one's whole being. To paraphrase Woody Allen, it's 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration.

Ordinarily, people bloom early. But lots of people bloom late for a variety of reasons, and the sacrifice is often greater at that stage. At any rate, not everyone is willing to make the commitment of all that perspiration, with no guarantee of success. (This is quite apart from the financial commitment.) Again, Woody Allen: after a successful career as a TV writer, he quit, went back to New York, and started over as a stand-up comic working no-name clubs with no audience. He was petrified, and for a couple of years he completely bombed. Now you can say Woody Allen is vastly talented, and that's true, but he is also the quintessential audodidact with a relentlessly disciplined mind.

In my own case, I did not show any of my work professionally until I was 40. Everything was in a drawer. All the years prior were spent overcoming the handicap of zero-or-less confidence (and associated depressions), thanks to "those who do not deserve to be called family." So while I worked at ditch digging and warehousing and toilet cleaning I also moonlighted for twenty-five years, as a badly paid analyst for thousands of scripts, as an independent student of film and art history and the craft of screenwriting, and wrote plays and screenplays (lots of crappy ones!) until I was confident enough to take the plunge.

One thing I've noticed: lots of people have facility, and their work is flashy like fireworks, and can even seem masterful. This can feel intimidating until you realize that soon enough, their work is forgotten, or even disregarded. There was only the fine and distracting dress of majesty. The whole is not sufficient, although some parts are very well done. That's where the lack of perspiration--to put it crudely--shows. That perspiration is the commitment to give wholly of yourself, not just the easy, most accessible parts. Good parents are the ultimate example.

Whatever your field, I think the value of what you know is linked to who you are, and how well and deeply you've plumbed your own self. I think that's why I always feel a sense of intimacy when confronted by truly wise commentary on a subject. The meaning given to the facts implies an inner life. Mere facility is more common, and often more celebrated in our superficial culture. At any rate, in this sense I think that autodidacts and the classically educated play on a level field. You don't need to know everything about a subject to be wise. That's the error perennial students make.


From: land of the midnight lotus | Registered: Apr 2002  |  IP: Logged
Timebandit
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posted 22 September 2004 12:11 PM      Profile for Timebandit     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Does it ever happen to you, that you read some magisterial commentary on something or other, or listen to a wise and witty speaker, and think to self, "Self, you're a fraud. You thought you knew something about this topic, but really, your shabby little education is in truth just a cobbled-together affair, magpie gatherings that you've manufactured into a private system of understanding because all the grand old classical systems of training were gone or inaccessible to you by the time you came along, you poseur/euse." ?

Oh, yes, quite chronically.

The thing that I find funny is that most of the people I know think I know more than I do -- and they're often surprised when I admit ignorance on some things.

Part of what I've learned is to shut up at the right times (well, mostly), and keep my ears open. I also have learned that it's okay to ask people to help you out and teach you something or other. For example, I went to film school, but didn't take production classes -- I've learned to use an editing suite and to hand-process film by admitting the gaps in my knowledge to "safe" people with whom I've built relationships around the things I can do and ask them to teach me. I don't think I've ever been told "no".

Formal education isn't the be-all and end-all of knowledge. Ever since high school and even through university I've felt that it isn't the information that's disseminated, but your ability to extrapolate from it, to agree or disagree and to support that. To understand is to be able to play with it. I had friends who had much higher grades than I could, but couldn't apply what they'd learned to anything.

I credit my grandfather with teaching me a lot about learning. He was almost completely self-educated, only a few years of formal education. But he read voraciously, challenged everything, loved to debate. He was one of the most well-read people I've ever met, and it's his influence that got me reading and thinking from a very early age.

But formal education is still terrifically important. I don't know that I would have been exposed to many of the ideas, or would have explored some of them as comprehensively if I hadn't spent a number of years in university. I even got a lot out of taking classes from not very good (and some downright awful) profs. I value that side of my education as well -- but it's really the combination of the drive to know and the structure of formal education (which also taught me something about being disciplined in my quest for knowledge) that has resulted in what I know -- and the ability to recognize what I don't.


From: Urban prairie. | Registered: Sep 2001  |  IP: Logged
arborman
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posted 22 September 2004 07:02 PM      Profile for arborman     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Formal education gives you some specific knowledge about some topic or other. If done right, it gives you the skills to get knowledge about anything, and recognize bullshit when you see it. These are two very powerful and important tools. I have a research job in a field I knew nothing about at the end of my grad degree, and find I am able to pick the stuff up as I need it largely as a result of the tools I picked up in school, as well as the work ethic I picked up in the oilpatch,fishing fleet and forestry industries.

As I understand it, many of the most successful authours, politicians etc. spent most of their lives consumed by self doubt. It can be a motivator (it certainly is with me). It also helps to remind yourself that whatever the current topic is, you don't and shouldn't care what the experts think of you, as long as you are seeking knowledge and not trying to come off as an expert yourself.


From: I'm a solipsist - isn't everyone? | Registered: Aug 2003  |  IP: Logged
Stephen Gordon
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posted 22 September 2004 07:10 PM      Profile for Stephen Gordon        Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
The thing is, there's a very fine line between 'autodidact' and 'crank'. It's important to be able to interact with people who know more than you do, if only to avoid wasting time on theories that had been exploded long ago. And if you do insist on sticking with an idea that the experts dismiss, at least you'll know where to start building your defences.
From: . | Registered: Oct 2003  |  IP: Logged
bittersweet
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posted 22 September 2004 07:39 PM      Profile for bittersweet     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
There isn't necessarily a direct link between autodidacticism and being a crank. In most cases, such a "fine line" would only exist, and get crossed, due to arrogance, rather than to autodidacticism per se. Humility is a necessary prerequisite for learning, no matter how you come about it. It's not difficult to find arrogance among the classically educated, though they can more easily avoid being called cranks because of their pedigree. At any rate, one would only be flaunting an equal prejudice to suggest that a "fine line" exists between classical education and being a crank. Anti-intellectualism on the one hand, snobbery on the other.
From: land of the midnight lotus | Registered: Apr 2002  |  IP: Logged
Stephen Gordon
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posted 22 September 2004 08:04 PM      Profile for Stephen Gordon        Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
It's not the source of the knowledge that concerns me, it's the interaction with others. Someone could get a PhD and then spend the rest of his/her life on a wild tangent and earn the title of crank (it happens!). Another could be self-taught, but who makes it a point to try to interact with others as much as possible.
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bittersweet
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posted 22 September 2004 08:29 PM      Profile for bittersweet     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Since your first post referenced one kind of education and not another, I took you to imply that it, and not the other kind omitted, was more likely to produce a crank.

Once upon a time there was a poster on this board...I think called Crank It Up A Notch. He was to autodidacts as Stockholm is to atheists.


From: land of the midnight lotus | Registered: Apr 2002  |  IP: Logged

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