Daily Archives: April 10, 2012


I think autodidacticism may be headed for a little vogue. Not what it refers to, self-teaching; I think that that’s probably fairly steady in popularity – there are always people who like self-teaching and self-directed learning. But the amount of attention and endorsement it gets varies from time to time. And I think use of the word autodidacticism might be on the upswing.

This has in part to do with the victory of Bubba Watson at the Masters. The latest wearer of the green jacket is a man who has never taken a golf lesson in his life. He’s a “natural”; he just wanted to do it when he was a kid, and his dad told him to go out and do it. So he tried a lot of things and he worked out a style that works really well for him. He never watches videos of himself, has never deconstructed his swing, none of that. And we’re talking about a sport where many pros spend hours and hours on every little bit of their technique.

But I think that’s just one more crack in the dam. I’ve been seeing a few things here and there about people who teach themselves, and the benefits of self-directed learning, and how education and coaching can spend a lot of time ruining a natural technique and telling people what they can’t do. There are things like the TED talk by Ken Robinson on how schools kill creativity. And there’s the latest fad for hyperpolyglots, for instance – few people who know more than a half-dozen languages have taken formal courses in all of them.

I don’t know that I can lay claim to such accomplishment, but I do have at least a workable knowledge of a half dozen languages and an introductory acquaintance with easily a dozen more, and I’ve only ever taken formal courses in French, Italian, and Mandarin (and English, of course). The rest is from books and music and movies, just as much of the squillion odd other things in my brain are. Yes, I’m an encyclopedia reader, and always have been.

So that means I’m on the side of those who hold that all true learning is self-teaching, and that formal education kills creativity, right? Well, not so fast. I think that any truly thirsty mind will always be seeking more information wherever it can get it. But I also think that if you’re the person who’s deciding what you’ll learn about a subject, you’re being taught by someone who knows no more about the subject than you do – and why would you do that? Things that seem unimportant to the underinformed may turn out to be crucial. Better to have someone who knows what really needs to be known giving some direction.

And anyway, you can always ignore them. Don’t give me that crap about how having to focus on what your professor wants kills your creativity. What, you’re not smart enough to be able to keep your own counsel while at the same time telling someone else what they want to hear? I remember once hearing Germaine Greer saying that in her family they had held that straight A’s were a sign of a dull mind. What horseshit. Anyone who’s smart enough can easily get straight A’s if they want and still follow their own interests whatever they may be.

Ken Robinson seems to make some good points in his TED talk about how kids have the creativity trained out of them, given that the open-mindedness of small children is markedly greater than that of their adolescent or adult counterparts. But is it really fair to blame education for that? Developmental linguists will tell you that infants below a certain age can distinguish a variety of speech sounds that are not distinguished in their parents’ language, but as they get older and closer to speaking they start to perceive as the same sound pairs of sounds that their parents treat as the same sound (aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops in English, for instance). That’s way before any formal education. In order to have usable knowledge, you have to be able to draw lines and group things and ignore irrelevant things.

And, honestly, people in general are pretty eager to unlearn as much as to learn: to discover rules and restrictions. People wanting to learn about English usage tend to prefer to be told clear, hard, and fast rules (even if they’re BS) rather than mushy principles that require application of judgement. As people grow, they want to organize their world around them to make sense of things, and that involves deciding what can’t be what. Don’t blame education for that. In fact, education can help us discover exceptions to our what-can’t-be-what ideas. Linguists have far more open and flexible minds about language than most people who have never formally studied language, for instance.

Look, when I was in junior high school gym, and we were doing a gymnastics show, I wanted to be a gymnastic clown. The gym teacher told me that that actually took more, not less, training and expertise. Otherwise you just make a mess, look stupid, and hurt yourself. And he was right. As the Tao Te Ching says, if you try to cut wood like a master carpenter, you just hurt yourself. When I wanted to learn to cook, my mother insisted I use cookbooks, not just “figure things out,” and she was right. I learned a whole lot a whole lot faster, and I wasn’t a crappy cook like the one named Autodidax in Asterix and the Laurel Wreath. Now I mostly invent recipes, but that’s because I learned from other people’s experience and insights. And I still use recipes from time to time for new ideas and advice. Education helps you not have to reinvent the wheel.

And those languages I learned from books? I didn’t learn them by reading the dictionary, and I didn’t learn them by starting with novels or newspapers. I started with books with titles like Teach Yourself Irish. Very disingenuous titles, those: the books are organized into well-planned sequential lessons by their authors. They should really be called Let Us Teach You Irish with This Book.

So that means I’m against autodidacticism? That I think it like autoeroticism? Heh heh. Not so fast. Obviously everyone who goes past high school makes decisions about what courses they will take where; everyone who has a thirsty brain decides what knowledge they want to drink in. When you read an encyclopedia, the information you get has been selected and presented for you by the authors, but you did decide to read that and not something else. There is always an element of individual decision. Learning is necessarily a cooperative thing, and it always takes place at the initiative of the individual. Try to teach someone who doesn’t want to learn and see how it goes.

And most people who have thirsty brains pursue at least some of their learning outside of structured education. And some of the things you learn you do learn by trial and error, by experience, not by anyone else’s initiative. So autodidacticism has its place: what you learned was not automatic; you always did act. No brain is an island, but no brain is a passive receptacle either.

And how about the word autodidacticism? Ah, yes. This is a word tasting! And this is a lovely long word – an excellent word. Fifteen letters, fourteen phonemes (or is it fifteen?). Doublets and triplets like musical counterpoint: autodidacticism – one each of u o s m, two of a a t t d d c c, three of i i i. And the phonemes – well, which ones they are will depend on your dialect and your idiolect. That will affect how crisp and how curvy the word is, too. Is that first /t/ really crisp and voiceless, or more like another [d] (really a flap, which is another sound)? Is that first i reduced or said with full value? The one thing you can be surest of is that it sounds rather dactylographic – the patter of my fingers on the keyboard as I type this is not so unlike the patter of my tongue as I say the word.

The morphemes should be fairly decomposable: auto + didact + ic + ism. It’s all from Greek by way of Latin. You should know auto – it refers to self, Greek combining form αὐτο. The didact comes from διδακτός “taught”. The ic is from a Greek adjectiving suffix, and the ism from a Greek nominalizing suffix. So even if it all seems Greek to you, once you learn what that Greek is, it’s comprehensible.

Oh, and how many syllables does this word have? No, go ahead, count them.

Then ask some of your friends to count them. See if you all get the same answer.

What you’ll probably be taught is that it has six. But if your dialect is like mine, you really say it with seven, or at least six and a half. The culprit is the ism. “That has to be one syllable,” some will say, “because it has only one vowel.” As though the number of written “vowel” letters ever corresponded all that closely with the number of vowels actually said. Many people insert a reduced vowel between the /z/ and the /m/; the Oxford English Dictionary shows it as optional and perhaps only partially there.

Say it a few times and decide for yourself. Then listen to other people and decide how they say it. Do not ask yourself which is right and which is wrong; the OED lists no fewer than nine different pronunciations, each of which with the optional vowel indicated, meaning that there are eighteen or (if you allow fractional syllables) even twenty-seven different versions available just in the OED. But remember that a dictionary is like a field guide more than it is like legislation. Keep your own counsel.

The important thing, whether you’re learning from a teacher or a book or experience, is to pay attention and ask questions. An incurious or sloppy mind will produce similarly crappy results no matter where, and an engaged and probing mind will produce similarly good results whether in the classroom or self-teaching.