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The Pleasures and Perils of the Autodidact

July 27, 2021 at 7:00 pm - 10:00 pm BST

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In this Salon, Indy Neogy will lead a conversation about the pleasures and perils of “being an autodidact.”

Most of us in the current historical moment are only part autodidact – we’ve learned many things on our own, but also learned quite a bit from others. At the same time, the growth in communication technologies has created more opportunities than ever before to learn something outside a relationship with a teacher or institution. With that opportunity comes a wider sense of the pleasure, but also the peril of self-teaching.

Looking to history, the autodidact does appear in myth and legend, but often as a doomed figure, whose ambition is frowned upon by the powers of the time. Avner Ben-Zanken argues in his book “Reading Ḥayy Ibn-Yaqẓān” that autodidacticism is fundamental to modernity and embodies the rejection of transcendental medieval intellectual authorities and the turn to experimentalism. From there the structure of Western societies in particular gave us a significant number of “gentleman scholars” (and largely the freedom to pursue this was given to men) who were able to use the security of their social position to engage in research at the then cutting edges of our knowledge. In the last century or so, the dominant folklore around autodidacts shifted towards the mythology of the “self-made man” in the USA. Figures such as Nikola Tesla and Philo T. Farnsworth loomed in the imagination as autodidacts with revolutionary impact, despite both spending considerable time in formal learning settings. This has definitely set the ground for the current era’s view of the autodidact, enabled by Silicon Valley technologies and more.

The pleasures of the autodidact include the ability to control the pace, to follow interesting trails and be unencumbered by traditional silos – some even focus on subversive knowledge. The perils might include the lack of companionship, the difficulties of building from first principles, the lack of ordination and the danger of just getting it wrong. We will explore all this and more in the Salon conversation.

Some interesting stimulus:

Introduction (14 pages) to Reading Ḥayy Ibn-Yaqẓān

The Autodidact Project: Summary of History & Scope

We’re Not All Autodidacts

Brian Etheridge makes a case for the autodidact

TED Talk – How to get better at the things you care about | Eduardo Briceño

The Everlasting Autodidact – New York Times



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July 27, 2021
7:00 pm - 10:00 pm BST
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Indy Neogy