What is an autodidact?

Recently a friend told me about a conversation she had with a great musician, a person she hoped to study with. The musician, my friend told me, advised her to spend time listening to artists she admires.

DSCN2644My son did that when, as a teenager, he spent hours absorbing videos and recordings by his mandolin hero, Chris Thile. My daughter did that when, at age 11, she fell head over heels in love with Ella Fitzgerald. Another daughter found inspiration by watching performances of Shakespeare plays.

My kids who loved folk music went to open mikes to listen and perform, to learn how to be on stage and find a platform to play their own music. The jazz lover went to jazz jams, where she learned to count off tunes and sing with an ensemble. Eventually, the musical kids got teachers, but their lessons were always on the short side and often sporadic. We didn’t have the budget for expensive training, so they didn’t get it unless they found a way to get it, which they sometimes did through scholarships and awards.

By the time jazz daughter won her way into workshops and master classes, her knowledge of jazz standards was vast. One instructor figured that out and initiated a game to try and stump her. He didn’t do very well.

With the minimum of formal training my kids had in music and theater, and the maximum of hours they spent listening, watching, absorbing, and practicing, saying they were primarily self-taught could be reasonably accurate. I wonder, though, what people imagine when they hear that someone is “self-taught.” Lately I’ve been seeing articles proclaiming that technological advances make it easier than ever to become an autodidact. While my kids certainly made (and make) use of readily available internet resources, they used (and use) many other tools to learn. And, of course, people knew how to learn things on their own long before Khan Academy or MOOCs.

Does the word “self-taught” conjure up images of an isolated person reading, practicing, experimenting, and perfecting one’s craft all by their lonesome with books or videos or online learning tools? My kids did their share of that, but couldn’t I say, then, that their teachers included Chris Thile, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, and Shakespeare?

Also Bill Watterson (my son lapped up all the Calvin and Hobbes books; many life and vocabulary lessons); Jane Austen (younger daughters read her books over and over); Herman Melville (jazz daughter loved “Moby-Dick” with a passion). Also the many adults they encountered in their daily lives, because as Stephen Sondheim adroitly said in song, “…children will listen…”.  Also the NBA players my son loyally followed, the adult birders who let him tag along on their birding expeditions when he was crazy for bird watching, the lifelong family friends the kids studied piano and violin with, whose lessons always touched on much more than music. The strong women my daughters knew in their daily lives, and the ones they watched from afar–writers, musicians, scientists, politicians–all of them models for making one’s way in the world on one’s own terms.

Just last week my Shakespeare-crazy kid, now 18, got cast in a mainstage production by a professional theater company whose shows she’s been attending since she was about eight. A woman who works with the company told me how thrilled she is that my daughter was cast, because she remembers my daughter saying that when she was little, the actors of the company were her movie stars. They were also her teachers.

So what does it mean, really, to be self-taught? I think the main ingredient is that the learner is in charge. When the learner is driving their own learning, they will find their teachers, and as I’ve written in the past, teachers are most effective when chosen by the learner. The teacher doesn’t always have to be aware of their role or even present. I’d go so far as to say that the official label of teacher has little to do with whether or what a student learns. The receptivity of the learner is the thing, and that comes most easily when the learner has agency.

To have the agency to decide what one wants to learn, and to act on that by evaluating and using available resources, whatever they may be. The act of being an autodidact in this way offers so much more than just learning about a subject or mastering a skill. It fosters self-awareness, joy, and curiosity. Put simply, learning begets learning. To become self-taught is not to isolate. Rather, it’s to engage, with people, books, movies, videos, nature, performances, computers–whatever tools the learner finds to feed their passion. The more we give kids the chance to do that, the better.




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