“I’m not sure what a technocrat is,” Randy said. “Am I a technocrat? I’m just a guy who went down to the bookstore and bought a couple of textbooks on TCP/IP, which is the underlying protocol of the Internet, and read them. And then I signed on to a computer, which anyone can do nowadays, and I messed around with it for a few years, and now I know all about it. Does that make me a technocrat?”
—Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon
While he was examining my mouth today, my dentist inquired about my work as a freelance web designer.
“So how do you learn that stuff?” he asked.
“Books, and looking at other people’s websites and seeing what I like,” I replied.
“That’s cool,” said the hygienist, “that you can learn stuff by yourself.”
I was involved in homeschooling throughout middle school and high school—“I was involved in homeschooling,” I say now, and not “I was homeschooled,” because it was an active thing, more so than going to school would have been—and I’m used to beginning my answer to “how do you learn?” with the word “books.” I’m also used to adults finding the idea of avoiding institutional education a bit scary, or at least intimidating. “I could never do that,” many have said, referring either to my relatively independent education or to my parents’ facilitation of it. But now that I’m an adult too, now that I’ve graduated from college and proven that I can succeed in an institution, the idea that I teach myself is cool rather than weird.
A lot of technologists are autodidacts, perhaps partly because technology changes quickly enough that they have to keep learning after they leave the womb of a university. Most of the technical knowledge I use regularly I developed without teachers other than books and the web, and even my friends who majored in computer science rather than history learned several programming languages on their own while still at college. I’ve taken academic CS courses myself, and even occasionally enjoyed them, but I never learned as much from lectures as from reading or experimenting.
The ability to teach oneself, to learn without invoking the authority of a teacher, is freeing. It’s one of the skills most difficult to teach, and one into which educators often put little effort, perhaps because many teachers have themselves never developed it. One needs only books—or a computer, a forest, or a musical instrument—to learn how to learn independently, but that self-education can still be evasive given the distractions of TV and other media that demand less effort. Contributors to Everything2 and Wikipedia noding what they don’t know testify to the internet’s power to encourage autodidactism, and both the radical unschooling movement and reformist popularity of inquiry-based science education give me hope for the future of self-education.