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Of learning and knowing

"I say to my daughter -- would-be teacher, writer, diva and dolphin trainer: Go where the experts stand guard and dare to claim some turf of your own." Photo: Michael Richmond

In the grand parental tradition of cultivating aspirations, I’m always assuring my daughter that, given some effort on her part, she can be anything she wants. An architect. An entrepreneur. A marine scientist. Secretary of state. (Gum-smacking mall rat, I caution her, is out of the question.)

Upon further reflection, I’ve added to her list. Doctor. Lawyer. Opera singer. Autodidact.

Autodidact? That one promises no significant remuneration. Nor will it enhance a resume. But it will pay dividends.

“I’m attracted by autodidacts,” the late Nobel laureate Saul Bellow once wrote in the New York Times. They’re certainly my heroes: the carpenters who spend their downtime pondering Kierkegaard, the tycoon who can discourse knowledgeably about the films of Charlie Chaplin, the biologist who has made an independent study of shamanism. Even if I don’t share their interests, I’m enchanted by the fact that they have them, that those interests stake a sizable claim upon their time and energies.

We owe much to the autodidact’s persistence. Think Ben Franklin and his crazy experiments with electricity. Think the Victorian gent collecting and studying scientific specimens, or the 18th century French encyclopedists mounting their challenge to conventional wisdom. On our continent, autodidacticism may well be a natural product of rugged individualism, of geographic isolation and perhaps even of American anti-intellectualism. Why trust a perfectly fascinating topic to the experts?

But where have all the autodidacts gone? Have they been suppressed by specialization, perhaps, or lost to round-the-clock forms of received entertainment?

A few remaining exemplars are out there, I know. You catch fleeting glimpses of them in Internet chat rooms and at book signings. You spot them, on occasion, in the stacks at the public library. Still, I seem to meet fewer and fewer of them, and I feel the loss acutely.

My first encounters with exuberant autodidacts came within my family circle. In her 40s, with both her sons flying solo, my grandmother taught herself to dip a paintbrush in oils and channel her imagination onto canvas. Over the next 30 years, she honed her technique and filled her empty nest with landscapes and portraits. During my preschool years, my father spent his spare time teaching himself to read music and play the saxophone, all in the hopes of sounding like John Coltrane. A lesson or two might have advanced his cause significantly, but I suspect it might also have dampened his pleasure.

Where their passions were concerned, neither my grandmother nor my father ever cottoned to structured instruction. They were content with self-directed study for its own sake, and they never felt compelled to test their learning in a larger forum. Other autodidacts have put their learning into service, righting wrongs and setting high standards for the experts in their fields. Take the case of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Although she never earned a college degree, never pursued a structured program in urban studies, Jacobs nurtured a reverence for cities by exploring them on foot and documenting what made them tick. Today, her writings are regarded as essential by any number of urban planners and visionaries.

So with Jacobs and Ben Franklin and my father in mind, I say to my daughter — would-be teacher, writer, diva and dolphin trainer: Go where the experts stand guard and dare to claim some turf of your own. Undertake — sans credentials — a study of the oyster, a history of the Hopi. Stalk the ivory-billed woodpecker and ponder its survival. The learning you conduct on your own will enrich your life in ways that can’t be quantified.

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