Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Autodidact


We live in sad times for the independent scholar, but there is still hope. Academia’s stranglehold over most intellectual endeavor has forced all but the boldest to abandon their dreams in that world. One of my favorite books is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. It is the greatest history in the language, and one of the most memorable prose styles in English.

It was conceived by a man who had spent little more than a year in a university setting, but was fortunate to live in an age where effort and independent learning were just as valuable without a sheepskin attached. I often get a chill when I recall just how much of what we call culture and science are products of men and women who today would be rejected as amateurs.

Although he had just managed a teaching diploma, Albert Einstein was a lowly clerk when he had his “Annus Mirabilis” or, miracle year, in which he changed modern physics. Samuel Johnson wrote the first dictionary of our language, though he was a college dropout. And two of the greatest geniuses ever known, William Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci, had little or no "higher" education to speak of. Such examples are so ridiculously plentiful we might--hopefully-- question whether there is as much value in a degree as we are told.

The answer, of course, is yes, but only perhaps in those trades that require a guarantee of safety. We expect engineers to be degreed; I certainly wouldn’t want to walk atop a bridge designed by an un-degreed engineer. Nor would I like to chance an operation from a doctor with no parchment on his wall. Outside of these reasonable exceptions the sanctity with which a degree is often imbued can be a crutch for the rest of us, an excuse not to do what it is in our heart’s to do. As the examples I have already given amply show, few things are outside of our horizons should we want them deeply enough.