AskDefine | Define autodidactic

Dictionary Definition

autodidactic adj : relating to or having the characteristics of an autodidact

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From (autodidaktos) < (autos) "self" + "I teach"



  1. of, relating to, or being an autodidact; self-taught
    Albert Einstein was autodidactic.


of, relating to, or being an autodidact

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Extensive Definition

Autodidacticism (also autodidactism) is self-education or self-directed learning. An autodidact, also known as an automath, is a mostly self-taught person, as opposed to learning in a school setting or from a tutor.
A person may become an autodidact at nearly any point in his or her life. While some may have been educated in a conventional manner in a particular field, they may choose to educate themselves in other, often unrelated areas.
Self-teaching and self-directed learning are not necessarily lonely processes. Some autodidacts spend a great deal of time in libraries or on educative websites. Many, according to their plan for learning, avail themselves of instruction from family members, friends, or other associates (although strictly speaking this might not be considered autodidactic). Indeed, the term "self-taught" is something of a journalistic trope these days, and is often used to signify "non-traditionally educated", which is entirely different.
Inquiry into autodidacticism has implications for learning theory, educational research, educational philosophy, and educational psychology.

Notable autodidacts

Occasionally, individuals have sought to excel in subjects outside the mainstream of conventional education:
  • Socrates, Avicenna, Benjamin Franklin, George Bernard Shaw, Feodor Chaliapin and many others were autodidacts. Karl Popper never took courses in philosophy and he did his initial work in the philosophy of science during the late 1920s and early 1930s while he was teaching science and maths in high school. He then turned to the social sciences and attempted to transform them as well, again without any formal training or official mentoring. The best source for this story is Malachi Hacohen's book "Karl Popper: The Formative Years, 1902-1945".
  • Forensic facial reconstruction genius Frank Bender is largely self-taught. His well-known forensic career started off with a day trip to a morgue, asked to try to put a face on the deceased, brought it home, did so and led to his first (of many) id's. He only took one semester of sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
  • Mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan and Newton's contemporary Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz were largely self-taught in mathematics, as was Oliver Heaviside.
  • A number of famous British scientists in the nineteenth century taught themselves. The chemist and physicist Michael Faraday, the natural historians Alfred Russel Wallace (co-discoverer of natural selection) and Henry Walter Bates, "Darwin's Bulldog" Thomas Henry Huxley, the social philosopher Herbert Spencer.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea depicts an autodidact who is a self-deluding dilettante.
  • Physicist and Judo expert Moshe Feldenkrais developed an autodidactic method of self-improvement based on his own experience with self-directed learning in physiology and neurology. He was motivated by his own crippling knee injury.
  • Gerda Alexander, Heinrich Jacoby, and a number of other 20th century European innovators worked out methods of self-development which stressed intelligent sensitivity and awareness.
  • John Boyd, fighter pilot and military strategist, was an accomplished autodidact who not only revolutionized fighter aircraft design, but also developed new theories on learning and creativity.
  • Mythologist Joseph Campbell exemplified the autodidactic method. Following completion of his masters degree, Campbell decided not to go forward with his plans to earn a doctorate, and he went into the woods in upstate New York, reading deeply for five years. According to poet and author Robert Bly, a friend of Campbell's, Campbell developed a systematic program of reading nine hours a day.
  • The musician Frank Zappa is noted for his exhortation, "Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you've got any guts. Some of you like Pep rallies and plastic robots who tell you what to read."
  • Mark Twain is known to have said: "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."
  • Alan Watts was a philosopher and interpreter best known for presenting the ideas of Zen to Western audiences.
  • Playwright August Wilson dropped out of school in the ninth grade but continued to educate himself by spending long hours reading at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library.
  • Arnold Schoenberg called himself an 'autodidact' in an interview. Other largely self-taught composers include notably Joachim Raff, Georg Philipp Telemann and Edward Elgar.
  • Several notable people considered to have an inspirational religious message have been autodidacts: for instance John Bunyan, George Fox and Rodney "Gypsy" Smith.
  • Many successful filmmakers did not attend college or dropped out. These include Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Stanley Kubrick, John Huston and Steven Soderbergh.
  • Penn Jillette, a member of the comedy and magic duo Penn & Teller, declared both he and his partner Teller to be autodidacts in an episode of their television series, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!.
  • Comedian Drew Carey claims that he learned comedy through reading books on the subject.
  • Modern Pashto poet Ameer Hamza Shinwari and afghan writer, journalist Abdulhadi Hairan were not educated in the regular manner, still they were able to establish their careers through self-education.

The Ignorant Schoolmaster

In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Jacques Rancière describes the emancipatory education of Joseph Jacotot, a post-Revolutionary philosopher of education who discovered that he could teach things he did not know. The book is both a history and a contemporary intervention in the philosophy and politics of education, through the concept of autodidactism; Rancière chronicles Jacotot's "adventures", but he articulates Jacotot's theory of "emancipation" and "stultification" in the present tense.

Possible problems with self-teaching

  • Autodidacts may focus too narrowly in a field of interest and neglect whole areas of reading and study in related areas or foundational studies that are required for genuine depth and perspective on the topic.
  • Many people who learn by reading books pick up the wrong pronunciation of technical terms and names. This used to be a mark of the self-educated people of the trade union movement who often pursued serious studies without coming into contact with people who had formal education.


Further reading

  • Solomon, Joan. The Passion to Learn: An Inquiry into Autodidactism. ISBN 0-415-30418-0.
  • Hayes, Charles D. Self-University: The Price of Tuition Is the Desire to Learn. Your Degree Is a Better Life. ISBN 0-9621979-0-4.
  • Llewellyn, Grace. The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education. ISBN 0-9629591-7-0.
  • Rancière, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford Univ. Press, 1991. ISBN 0-8047-1969-1.
  • Hailey, Kendall. The Day I Became an Autodidact. ISBN 0-385-29636-3.
  • Hayes, Charles D. The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning. ISBN 09621979-4-7.
  • Cameron, Brent and Meyer, Barbara. SelfDesign: Nurturing Genius Through Natural Learning. ISBN 1-59181-044-2.
  • Brown, Resa Steindel. The Call to Brilliance: A True Story to Inspire Parents and Educators. ISBN 0-9778369-0-8.
autodidactic in Czech: Autodidakt
autodidactic in Danish: Autodidakt
autodidactic in German: Autodidakt
autodidactic in Spanish: Autoaprendizaje
autodidactic in Esperanto: Memlernanto
autodidactic in French: Autodidacte
autodidactic in Korean: 자기주도적 학습
autodidactic in Hebrew: אוטודידקטיות
autodidactic in Hungarian: Autodidakta
autodidactic in Dutch: Autodidact
autodidactic in Japanese: 独学
autodidactic in Norwegian: Autodidakt
autodidactic in Portuguese: Autodidática
autodidactic in Swedish: Autodidakt
autodidactic in Chinese: 自主學習

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