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February 24, 2006

The Autodidact: Someone who thinks for themselves? Or someone who can be rather too free thinking?

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Is the decline of autodidactism something to be lamented? William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth - considers the question. Individual autodidacts have done much to enhance human knowledge. But autodidactism also has its dark side - after all both Hitler and Stalin were autodidacts.

An autodidact is a person who has largely educated himself or herself and whose views of the world are largely self-inspired. In our time, autodidacts have been less important and less visible than previously, a result of the movement of what is regarded as true knowledge and belief to the exclusive, or almost exclusive, province of the university and of research and learning conducted there. As a result, autodidacts - rather like the "amateur historians" discussed by me in a previous column, with whom they often overlap - have been marginalized and sent underground.

In the past, however, most intelligent and well-read people were self-educated to a great extent and were certainly not university dons. In Victorian England, to take only the most obvious examples, a range of leading and characteristic intellectuals from Darwin to J. S. Mill to Disraeli to George Eliot - as well as hundreds of pamphleteers, religious fanatics, eccentrics, and enthusiasts of various kinds - can be described as autodidacts in the sense meant here.

Their visions of the world, and their attempts to make sense of human experience and the universe, were based in independent reading and personal systems of thought. And - apart from the Church, in which fewer and fewer believed in a literal sense - there was no authority in place to tell them that they were wrong. The twentieth century, to reiterate, has put in place the authority of university-based knowledge and modes of thought, especially in the sciences but also in the arts, which has swept all before it. Inquiring minds of today have to acknowledge the legitimacy and superiority of university-based knowledge, or risk being automatically stigmatized, perhaps rightly, as crackpots and ignoramuses.

In the past, however, many highly intelligent people formed their world-views from their own extensive, often discursive and wide-ranging reading, becoming in effect their own university teachers. As the socialist historian Raymond Williams has noted, the British skilled working classes long had a tradition of this kind of autodidactism, which lasted until the 1950s or 1960s, and it was surprisingly common to find an ordinary workingman who was as well-read as a university don.

Williams and others have seen this tradition as having declined, and perhaps died out, after the Second World War, when literate culture gave way, outside of the universities and intellectual circles, to pop vulgarity and consumeristic, hedonistic anti-intellectualism. Previously, respect for learning and for reading went deep in this milieu, in particular among specific groups like the Welsh and Scottish working classes. It is possible to take a more benign view, that this tradition has simply assumed new forms - at least one hopes so.

Autodidactism also had its dark side, since an intellectual universe created from one's own variegated readings and preferred opinion often lacked a moral component, and often went with ethical solipsism. Two of the greatest autodidacts of this type were Hitler and Stalin.

Although often depicted as close to an illiterate, Adolf Hitler was actually surprisingly well-read, owning a large library of books, and possessing a surprisingly talented historical imagination. Normally seen as intellectually worthless, Hitler's remarks on historical subjects - recorded in the book Hitler's Table Talk: His Private Conversations 1941 - 1944 and elsewhere - are actually surprisingly clever in many respects, showing real historical talent, although always ready to be overwhelmed by his demented monomanias about Jews, Bolsheviks, race-purity, and so on.

Stalin was - surprisingly - if anything even more learned. As Simon Sebag-Montefiore points out in his excellent Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (p. 100), Stalin was certainly the best-read ruler of Russia in its history. He was probably even more widely read than Lenin; he owned a personal library of 20,000 books and employed a full-time librarian as part of his personal entourage. In his old age he began reading Goethe and was seen by his grand-daughter on random occasions reading Gogol, Chekhov, Victor Hugo, Thackeray, and Balzac. Stalin had read most of Dostoyevsky and may have internalized the author's emphasis on the irrational and the criminal in his own world-view. Although normally seen as a crude simplifier, the champion of charlatans like Lysenko, Stalin's writings on topics like linguistics, in which he took a keen interest, show considerable sense.

Neither Hitler nor Stalin, of course, attended a university, although Stalin was a student at the Tiflis Seminary in Georgia until he was expelled at the age of nineteen or twenty. (Stalin also at this time wrote romantic poetry and worked briefly as - of all things - a weatherman at the Tiflis Meteorological Institute!)

Both Hitler and Stalin used their extensive readings to evolve perverse, destructive world-views, Hitler's heavily influenced by the gutter ultra-nationalism and anti-semitism of pre-1914 Vienna, Stalin's by Lenin's version of Marxism, to which he added his own nationalistic, authoritarian twists. The learning of these two, one might add, stands in sharp contrast to the lack of erudition of most Western politicians of that time; in particular most democratic politicians did not think in terms of long historical periods, so characteristic of the world-views of Hitler and Stalin, in which, of course, the fate of the individual is as of nothing.

As to today's western autodidacts, I would be willing to bet that a disproportionate number take a keen interest in crime and the occult a la Colin Wilson (a genuine autodidact in the sense suggested in this essay) and in subjects still more outre like Holocaust denial.

There are, therefore, grounds for believing that the diminution in the number of autodidacts is not necessarily a bad thing, given the apparent association between autodidactism and potential criminality. Yet surely the near-monopoly of true knowledge and belief by the university and the university-educated is not without its costs. University disciplines can be as narrowly and tendentiously constructed as anything outside. On the Arts side, university discourse is overwhelmingly and tediously dominated by the political left, at least outside of Economics and a few other disciplines, leading to the situation, so well-expressed by William F. Buckley Jr., that America would be much better-governed by a hundred people chosen at random from the Boston phone book than by one hundred members of Harvard University's faculty.

In the meantime, there is a vast wellspring of autodidactism still in existence among such groups as those "amateur historians" who take a keen interest in the identity of Jack the Ripper or in JFK's assassination. Such persons should probably be encouraged to continue, provided they do not imitate either the ideological narrowness of some components of the university or the perverse solipsism of some of their predecessors.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth.


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"It is possible to take a more benign view, that this tradition has simply assumed new forms"

I'd love to think so, but what kind of evidence is there?

Posted by: jim mcq at February 24, 2006 04:06 PM
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Sometimes I think that the effect of the Internet will be to make autodidacts the norm and that will be a good thing. It could go wrong, though, if easy access to all knowledge means that malevolent thinkers can easily find reinforcement for their evil thoughts and openminded rationalists are so overwhelmed with conflicting theses and opinions that they "lose all conviction".

Posted by: Robert Speirs at February 24, 2006 05:01 PM
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John Keay's marvellous book 'India Discovered,' tells how a British legion comprised of a few formally educated scholars and a large number of 18th-19th C autodidacts (mostly working in their spare time) learnt Sanskrit, discovered and recorded architectural inscriptions, then pieced the dynastic order together from the study of coins, the largest bunch found not far from where I live in Afghanistan.

In the late Georgian and early Victorian world, universities and academics were fewer, and work that genunely advanced knowledge neither required expensive equipment nor years of training to use such equipment. So there was a palpable reward for the gentleman scholar, who was often an autodidact. Today specialisation has all but killed off these possibilities. I attended a conference on the ancient central asian city of Merv, not long ago, and the expert on central asian subsoil pollen deposits had very little to say to the expert on central asia rammed-earth cellars, and neither could tell me why anyone should be remotely interested in Merv unless he had a government grant to study it (a pity because Merv is most historical and even romantic).

Perhaps the serious and effective (rather than the crank) autodidact, like the cowboy fenced off his open prairies, has been rendered obsolete for observable reasons. It is a pity nevertheless. There was a pleasure in listening to an autodidact shopkeeper or taxi driver obsessed with the Hapsburgs or with the lives of lemurs that I don't seem to get from amateur scholarship on Posh and Becks.

Posted by: s masty at February 25, 2006 04:37 AM
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If you learn by following an existing school of thought, you will probably eventually rebel against some things that it teaches. Ao you might as well just decide what you think is right.

Posted by: blackangel at February 27, 2006 11:08 PM
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ref. blackangel: "We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages." Edmund Burke, commenting on tradition, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790.

Posted by: s masty at February 28, 2006 10:32 AM
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I was just researching something and typed in "Hitler autodidact" into Google and voilą, came up with this fascinating essay. Score one for self learning via the internet. On the other hand, the internet, with its closed communities, rapid feedback loops and possibilities for unmediated self publication, seems to be breeding a new generation of unhinged loon ball conspiracy theorists all pumped up on their own physically isolated, mouse clicking paranoia. Will the information age and data overload lead to new Hitlers and Stalins?

Posted by: Simon Pitchforth at February 28, 2011 07:07 AM
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