I think I’ll toss in a bit for Kio Stark’s Kickstarter project Don’t Go Back to School, that aims to be a how-to guide for independent learning.
What Stark is planning to argue (and enable) connects to one of the thoughts behind my own warnings about graduate school, namely, I do not want prospective students to think that an MA or Ph.D (or a J.D., etc.) is primarily about learning how to do something or an extension of the spirit of a liberal arts education. It can be, but usually it’s not. (Exhibit A for the prosecution: the recent article in the New York Times that pointed out that most U.S. law schools don’t really teach their students how to be lawyers, unless the kind of law they’re going to practice is some weird, rarified domain where scholarly approaches to law have some unusual weight.) Graduate school is primarily about credentialling for particular professional objectives. That’s not particularly wholesome but that’s the way it is for now. If the goal is to pick up a new bit of concrete knowledge or skill, there are other and better ways to do it. If the goal is to extend a lifelong engagement with knowledge and critical thinking, graduate school will generally get in the way.
That said, a couple of cautionary thoughts about the project. First, while it’s possible that someone could self-train to understand and interpret neuroscience (for one example) there really are quite a large number of expert domains where understanding and practicing are different matters. An autodidact reader of neuroscience could learn to interpret and evaluate research, teach or write about the field, and imagine or advocate new directions for study or experiment, but it’s still pretty reasonable to have a bright, sharp fence up around “do neuroscientific experimentation on living subjects” and “conduct neurological interventions, surgical or otherwise, on living subjects”. I think it’s very true even there that existing researchers and doctors learn most of what they learn through experience rather than in formal classroom settings, but this is one of many cases where requiring certification of expertise and limiting that certification to appropriate institutions is the only way to hope for some kind of baseline minimum qualification before we collectively permit someone to engage in practices that have very high potential for harming people. Maybe you lose the occasional autodidactical genius who would come up with a completely new medical or research technique that way, but I think you also lose a lot of Dr. Frankensteins and quacks. Pope Brock’s Charlatan, a history of John L. Brinkley, the quack doctor who built a thriving practice on surgically inserting goat testicles into the scrotums of American men looking to revive their sexual potency, is a pretty good reminder of why American society increasingly embraced formal education and certification as a requirement for some kinds of expert practice.
Second, I completely believe that you can learn techniques of autodidacticism from people like Cory Doctorow and Quinn Norton, that at least some of how they learn new things is reproducible. As a self-identified generalist, I feel I can show other people how I do what I do in a way that’s partially reproducible. At the same time, just as I know that I hit some pretty firm cognitive limits in certain domains of intellectual practice, I do feel that there are some people who just are not going to be able to be autodidacts no matter how clear and reproducible the instructions on the box might be. Some people don’t think that way, some people weren’t brought up that way, some people have adapted so strongly to the structure of formal education that it would do them more harm than good for them to try and do without it. It’s Stark’s project, but my meddling-kids advice would be that the most irritating thing about a how-to project might be when it implies that its advice has a potentially global or universal scope. Even with projects, ideas and approaches that I like, I’m finding that I’m very unsatisfied if there isn’t serious attention given to shortcomings, failures and limit conditions. It’s good to interview people who are successful self-learners, but there have got to be some casualties out there too, whether it’s people who tried to learn how to operate a table saw on their own and cut their thumb off or people who have dedicated themselves to the independent mastery of calculus via a dozen routes and had to eventually surrender.