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I am from Brazil – at the current moment, education in this country is undoubtedly poor. I've been learning some things over the years on my own, mostly downloading content from the internet and reading.

Whenever I tell people (in my country) that I learn in such way, they usually say that I am an autodidact – and when arguing about this, they seem to imply that this is a unique feature for some special people that are born with this (they don't think that it's an ability that anyone could develop). However, I'm a little skeptical about this, and I'm expanding the reasons below:

  • As I pointed out in the beginning, the education in our country is a failure. We're not taught how to think and develop solutions to problems with minimal information beforehand. Education is more of a fake spectacle provided by the government to pretend the country is a good place for international investors.

  • Trying to learn after being a student that spent years in such a scheme is usually painful, and I say this from experience. Managing energy, motivation, discipline, systems for controlling procrastination, the idea that you yourself have to manage such features and other aspects of learning alone is hard.

  • Our school gives us the impression that learning is linear and continuous, that there aren't pitfalls and that spending some days stuck with a problem means that one cannot learn something alone.

  • When speaking with people from other countries, it seems utterly trivial to learn something alone. I've even gotten some syllabi from universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, and the way these syllabi are written seems to be made for a student that has been taught in a more sophisticated and independent way. They list the topics that need to be learned, they give the student a manual on how to study, and they give them the list of books – I'm finding it perfect to learn using their syllabi as a guide. On the other hand, the syllabi of Brazilian universities are terrible, they don't mention books, they don't mention a order for which the topics must be studied, they just list everything only with dates, and there's no guide for self-study: The syllabi seems to be made for a completely dependent student.

Given the arguments above, I'd like to know: Is autodidactism really a unique, rare feature that I possess? I ask because I do not feel so; I feel that I could teach it to everyone, and that some of our beliefs about education and self-education are wrong.

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2 Answers 2

I'd recommend checking out Wikipedia's article on autodidacticism for a start. This might give you a better sense of the context surrounding the word, and whether it really means so much as you feel it does. My first impression is that this is not much more than a semantic issue (but I have a second impression, which I'll get to next). The literal definition seems to be, "A self-taught person," which isn't very interesting. In this sense, of course you are. That's what you're describing: self-teaching.

My second impression is that this is interesting inasmuch as self-teaching is actually rare. That seems odd to me; in what sense doesn't everyone teach themselves to some extent? If we interpret it instead as "primarily self-taught", then I could see autodidacticism being rarer. People usually find educational systems guided by others preferable (or mandatory, as is the case in the USA), but maybe not in a situation such as you describe (whether it's true of Brazil in general or not). When educational systems provided by traditional, mainstream, or public infrastructure are poor, it seems quite likely that one would opt to take advantage of other educational sources as you have. In the past decade or so, the internet has been particularly instrumental in providing this option globally.

I get the impression that using others' educational materials (including syllabi) for otherwise self-guided education doesn't violate the generally intended meaning of autodidact. A stricter definition might limit it only to learning through direct experience with life, but it's hard to imagine anyone short of a feral child fitting this definition truly enough. If an autodidact can learn through contact with others and their guidance and still be an autodidact simply because one has pursued education independently of structured guidance in the form of a professional relationship with a particular teacher, then I agree, it's not that unusual. If it's a question of whether you're primarily self-taught, that might be unusual, but it's not unique. Your particular circumstances seem especially likely to result in such a choice. The ongoing advent of internet-based educational resources makes it more likely that people will "teach themselves" in the same way you do, though it's an interesting semantic issue to consider whether this is truly self-teaching when you're taking advantage of structured lessons provided by others without their knowledge. It seems likely to me that the term "autodidact" itself will begin to lose its meaning in this evolving context of freely, globally available information. In any case, if autodidacticism is at all unique now, it seems unlikely to remain that way.

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The point is relevant in backward countries like Brazil. There are "sebos", where second-hand books can be bought for very little money. Public libraries for free. Free internet access in "Tele" or "Info" centres. Free "palestra" conferences. I have myself attended class at the University of Sao Paulo-Butanta, and nobody has asked my status as a student there. Yet, most Brazilians have it in their heads that they need a certificate. My Brazilian pupils certainly have got this idiotic assumption. That is why they are enrolled in some institution, BESIDES paying me as their private tutor. In my experience, although every person occasionally learns something on his own, purely out of curiosity, it is only a minority that possesses the talent of self-didactism (auto-didacticism) for being PRIMARILY teachers of ourselves. Most people cannot do it. They lack intelligence or motivation for the effort of self-guide and self-discipline. They are imitators, and there is no social encouragement for autodidacts.

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