Ode to an autodidact
If you’re in college, what does learning look like?
You read books, you synthesize the information, you take tests to prove what you learned. Or, you write research papers and essays proving what you learned. How do you do those? You present a hypothesis, and then you set out to prove that hypothesis. You find research papers that back up your hypothesis, and you quote them. Many of them. If you strike out, if your hypothesis doesn’t have any prior research backing it up, you go back to the drawing board and find something that CAN be supported by evidence.
In grad school, you get to form your own hypotheses and research those, culminating in your Masters and/or Doctoral thesis which are hundreds of pages long and take years to complete. Depending on your field, you may also get real world practice.
So, what you’re doing is harvesting the hell out of every shred of information you can find, and synthesizing it into your own paper, except that probably 25% to 50% of your research paper is quoted and paraphrased research from others.
I have several questions out of this.
More of the same begets more of the same. What happens if there’s nothing backing up your hypothesis because no one ever thought of it before, or no researchers could secure the funding to do studies, or the research was done but wasn’t published? Does this not create a loop where everyone is just repeating everyone else ad infinitum? There are some fields where there’s about 5 experts who just keep citing each other. Jolly good research that is.
When someone in college learns something and then goes out and teaches that, it’s a career. When someone not in college spends years learning independently and then uses that information and teaches that information (you know, without saying they invented the Pythagorean Theorem or something) why is that called stealing and that person’s research is basically likened to scavenging? You know us peasants can also get access to academic journals too, right?
(Note: Plagiarism and theft of ideas is real, and that’s not what I’m talking about. If you describe Malthusian economics and talk like you invented it, that’s stealing. If after being inspired by the concepts of Malthusian economics you do your own research and come to your own new conclusions, that’s yours. There isn’t a single concept in academia that wasn’t inspired by something before it and entire branches of academia grew from the trunk of something else. Be fair and discerning with what you claim, but be aware that independent learners don’t exactly receive fair and discerning in return for working outside the institution.)
I get that there’s people who come up with absolute shit and pass it off as truth. There’s liars, frauds, and charlatans. There’s people who are not autodidacts and — sorry not sorry– do not possess the critical thinking skills to pull off doing their own research and never will. The number one skill required for quality research is skepticism including being skeptical of your own ideas which implies the ability to be proven wrong. If being wrong makes you want to throw a fit, this is not for you. Your curiosity and search for the truth has to be more important than your ego. But I digress a bit.
Then I also think of all the studies funded by various big industries that were miraculously always in their favor, even if just enough to, for example, get their medication FDA approved (that is a low bar, folks). Then I think about what you learn in simple undergrad statistics where the 10% outliers on the bell curve get lopped off in final outcomes because it “skews” results and that’s perfectly fine.
Then there’s the problem of academia being a patriarchal and imperialist structure. The more moneyed universities get more funding, are much more likely to get published in journals (which I established already that other researchers will then begin using your evidence as their evidence and it becomes self-perpetuating). That structure also has a narrow definition of how to learn, how to conduct research and how to arrive at conclusions. I laugh an annoyed laugh when “new” research comes out that (often unknowingly) supports what the indigenous have known for thousands of years but those people were called savage, uncivilized, stupid, and superstitious.
So what’s an autodidact to do? Everything. Learn everything you want to. Draw from everything, and synthesize everything into your own ideas. It’s exactly how I designed my own interdisciplinary degree program in college and believe me, even being 34 years old at the time with a 4.0GPA, I had to work at it and piss off a bunch of academic counselors, and academically pimp myself out to some professors.
Hundreds of headaches, years of lost rest, and $60,000 later, I could’ve learned the same things from BIPOC community leaders, and open courseware. 🥴
Bonus practice: Reread and take a shot every time I say the word synthesize.