For decades, access to quality education has been regarded as synonymous with admission into high-quality institutions. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Education has both instrumental and intrinsic value for individuals and for societies as a whole. As the US Supreme Court stated in its unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education”. The instrumental goals of K–12 education for individuals include access to higher education and a constellation of private benefits that follow college education such as access to interesting jobs with more vacation time and better health care; greater personal and professional mobility, better decision-making skills (Institute for Higher Education Policy 1998) and more autonomy at work. ….
There is fierce competition for admission to highly selective colleges and universities in the US that admit fewer than 10% of applicants. In this arena, wealthier parents sometimes go to great lengths to bolster their children’s applications by paying for tutoring, extracurricular activities, and admissions coaching—activities that can put applicants without these resources at a significant disadvantage in the admissions process.
But educational institutions have lately been focused on creating cultural clones of themselves. They are full of speech codes, no-go areas of inquiry, forbidden subject matter, and even banned books. All too often, you go to college to narrow your mind.
The 12th-century Muslim polymath Ibn Tufail saw access to data and the ability to reason from first principles, not access to schools, as the key factor in education. In his philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, the hero never goes to school. He is:
a feral boy, an autodidact prodigy who masters nature through instruments and reason, discovers laws of nature by practical exploration and experiments, and gains summum bonum through a mystical mediation and communion with God. The hero rises from his initial state of tabula rasa to a mystical or direct experience of God after passing through the necessary natural experiences. The focal point of the story is that human reason, unaided by society and its conventions or by religion, can achieve scientific knowledge, preparing the way to the mystical or highest form of human knowledge.
In Tufail’s view, education is rooted in the right to know God — or, if you prefer, Allah or reality — in an unfettered way. This is not entirely fanciful. A list of autodidacts in history includes Galileo, Boole, Leibnitz, Ramanujan, Schlieman (the discoverer of Troy), Darwin, Pascal, Leonardo da Vinci, Watt, Edison, Tesla, Tsoilovsky, Henry Ford, and the Wright brothers. More recently, the college dropouts Bill Gates and Steve Jobs come to mind as individuals who did exactly that.
These people spent little time in an academic setting but lots of hours consulting sources they deemed important in solving the problem at hand. These three factors: 1) challenge focus, 2) an unrestricted point of view, and 3) the ability to reason from first principles made them not only polymaths but original thinkers as opposed to people who pursue careers inside established academic departments. After all, where do you go to school to become something that hasn’t been invented yet?
Perhaps the most famous autodidact in modern pop culture is Batman, who teaches himself to become a superhero. He had no option but self-education for what university teaches you to become the Batman? Here is a short overview of Bruce Wayne’s formation:
- Learned and studied everything on his own that he could; leaves Gotham.
- Attended the world’s most popular Universities (few semesters each).
- Trained with world-class martial artists, illusionists, escape artists, chemists, detectives, forensic experts, and engineers.
- Joined FBI; quit after realizing he only learned how to “shuffle papers”.
- Trained with assassins, thieves, mystics, and even more martial artists.
- Came back to Gotham.
Batman, like Galileo and many other polymaths, had to do this in secret before the explainers could shut him down. Academic freedom may be more important than any other sort of educational equality.
Elon Musk famously said “you don’t need college” to learn. That may not be true for most of us mediocre souls but it may be true for the some of us for whom the only educational equality is the right to know the facts provided by God. Freedom and facts, plus the goad of a challenge to solve: from these we can make a ladder to who knows where?
Books: Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy — Andy Ngo’s book on the “Idea” that burned cities and perhaps much else.
Follow Richard Fernandez at Wretchard.com