Why self-learning is wonderful

Self-teaching is by far the best alternative to your education and continuous improvement. I am sure various websites around the world (wide web) cover the basics of self-teaching, but I will focus here on a few aspects I stumbled upon while doing my research. I won’t even touch the matter regarding my own self-teaching accounts for accomplishing my PhD results and, now, for advancing the ideas of liberty.

To get through the intro, I will remind you that many notable inventors have been mostly self-taught. Self-teaching may encompass a broader range (at least according to this Wikipedia entry), from exclusive self-educators, to people who graduate with a diploma but practice self-learning vigorously in their activity. Michael Faraday, Nikola Tesla and André-Marie Ampère are well-known for their contributions to science, accumulating their knowledge through self-education. Eric Hoffer and Benjamin Franklin are among the eminent self-taught in social sciences.

Henry Hazlitt is famously known for writing the “Economics in One Lesson” (1946) masterpiece, a book written with such clarity and treating such important economic aspects, that it stood the test of time and is even more relevant today. He is also founding vice president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and a prolific author, writing for publications such as New York Times, Newsweek, and Freeman.

As a young man coming from a poor family, Hazlitt’s opportunities may look grim. But, at Bettina Bien Greaves writes, in the circa 1910 United States,

there were no legal obstacles to hiring and firing—no minimum wage with which an employer had to comply, no Social Security or unemployment taxes to pay, no income taxes to withhold, no restrictions on hours or working conditions. Any would-be employer could hire anyone who wanted to work. If the arrangement didn’t work out, the employer could let the employee go without penalty. Or the employee could leave, confident that he could easily find other employment.

As such, with no regulations on the job market (meaning basically 0 unemployment and full productivity), Henry Hazlitt was able to freely “navigate” from job to job, until he landed a job as a stenographer at The Wall Street Journal.

To keep up with the Economic science and to pursue his ambition of writing and publishing a book (which he later did at age 21), Henry Hazlitt dedicated all his spare time to self-teaching, as he notes:

No practice excels that of browsing along a library shelf containing books on the subject that has awakened your interest, and sampling them. If I may be permitted a personal note, it seems to me, looking back, that the hours of purest happiness in my own youth were spent in just this way. I would avidly sample one book after another, and when the bell rang, and the library closed for the night, and I was forced to leave, I would leave in a state of mental intoxication, with my new-found knowledge and ideas whirling in my head.

Henry Hazlitt went on to becoming one of the most successful economic and liberty authors and bellwethers. His life was dedicated not only to promoting his ideas, but also shaping them by constantly educating himself with the freely available knowledge written by others. He even refuted, point-by-point, the careless ideas of John Keynes, which form the basis of today’s precarious mainstream economics.

Dan Sanchez of FEE writes:

Henry Hazlitt couldn’t afford entry into academia. As it turned out, that was a blessing: for him and for the world.

It forced him to forge his own education by following his passions and opportunities: to develop his own “syllabus” (books by Wicksteed, Anderson, Mises, and others), recruit his own “faculty” (tutors like Anderson and Mises), and determine his own “assignments” (his published articles and books).

And the results were undoubtedly better. Whereas academia tends to reward ponderously obscure prose and clannish intellectual fad-chasing (thus the rise of Keynes), Hazlitt’s economics writing (and thus his economic thinking) for “real-world” audiences was massively popular because it was sensible, direct, clear, and sound. And instead of being cloistered in the Ivory Tower, Hazlitt’s wisdom was shared widely with the world.

Clearly, Hazlitt owns his immense reputation to a life-long dedication to pursuing self-teaching. He could thus avoid the pitfalls of mainstream education, and distill the good from the evil through his own rational filters.

Dan Sanchez concluding remarks could not have been more clear:

Most young people with an interest and aptitude for economics are shunted into academia, not because it is an efficient and effective institution for training good economists and economics educators (which it isn’t), but because it is so heavily propagandized and subsidized by the government.

Another self-educator is Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451. In a recent Tom Woods newsletter (make sure to subscribe here) he notes, quoting from Bradbury, that getting in a library and delving by reading is addictive:

With the library it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on — well, what if you don’t like those books?

He pinpointed the common fallacy of centrally-planned education: the subjective curriculum, as imposed by rule-makers or teachers upon students, disregarding their natural ideas, interests or passions.

Elsewhere, he wrote:

I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt.

When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.

Clearly, Ray Bradbury’s virtual “life diploma” has “Library” as the issuer, and he could not have been more proud of this. His writing style and success has also been influenced by his choices. In his words:

You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught.

I couldn’t agree more. I spent countless hours in middle and high school learning Latin, (relatively) advanced mathematics, or reading poorly-written Romanian fiction, to mention a drop in the ocean. While I was waiting for the Biology or Economics class to start. Or, at Faculty level, learning about invertebrate zoology. While waiting to learn a bit about bioinformatics. As a teacher, I always believed that my subjects are important, but would my best to mentally group my students into three groups, based on their interest (low, normal, and high) and treat each group accordingly during labs. Highly-interested students were eager to know more and, luckily, I had the platform and some time to dedicate more information to them. I warned them about self-teaching in their spare time, if they feel attracted to any discipline, and to pursue publishing now, not later. In the meantime, I tried to adapt my teaching to the lowest interest group and getting them into a higher tier. I could not succeed as I wished for, but I know that they still got that needed minimum out of my classes, and they know where to look for if and when they change their mind.

Some may disagree about this (I know better), and state that every student must be treated equally. And must know equally the same amount of information on a given subject. Which is plain ludicrous.

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