Are you one of those people who not only enjoy studying but have crafted their entire existence around learning, research, and finding awe in nearly everything? Do you thrive when learning by discovery over learning by instruction? Me too. That’s what drew me to the book How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.
Being an autodidact, or one who is self-taught, is a life belonging to the passionate. One cannot be compelled to this life, it’s an intrinsic drive toward self-actualization, a thirst to know the depths of a topic, seeing the web of connections that usher forth new ideas and embodied understanding.
In Adler and Van Doren’s book on how to be a better reader, one who reads to understand, we can explore what it means to be an autodidact who learns from reading, experience, and the world itself, and what skills are acquired and required in this lifelong dedication to learning by discovery.
What is learning by discovery?
Adler and Van Doren state:
“In the history of education, men have often distinguished between learning by instruction and learning by discovery. Instruction occurs when one person teaches another through speech or writing. We can, however, gain knowledge without being taught. If this were not the case, and every teacher had to be taught what he, in turn, teaches others, there would be no beginning the acquisition of knowledge. Hence, there must be discovery – the process of learning something by research, by investigation, or by reflection, without being taught.”
Questioning is the beginning of learning. When one has a curious mind and doesn’t take what’s on the surface as the ultimate knowledge of a thing, they are immediately poised to be a deep diver for meaning and truth. To learn by discovery is to be asking questions of the world and then listening with elephant ears and owl eyes, seeking answers as if they were prey, digesting their nourishment, and letting them fuel further exploration.
Why would someone wish to be an autodidact?
Why would one want to dedicate their life to learning? They’re likely compelled to seek truth, understanding, greater meaning, and advanced personal growth. This drive is part of their essence, a mandated mission that calls to them at every turn.
With infinite questions about everything in existence, including oneself, desiring the truth about things often presents as a voracious hunger. The ability to see meaning as a transmutable, flowing, contrived and configured thing can lead a person to submerge themselves in an ocean of wisdom in hopes of even the smallest bit of living, green sustenance sticks to their limbs.
“If you remember what an author says, you have learned something from reading him. If what he says is true, you have even learned something about the world.”
As Adler and Van Doren note, not all we read will be truth, but what is memorable can still be used as fodder for personal growth. The sensitive and objective autodidact will learn to sense and see the difference between truth and conjecture intuitively.
It is this sorting and sifting that eventually illuminates new avenues of understanding, satisfying, at least momentarily, the voracious curiosity of the lifelong student. This path provides unlimited opportunities for personal and societal evolution, as one who is motivated to learn is often motivated to make a positive contribution to the world.
What’s the difference between being informed and being enlightened?
Being informed is par for course on the journey toward being enlightened about any given topic, but one must not stop there.
“To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why is it the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different, and so forth.”
In this quote, Adler and Van Doren show us that knowing something “is the case” is not nearly enough to consider oneself knowledgeable about a topic. In fact, this can lead to misinformation and misunderstanding. To truly attempt to learn the breadth of what is to be known one must explore the corners and shadows and connections and comparisons available to us. They sum up this notion by saying:
“Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.”
How does one go about learning deeply while reading?
If one has a specific fascination or topic of study, all that one reads, watches, sees, and otherwise encounters, becomes part of a web of connections feeding into understanding that topic. Alder and Van Doren introduce us to syntopical reading by explaining:
“When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. But mere comparison of texts is not enough. Syntopical reading involves more. With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. It is obvious, therefore, that syntopical reading is the most active and effortful kind of reading.”
For example, I’m passionate about studying intuition, identity, the unconscious mind, and meaning. Pieces of conversation, the movement of a tree, or the day’s challenges all give me fodder for my research whether directly or through metaphor. The books I choose to read, fiction and expository works, regardless of their specific topic or theme, help me gather seemingly unrelated information and wisdom which can lead to innovation, insight, and deeper understanding.
As Alder and Van Doren tell us, “The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection.”
It’s Not All About Intellect
And lastly, Alder and Van Doren know that intellect and analysis are only part of the world of learning by discovery.
“Thinking is only one part of the activity of learning. One must also use one’s senses and imagination. One must observe, remember, and construct imaginatively what cannot be observed.”
Reading, analysis, research of any kind, are all essential aspects of lifelong learning, but only in equal proportion to the world of sensuality and imagination.
How fortunate we are to have bodies that take in information that then triggers feelings, memories, connections, which can lead us to insight and even transformation. Just the act of observing in silence is a gift to anyone seeking truth and expansion, and a sense of the oneness that connects all things.
The imaginal realm is often said to be the world of the right brain, and the free association plane of dreams and our unconscious Self. This is where the truest form of magic happens within, and where the fruits of analysis and knowledge can be effortlessly incorporated into something new, something unique from one’s own perspective. It’s from this place our intuition sends our conscious mind its most creative discoveries.
To learn by discovery, to be self-taught, and to live life as an autodidact, is to be constantly receiving, integrating, and transforming. We are permeable and transitory filters of this human experience, moved by a will to create and evolve. Are you an autodidact too? Would you have it any other way?