Saturday, September 08, 2012

Confessions of an Autodidact

Autodidact: It's a strange word. Something about it sounds suspect, possibly even nasty. She is a practicing autodidact.

But all it means is "self-teacher." And that's what I am. I like to teach myself stuff. Always have; even when I was a little kid looking through my parents' old schoolbooks and going through the lessons myself. Sometimes I've failed -- for instance, no amount of effort made me a successful music reader or practical sewer or shorthand writer. But sometimes I've succeeded: bread baking; knitting; enough German to bump me into the third-term class my freshman year of college (although I had the good sense to immediately demote myself back to German 101 before my deficiencies became apparent).

When I was a twenty-something slacker working in a bookstore, a couple came in one winter evening, back in those pre-Amazon days, with a long list of special-order books on two particular topics -- I think maybe a certain period in art history, and the Civil War. When I asked the middle-aged pair if they were taking classes in these things, they laughed and said no; but that, every year, each of them had committed to learning about one new thing. It was a New Year's tradition for them. I was charmed; I thought at the time that it was one of the coolest and most romantic ideas I'd ever heard of.

My embrace of that lifetime-learning ethic has been spotty since then; some years I pull it off, while other years not so much. But every now and again I feel that compulsion to learn in a systematic way. That's how I've felt this summer -- I think spurred in part by my recent experiences with brain  injury and my gradual return to feeling and thinking in a normal way. I no longer take it for granted, and I want to keep that sharpness sharp.

During my long recuperation this past winter I did some reading on homeschooling. We have shirttail relations who Waldorf-homeschool, and their children are so interesting and articulate that I decided to learn more about that particular school of thought. While parts of it appeal to me -- the integrated curriculum, for instance, and emphasis on arts -- much of it is, frankly, too oogity-boogity for me to take seriously; and I strenuously object to the Waldorf principle that actively discourages children from learning to read until they're 7 or 8. I don't care what the faeries or angels told Herr Steiner; it's a dumb idea. I learned to read when I was three, because I wanted to, and I'm grateful for that; I think it's criminal to hold children hostage to arbitrary developmental timelines.

Anyway, while researching that particular school of thought I was introduced to another pedagogical method that's gained some traction with homeschoolers and others: the Charlotte Mason method, named for a 19th century educational reformer. At first I got the impression that she was a darling of conservative Christian homeschoolers, and assumed that meant anti-intellectual nonsense wrapped in piety and Victorian sentimentality; but then I found out that plenty of homeschoolers without an overt religious agenda find Mason's ideas useful. And as I read more about Charlotte Mason herself, I learned that she was a pretty right-on woman for her time; an advocate both of girls' education and in giving all children, regardless of social class, a broad liberal-arts education based on the classical model and a lifelong love of learning. Her method includes short, focused lessons that allow the teacher to tackle many subjects; using "living books," books written by authors in love with the subject at hand instead of bland textbooks written and redacted by committee; emphasis on the out-of-doors, on nature study and play outside; teaching practical or self-improving activities instead of dumbed-down "twaddle";"dictation," by which she meant expecting students to be able to articulately summarize, aloud or in writing, what they've learned on a given day.

One thing led to another, and while reading about the Charlotte Mason method I discovered Susan Wise Bauer, a contemporary educator popular with classically minded homeschoolers. And -- yay! -- she's written a book for adults, The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide To the Classical Education You Never Had, I stayed up until the wee hours reading it. In it Bauer lays out a general outline for tackling subjects as a self-learner, and also provides lists of books in different genres that can help a  motivated adult student deepen and broaden his or her understanding.

I feel like I've gotten my intellectual groove back. So I've been integrating some of the ideas I've been reading about into my own learning programme. I've had a lot of fun downloading lots of free Kindle e-books on Bauer's list, and have been leisurely working my way through the very oldest texts. I am also trying to check off a line item on my personal bucket list by undertaking Spanish, at least on a conversational level, toggling the Byki Deluxe program with an inexpensive Spanish grammar (because I just can't stand learning sentences without understanding the why of the sentences.) And -- I almost hesitate to mention this because it's so incredibly nerdy -- am revisiting the bane of my teenage existence, algebra, because I honestly think that without the performance pressure of misogynist math teachers and highly competitive fellow students, I might actually understand it this time around. Who cares if it's taken 40 years to summon the fortitude necessary to peel away this particular layer of shame? Game on!

I do one of the short Spanish units almost every day, or at least review the previous day; but the other stuff I just fit in, the way that I suspect female autodidacts throughout the ages have managed to steal learning time throughout the day. And -- thank you for the suggestion, Ms. Mason -- I am attempting to, every night, write myself a short summary of what I've learned. And cut down on the twaddle.

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