Academic learning transforms us into autodidacts

Most of our knowledge comes from a combination of experience and information. The most appealing quality of information is its availability. However, we measure our lives in experiences. More reading materials available here, here, here, here, here and here.

My learning history

I spent most of my life looking for academic knowledge. When I was a child my parents were too poor and overprotective to provide me with quality experiences. There were also pretty few books in our library. So I spent most of my childhood playing chess, reading encyclopedias and daydreaming about various times and places. The information was scarce, the experience even more scarce, so I used imagination to fill in the gaps. After finishing the first degree, I finally had enough time and money and interesting friends to buy all the books I could fancy and fill in the gaps.

It took me several years to fulfill my craving for quality information, and by the time I started my Ph.D. I also started to collect various experiences. I finished my Ph.D. 15 years ago. If anything, I have been learning more since. While some of my mathematical foundations were learned in the University, I consider myself an autodidact in everything else. I had many jobs in various disciplines, I read a lot, and I had some great friends to guide me in my search.

The fallacy of academic knowledge

Somehow I always used to get great marks at school. This is probably due to my character. I am very systematic, strategic and disciplined. The problems started in my Ph.D. I had to learn subjects from articles that contradicted each other. And at the same time, I got a job, doing something that was not described in the articles I read. Three things seriously and simultaneously confused me: (1) how come the academic knowledge I learned to trust is so fragmented, (2) why can’t I learn to do my job the same way I learned to do the homework and (3) why neither the academic background nor the hands-on experience helps me to be a better and happier human being.

Young people tend to be more creative, more energetic, and capable of taking greater risks. The way the paradigms are built, we usually start with a handful of experiences and only then try to generate a theory. Why do we learn theories in the University before we had any reasonable hands-on experience? Why do we spend the years when we can make the biggest change reading about the things that were achieved by other people? There are strong voices in the business community calling students to drop the school and do some actual work: it is OK to go to school later, but there is only a small window of opportunity where we can take serious chances and explore the world.

The foundation knowledge

Some knowledge needs to be learned in a formal way before we can have our hands-on sessions. This is probably not the knowledge we get at school. For example, this is a short list of subjects that are foundational for my personal understanding of a great knowledge base:

  1. Metalearning. Speedreading and mnemonic techniques, creativity, and critical thinking.
  2. Mathematics.  Including linear algebra and simple differential equations.
  3. Physics.  Mainly mechanics and optics.
  4. Programming. Python and C++, web programming.
  5. Psychology. Conditioning, some level of CBT and NLP, common cognitive biases.
  6. Finances. Supply and demand, technical indicators.
  7. Medicine. First aid, anatomy.
  8. Legal and accounting. Drafting contracts and patents, reading financial reports, navigating taxation issues.
  9. Communication. Public speaking, copywriting.

I feel everybody needs to have good foundation knowledge in the subjects above. This is my personal opinion based on my experience, and I did not make a further research. I do not know of a school that can provide this sort of training or a degree such a school can give.

A combination of first degree in engineering and second degree in business covers many of the aspects above. I do understand, that a brain forms over time. A child can learn Shakespear, geography, history, and only a more mature person can learn the more advanced and practical skills.  At the end of the day, even if we have a great and very expensive education we will probably complement it by becoming autodidacts in other areas.

Daydreaming over exotic matters

Most of the time the scientists are daydreaming about some exotic matters. Consider the string theory or some entanglement issues in quantum physics. These theories are extremely interesting, complex and counterintuitive. They really make our mind work, and thus are probably a great gymnastics for human brains. The mathematical mechanism required to support them is complex and very powerful. And some of these exotic theories eventually provide useful applications. I definitely respect and admire the scientists who work in these fields. For the rest of the humanity, it is just a great story, not unlike the stories we learn in literature classes. We do not have the background required to understand these matters and argue about them, nor do we have any way to use them in our jobs or extracurricular activities.

The scientific method

The most important thing to learn in the academy is the scientific method itself. How do we run experiments? How can we analyze the data? Which tools can be used to explain the results and predict new results? What should we read to understand these tools? What does the strange language in the articles we read mean, and why was it constructed this way? The scientific method is learned in the academy, daydreaming over the exotic matters. But once we master it, we can apply it to become autodidacts in a wider sense: learning the things they simply do not teach in schools.

Can we trust our knowledge?

The scientific progress can be viewed as a rapid change of different paradigms. Simple paradigms describing most of the natural phenomena are replaced by significantly more complex paradigms describing a slightly wider range of phenomena. Should we really believe that what we know is true is actually true? Are we fooling ourselves?

Any information we acquire can be viewed in terms of the wider understanding we have. Any meaningful experience we had, can be reevaluated using the new and ever-changing knowledge we have. Both the information and the experiences can be stored a retrieved and measured one way or another. But the way we view the information and the experience, the knowledge itself is not to be trusted. In the most profound questions, we face there are researchers that support our understandings and researchers that contradict it. The novice can have full confidence in what they learn. As we gather more expertise, we become more aware of the areas where our knowledge does not work and we do not even know what questions to ask.

Is curiosity a craving?

There are different kinds of people driven by different motivations. For me, curiosity is a powerful driver, but it is also a craving. There are certain cues that activate my curiosity. For example, when I hear “It is a great mystery” or “The results surprised even experts”. The authors of pseudo-scientific texts always use these phrases to build up some sort of tension, and I fall for them every time. Then for several weeks, I collect information, and with more answers I get I gather further questions. The peak is about a month into the process. I can daydream about the subject, and search the web before I go to sleep. And then I reach a plateau, the new information excites me less and less. Curiously, alcohol addiction in rats follows a similar pattern. Which makes me ask myself: is my search for knowledge any different?

Do not tell me, show me

A very different driver for knowledge is experience-based. Extraordinary experiences greatly contribute to happiness. Even the subjective feeling of time is formed by extraordinary experiences. We want our experiences to involve all senses and we want to be actively involved in generating these experiences. This is the way animals and children learn. When a child gets a toy, he looks at the toy, he tastes the toy, he flexes every joint and he presses every button. When the child knows that pressing a button controls a certain joint of a robot, it is not because he read it in a manual, it is because he pushed the button and the joint moved. This experience-based knowledge is more direct, more memorable and somewhat truer than the knowledge we get from the books. Yet, without knowing what moves the joint it feels very much like magic.

How should we start learning?

I do not know how learning process should start. What I describe is something that usually works for most people if it can be applied.

  1. See the new challenge as a toy, activate it, play with it for a while.
  2. Once you crave to know more, read everything you can find.
  3. After a couple of weeks, you will have a lot of fragmented information and will need a theory that connects the dots.
  4. Now you are ready to understand how the toy works or construct a new toy. Do it!
  5. As you progress with your work, you understand the gaps in your knowledge. Now you are really ready to start learning.

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