Questioning your assumptions is a good thing. It fosters critical, logical thought. It is the cognitive manifestation of natural selection. A Darwinian ecology of ideas — in your head.
A good strategy for questioning your assumptions is to engage in debate. It gives you opportunities to voice your opinions and challenge them with opposing ideas. Those opposing ideas usually come from other people who disagree.*
If two people hold contradictory ideas to be true, at least one of them must be wrong.
Today’s liberal arts universities preach to students, advocating that they “think for themselves”. This is ironic, because the structure of American schooling generally fosters the opposite of independent thought. When your teacher tells you to “think for yourself” what they actually are saying is “think about yourself”.
Young people often get into trouble with their friends. They will justify themselves by saying “Everybody was doing it”. The authority’s response will be: “why don’t you think for yourself?”
What they are really saying is: “Ignore your friends, think about your own well-being.”
To map it out: herd mentality is an instinct. Young people following an imprudent trend is the result of a natural inclination towards social activity. The counter-argument is to “think for yourself” or “think about your own well being” or really just “THINK“.
This isn’t really advice at all, since for most people, thinking isn’t optional.
Traditional education seeks to educate us so that we can think for ourselves, but only succeeds in preventing us from thinking at all. This is why we have universities with strict safe-space policies and required coursework that is totally irrelevant to the student’s chosen area of study.
In The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Howard Roark is expelled from architecture school for thinking independently and challenging existing architectural paradigms. The novel is fiction, but in reality people are expelled from institutions for all sorts of reasons all the time. Often, the reason is not academic, but ideological.
“What am I going to do after high school?” – Average students everywhere.
If you don’t want to think too hard about it, just go to college. It’s the safe bet, says your every single one of your advisors, counselors, teachers, parents, and mentors, ever.
They all advise the same thing, because they have invested heavily in traditional education structures. To advise otherwise would basically be admitting that there was a better investment to be made and that the advisor invested incorrectly. Consistency bias is the University-system’s greatest free marketing tool ever.
One effect of traditional education is that it relinquishes you from responsibility over your own beliefs. If you are a liberal, it is because you went to an Ivy League school. If you are a conservative, it’s because you were in a Greek Organization in the south. It makes sense that we are a nation of conformists, since we are all taught the same mantra: Think about yourself. And whatever you think, just remember, it’s not your fault if you’re wrong.
The beauty of being self-educated, is that you are liberated from the group-think. You are free to pursue whatever ideas you like, in whatever order you choose. This forces the student to be intrinsically motivated.
Individuals are outliers. Individuality produces the Mahatma Gandhis, the Elon Musks, and the Buddhas of the world. The United States has a culture of ambition which provides the most prolific breeding ground of individualists in the world. Unfortunately, the Soviet-Harvard mission is to enhance collectivism and raise the average as opposed to support the individual.
You’ll often hear liberal philosophasters wax about the superior education systems of Scandinavia and south-east Asia. They will tell you about “average test scores” being higher in these cultures.
Here I will state unequivocally that I am unconcerned with average results. I am only concerned with extraordinary results, which is what the United States is really good at. We are really good at it, because of individualism and a culture of ambition. We are good at it despite the constant collectivist morality-warp.
How to Autodidact
Hopping from topic to topic on a whim fosters creative connections that most students never get. It is a joy for myself to write this essay based on my independent research and reasoning for my own purposes.
When I attended schools, I wrote other people’s papers for money. Papers on economics and sociology and anthropology. Papers on altruism for cheaters in theology courses. Most of the time I wasn’t in the course I was writing the paper for. I was in school to learn whatever I wanted — or whatever I was paid to. I thought the advised course requirements were silly so I strategically declared majors that had fewer first and second year requirements.
The system is a game, so game the system.
Even now, when my primary areas of study are human behavior and computer science, I have a simple framework for determining my daily study:
Identify, research, plan, synthesis.
I ask myself questions like: What will the next game-changing technology be? What do I know, at the highest level about this technology? What domains am I especially weak at? What is sparking my excitement to learn at this precise moment?
Sometimes the answer is obvious. Today, I am rereading Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I was reminded of a letter I wrote to my inner circle on education and I decided to revisit the idea.
When I’ve completed this essay, I will move to a new context and begin some technical pursuit. Lately I’ve been exploring the automation of organic 3D models. This satisfies the engineer in me.
[Warning: Super Unpopular Position)
Research is continual and virtually passive. Normal scholastics would consider the process lazy. Frequently neglect to cite many sources. Simply don’t maintain that sort of trivia. The important learning is a learning of principle not a learning of source.
I derive great enjoyment from the flow of reading and exploration sans maintaining a bibliography.
Most interesting projects take a proportionate level of planning. Designing a better calendar takes years of calendar use, sketching, math, analysis, knowledge of various tools and principles of design.
I learned each of these, except math, from my own self-study. The basic math I used to turn 365 days into almost-a-perfect-square is something that could be taught in one day of concentrated study. And that’s the worst case.
All great works require planning to synthesize.
Doing the work. This is where at least half of my learning comes from. I wouldn’t understand square roots as well as I do if I never put 365 days into square blog. I wouldn’t understand web technologies if I hadn’t built a few apps. I wouldn’t understand design if I had never mocked a product design.
Centrally Planned Education Kills Creativity, Begets “Normal”
The most popular Ted Talk of all time agrees with me here.
The trouble with a homogenous nationwide curriculum is the same with a homogeneous nationwide food system: quality suffers. If most people grew up learning cookie-cutter ideas, most people will have cookie-cutter minds and cookie-cutter aspirations.
“I want to have a house with a big yard. Two kids, a refrigerator, and two cars…”
You’ve all heard that refrain, it’s the “American Dream”. By now, we’re all tired of hearing it. An American dream only comes about through an American Indoctrination, or, an American Dogma. When I was in school we would say the pledge of allegiance to our flag every day. This is a “blue ribbon” public education. Yet, I frequently hear of my classmates OD’ing, dying in preventable accidents, committing acts of violence, or spending their lives on “average” pursuits (An interesting effect of a gaussian distribution: a disproportionate number of outliers in one direction will pull the bell-curve in that direction).
What many don’t realize, is that even as they’ve architected their lives to be “normal” but what is “normal” for them is a Black Swan in the universe. Life will change and one day their ideas will become abnormal.
The self-educated person does not fear abnormality. They have not been conditioned (or were resistant to the conditioning) to see failure as a bad thing. When the self-educated person discovers that they were wrong, they adjust their premise. They do not cling to beliefs that are objectively untrue when faced with incontrovertible evidence. They are free from self-consciousness and free from self-doubt. Failure is a good thing because it equates with additional education. In traditional systems, failure equates with less education: “If you fail, you’ve learned less.”.
When the self-educated person is wrong there is no one to blame but herself. She can never rationalize away her own responsibility. She selected her curriculum, if it turns out to be false, it’s because she did not consider the alternative. She cannot blame society, her teachers, or anyone else for the falseness or her beliefs.
So, not only does the self-educated person gain more from their failures. They also get to take responsibility for them. The most successful people take responsibility as much as they can. The least successful people avoid responsibility as much as possible.
* I challenge you to comment and disagree with any of my assertions. It is one of the ways I learn and if I am found to be wrong I will learn much from the experience.