Intergalactic Autodidactic

In science fiction and fantasy, some really great authors have been autodidacts. Terry Pratchett chose not to go to a university. Same for Alan Moore. Philip K. Dick’s college days were short lived, as were Andre Norton’s, though for very different reasons. Dick refused to comply with the university’s mandatory ROTC training; Norton could not afford to continue. Money troubles also cut short the schooling of Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl. Pohl’s fellow Futurian H. Beam Piper was also self-educated (and possibly Damon Knight as well, though the bios I’ve read aren’t clear on this).

Let me define my terms. Anyone can be an autodidact, whether they have three doctorates or never passed third grade. For the purpose of this post, I’m focusing on those who have some formal education, usually up to high school, maybe a quick taste of college, and then chose to self-educate thereafter.

Being an autodidact has worked pretty well for me. I don’t consider my education inferior to that of many university-educated people I’ve known. Different, yes. But not inferior. That said, I don’t romanticize it. It sure isn’t a fast track to a high salary. And there are gaps in my knowledge that a classroom, curriculum and a good teacher could have filled. But I don’t regret the course I’ve taken.

Just to set the record straight right away, I am not speaking against traditional higher education. Some autodidacts consider it their duty to disparage schooling but I have never taken that position. The fact remains, however, that for some people, colleges and universities don’t work out. But simply because traditional classroom experience cannot fulfill every student’s needs doesn’t mean that a great education is no longer an option.

Learning differences—I don’t like calling them disabilities—can lead to students being misunderstood, burning out early or never really learning much in school. Some simply feel they’re better off on their own. Cost can certainly be a factor as well.

Some people drop out of high school and never give another thought to education. Some people go to a university and emerge intellectually dead. These are worst-case scenarios. Some receive great educations in all levels of schooling, igniting a love of learning that never ends. That’s wonderful (and I suspect this is the case with most sci-fi and fantasy authors). Whatever the details, curiosity and a passion for learning matter most; the methods are secondary.

There are advantages and disadvantages to being an autodidact in place of going to college. Advantage: The student-teacher ratio is tough to beat. Disadvantage: No diploma. Advantage: A library card is cheaper than student loans. Disadvantage: A number of professions are closed off to the self-taught (and not without reason). Advantage: You can study anything in the world. Disadvantage: Some subjects are very, very difficult to study alone.

I’ve seen it suggested that because of the internet and the massive amount of information contained therein, we could be entering a “golden age” for autodidacts. I’m cautious, perhaps a little pessimistic, about this idea. Yes, the internet is the autodidact’s friend. It can be a profound tool for research. But it’s just that, a tool. Libraries are also tools, but access to info alone does not make an education. The responsibility remains with the individual, whether they attended the greatest university in the world or are like Abraham Lincoln, who had few educational resources but utilized them to the best of his ability. While slaying vampires, I am told.

All of that considered, I think autodidacts in sci-fi may be a dying breed. None of the authors I mentioned earlier are new or particularly young. In all honesty, I’ve had a hell of a time finding one born after 1960.

Ray BradburyI think the reason for this gap is, in part, monetary. Several of the authors mentioned couldn’t afford college during the Depression. As Ray Bradbury once remarked: “When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” (Side note: Bradbury lives a few blocks from me and our local library has a community room named after him. I have seen him there only a couple times, but I am told he is a regular.)

I also suppose that more employers now expect to hire college educated people than in earlier years. Though you don’t need a degree to write a book, it certainly could help when it comes to putting food on the table when the writing doesn’t pay all the bills.

Another possibility is that such authors are out there but don’t advertize the fact. You don’t see author bios reading, “Two-time Hugo nominee Sally Genre attended community college for twenty minutes. She lives in Hartford, Connecticut with two cats, also self-taught.”

If you know of any autodidact authors, especially recent ones, I’d be most grateful if you mentioned them. Given that science fiction and fantasy authors tend to be very well educated, I’m always pleased to learn of those who went it solo. I say pleased because I’m I’ve had to defend that path many times against those who equate “self-taught” with “poorly educated.”

Jason Henninger works near the beautiful Santa Monica Public Library and thinks it must feel really cool to have a community room in a library named after you.


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