Only the Autodidacts Are Free – Why I Have a Personal Library


I’ve been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile, Things That Gain from Disorder. I’ve portioned the book into 30 daily chunks of 14 pages each and post a Tweet about those 14 pages every day.

The following passage is one of my favourites in the book so far. It very much aligns with my thinking about what is wrong with schools, education and learning. I will certainly use (part of) this argument in my next talk on the topic of Do-It-Yourself Learning (and to anybody who tries to tell me I should get rid of my books). To understand the title of this paragraph it is important to realize that Taleb calls the attempt to suck randomness out of life touristification.

Below, from page 242-243, The Touristification of the Soccer Mom (used without permission):

The biologist and intellectual E.O. Wilson was once asked what represented the most hindrance to the development of children; his answer was the soccer mom. [..] His argument is that they repress children’s natural biophilia, their love of living things. But the problem is more general; soccer moms try to eliminate the trial and error, the antifragility, from children’s lives, move them away from the ecological and transform them into nerds working on pre-existing (soccer-mom-compatible) maps of reality. Good students, but nerds—that is, they are like computers except slower. Further, they are now totally untrained to handle ambiguity. As a child of civil war, I disbelieve in structured learning—actually I believe that one can be an intellectual without being a nerd, provided one has a private library instead of a classroom, and spends time as an aimless (but rational) flâneur benefiting from what randomness can give us inside and outside the library. Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all these things that make life worth living, compared to the stuctured, fake, and ineffective life of an empty-suit CEO with a preset schedule and an alarm clock. Even their leisure is subjected to a clock, squash between appointments. It is as if the mission of modernity was to squeeze every drop of variability and randomness out of life—with [..] the ironic result of making the world a lot more unpredictable, as if the godesses of chance wanted to have the last word.

Only the autodidacts are free. And not just in school matters—those who decommoditize, detouristify their lives. Sports try to put randomness in a box like the ones sold in aisle six next to canned tuna—a form of alienation.

If you want to understand how vapid are the current modernistic arguments (and understand your existential priorities), consider the difference between lions in the wild and those in captivity. Lions in captivity live longer; they are technically richer, and they are guaranteed job security for life, if these are the criteria you are focusing on…

As usual, an ancient, here Seneca, detected the problem (and the difference) with his saying “We do not study for life, but only for the lecture room,” non vitae, sed scolae discimus [..].

This is a book that is incredibly rich with ideas. Please look beyond Taleb’s antics and read it.