The rarity of the autodidact
Until extremely recently in human history, the autodidact was a fairly rare phenomenon. Those who could really make some claim to being ¨self-taught¨ were few and far between, simply because a wealth and diversity of information was so difficult to access. It typically required travel and significant financial expense (or access to well-off benefactors) in order to accumulate the materials necessary to read and to learn from.
The contribution of schools and their shortcomings
That is why the role of the school and the teacher is such an established one today. When the United States and other developed countries moved to a model of compulsory education for all of its citizens, the learning had to be brought to young people where they were. In the earliest days, that took the form of the "one-room schoolhouse,¨ a centralized location where students in the community gathered to learn from a single teacher. When more robust state-mandated curriculum began to take hold, schools began to grow and teachers increasingly began to specialize in a particular field, the result being what we typically see today, with secondary students rotating from room to room throughout the day, being exposed to instruction from various ¨trained professionals.¨ In addition, tax dollars were set aside to establish libraries within schools, which did give students more access to actually educate themselves on things not fed to them by their classroom teachers (provided that the library contained sufficient material for such exploration to take place). In all of these cases, however, the typical student was largely at the mercy of what the teacher and/or school made available to learn.
The present reality is a different story
Today, of course, learning is no longer limited to geography or to those with the financial means to get out there and receive it. Anyone with Internet access and the initiative to learn almost anything can do so, in most cases free of charge. The radical shift that the World Wide Web and streaming audio and video have brought to the world means that there is absolutely nothing that I teach my students that cannot be accessed, acquired, and practiced via YouTube or any number of other online avenues. Students do not need to gather in one place at one specific time of the day to learn. And, yet, the autodidact is still a relatively obscure creature.
So, now what?
In 2018, the prevailing model, even in the most developed nations, is still to require that students report at a certain time and sit in a desk and wait for the teacher to present information that is already around them, constantly at the click of a button. In their pockets, students have access to every last piece of information that they will ever hear from the teacher's lectures and presentations. If we wish to re-think education to align it with what future adults need in order to navigate the terrain of the latter half of the 21st century, we need to dismantle outmoded practices and structures and re-imagine what the role of a teacher must be. Most of all, young people need to be taught to access and make sense of the information they will encounter throughout their lives -- to be autodidacts who are agile and flexible enough to adapt to a world of constant change and flux.