It has often (thankfully) been pointed out that schooling does not make an education. Most people would not disagree that it is possible to be learned without an institution or to be ignorant with credentials. However, I think that there is a case to be made that those with a love for ideas can gain a distinct advantage by forgoing institutions in their education.
The idea of the unschooled intellectual is one that has long and noble history, and it is emerging again in a world in which the power to learn has been radically decentralized. Beyond simply possessing the freedom of self-direction in her learning, the student who chooses to embrace ways of learning outside of the norm can find in herself new attitudes and abilities which cannot be replicated with a schooling mindset.
Ownership and Self-Reliance
The unschooled intellectual combines the relentless resourcefulness of the entrepreneur with the relentless curiosity of the philosopher. She can stand on her own two feet and does not need credentials in order to create her living or acquire the tools she needs to learn. Without an institution or a parental stipend to fall back upon, she takes far greater ownership of every experience and every moment of time.
Learning becomes a deeply self-interested task. Nothing irrelevant is allowed, if indeed anything is ever allowed to be treated as irrelevant. There is a tremendous well of curiosity left over from childhood that the unschooled intellectual, in all of her seriousness, is in a unique position to unlock. By choosing self-responsibility over an extended adolescence, she has earned the ability to enjoy learning about her world as a right rather than a privilege.
Agency and Autonomy
The unschooled intellectual is a free agent. She has no associations with any specific institution and can grow as a thinker without the intellectual limitations of a group identity. She is not perceived as a member of such a group or as a unit of a collective, so she is free to craft her own image and reputation as an individual. Though she has free agency, she is not without affiliations. Indeed, she can make alliances and friendships on the basis of shared interests and values, ones that will last beyond the confines of the campus or classroom.
The unschooled intellectual recognizes no overseers and no managers in her learning. Yes, she respects experts, but she also knows that she has the ability to develop the mastery needed to gain respect and an audience. Outside of the academy, the world of education is not divided into professors and pupils. She can engage with masters and novices with the same curiosity, friendliness, and intellectual tenacity. Titles are of no importance; value and wisdom are her currency, and she chooses her mentors and fellow travelers accordingly.
Excellence and Persistence
Hoop-jumping is entirely uninteresting to the unschooled intellectual, and the idea of crafting an essay destined for the eyes of a single bored administrator is horrifying. Excellence for the unschooled intellectual is the creation and demonstration of value in personal life and public impact. She tests and implements big ideas through entrepreneurship, and she gains more from measurable failure than from institutional approval.
Most importantly, the unschooled intellectual has no limits. She has no “starting point” or “end point” for her education. Unlike many of her peers, she continues her education after (or without) graduation, and there is no pull of conformity strong enough to limit her expertise in a subject or convince her to study a subject in which she has no interest. Her commitment to her own learning and freedom is self-sustaining and can shape a full lifetime.
School and the Unschooled Intellectual
I have grown in many of these ways since leaving school and continuing my self-directed learning, but I would also suggest that it is not always necessary to leave school to develop this unschooled mindset. The dignity of unschooled scholarship lies in granting respect to one’s own self-sufficiency for learning about and experiencing the world. When this has been done, there are (in the words of Virginia Woolf) no gates, bolts, or locks which can be put upon the mind’s freedom.