The Autodidact Project: Summary of History & Scope

Ralph Dumain

I am a librarian by training. My most important association was with the C.L.R. James Institute, an independent research and archival organization dedicated to the work of C.L.R. James, a radical writer from Trinidad who lived for periods of his life and died in Britain, and who is fairly well known in Britain for his work on cricket and other subjects.  This experience taught me much about how academics are formed, socialized, and channeled into certain intellectual paths by their institutions, and what our freedom from their constraints enabled us to think.

There are many practical guides and resources for self-learning, several of which can be found on my links page, but my web site The Autodidact Project was created in 1999 to explore the philosophical dimension of autodidacticism. I pose the key questions on my home page, the most basic of which is: what is the relation of self to the universe of knowledge, regardless of the level of one's formal education. I do not romanticize the autodidact: I seek to examine the strengths and weaknesses of being in such a position. And since no one can know or judge everything on a completely factual basis, how do we orient ourselves in the face of gaps in knowledge and understanding?

I began with an interest in surveying whatever relevant literature could be found on this subject, and documentation of various autodidacts and independent efforts at education and self-development. There is a whole working class tradition of autodidacticism and alternative institutions in several countries (an impressive tradition in Britain), which in the United States at least is long forgotten.

My efforts soon expanded to create a number of bibliographies and web guides on a variety of subjects of interest, some related to various projects of mine, some on fairly obscure or unusual topics. However, here as elsewhere on my site, a central aim has been to provide essential tools for people to understand and negotiate their relationship to the surrounding world.

I also have compiled various quotations, some famous, some very obscure, most of which also provide tools for understanding. I have also digitized material from other authors much of which also serves this purpose, with an eye to obscure or hard to find material that most people might never discover elsewhere. I do not agree with everything all of the authors present; some material serves as historical evidence of flawed approaches to a subject. I have also uploaded my own work: essays, critiques, reviews, poems, translations.

So my original project has sprawled in various directions, not all related to the central theme, but useful to various people in various areas. One of the most notable aspects of my work is to set up web presences and tributes to worthy individuals who might not be documented elsewhere.

For example, I created a whole section of my site devoted to radical labor organizer and playwright Manny Fried, a local labor hero in my hometown of Buffalo, New York, but little known elsewhere. After I proposed this project, Manny was happy to support it, and he was to live a few more years, until just a few days before his 98th birthday. Manny's surviving family members were grateful for my efforts.

I also set up a tribute to bookseller Bill French, who had inherited the historically important University Place Book Shop in New York City from the legendary Walter Goldwater. When relatives, friends, and associates discovered this, they contacted me and some contributed material.

Another example is the late blind writer and composer Endre Tóth from Hungary, who wrote a remarkable number of short stories in Esperanto. After publishing my tribute, eventually I was contacted by an old friend of Toth who had long ago emigrated from Hungary.

I recently started a new section for research I am doing at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC in the archives of a family with an interesting history, who corresponded in a half dozen languages including Esperanto.

I have gotten much feedback from a variety of people including academics who have found my bibliographies and other source material and my own insights very useful.

In natural-scientific and technical specialists there is little uncertainty about the nature of expertise, but in social and cultural subjects and with the broader philosophical implications of knowledge, credentialed expertise is not the last word. There are no algorithms, no surefire methods to be mechanically applied; interpretation is an art and not a science, and the development of an approach, a perspective on the information one encounters, absorbs, or confronts, is a fundamental problem for a thinking person. In addition to the resources I provide, interrogating the nature of autonomy and originality is what makes my project unique.

17 February 2015

Researching the Autodidact as a Concept

Introduction to Mini-Bibliographies

BBC Wiltshire Interview on The Autodidact Project

Interviews on The Autodidact Project (Audio Files)

Intellectual Life in Society, Conventional and Unconventional: A Bibliography in Progress

Audience/Reading Public, Professionalization/Specialization of Writers,
Literary Forms,Division of Labor: Bibliography

100 Years of C.L.R. James

The Emanuel Fried Center

A Memorial Tribute to Bill French

A Memorial Tribute to Endre Tóth

The Kovary (Kövári) Family: Holocaust & Esperanto Studies


Autodidacticism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Category:Autodidacts - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Uploaded 21 February 2015

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