The term has its roots in the Ancient Greek words αὐτός (autós, or "self") and διδακτικός (didaktikos, meaning "teaching"). The related term didacticism defines an artistic philosophy of education.
Autodidacticism is sometimes a complement of modern education. As a complement to education, students would be encouraged to do more independent work. The Industrial Revolution created a new situation for self-directed learners.
Before the 20th century, only a small minority of people received an advanced academic education. As stated by Joseph Whitworth in his influential report on industry dated from 1853, literacy rates were higher in the United States. However, even in the US, most children were not completing high school. High school education was necessary to become a teacher. In modern times, a larger percentage of those completing high school also attended college, usually to pursue a professional degree, such as law or medicine, or a divinity degree.
For many professions or for personal knowledge, however, formal education is not so necessary today due to the easier availability of free information on the Internet. Whereas in the past, one of the main benefits of going to college was to gain access to their superior libraries, today access to facts and books is available online. Financial analyst and author Peter Schiff, for one, says that "never before in history has it been so easy to be self-educated."
Collegiate teaching was based on the classics (Latin, philosophy, ancient history, theology) until the early 19th century. There were few if any institutions of higher learning offering studies in engineering or science before 1800. Institutions such as the Royal Society did much to promote scientific learning, including public lectures. In England, there were also itinerant lecturers offering their service, typically for a fee.
Prior to the 19th century, there were many important inventors working as millwrights or mechanics who had typically received an elementary education and served an apprenticeship. Mechanics, instrument makers and surveyors had various mathematics training. James Watt was a surveyor and instrument maker and is described as being "largely self-educated". Watt, like some other autodidacts of the time, became a Fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the Lunar Society. In the 18th century these societies often gave public lectures and were instrumental in teaching chemistry and other sciences with industrial applications, which were neglected by traditional universities. Academies also arose to provide scientific and technical training.
Years of schooling in the United States began to increase sharply in the early 20th century. This phenomenon was seemingly related to increasing mechanization displacing child labor. The automated glass bottle making machine is said to have done more for education than child labor laws, because boys were no longer needed to assist. However, the number of boys employed in this particular industry was not that large; it was mechanization in several sectors of industry that displaced child labor toward education. For males in the U.S. born 1886–90, years of school averaged 7.86, while for those born in 1926–30, years of school averaged 11.46.
One of the most recent trends in education is that the classroom environment should cater towards students' individual needs, goals and interests. This model adopts the idea of inquiry-based learning where students are presented with scenarios to identify their own research, questions and knowledge regarding the area. As a form of discovery learning, students in today's classrooms are being provided with more opportunity to "experience and interact" with knowledge, which has its roots in autodidacticism.
Successful self-teaching requires self-discipline and reflective capability. Some research suggests that being able to regulate one's own learning is something that must be modeled to students, for it is not a natural human tendency in the population at large. To interact with the environment, a framework has been identified to determine the components of any learning system: a reward function, incremental action value functions and action selection methods. Rewards work best in motivating learning when they are specifically chosen on an individual student basis. New knowledge must be incorporated into previously existing information as its value is to be assessed. Ultimately, these scaffolding techniques, as described by Vygotsky (1978) and problem solving methods are a result of dynamic decision making.
The secular and modern societies gave foundations for a new system of education and a new kind of autodidacts. While the number of schools and students raised from one century to the other, so did the number of autodidacts. The industrial revolution produced new educational tools used in schools, universities and outside academic circles to create a post-modern era that gave birth to the World Wide Web and encyclopaedic data banks such as Wikipedia. As this concept becomes more widespread and popular, web locations like Udacity and Khan Academy are developed as learning centers for many people to actively and freely learn together.
The first philosophical claim supporting an autodidactic program to the study of nature and God was in the philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yaqdhan (Alive Son of the Vigilant), whose titular hero is considered the archetypal autodidact. The story is a medieval autodidactic utopia, a philosophical treatise in a literary form, which was written by the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Tufail in the 1160s, Marrakesh. It is a story about a feral boy, an autodidact prodigy who masters nature through instruments and reason, discovers laws of nature by practical exploration and experiments, and gains summum bonum through a mystical mediation and communion with God. The hero rises from his initial state of tabula rasa to a mystical or direct experience of God after passing through the necessary natural experiences. The focal point of the story is that human reason, unaided by society and its conventions or by religion, can achieve scientific knowledge, preparing the way to the mystical or highest form of human knowledge. Commonly translated as "The Self-Taught Philosopher" or "The Improvement of Human Reason," Ibn-Tufayl's story Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan inspired debates about autodidacticism in a range of historical fields from classical Islamic philosophy through Renaissance humanism and the European Enlightenment. In his book Reading Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan: a Cross-Cultural History of Autodidacticism Avner Ben-Zaken showed how the text traveled from late medieval Andalusia to early modern Europe and demonstrated the intricate ways in which autodidacticism was contested in and adapted to diverse cultural settings. Autodidacticism, apparently, intertwined with struggles over Sufism in twelfth-century Marrakesh; controversies about the role of philosophy in pedagogy in fourteenth-century Barcelona; quarrels concerning astrology in Renaissance Florence in which Pico della Mirandola pleads for autodidacticism against the strong authority of intellectual establishment notions of predestination; and debates pertaining to experimentalism in seventeenth-century Oxford. Pleas for autodidacticism echoed not only within close philosophical discussions; they surfaced in struggles for control between individuals and establishments.
In the story of African American self-education, Heather Andrea Williams presents a historical account to examine African American's relationship to literacy during slavery, the Civil War and the first decades of freedom. Many of the personal accounts tell of individuals who have had to teach themselves due to racial discrimination in education.
The working-class protagonist of Jack London's Martin Eden (1909) embarks on a path of self-learning to win the affections of Ruth, a member of cultured society. By the end of the novel, Eden has surpassed the intellect of the bourgeois class, leading him to a state of indifference and, ultimately, suicide.
Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea (1938) depicts, as a secondary character, an autodidact.
Comic-book superhero Batman is frequently depicted as an auto-didactic polymath who has acquired a vast range of skills over the years either by various trainers or having trained himself and his expertise in various disciplines is virtually unmatched in the DC comics universe.
In The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987), Jacques Rancière describes the emancipatory education of Joseph Jacotot, a post-Revolutionary philosopher of education who discovered that he could teach things he did not know. The book is both a history and a contemporary intervention in the philosophy and politics of education, through the concept of autodidacticism; Rancière chronicles Jacotot's "adventures", but he articulates Jacotot's theory of "emancipation" and "stultification" in the present tense.
The 1997 drama film Good Will Hunting follows the story of autodidact Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon. Hunting demonstrates his breadth and depth of knowledge throughout the film, but especially to his therapist and in a heated discussion in a Harvard bar.
One of the main characters in The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006), by Muriel Barbery, is an autodidact. The story is told from the view point of Renee, a middle-aged autodidact concierge in a Paris upscale apartment house and Paloma, a 12-year-old daughter of one of the tenants who is unhappy with her life. These two people find they have much in common when they both befriend a new tenant, Mr. Ozu, and their lives change forever.
In the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, Ekalavya is depicted as a tribal boy who was denied education in the science of arms from royal teachers from the house of Kuru. Ekalavya went to the forest, where he taught himself archery in front of an image of the Kuru teacher, Drona, that he had built for himself. Later, when the royal family found that Ekalavya had practiced with the image of Drona as his teacher, Drona asked for Ekalavya's thumb as part of his tuition. Ekalavya complied with Drona's request, thus ending his martial career.
In Suits (TV Series), the protagonist (Mike Ross) possesses a highly competent knowledge of the law, despite not receiving any formal education in any law school. His knowledge is attributable to both his affinity for reading (autodidacticism), in addition to his eidetic memory.
Dr. Spencer Reid, played by Matthew Gray Gubler, In "Criminal Minds" plays an Autodidact with an eidetic memory.
Many successful and influential architects, such as Mies Van Der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Violet-Le-Duc, and Tadao Ando were self-taught.
There are very few countries allowing autodidacticism in architecture today. The practice of architecture, or the use of the title: "architect", are now protected in most countries.
Self-taught architects have generally studied and qualified in other fields such as engineering or arts and crafts. Jean Prouvé was first a structural engineer. Le Corbusier had an academic qualification in decorative arts. Tadao Ando started his career as a draftsman and Eileen Gray studied fine arts.
When a political state starts to implement restrictions on the profession, there are issues related to the rights of established self-taught architects. In most countries the legislation includes a grandfather clause, authorising established self-taught architects to continue practicing. In the UK, the legislation, allowed self-trained architects with 2 years of experience to register. In France, it allowed self-trained architects with 5 years of experience to register. In Belgium, the law allowed experienced self-trained architects in practice to register. In Italy, it allowed self-trained architects with 10 years of experience to register. In The Netherlands, the "wet op de architectentitel van 7 juli 1987" along with additional procedures, allowed architects with 10 years of experience and architects aged 40 years old or over, with 5 years of experience, to access the register.
However, other sovereign states chose to omit such a clause, and many established and competent practitioners were stripped of their professional rights. In the Republic of Ireland, a group named "Architects' Alliance of Ireland" is defending the interests of long-established self-trained architects who were recently deprived from their rights to practice as per Part 3 of the Irish Building Control Act 2007.
Theoretical research such as "Architecture of Change, sustainability and humanity in the built environment" or older studies like "Vers une Architecture" from Le Corbusier describe the practice of architecture as an environment changing with new technologies, sciences and legislations. All architects must be autodidacts to keep up to date with new standards, new regulations, or new methods.
Self-taught architects like Eileen Gray, Luis Barragán and many others, created a system where working is also learning, where self-education is associated with creativity and productivity within a working environment.
While he was primarily interested in naval architecture, William Francis Gibbs learned his profession through his own study of battleships and ocean liners. Through his life he could be seen examining and changing the designs of ships that were already built, that is, until he started Gibbs and Cox.
The role of self-directed learning continues to be investigated in learning approaches, along with other important goals of education, such as content knowledge, epistemic practices and collaboration. As colleges and universities offer distance learning degree programs and secondary schools provide cyber school options for K-12 students, technology provides numerous resources that enable individuals to have a self-directed learning experience. Several studies show these programs function most effectively when the "teacher" or facilitator is a full owner of virtual space to encourage a broad range of experiences to come together in an online format. This allows self-directed learning to encompass both a chosen path of information inquiry, self-regulation methods and reflective discussion among experts as well as novices in a given area. Furthermore, massive open online courses (MOOCs) make autodidacticism easier and thus more common.
A recent Stack Overflow poll reported that due to the rise of autodidacticism, a 69.1% of software developers appear to be self-taught.