The Famous Self-Educated

Comparisons between Abraham Lincoln and Barak Obama got me thinking a while back about a significant difference between the two: Lincoln was largely self-educated; Obama, with his degrees from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, most certainly was not.

Not long after, I watched the excellent HBO mini-series on John Adams recently (based on David McCollough’s best seller). Ben Franklin, certainly a candidate for universal poster child for self-education, factors into the story significantly, as might be expected. So, too, does Abigail Adams, who in the hands of Laura Linney comes off as the strong and sharply intelligent figure that she undoubtedly was. Abigail, also largely self-educated, is one of those proverbial great women consigned by the times to stand behind the great man who was her husband.

These meanderings through history have made me wonder exactly who else is included on the long roll call of the famous self-educated and whether anyone is keeping track. Naturally, the Web being the Web, it was not too difficult to find someone who is. That person is Charles Hayes at the Autodidactic Press. So far, Charles has come up with a list of 184 well-known individuals who were largely self-educated and he provides a brief entry for each individual.

Here, for example, is the entry for Abigail Adams (1744-1818):

Clearly one of the most literate Americans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wife of the second president of the United States and mother of the sixth, Abigail Adams never attended school. She was tutored by her maternal grandmother and encouraged to read. Her letter correspondence with her husband, John Adams, chronicles an important part of American history and stands out as unambiguous testimony to the power and development of intellect that can be achieved simply by desiring to do so.

And here are a few other examples that caught my eye. (Hayes plays a little loose with the definition of “self-educated,” but in ways that seem fair enough to me.):

Jane Goodall (1934- )
Few people would be surprised to learn that primatologist Jane Goodall holds a doctorate degree in her field. But you might be amazed to discover that she accomplished the very work that made her famous without college. In fact, anthropologist Louis Leaky selected her to study primates in the wild because of her lack of formal training, so that academic bias would not influence the research findings.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
He was one of America’s most celebrated literary giants. Author of For Whom the Bells Toll, The Sun Also Rises, and the Old Man and the Sea among others he decided to skip college in order to learn from the experience of living. In 1954, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Kevin Kelly (1952- )
Kelly, a renascence [sp] man extraordinaire is a writer, photographer, publisher, and a founding executive editor of Wired Magazine. He attended the University of Rhode Island for one year.

I find this last one intriguing because Kelly is among the better-known “thinkers” of current times. In an age that seems obsessed at times with degrees and credentials, it is interesting to find Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Jobs keeping Kelly company on the list.

You can, of course, argue the definition of self-educated that informs the list, but I don’t think there is much doubt that all of these people are passionate about learning if not about traditional notions of education. (Learning and education are, after all, not the same thing.) And, indeed, most successful people throughout the ages, whether they are on this list or not, have shared that passion.

I encourage you to visit Hayes’ list to see who else is there. You will, of course, find Abraham Lincoln.

Jeff Cobb
Mission to Learn

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2 thoughts on “The Famous Self-Educated”

  1. Pingback: The Famous (and not so famous) Self-Educated « The Writernubbin

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