Autodidacts you should know

I have a soft spot for autodidacts. Those somewhat compulsive learners (and in my experience compulsive learning is a definite trait) who cannot be defined by degrees or schools attended. This could be because I count myself among their number, but also because to my mind, autodidacts exhibit the best of human learning and education. It is self-directed, done for the sheer knowledge gained and not for grades, and is egalitarian. You don't need an exclusive school, a library card will suffice.

Unbeknownst to me, I included two pretty amazing autodidacts in our school schedule for the year. I'm not sure how fascinated my children were with them, but I am. I've already found one adult biography on one, and would love to find one for the other. Because I really need to know more about both of them.

Who are they?

Well, the first is Margaret Morse Nice. Bonus points to any blog readers who know who she is before you read the rest of the post. It's a shame that she is not better known, because from what I've read, she was pretty darn amazing. I only happened across her because in my book addiction, I bought a discarded library book about her one day at the library years ago. There it sat on my library shelves, and amazingly it survived a couple personal library purges, because I don't recall ever having read it to any child. As I was planning the school year, I came across it again, and since the title was Bird Watching, it seemed like something that would fit in with our bird study. Last week was the week I had it scheduled, so I read it to everyone.

Wow. Just wow. This woman was ostensibly 'just a housewife'. She had a bachelor's degree in French, but then married and had five daughters. But she always loved birds and always enjoyed studying them. So that is what she did as she raised her girls and kept her house. Over the course of her life, she managed to do important research, often making important scientific discoveries that changed the course of a species' wildlife management plans. By the time she died, she had published 7 books, 250 journal and newspaper articles, and 3,133 reviews of other scientists' work. I find her inspiring.

Then this past week, we read about Benjamin Banneker. I am now embarrassed to admit that while his name was marginally more familiar to me than Margaret Nice's, I'm pretty sure that I couldn't have told you why his name was familiar. I planned him into our school schedule because on my giant list of books from various time periods, he was there.

Have you heard of him? Once again, it's a shame that more people don't know him. He was an African-American man who lived during the time of the American Revolution. He was born into a free family who owned a 100-acre tobacco farm. He had limited formal schooling, but over the course of his life he taught himself an amazing amount. He built a wooden clock, copying and carving the gears from a pocket watch which a friend had loaned him. He taught himself mathematics and astronomy, as well as surveying. He was one of the surveyors who helped to lay out Washington D. C. Possibly his most notable achievement was to publish his own almanac. He did all of the calculations for the sun rises and sunsets, moon phases, eclipses, and tides. Eventually a Quaker publisher agreed to print the almanac. Mr. Banneker also wrote a letter to then Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Banneker was extremely interested in current events and in the Declaration of Independence. In his letter to Mr. Jefferson, he asks the writer of the Declaration why, if all men were created equal, was slavery still allowed in the new United States. Mr. Jefferson did reply, but in the children's biographies I read, were only small snippets of his reply. I am curious as well, how Mr. Jefferson worded his answer.

In many ways, Benjamin Banneker reminds me of Nathaniel Bowditch. (If you haven't read Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, you really, really need to!) Both were brilliant mathematicians who were self-taught. Not only did they learn math, but they branched out into other subjects as well.

I love to share people who love learning for the sheer joy of it and who don't let anything stop them in the quest for that learning. People do not need to be coerced into learning. Discovering the world is something that should come naturally to all of us. If any educational system steals that joy and makes learning drudgery, then I think we need to seriously reconsider that educational system.


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