The Autodidact as Subversive

Review by R. Dumain

Fisher, Pamela; Fisher, Roy. "The “Autodidact”, the Pursuit of Subversive Knowledge and the Politics of Change," Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, volume 28, issue 4, December 2007, pp. 515-529.


This paper contrasts two types of ‘‘autodidact’’ located in the UK in different historical periods, which utilised different learning/research technologies to different ends. From the 1920s to the 1960s some working-class activists committed to the Communist Party of Great Britain became ‘‘educated’’ in Marxism (and more) through the processes intrinsic to their politics. This radical acculturation was undertaken outside the universities in consequence of both an absence of access to higher education and because of the relatively enclosed social world of British Communism. The widening of educational opportunities and the decline of political Marxism effectively extinguished this kind of autodidact. New technologies have meant that the 21st century is witnessing individuals and cyber-communities that are creating knowledge-based challenges to professional and institutional power in the face of personal/family ‘‘medical’’ crises. The paper outlines the characteristics of these two categories of autodidact and a new terrain of counter-hegemonic learning.

This article cites R. Dumain and this web site (The Autodidact Project) and draws a noteable amount of material therefrom.

First, the authors summarize the complexities of defining and characterizing the autodidact. They do not accept Sartre's disparaging dismissal of the autodidact in his novel Nausea, which is based on only on a type of unreflective absorption of random knowledge.

Then the authors take two examples of autodidacts for comparison—intellectuals of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 20th century, and parents of disabled babies in 21st century England. They provide some background on British radical working-class education before the arrival of the CPGB and then discuss the Party itself, particularly the outstanding party autodidact, T. A. Jackson, and the party's insistence on methodical study. In contradistinction to the seemingly limited perspectives of the working class at large, the CPGB tended to congeal into its own closed social world, alienating many workers.

The study of parents of disabled babies, conducted in two British universities in 2004-2006, employed a "post-structuralist epistemology". Basically, this group of parents engaged in independent research, coordinating their efforts via the Internet, in order to subvert the increasing managerialism of professional institutions, described at some length by the authors.  

While there are many types of autodidacts, the authors are interested in types of subversive autodidacts. They attempt a "broad provisional typology" of the two types illustrated in these examples. (See chart on p. 524). There are contrasts along several parameters, but one could sum up the difference using catchwords such as modern vs. postmodern, Fordist vs. post-Fordist, industrial vs. post-industrial; i.e. collectively oriented, class-based, scientifically, objectivistically, organizationally oriented vs. the more decentralized, individualistic, subject-oriented style of today. The older type of organic intelligentsia doesn't fit the prevailing mode of social organization today. A new working-class autodidact trend is unlikely to develop, but there are new opportunities for qualitatively "different communities of autodidactic learners."

There are no real surprises here; the overall difference between then and now is fairly obvious.  I don't know whether this perceived difference has been pursued in reference to the autodidactic phenomenon, but I've certainly thought about it. In terms of the quality, soundness, comprehensiveness, coherence, seriousness, dedication, and sophistication of today's autodidact as compared to yesteryear's, I'm not certain how one could measure this.  There may be usable written records to give us a picture of the past. (There are ambitious studies such as Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes.) Today we could sample the countless blogs, fora, listservs, chatrooms, newsgroups, etc. to ascertain some general patterns.  It's as likely as not that we should be grateful that we have no written records of a multitude of trivial and idiotic exchanges such as those that litter the Internet. But we perhaps we could construct a framework not just on the basis of the nature of learning communities, but on the scope, depth, accessibility and reliability of information available today, on prevailing patterns of inquiry, information processing, leisure time and ability to focus, and ideological formation.  Are people more sophisticated or less; did they do more with less and do we do less with more; do we suffer from information overload; are our minds so distracted and disconnected that we are lost in a sea of disconnected information organized only by distorting ideological filters?  Are there proportionally more crackpots and gullible people today or fewer? 

Important web sites mentioned in the article (with my corrections providing working URLs):

Graham Stevenson (includes the Compendium of Communist Biography)

Prosopography of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Kevin Morgan)


Parents, Professionals and Disabled Babies

And the current URL for this article on my site:

Osborne, P. (1986). “On the Jackson trail,” Radical Philosophy, 44, 30-32.

Written 23 January 2009
Edited & uploaded 27 January 2009

"On the Jackson Trail" by Peter Osborne

"Autodidacticism and the Desire for Culture" by Rosemary Chapman

"Proletarian Philosophy: A Version of Pastoral?" by Jonathan Rée

"Intellectuals Among the Masses: Or, What Was Leonard Bast Really Like?" by Jonathan Rose

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

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 27 January 2009

©2009 Ralph Dumain