Reflections on the Meaning of 'Self-Taught'

Practically all of my most developed skills are 'self-taught'. I'm a self-taught programmer, a self-taught game designer, and a self-taught artist. However, the term 'self-taught' kind of irks me. That phrase belies the role of all the resources that I relied upon to acquire these supposedly self-taught skills. I practiced function composition by playing with my graphing calculator. I learned to program from books and online tutorials. I don't know where I would be today without StackExchange. The word 'self' fails to acknowledge and even excludes these indispensable resources.

The environments that I learned in are equally important but even less frequently acknowledged. The video games I modded and their IDEs made the extraordinary complexity of game engines manageable to a teenager. The reams of educational material on Youtube and Wikipedia gave me a window into the opaque and frequently paywalled world of higher math. My strangely hands-off high school and my ideologically hands-off fellowship gave me the freedom to pursue these things, a privilege most people are never granted.

These tools, materials, and environments are the bricks that pave the road I walk. Skills and knowledge do not spontaneously generate; to claim I am 'self-taught' simply because I lacked direct in-person instruction would be a gross injustice.

I recognize that the term 'self-taught' exists to delineate those who took classes from those that did not. I cede that this is a meaningful distinction—at least in some contexts. However, I think this particular phrasing reveals an underlying cultural attitude that is harmful in a world where computers self-directed learning is rapidly expanding on the internet. The resources I used were built by real people who need financial support. Some of the tools I learned from, like my TI-86, were not designed for the critical role they played. We need to examine these tools to build better versions that are optimized for these unintended uses.

I won't insist that people stop saying 'self-taught'. I do insist that people examine what it means to be self-taught and how much more than just the self is involved in that process. We need that reflection to improve the ecosystem of tools that are available to the generations of digital learners coming up behind us.

I love you TI-86... but you're a dinosaur.

...seriously though, we can do better than the TI-86. Maybe I'll write another post just about that?