Thursday, April 03, 2008

An Autodidact in the Information Age


I consider myself an autodidact -- most of the people I know are. In fact, I agree with the saying, "Who learns, teaches himself." (Or herself). You can have a great teacher and not retain squat. You can have a lousy teacher -- or none at all -- and roll like like a juggernaut. Mostly, it's up to you.

Some things need hands-on. Hard to learn how to swim, do martial arts, or experimental high-energy particle physics without access to a pool, gym (garage, back yard), or accelerator, and somebody who knows how to show you when to duck, paddle, or which button not to push.

Formal education certainly has its pluses. These days, if you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, you have to spend years in school to be allowed to take a shot at it. Wasn't always that way -- there was a time when you could walk into the medical or legal boards tests, pay your money, and take your chance. If you passed, you were a doctor or lawyer. You had to know the material, but they didn't care how you'd learned it if you could demonstrate it properly. I believe Huey Long had three semesters of legal training when he conned the board into letting him take the exam, and he easily passed the bar to become a lawyer. Of course, they shot Huey later ...

Nowadays, you want to be an engineer and all they are hiring are folks with degrees in it, then you have to go that way. Name of the game.

I had to do a year of school to sit for the LPN exam; however, Physicians Assistant certification -- a class of medical practitioners developed largely to take advantage of medics coming home from Vietnam -- was less formal at its beginning. In the late 197o's, you could still challenge the exam, which is how I got to be a PA-C.

How I learned was to badger the doctors with whom I worked -- What's that? How do you do this? Show me ... and I read a shitload of medical books. I was shallow in some areas, but way deep in others, and I had hands-on practice. I wanted it. (Not to brag, but I passed square in the middle. Not too impressie, but there were guys with college degrees in pre-med and a year of internship in formal PA programs who flunked. The doctors I worked with expected that I wouldn't make it. I was happy to surprise them. In one case, actually astound one of 'em.)

I never graduated from college. I went to LSU for a couple years, spent most of my time at the student union or Free Speech Alley, was indifferent to grades, and probably would have flunked out if I hadn't quit first. Packed up my pregnant wife, everything we owned into three trunks, and we flew off to L.A. I wanted to train in karate, and the west coast was the best place for that. Didn't have a job, an apartment, a car. We stayed two weeks in a ratty downtown hotel, rented a VW, and went to Disneyland. And when our money ran out, I got a job. Stayed there three years, got to brown belt in Okinawa-te, and left to move back to Louisiana to start a detective agency with a buddy. I wanted a black belt, but he already had one, and offered to teach me. My own company and my own private teacher. What was not to like? (Well, the guy turned out to be crookeder than a dog leg and a back-stabbing sleazeball, but other than that, it was a good deal.)

Probably the best academic skills schools could instill into students today would be the ability to read well, and how to do research, and a desire to learn. The rest is not as important.

Formal education doesn't mean anything to a genre writer. You can be a high-school drop-out, I know a couple who make a pretty good living as writers who are. A Ph.D in English might not hurt you, but it's no guarantee. If you can tell a story, you don't need a degree. If you can't, the degree won't help. You can get more from one journalism class than you can from four years of English lit, if you want lessons in how to put it on a page.

You learn by doing. Getting it wrong, having it pointed out, fixing it, and moving on. Can you hiss the word "Damn?" No. I learned this by writing it thus: '"Damn," he hissed.' Having it get into print that way, and then getting my ass handed to me by writers who laughed their asses off at me.

When I was a beginning writer, I really wanted to go to Clarion. This is a science fiction writing conference, used to be held at a U in Michigan, I think, and was the place for budding skiffy writers. Intensive, six-weeks of live-in, write a bunch, workshopping stories, world-class teachers coming to lecture and show you how. I really wanted to go.

I couldn't afford it, neither in time nor money; I was working a 48-hour week, had a wife, two small children, a house and car note to support.

Later, when I could afford to take off because my writing was starting to earn some extra money, I didn't need to go, since I was doing better than most of the Clarion grads I knew ...

These days, you can learn worlds sitting in your chair at home. Want to know something? Google it -- a new verb, that. If you know what you are doing, research-wise, you can crosscheck it and likely come up with a valid set of facts.

That's both an advantage and a disadvantage, the search engines. If you can tap a few keys and read the result, that sometimes doesn't stick as well as if you had to catch a bus to the library, find the book, and make notes by hand. Me, I love the net, it's sooo much easier, but my research skills go back to the hoof-it-to-the-library days, and knowing how Mr. Dewey did decimals ...

4 comments:

mdpii said...

It is interesting to me how you challenged the PA exam. Having taken it twice (required every 6 years), I can assure you that it is not easy. What is the fuss any way? It is just a 6 hour test covering ALL of basic medicine. This test is required to passed by most states before you can be liscensed in that state. The rules have changed in as much that most states also require that you have attended a certified school. So much for progress!

I found my experience at the school I attended to be somewhat autodidact. We were fed a line of fine excrement in orientation. You are the best of the best, cream of the crop, etc... You will be given the best education and support available. This was followed by the first of many trips to the bookstore to purchase the most expesive texts money can buy.

Lectures were provided by PA's, Residents and Physicians who were experts (in training for or academic intruction of) in the area currently taught. Teaching consisted of lecture. You read the text, did futher research and promptly memorized the material for testing.

So much for the finest education and support. Most, if not all learning was autodidact. In essense you self taught. If you passed you received your degree. If you passed the NCCPA certification test you are permited to obtain a medical liscense in whatever state you choose.

Not much has changed in the learning process only in the bureaucratic ya ya following the learning.

For myself, I have learned more in the past 10 years of practice than during the required schooling.

Just like you said, "Mostly, it's up to you".

Steve Perry said...

Back then, the closest place to where I lived to test was Dallas, practical at the VA hospital. I was in Family Practice, and our motto there was, "When in doubt, refer ..."

I managed to get hold of a PA course curriculum being offered at a college in Oklahoma. Or maybe it was Kansas; I used that as a guide. Clinic where I was working, I got to do some PT, casts and such, the occasional X-ray, and a fair amount of wound debridement and suturing. And was the guy who got to go to the nursing home, so I had a fair amount of hands-on stuff when I wen to take the test. Louisiana didn't have PAs when I did that, and so no state testing, they just went by the nationals. Made it legal right after I got my results, and I was the second PA registered in the state. Air Force guy got the #1 certificate.

mdpii said...

Little tidbit of info, LA just allowed PA's prescibing priviliges in the last couple of years. Only one state that allow less, Missisippi, they just allowed PA's to practice in their state last year!

On a ending note, I practiced in Morgan City for a short time immediately after I got out of school. Cajuns hold a special place in my heart. If only I could understand them!

Steve Perry said...

I heard that before some states allowed PA's or NP's to write scripts, there were some whose doctors gave them blank, but signed, pads when they had to take call. That unless there was a bus full of children that smacked into one full of nuns and every one of them had arterial bleeding, not to bother them on Saturday, and never on Sunday after tee-off.

I've also heard rumors of PA's who could sign their supervising MD's names so that the doctors couldn't tell that from their own signatures while watching them do it.

These things would be illegal, of course.

Not that I ever knew any of those PA's or MD's myself, just what I heard.

Morgan City. I bet that was fun. Me, I don't see how you had trouble understand cajuns, no. Governor himself, Fast Eddie, was one ...