Friday, September 01, 2006

Labor Day Flash From the Past: "What Colonel Anderson Did for Me and the Boys..."

On this Labor Day weekend, our Flash from the Past got his start in life hard at work in a clothing factory at the age of 13. His father had just lost his job and his family was very poor.

"I began to learn what poverty meant...It was burnt into my heart then that my father had to beg for work."

At a time before child labor laws, he worked very long days, alternating leaving at 6 pm or 11 pm each night. In this earlier evening, though, he benefited from the generosity of a Colonel James Anderson, who made the decision that he would open up his library of 400 books to "working boys" so that they might be able to improve themselves.

" this way the windows were opened in the walls of my dungeon through which the light of knowledge streamed in. Every day's toil and even the long hours of night service were lightened by the book which I carried about with me and read in the intervals that could be snatched from duty. And the future was made bright by the thought that when Saturday came a new volume could be obtained. In this way I became familiar with Macaulay's essays and his history, and with Bancroft's "History of the United States," which I studied with more care than any other book I had then read. Lamb's essays were my special delight..."

Who was this working class bibliophile? Andrew Carnegie, who would eventually grow up to be the "richest man in the world" from his success at business, and one of the greatest philanthropists of all time as well, donating his wealth toward public libraries, universities, charities, and pensioners.

He is a model auto-didact or self-taught / self-learned man. Some historians have chalked up his success to having an ability to foresee how things would change, then be willing to invest enormously in it.

BTW, another fascinating period of time to read is the flourishing of mutual improvement societies among the British Working Classes in the late 1800's. With the globalization of information via the Internet and surging forces of open source thinking, we may be in for another rise in auto-didacticism.

We will be taking a long weekend from the blog, see you back September 6th!

Carnegie Started as a Bobbin Boy
Andrew Carnegie
Colonel Anderson
Photograph Child Factory
The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes
Auto-didacticism at Wikipedia


  1. Anonymous7:17 PM

    Dear Drs. Eide,

    I was pleasantly surprised to find you mentioning my book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. In fact I have two mildly autistic daughters, who have been undergoing chelation, with clear positive results. It could be that many autodidacts have a touch of autism.

    Enjoy the book,

    Jonathan Rose

  2. Dear Jonathan,

    You've written a wonderful book. Thank you for saying hello. We never knew about this educational movement, and it is inspirational.

    Society can really forward with the singular efforts of autodidacts. Sometimes the best thing we can do for young autodidacts is stay out of their way.