We have all known self-educated people, some of whom distinguished themselves above those who followed the more usual academic route to knowledge.
Even in the sciences, where academic credentials would seem mandatory, Vincent J. Schaefer became eminent as the first ''rainmaker,'' taught, invented, wrote, and now, in retirement, is still consulted by businesses and professors. His own formal education ended after two years of high school.
Elizabeth W. Stone, Dean of the School of Library and Information Science at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., has, together with Mary Baxter, compiled a catalog of resources on nontraditional learning.
As a librarian, she knows how many people continue to learn, feed their curiosity with new ideas and information, and broaden the base of their knowledge without any institutional requirement to do so. Sometimes they take a course at a local university or nearby school; sometimes they read intensively on a subject; sometimes they join a discussion group focusing on a topic of interest to them.
In increasing numbers ''seniors'' are signing up for summer study with thriving programs like Elderhostel, which this year expects to receive 100,000 applications and enroll 80,000 of the over-60 group in short on-campus courses.
A few weeks ago I attended a conference in Wayzata, Minn., on independent scholarship organized by Ronald Gross, author of ''The Independent Scholar's Handbook.'' Independent scholars are not affiliated with universities; they are individuals so gripped by a passion to know about something that they follow their quest through libraries, interviews, travel, experimentation - all without their affiliated counterparts' benefits of easy access to information sources, laboratories, collegial consultation, foundation grants, and departmental support.
At the conference I met Jayne Blankenship, who is studying coincidences; Judith Elkin, a historian of Latin American Jewry; Jean Ervin, whose field is regional literature; Rachel Lauer, whose goal is to develop a system of transformative learning that can enable adolescents and adults to increase their intellectual capacities; and Leo Miller, who in 1980 received the annual award of the Milton Society of America for the best scholarly article of the year in that field.
The category of independent scholarship is open-ended and can accommodate whoever embarks diligently upon an intellectual task and does not abandon it.
If learning is not confined to schools, is there a better environment for learning than schools? In the case of eccentrics, geniuses, and some individuals, there may be.
But schools, whatever their failings, do open windows of the mind for children and adolescents and many adults. They expose them to different ways of looking at the world. They encourage them to study, not to react; to express themselves with care, rather than indifference; to appreciate, rather than to ignore, the great traditions of which they are heirs.
Perhaps anyone could learn these lessons elsewhere, but most of us probably became aware of them under the stern or gentle guidance of some exemplary classroom teacher or probing professor.
Dropouts or those whose formal education ends before they want it to for some other reason can take heart from the fact that there are many modes and times of learning and that access remains open.