I shortchanged myself in education
November 21, 2007 7:55 AM   Subscribe

How do you get the education you should have gotten in high school and college?

I'm just now coming out of a 20-year depression in which I typically ignored most of the world and did the least amount possible to fulfill various obligations, including education. I shortchanged myself in a lot of ways, don't have the education my degrees represent, and want to correct that somehow. I don't know where or how to start.

I have a number of questions related to wanting to get the education I should already have.

Is there a list somewhere of U.S. states' educational requirements for a high school degree? Most stringent? Least stringent? Most common (the things every high school graduate should know, regardless of field)? What is the most efficient and least costly way to go about learning all of that--I imagine the library will play a part here, but which books would give the most bang for the buck, so to speak? Low-cost or free programs to serve as a refresher course? Most of what I learned in high school is long forgotten, sometimes as soon as the test was turned in.

What about college requirements? As a former English major, I'm shamefully ignorant of Shakespeare, but there are also broader areas I missed or skimped on: history, religion, politics, science....

What are the things that every college graduate should know? Is there a list somewhere, maybe resulting from a study, or some general overview from one commission or another addressing minimum expectations and best-case scenarios?

And again, short of returning to college, what would be the most efficient way to gain this knowledge? I've thought of test preps, but those typically cover English, math, and sometimes logic. Those would be a good start, but what other resources are available, and which are the best investment for time spent?

Any suggestions or guidance would be greatly appreciated.
posted by Tuwa to Education (26 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
Most of what I learned in high school is long forgotten, sometimes as soon as the test was turned in.

Don't worry, everyone else did the exact same thing. Other than some basic geometrical formulas that I still use almost every day (areas of shapes, mostly), I can't actually think of anything I actually retained from high school. If you learned enough at the time to get yourself into college, that is good enough.

In terms of regaining what you "should" have learned in college, I'd suggest picking one of the versions of the "canon" (aka the great books) and selectively reading your way through it. Make sure it is a list that includes the greats of scientific thinking, not just literature, because you are coming into this with broad interests. What that canon should and should not include is the subject of hot debate, and it has come up a few times on AskMe -- I honestly think that it doesn't really matter which exact list (or combinations of lists) you work through, as long as you are doing it. Googling "great books canon" turns up a bunch; here is the wikipedia page on the Western Canon. I want to emphasize that I am suggesting a selective reading -- picking the authors and texts whose writings speak to you, or whose writings are foundational to the things you find interesting.

That will get you the deep foundations of an education, but as many liberal arts graduates have discovered it doesn't exactly translate into immediate real-world applicability. For that you will want to specialize, and although you can do so on your own if you have a good library, the normal way to do that is "graduate school." Autodidacts can be really impressive people, but there are a lot of efficiencies and social reasons for engaging in education as a collective enterprise.

And some things that (in the ideal world) you would have learned in college, like how to be an excellent writer, are much more difficult to learn on your own, without the benefit of critical readers and evaluators. (This is why you see so many online and real-life writers' groups, because something is gained by the sharing and critiquing of one's work that can't be replicated in solitude.)
posted by Forktine at 8:12 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

For a refresher, try picking up a copy of a GED (high school equivalence test) preparation book. My partner got one, and I looked through it, it seemed like a good general overview of what was covered in high school.
Of course, this is in Ontario, Canada. I'm not sure what's offered in the US or in various states within.
posted by Meagan at 8:23 AM on November 21, 2007

Pick up the book "An Incomplete Education." Read it.

If a subject strikes your fancy, get more books on it.

While I think it's admirable that you are concerned about filling in this gap, I don't think you need to worry that much about recapitulating the formal-educational experience. But if you really want to, you could probably find a university's course catalog, find the reading lists for some 101-level classes on American and world history, lit, biology, etc, and get those books.
posted by adamrice at 8:25 AM on November 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

MIT Open Courseware.
posted by milarepa at 8:27 AM on November 21, 2007

I inherited a load of old (60s and 70s) textbooks from an uncle. I invariably find that their maths are substantially clearer and more concise than their modern equivalents. For someone who took the courses and simply needs a refresher (how the heck do you convert a repeating decimal to a fraction) the textbook-as-reference is a far better resource than the modern textbook-as-teacher approach.

Plus they're cheap.
posted by Skorgu at 8:36 AM on November 21, 2007

Following up on adamrice- if you find a particular topic interesting, you might find this thread relevant.
posted by jmd82 at 8:41 AM on November 21, 2007

Here's a list of all 177 Berkeley Video Courses, if you want to basically take some free college courses.

And here is lifehacker's list of links for places to get free classes online - everything from languages to CPR to literature to math, etc.

Of course you'll still have to decide which subjects are important to you, but hopefully these will help you learn once you decide WHAT to learn.
posted by vytae at 8:43 AM on November 21, 2007 [9 favorites]

I found the Norton Anthology of Literature (one of the many) an easy way to ease into relearning literature after spending three years stuck in legal textbooks for law school. The short stories and the poetry eased me into it, and expanded my frame of reference quite nicely. Later, short stories turn into plays and longer works. It is a nice way to read through a collection of things and pick up a whole bunch of notches on your educational belt - especially if your concentration was originally in English, but you feel like you glossed over some of the basics while just skating through.

Good luck!
posted by greekphilosophy at 8:53 AM on November 21, 2007

2nding Forktine. It's really hard to put my finger on what I really learned in high school or college. But I know that being in high school and college definitely exposed me to things I wouldn't have been exposed to, and got me in the habit of writing and thinking more clearly.

I think you could have the same experience just by reading lots of books (anything of substance, really... fiction or non-fiction) and writing regularly. A blog, perhaps? Maybe start a blog where you write about things that you're learning.
posted by mpls2 at 8:58 AM on November 21, 2007

And I would emphasize two subjects that I think are really important for understanding the world: statistics and logic.
posted by mpls2 at 9:04 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I should say... probability and logic.
posted by mpls2 at 9:05 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well, here are the content standards for the state of California. They are actually kind of interesting if you dig around in them. You get stuff like

"3.6 Analyze the way in which authors through the centuries have used archetypes drawn from myth and tradition in literature, film, political speeches, and religious writings (e.g., how the archetypes of banishment from an ideal world may be used to interpret Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth)."


9. Analyze the similarities and differences between the ideologies of Social Darwinism and Social Gospel (e.g., using biographies of William Graham Sumner, Billy Sunday, Dwight L. Moody).
posted by mattbucher at 9:05 AM on November 21, 2007

Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything
posted by djb at 9:30 AM on November 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

A good search term here might be "cultural literacy." Forktine makes some good points about some of the "liberal arts" skills that are tricker to pick up on your own, especially how to argue--not combatively, but productively--about various matters in speech and writing.

If you've got a bit of spare time and cash, you might try taking a survey course or two at a community or 4-year college on subjects that interest you; however if that's not possible, there are many subject primers available nowadays (such as the Oxford Very Short Introduction series). Personally, I do love little primers of this sort, but I also appreciate those who undertake to provide "big picture" syntheses of history, etc. I've been planning for the last couple weeks to pick up from the library and watch Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, for example. I often find it interesting to read or watch historical accounts that are a bit older, to see how I or my contemporaries might disagree with these.

Anyway, since it's also always cool to combine the systematic study of "the canon" with more happenstance and less systemazied reading, I'd also recommend finding the best used bookstore in the region and browsing around for knowledge that might fall somewhat of the beaten path. Remember too to have fun (and to look with at least some suspicion on certain kinds of claims to educated cultural authority).
posted by washburn at 9:37 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by kirkaracha at 10:18 AM on November 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

Counterpoint: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten
posted by kirkaracha at 10:20 AM on November 21, 2007

Brush Up Your Shakespeare!
posted by kirkaracha at 10:21 AM on November 21, 2007

Second language courses are often available through a variety of organizations. Even a smattering of a second language puts you head and shoulders above most native-born U.S. citizens.
posted by gimonca at 10:48 AM on November 21, 2007

I can really only offer advice on getting back into lit:

Any good "Critical Edition" of a work of literature can run you through the full gambit of skills you need, from word to word metering of poems to the sweeping critical approaches of higher theory. Some things you'll get your head around, some things will be a brick wall (for me, it was Derrida and other linguistic theories). Wikipedia and other topic-specific websites will offer the most succinct explanations to hop over that brick wall. Those brick walls are the things that professors would have helped with, so looking up class notes and different approaches to learning those topics will be critical to absorption.
posted by cowbellemoo at 11:02 AM on November 21, 2007

I've had it in mind to ask this very question- thank you for doing so!

If you don't mind a piggyback (but related) question, I'm also curious as to what the hive mind feels to be the most important lessons learned in highschool/college, but NOT from classes or textbooks. Ie were you exposed to anything you couldn't have learned just "out in the world"?
posted by purplefiber at 6:10 PM on November 21, 2007

Wow, it's great to come back and see all these suggestions: canon lists, additional search terms, free courses online, recommended overviews, education requirements, and some reminders to do this for the right reasons and to have fun.

It's hard to know what to mark best answer, especially the day after posting the question, but I think there are some very good ideas here on how to start working on the problem. Thanks, everyone.
posted by Tuwa at 6:53 AM on November 22, 2007

I forgot everything I learned in high school only to have to relearn it in College. Then relearn it again while working
posted by jonathanmartin at 11:52 AM on November 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Teaching Company.
posted by stbalbach at 10:22 AM on November 25, 2007

Seconding The Teaching Company once you figure out where your gaps are. Some of those lecturers are huge in their field, and really really good. I've had good luck with inter-library loan, since the cost is sort of prohibitive.
And I hear, though of course I wouldn't know personally and am not recommending it, that if you search a certain Swedish site for "TTC" you'll find plenty to download, especially in the philosophy and history lines.
posted by fidelity at 8:19 AM on November 26, 2007

Are you still in Gainesville? What about dear old Fanta Fe? Maybe they'll let you dabble--take a course or two at night . Don't worry too much about being "over traditional age" among a bunch of 13th graders--there are a lot of different sorts at the school. The satellite campuses have smaller class sizes and a fascinating mix of people. See, I'm just thinking that Shakespeare is much more better with a live group of people.

Actually, you know what, to hell with this little stuff: what you should probably do is damn the torpedoes, take the GED, ace it and then go to a good graduate school. I wasted my life in college and high school, too, but grad school was a good time.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:35 PM on November 28, 2007

I mean the GRE, not the GED. And write a stunningly great "statement of purpose." Then masters somewhere and no more feeling shortchanged.
posted by Don Pepino at 3:20 PM on November 28, 2007

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