An Educated Mind
December 18, 2010 8:54 AM   Subscribe

I want a liberal arts education without going back to school. What should I do?

What should I read? What should I study and how?

I have a young family. In two years I'll be 40. I work. I have a bachelor's degree in a helping profession. I didn't pay that much attention in high school and do not remember much. In college I focused an my specific area and that is about it. Of course, I had to take other general knowledge classes that did not directly pertain to my area of study.

I like to learn and I love information. I read not so serious stuff (memoirs, contemporary fiction,) and "serious" fiction and nonfiction. I read online newspapers. I listen to NPR (not that this is some high pursuit. I'm trying to paint a picture) . I'm currently utilizing the free UC Berkeley Webcasts and "taking" two classes. (I enjoy lectures and taking notes, it helps me retain information.) Of course, I do not have the benefit of taking the tests or viewing the syllabus. I know it's not the equivalent of being a real student but it's been fun so far. I'm currently listening to a history class and a geography class and taking notes and researching further.

I'm most interested in learning about the humanities. I want a well rounded liberal arts education. Is this possible with studying on my own? In my town there is a community college with many classes I could take. The university I attended has a satellite campus in my town. I don't know if I would want to pursue a degree because of family and work commitments but maybe a couple classes would be a good idea, I don't know.

Another concern is my children, ages 7 and 10. I am the anxious parent who comes from a working class background who constantly questions if I am doing the right thing for my kids, education wise.

My very weak areas are history, ancient cultures, languages, literature, mythology, philosophy, and just about everything actually.

Thanks for any advice or recommendations.
posted by Fairchild to Education (37 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
 
Most colleges allow non-students to audit classes by paying a nominal fee.
posted by dfriedman at 8:57 AM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


This would be a good place to start. If you can find people to do it with you, discussing the books with them would, of course, enrich the experience.
posted by hworth at 8:58 AM on December 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


You could glance over this list of the "Great Books" and read whichever strike your fancy, or pick ten or so books from each year that seem interesting to you. Classes are always a good idea, even if they're non-degree and even at a community college: for someone in your situation, having a manageable amount of assignments and a guide in the form of a professor will make the task you've set yourself a lot more approachable.

Also, there's a really excellent book by Susan Wise Bauer on this subject exactly, called The Well-Educated Mind, which is a general overview of a "classical" education. If you're concerned for your kids in particular, she's also written a book on classical education at home, though I haven't read that one personally. I can highly recommend her history books as well; they aren't so in-depth as to be intimidating or difficult to a history novice, but are just juicy enough to inspire further reading.

Best of luck!
posted by libertypie at 9:03 AM on December 18, 2010


Just to offer some reassurance on one tiny little piece of that. I'm from a working class background, as was my mother. She went to university when I was 8 and she kept plugging away until she got her Masters when I was 18.

It was the best thing that anyone ever did for me with respect to my education. It gave me a very real sense that people like us could go to university and succeed. It gave me a familiarity with the campus she attended, and which I later attended. It gave me a good sense of what was needed to do well in a world that I wouldn't otherwise have been heavily exposed to. And most importantly, it clued me in to the fact that education can (and should) be a life long pursuit.

If you can still fulfill your kids' basic needs, and if you can involve them in the process just a little bit, you'll be doing something quite special for them as well as yourself.
posted by Ahab at 9:07 AM on December 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


Fairchild:
I'm most interested in learning about the humanities. I want a well rounded liberal arts education. Is this possible with studying on my own?


The best university course I ever took was Development of Western Civilization, a two-year, five-day-a-week broad humanities class starting with Greece and ending after WWII. It's basically a crash course in humanities literacy. I deeply appreciate the fact that while you may wish, as a student, to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering, if you graduate from PC, by God you will know who Descartes is.

If it is at all possible to Google up the syllabi for DWC 101 - 202, it's a fantastic roadmap for reading.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:13 AM on December 18, 2010


I like the Teaching Company's audio and video lectures. Many libraries have them available to check out, and The Teaching Company frequently offers the lectures on sale. The subject matter is diverse: literature, science, math, history, art history, religion, philosophy, music, history, and more.

And I think your idea of taking courses at the local community college is an excellent one.
posted by apartment dweller at 9:13 AM on December 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Honestly, it sounds like you're already doing what you should be doing, so the best advice may simply be to stop worrying and keep reading. There's only one thing that a good liberal-arts education gives you that you may be missing: the realization that a liberal-arts education isn't something you have, it's something you do.

Being "well-educated" is not about acquiring a fixed set of knowledge that you then possess forever, it's a lifelong, continual process of self-education through your ongoing reading and thinking. No one, not the world's single best-read scholar, is "well-educated" in all of the "weak areas" you listed. This is a very good thing, because it means we always have reason to keep reading with an open mind. If there's one thing that can help you be less of an anxious parent, it's the realization that this — openness and curiosity and love of learning for its own sake — is what you need to instil in your kids, not some specific body of factual knowledge that you yourself missed out on.

Having said all this, I just want to suggest you've already found many good strategies, and you should continue auditing online lectures on subjects that interest you, and looking around online for reading lists. (Many of the "Great Books"/"well-educated"/"cultural literacy" lists and curricula, especially those published in book form by Allan Bloom et al., are implicitly canon-conservative, and think of education as a fixed possession in the way I'm urging you against — but their readings will still be a great thing whatever you think of their politics, and you can supplement them with broader-minded lists and syllabi in the fields that interest you.) Also, don't discount actually auditing classes at a local college or university — whether officially registered or by unofficially just asking the professor — as a way to get more live, in-person discussion of the books and fields that interest you. Maybe also consider subscribing to more cultural-literary periodicals — try subscribing to the London Review of Books, where many writers who know how to wear their learning lightly check in about topics and books from ancient to contemporary.
posted by RogerB at 9:14 AM on December 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


It is easy to get a liberal arts education without going back to school. Honestly, having graduated from a pretty good SLAC I learned vastly more 'liberal arts' type knowledge from random self directed reading than from my humanities courses.

For the facts, the UC Berkeley stuff you are doing is great. Don't knock it as not being the equivalent of a real student. I am sure you are learning much more than most Berkeley undergrads who are mostly grinding through things they aren't at all interested in learning. Teaching Company lecture series would also be great. I really like most of their history/mythology stuff I've listened to. (Don't buy their stuff at the regular price, everything goes on sale for ~75% off twice a year)

One thing that is slightly harder to do alone is practicing your writing. There are lots of internet fora that would critique your work though, which is the one thing for which liberal arts professors are useful.
posted by pseudonick at 9:19 AM on December 18, 2010


I think doing stuff with your kids--concerts, museums, plays, etc. is more important for their education and yours, than reading the Great Books and taking classes. Take them to book readings, art exhibits, poetry slams (do those still exist?) and expose them to a wide array of cultural offerings. Parents don't need to be subject matter experts, but rather be a sort of tour guide to all those rich experiences that make up higher culture.

Listen to opera at home, watch DVDs of movies or documentaries that might be outside your usual experience. I don't think "working class" means you have to love Nascar, Paula Dean or whatever other cultural stereotype fits here.

If you want to study something because you're interested, go for it, but the liberal arts aren't like spinach or vitamins--you don't have to do it just because it's good for you.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:22 AM on December 18, 2010


Where do you live? Is it possible that you could find a book club that went a little above and beyond the usual Time Traveler's Wife sort of thing and covered some of the stuff on hworth or libertypie's lists? The one thing that is difficult to get in a Liberal Arts Experience if you're not enrolled in a school is the small discussion-based literature classes. But you could replicate that experience if you could find an ambitious book club.
posted by Sara C. at 9:24 AM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


A few suggestions if you want to go the autodidactic route: I've found poking around in various nonfiction parts of the library to be pretty fun; also, getting lost on Wikipedia, following link after link. Two of my favorite books on American history are Zinn's "People's History of the United States" and Takaki's "A Different Mirror". Watch James Burke's "Connections" series (now available to watch online). Some of the science is out of date, but Sagan's "Cosmos" series is still pretty awesome. Both of those are appropriate to watch with your kids.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:31 AM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another great reading list here [pdf].
posted by Dasein at 9:36 AM on December 18, 2010


If you have iTunes, check out iTunesU, wherein a ton of colleges and universities post audio and/or video recordings of a huge range of classes. Some of them - it takes some poking around to find them - also post their syllabi. For instance, Eng 351: Survey of American Literature II from Missouri State University has lecture videos, transcripts, and a list of the required texts all available for download on iTunes (and possibly on the university's website as well), for free.

As for modelling behavior for your kids - as much as possible, given your schedule and your responsibilities, set aside school time for yourself. Your kids are old enough to understand that when you are studying or "in class," you shouldn't be disturbed (unless something is on fire or someone is bleeding). This is in part how my mom got through grad school while raising me by herself, and I think it did help me internalize the importance of learning and taking school seriously, because I saw her doing it.
posted by rtha at 10:06 AM on December 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


going back to school is noble, sure, but it's also super expensive. if you're not going to be actually using a degree for work credentials, i'd say put the money aside and use it for their university or college tuition when the time comes.

however, tons and tons of older folks want to and have the time to better themselves intellectually, that's why a system for auditing classes exists! look into this at your local college or university and see if you can audit some classes, maybe lower level survey courses in the humanities. history of science and history of art might also be of great interest to you.

go to museums and actually read the information, or take a guided tour. but..it sounds like you're doing a lot. if you just treat everything as a learning experience, you'll be surprised how much information you can take in in a day.
posted by custard heart at 10:22 AM on December 18, 2010




oh, but if I was going to suggest one thing -- read some literary criticism and lit theory. you can read as many great books as you want, but learning how to think critically and decode and expand books and ideas to find greater meaning in them is maybe the greatest thing university taught me...i have a BA in english lit / linguistics and sometimes i lean a little towards the "meaningless slip of paper" side when debating higher education, but when i meet someone who doesn't have any university or college, I can sometimes tell just in the way they structure their arguments. when you do read a great book, do some investigating. find out about the historical context it was written, maybe about other important books written around the same time, the biography of the author. without the ability to think critically about what you're reading...well, Animal Farm would just be a story about farm animals.
posted by custard heart at 10:27 AM on December 18, 2010


Do you know about MIT OpenCourseWare? They have more than 2000 courses online. Most of these are a syllabus, calendar, reading list - enough for exploratory self study, at least for a while until you decide you need something more - but some include lecture notes and more. Maybe people think it's only math/science/engineering, which is why no-one's suggested it yet? They have hundreds of humanities courses.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:24 AM on December 18, 2010


Just to return for a second more to your central questions:

What should I read? What should I study and how?

Again, these questions (fortunately!) are not answerable finally and for all time, but instead answering them is an ongoing, continual process. Many of the answers here are (naturally, and usefully!) giving you reading lists and lecture courses, often tending toward the Great Books/Western Civ end of things. But I want to insist that such lists do not solve the problem of what to read and how — you can read all the books on a Greatest Hits of Western Philosophy and Art syllabus and end up no closer to the active, engaged, self-guided intellectual life that is the hallmark of a good liberal-arts education (as opposed to the hallmark of having sat through a Great Books course once). We each have to build our own canon, find our way to the books and ideas and works of art that matter in unique ways for our own intellectual formation.

What you should read: as Ideefixe rightly says, start from your interests. Read about some aspect of philosophy or art or culture that hooks you, or pick your favorite few texts after reading through one of those broad coverage-oriented lists. Then go from there — find connections by looking at its predecessors and influences, reading around in criticism and scholarship on it and seeing what people often put alongside it. With enough bibliography-crawling you can cast as broad a net as you want, starting from wherever you are. The important thing is to realize that, basically, this is how everyone smart does it, from the motivated pre-teen reader to the post-Ph.D.: read about your interests, continually contextualize them, and assemble your own canon as you go.
posted by RogerB at 11:25 AM on December 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Nobody's mentioned the Open University. While it's a UK thing, a google found this list of courses you can take in the USA (if that's where you are). Maybe look further to see if they'd let you do this & whether it's suitable.

I would strongly recommend not only reading, but talking with people about what you read, and what has been one of the most important parts of my own education: getting feedback on your writing and work.

Also, in the humanities, there's lots of temptation to say "hey! I wanna know about Shakespeare!" and then read people writing about Shakespeare. I recommend against this. Try reading Shakespeare / the original thinker (whether in literature or not) first. If it doesn't make any sense, dip into somebody writing about them. As much as you can, go direct to the Big Thinkers: people who have commented them are normally not as clever, or interesting.

If you're doing this by yourself, you have the amazing privilege of not having to keep reading anyone you find boring.
posted by squishles at 1:46 PM on December 18, 2010


Thank you for the excellent answers so far!

Yes, I agree that I should allow my interests to guide me. I do this and will continue to do so. I am interested in a wide variety of subjects from ballet to education reform.

Like a lot of people, some things are difficult for me -- like some Victorian era literature. Some Dickens I cannot get into because of the language. I prefer the books that are not convoluted , like the English translation of The Stranger or authors like Carson McCullers. For the most part, I've avoided Shakespeare and the like because I am intimidated and don't get it half the time. There is a class on Shakespeare with podcasts so that might be very helpful. With these kinds of things, I need an expert guiding me, whether it be book, teacher, or website.

I agree wholeheartedly that I should expose my children to museums, music, dance and other art forms. We are that kind of family. I drag them to free symphonic band concerts, our local museums, live theater productions, etc. They love to read and I always let them choose based on their interests and provide some leadership in helping them choose when they are out of ideas. They both play the piano and are good musicians.

For years I have checked out the Fall and Spring course catalogs. I should take a class because I think I would enjoy it and I have a lot of free time since I work part-time.

I am very interested in what other people (the experts) think about things. I have books such as these on my wish list as reminders of what to check out from the library:

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them ( I don't want to write but I thought this might be interesting and helpful.)

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines


Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory (I don't know if this is what I think it is or what I should be reading to help me understand literature.)

Thanks again for all of the wonderful replies. I do know about MIT Open Courseware. I did not know about The Teaching Company or Open University. I will definitely check these and other recommendations out.

This has been on mind for a long time and acutely so as of late because I am very aware of what I don't know, and it's a lot.

Thanks again!
posted by Fairchild at 2:22 PM on December 18, 2010


Quick book thoughts: in addition to (or instead of) the "Like a Professor" book, which is okay but pretty shallow, take a look at How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, which is both funnier and surprisingly thoughtful. And Beginning Theory is not very good — if you want a short intro to literary theory, either Terry Eagleton's or anything by Jonathan Culler would be a better choice. To help with the "I am intimidated and don't get it [...] I need an expert guiding me" problem, try picking up editions aimed at college students — for instance, you might really enjoy the Norton Critical Editions, which package their primary texts together with useful footnotes, historical and critical contexts and commentaries.
posted by RogerB at 2:45 PM on December 18, 2010


Thank you so much RogerB for these recommendations. I will definitely check these out.
posted by Fairchild at 3:19 PM on December 18, 2010


In your case, I don't think that getting an additional degree is really necessary - which puts you in a great position money-wise. I would investigate the cost of auditing interesting community college and satellite campus classes - maybe make a goal of attending 1 every semester or year. Also, local libraries, universities, and historical societies are a great source of free or donation lectures, which may also be a appropriate for your kids. Check around online or in person for their yearly schedules (if you give your area, maybe someone local can give you more specific advice)
posted by fermezporte at 3:31 PM on December 18, 2010


Teaching company stuff can be found in large quantities on torrents, just sayin'.
posted by SouthCNorthNY at 3:47 PM on December 18, 2010


-The Norton critical editions would be a great choice.
-Your "Intro to Literary Theory" is going to cover a relatively new approach to literature, which is not the kind of beginner's "basics of how to understand literature" that it might sound like. I would put that on the back burner for now, since (in my opinion) it will needlessly complicate things.

-For things like Shakespeare and older literature with more unfamiliar language/writing style: Most people have a hard time with this at first, and it gets easier with practice. This is a case where a class or following a podcast/video/audio lecture series might be good. What you want is an expert who will read some passages aloud, because that will help you to build up your internal sense of the rhythm of these older writers, build your sense of their vocabulary etc. It is very rewarding to be able to read the older stuff on your own, and it is a learnable skill with practice. With Shakespeare and other plays, it is also very helpful to see them acted out, since the actors will interpret the lines for you and add emphasis in the right places, which can help in understanding.

-One of the great benefits of a liberal arts education is the practice in clarifying your own ideas, explaining them and defending them (giving evidence from a text to support your interpretation of the text), to an interested audience that will ask you tough questions. You get this from classmates and professor if you are in a class -- which is another benefit of auditing or taking courses. If you're not able to audit or take courses, you might think about ways you can re-create this experience by reading a book in tandem with a friend, maybe your local library has classics book groups, etc.

-Make a manageable schedule of what you want to read. There is SO much out there that it's easy to get overwhelmed or paralyzed, or try to do so much at once that you don't really get as much out of it. You can look online at a college course syllabus in the area you're interested in, and see what they read in a given week. For example, many schools offer "Introduction to English Literature" or "Great Works" courses, and those are a very good kind of thing to follow along with.

-The two humanities course I took as an undergrad that I got the most out of were Intro to English Lit (year long survey) and Intro to Poetry (another survey). In each class we read the big iconic cultural works, but also the professors talked through them, how to interpret specific passages, gave us examples of how to read a poem, what metaphors mean what, etc. They talked us through how to build up evidence for an interpretation (the poet wants to compare the hero to a bird, so notice these four places where he is described in ways that have to do with birds, flight, nesting, alighting, whistling, etc). If you have to pick one starting point, find a course like this.

-In philosophy (my field) I would suggest any intro that begins with Plato. Plato is quite accessible (try to get a modern translation rather than an older public domain translation, since the older ones use archaic language forms that might be harder to read) and you should be able to find a good course on him. Aristotle is much more difficult to read, so harder to get started with.

Reading Philosophy is a good "how to read philosophy" anthology. They have exercises that are like the ones I do in my courses: "look at this passage. What does the author mean here? Write your answer then flip to p 12 for our interpretation of the passage." (This book has real philosophical papers, not just easy to read summaries. It might be tough to start with, or it might be exactly right; I can't really tell from what you say.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:48 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thinking about it, I think it might be worth noting this:
What students learn in humanities courses is (a) a bunch of facts about literature, authors, etc, (b) how to read+interpret texts and ask+answer "deeper" questions about the texts, and (c) how to explain and defend their own ideas.

I don't know how hard it is to gain skills (b) and (c) when studying on your own.

If you find that you are stuck on (a) when you're listening to podcasts etc, it is worth taking or auditing a class in person, so you can be part of the discussion and give-and-take in the classroom. Community college courses can be great for this, depending on the professor -- see if you can get advice about a great teacher at your nearby school. Maybe you can ask to sit in on a session this semester, to decide if you want to enroll for a later semester?

The nice thing is, once you pick up skills (b) and (c), it becomes a million times easier and more productive to read things on your own.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:59 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


And, okay, one more point.

There is an ongoing debate over the importance of reading 'the canon', 'the Great Works', the traditional list of big-name writers/books like Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Dante, Dostoyevsky, etc. As RogerB says, it's not so important to have read particular writers as it is to follow your own interests, which keeps you motivated to really engage with the material. (Just like sightseeing: if you're going to the Eiffel Tower just because you "have to" go to the Eiffel, you might be bored and it's a waste of your precious time in Paris. Spend the time going to a little bakery or something else that really moves you -- there are more good worthy interesting things to see in Paris -- or intellectual works to read -- then you can get to in a lifetime, so just pick the ones you like.)

But -- something that is continually striking me is this. A lot of these great writers and thinkers and filmmakers and painters and whatnot have read each other, and their poems/novels/philosophies/paintings/etc contain lots of responses and reactions to the ones who came before. Knowing a bit about the Great Works opens up a whole new level of appreciation of these in-jokes, makes it easier to see what the later guy is talking about, etc. So the traditional canon has two main benefits:
1. most of the stuff in it is really actually great and enjoyable -- and funny! -- once you're able to read the language it's in (which takes practice)
2. knowing about it enriches your reading of other, later stuff too
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:08 PM on December 18, 2010


I agree with LobsterMitten. It's all connected, and without at least a nodding acquaintance with the canon you'll lose much of the nuance.

As for not wanting to write, you're missing a great deal of what a liberal arts education is. A liberal arts education is not just the content—know this that and the other thing and you're educated—the end goal is to be able to contend with the great minds, think critically to form your own opinions, and set them forth clearly and understandably.

By the way, check alumnus benefits in your satellite.
posted by gentilknight at 5:53 PM on December 18, 2010


Subscribe to the New York Review of Books. Seriously, this is the answer to your problems. It comes out about twice a month. Each issue is like a mini-semester of a liberal arts education. The articles mostly start as a review of a few books that cover the same or similar topics, and wind up giving a pretty thorough overview of the topic. If you a topic piques your interest, the article will give you enough book recommendations to keep you busy for a while.

Take a look at what they pack in one issue. While not every article is fascinating to every reader, each issue should have enough to make you the smartest autodidact on your block in no time.
posted by charleskinbote at 8:24 PM on December 18, 2010


I noticed a while back that The Closing of the American Mind is available on archive.org. As far as overviews of the liberal arts go, it's an unparalleled read.
posted by shii at 1:14 AM on December 19, 2010


Mentioned above ... The Well Educated Mind by susan wise bauer is such a good fit that I thought your AskMe title was a pun ... Her two history books are also really good.

She also does a lot of work on home schooling ... which may also be worth checking out
posted by jannw at 2:25 AM on December 19, 2010


You might find Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare a good way to get into the plays.

Shakespeare can seem intimidating at first due to difficulty understanding the language at first hearing, unfamiliarity with the historical or political references that his audiences would have known well, and the weight of hundreds of years of High CultureTM, but it's good to remember that he was also going for rude, rough fun in much of his work. I mean, the guy wrote fart jokes.
posted by Lexica at 11:27 AM on December 19, 2010


1)
For reference, I've mentioned previously: The Story of Civilization, by husband and wife Will and Ariel Durant, is an eleven-volume set of books covering Western history for the general reader. The writing style is clear and engaging. Of course, at over 5000 pages total, the whole set is a kinda big mouthful to digest, but they do cover everything about Western culture up to the 19th century. Worth a glance, anyway.

2) Also for reference, this might seem obvious, but Wikipedia is actually pretty good for getting a quick overview of any subject you can think of in History or Art.

3) If I was going to recommend just one history book, it would be Gibbon's Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire. He has a nice droll English sense of humour, describing decadence and mayhem with a casual shrug.

4) The Closing of the American Mind is interesting... but I wouldn't believe everything Mr. Bloom says.
posted by ovvl at 2:02 PM on December 19, 2010


These suggestions are invaluable. Thanks so much for taking the time to reply. Every answer is best answer. Thank you so much.
posted by Fairchild at 8:23 PM on December 19, 2010


p.s. Seconding the idea of the New York Review of Books. I've spent a lot of time with the NYRB and charleskinbote's plan sounds wonderful. You can check out articles online to get a taste of it - several are available w/out subscription. (Although the more focussed articles are normally the ones not available for free.)

The articles will be an excellent introduction to the subject at hand, and a way of situating books and pointing you towards stuff that interests you. Don't feel that you have to read all of a book when you get it! Sometimes just reading a chapter is wonderful and more provocative than trawling thru the whole thing.
posted by squishles at 7:11 AM on December 20, 2010


My mom didn't finish highschool, but she has always read voraciously and passed that on to me -- university was relatively easy for me because of it.

Reading, working on math skills and exposing your children to different things are the most important ways to prepare them for education. It doesn't need to be "high" culture -- cultural festivals, playing with atlases, historical novels -- all of these can be just as educational.

Don't worry about the Dickens -- I read ye olde English all the time, and he's still boring. Perhaps try something like *Jane Eyre* by Charlotte Bronte? It's in the first person, which I find more accessible. I'm a big fan of Jane Austen myself -- she's earlier than Dickens and her humour is very dry, but she's much more succinct. *Pride and Prejudice* is the best one to start with.

As for Shakespeare -- the best thing is not to try to read Shakespeare, but to SEE (and hear) Shakespeare. It's much easier to understand on stage than on the page. I found te same thing to be true of Tennesee Williams and William Inge (20th century American playwrights) so I figure that it's not just the archaic language, but the fact that plays never read as well as they perform.

That said, I would add this caveat: I have a masters and I'm working on a PhD in a humanities topic, and I'm not sure you can really say that a liberal arts education exists -- certainly a BA does not equal a liberal arts education. Everything I know about theatre, I learned as a drama geek in high school; I read pre-1950s literature because my mom was a big L.M. Montgomery fan and got me hooked. In university, I learned a lot of history (my major), but no philosophy, and certainly no rhetoric, logic, music, arithmetic, geometry (5 of the 7 original liberal arts) -- I had only one class each in Grammar (really linguistics) and Astronomy.

What it seems that you are seeking is not necessarily a liberal arts education, but to become more informed about the world -- which is deeply admirable. To do this: you read and listen to online lectures -- exactly what you are doing. Also, reading metafilter has taught me a lot :)
posted by jb at 11:54 AM on December 21, 2010


Like you, I love to learn and have a wide interest in humanities topics, and I'm learning on my own. So my advice:

USE YOUR LIBRARY.

* Libraries often have Teaching Company courses. My library has dozens, in all areas, including video versions for courses that benefit from video (including astronomy and art).

* Libraries often have interlibrary loan set up with nearby universities. When I check out a Teaching Company course from the library, I take a look at all the recommended reading (there's usually recommended reading for each lecture, and anywhere from 12-96 lectures in a course). Pick a few of these and request them from your library, or via interlibrary loan, and you'll have extra material to supplement the lecture series.

* Look for used humanities textbooks. My local Friends of the Library explicitly asks people NOT to donate textbooks, but people do anyway, and I've gotten tons of college-level humanities textbooks (including the 3-volume A History of Western Society and several outline of history type books) for $1 each. If you don't have good luck at your library booksale or local thrift and used book stores, try online. For example, here are a few ABE Books searches:

Arts & Ideas, by Fleming - several copies under $4 including shipping
Listening to Music, by Wright - several copies under $4 including shipping
Art Through the Ages, by Gardner - several copies under $4 including shipping

* Find out what kinds of educational resources your library has. Some have online test preparation software (for AP or CLEP) you can use to quiz yourself. Others have test prep books you can use for review.

* Definitely check out your library's language learning CDs! I took a bit of Italian in college, and this year, I've just about finished going through the entire 90-CD Pimsleur Italian course from my library as a refresher.

Other ideas:

* I would strongly recommend taking a class or two at your local community college - not necessarily with the objective of getting a degree (although you can if you want), but just because classes work well for some types of learning. Benefits include:
- a bit more structure
- people to discuss things with
- a student ID, which may get you student discounts in your community
- access to the CC library and possibly other facilities - language labs, fitness centers, who knows?

* You can find course materials - including sample quizzes - for high school and college humanities courses online. You have to poke around a bit, but you can find some very helpful resources. For example, I Googled

test "new amsterdam" treaty paris "austrian succession" site:edu

and found some lecture outlines, study guides, and timelines. Change "test" to "quiz" or "syllabus" and you get some slightly different results. (And wow - humanities syllabus site:edu gets 260,000 results!)

* Look for the 11-volume Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. Again, used copies are often very inexpensive, and in my opinion, it's wonderfully engaging. (I posted one of my favorite quotes in an AskMe about well-written textbooks.)

And since you want to do what's right for your kids:

* Invite them to learn stuff along with you - literally the same things. Having the opportunity to discuss all these great, inspiring, amazing ideas and events with your kids will be a wonderful revelation for them, and great reinforcement for your own learning. One of my own inspirations for the learning I do was reading posts by a guy who was homeschooling his three kids. He had his kids reading the Greek tragedies and Shakespeare before they were 10 - and acting them out with their teddy bears. He used the Joy Hakim History of US series (also available at many libraries) for their grade-school US History lessons, and he would read aloud to them, or have them read aloud to him, and then they would talk about what they had read. If your kids feel like they're getting enough school at school and don't really want to do more learning stuff when they get home, that's fine ... but if you say, "Hey, I've been learning all about Ben Franklin and his scientific experiments and all the other stuff he was doing, the business he was running and his trip to France - I'd love to talk with you two about it, could we share some books from the library?", they'll have the opportunity to spend more time with you talking about ideas and history, which could be terrific for all three of you. So, pick a topic (Egyptians? Magnets? Mythology? Mythology can be great fun for kids) and go to the library and pick up one or two age-appropriate books for each of you. Want to learn about Homer? Your 7-year-old could get Black Ships Before Troy, the 10-year-old could get something like Olivia Coolidge's "The Trojan War", and you could get the Iliad itself, the Teaching Company course about the Iliad, and ideally, an audiobook of the Iliad being read aloud, which you and the kids could listen to while you're making dinner. (Of course, many parents may feel that the Iliad is way too violent for kids; I just mention it because some parents won't. Similarly, while most 7-year-olds would have a hard time struggling through reading Homer or Shakespeare, they can pick up a surprising amount when it's being read aloud - especially if they're already learning the story from a picture book.)


Finally:

* When you pick a topic, write down your own personal objectives for your self-study. What do you want to learn? How will you demonstrate that knowledge? Having a way to measure your progress is important, especially when you're interested in learning about everything that ever happened anywhere ever, and you want a sense that you now at least know some things that you didn't know before.


Have fun!
posted by kristi at 3:36 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


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