Library educated, thank you very much.
May 10, 2006 8:55 AM   Subscribe

I've often wondered if the quote from the movie Good Will Hunting: "You wasted 150 grand on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library" is feasible.

What were the most important books that you read in college, and separately for your college major? Do you think that reading these books without a professor and peers to discuss it with would have been substantial keeping in mind that you are saving 150 grand? Obviously college is important for the degree/tangible credibility that you recieve, but answer purely from a knowledge standpoint.
posted by pwally to Education (43 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wouldn't have learned half of what I learned in college (mostly all forgotten, now) without the professors, and more importantly, my fellow students and the general intellectual culture of the place.

But then, I'm not a fictional genius.
posted by Good Brain at 9:02 AM on May 10, 2006


There's a lot of nuances and different views that professor presents on a work that one would have a hard time discovering themselves.
posted by geoff. at 9:04 AM on May 10, 2006


And at a good school half of what you learn is from other students. Collectively, the students are an incredible resource for thinking things differently. There are so many books I would never have found had they not been recommended by other students.
posted by johngumbo at 9:07 AM on May 10, 2006


From a technical standpoint (engineering/medicine) I'd say that's infeasible if not impossible. You'd miss out on all the labwork! I am under the impression however, that it is totally possible to teach oneself computer science, not just programming.
posted by pantsrobot at 9:07 AM on May 10, 2006


Sure, you could pick books to read. And, sure, you could read the latest journals and figure out the latest academic thoughts on the books. You could probably get some videos and learn how to do labs.

However, teamwork (and all the pains that presents), class discussion, and even talks over beers at the pub introduce insights you won't necessarily find in academic journals. Yeah, students tend to be trendy in their academic thinking, but you're still getting more disparity and variety of opinion than you'd have in a peer-reviewed journal.

Still, could you find other ways to gain those insights? Could you join a bookclub, hang out at the local computer club, intern at an engineering firm, volunteer at a hospital or non-profit or otherwise find ways to network with people of all ages and backgrounds, including those who have gone through the university system. Probably. And you might not be any worse off. The problem is that employers -- and other people in society -- place a lot of value on the piece of paper. More than anything, a degree shows you can fit into a system. And that's what a lot of people want to know...more than your ability to wax on the Sapir-Worf Hypothesis, the McLuhan Tetrad, The Handmaid's Tale, or the effect of pavement friction on rigid objects travelling at 30 mph.
posted by acoutu at 9:12 AM on May 10, 2006


The Day I Became An Autodidact. I didn't really feel that the person in this book got much out of her unorganized studies, though goodness knows I envied her not having to take classes. And of course, as pantsrobot noted, lab science from a book is tough to do.
posted by JanetLand at 9:15 AM on May 10, 2006


From a knowledge standpoint, no book I read in college had anywhere near the impact of the experience of college, especially the interpersonal aspect of it.

The context of the quote is from the crazy-smart Will Hunting, who liked to solve calculus problems working the graveyard shift at Harvard as a janitor. Reading books from the library is not equivalent to a college education in so many ways, and the quote is not feasible for the common man. No way.

That said, important "non-major" books I read in college were both Sci-Fi:
Stranger in a Strange Land
Neuromancer

Strangely enough, I'm now a tech guy, and do the majority of my learning from books. IT is one of the few areas where you may be able to learn "all you need to know" from books, although I might add you need to be very self-motivated. Also, IT books will do nothing to help you be a good member of society.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:15 AM on May 10, 2006


I'd say it really depends on the subject, but for the majority of subjects it'd be infeasible. For example, in college I double-majored in East Asian Studies (concentration in Japanese) and Computer Science.

The history part of my East Asian Studies classes could've easily been learned at the library, while the class participation in learning the language was essential. That's not to say you can't learn a language on your own, but you'll definitely need speaking partners to practice with and college just happens to provide that for you.

As far as computer science was concerned, one could really do without all the boring classes covering ancient programming languages, data structures, and algorithms. But having a background in these things will really help to build a solid foundation of programming knowledge (what's happening behind the scenes? where did these languages come from? etc).

I think it really depends on who you ask, what profession it is, and how determined you really are (as well as your ability to pick things up quickly). For most people, I'd give it a solid "no," but again I don't think there's a definitive answer.
posted by Ekim Neems at 9:21 AM on May 10, 2006


Could one learn *something* from books? The answer to this is definitely yes. Especially if you're motivated or interested in the subject. But as others have mentioned, school is about much more.

My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy. And I went to a school with a "Great Books" curriculum (every student reads all of the classics of western civilization). And this would have been much less fruitful without the guidance of informed professors. If you just tear ass into Plato's Republic, or Mill's Utilitarianism, or Kant's Foundations, you'll get something. You'll read the words and you'll find themes that are interesting or particular arguments that are convincing. And you might be able to tie these works together into something semi-coherent, making connections and distinctions between concepts (mill's justice versus plato's justice... or aristotle's "right living" versus augustine's "right living"). But I'm quite convinced that this will not be at the same depth, with the same care and delicacy that comes from being in a class on the subject (and getting called on, or arguing in or out of class, or writing papers on, etc., etc.).

Now, I'm not as sure about the value of a degree in the sciences or in engineering disciplines. Those fields are meant to be taught -- the writing in the text books and journals is meant to be understood by (an educated) audience (with the right vocabulary, too). Philosophy's not -- or at least many of the primary subject works are not. Reading Marx or Kant or Sassaure is not going to be clear on its face. In Biology, one could get Campbell's Biology and just dig in. And the sciences are also better at citing each other, so you can see better the debates and "schools" within the subject, picking it up as you go. I'm not trying to belittle the field of Biology or of any science. But I think that the education that you got from independent learning would be more complete than an independent stint of locking yourself in your room to read Philosophy. Now, that's not to say that you'd get everything. Obviously some siences are laboratory sciences, and "knowing about cells" is certainly not the same as looking at them under a microscope, staining them, plating them, watching them mitose, etc.
posted by zpousman at 9:22 AM on May 10, 2006


I'd just like to clarify that this question is entirely hypothetical.
posted by pwally at 9:23 AM on May 10, 2006


feasible?

No of course not -- it's a stupid quote from a stupid movie.

I can't recall much about any books I read in college -- knowledge gained was from the homework excercises and lab activities.
posted by Rash at 9:25 AM on May 10, 2006


There are many different types of education and many areas of study so it's hard to generalize. I find university grads tend to look down on community college, but as a graduate of both systems, I believe both kinds of education are very valuable.

I believe the best thing to do is a) decide what you want to learn and b) figure out the best way to learn that information. We live in the Information Age, and there are educational opportunities everywhere you look. It's important to know what you want, to make research on how to learn your first step in learning, and to have the discipline to follow through.
posted by orange swan at 9:26 AM on May 10, 2006


I think the important part of the question is that the answer should be from a purely "knowledge" standpoint.

What type of knowledge?

Although discussion at Uni is nice (I had a 2:1 student to teacher ratio in my maths and comp sci classes (Oxford)), I think the presence of exams ends up taking everything back to the hoop jumping stage. I can't think of any of my courses that I couldn't have passed by just reading the textbooks and having a ponder. Plus reading the old exam papers. Did i learn extra from my tutorials? Perhaps a bit where we strayed of topic and discussed related areas. With respect to the topics for the exams, all they did was to help clarify how to jump through the hoops.

Different for different subjects, of course.
posted by Mossy at 9:27 AM on May 10, 2006


An person I knew, himself not schooled beyond high school, threw that quote at me when he resented me going to graduate school.

What I didn't say, but should have: "Yeah, but did you?"

I won't discount the value of class discussions and good professors, and lab work for the sciences. But the biggest reason why I'm glad that I spent the money to go to college? I would've spent most of those four years playing video games if I hadn't been getting graded on it. How many people actually have the motivation to sustain the work needed to get a college education, without some kind of incentive, and structure, and deadlines? Not to mention a framework for organizing what is valuable and what should be studied.
posted by Jeanne at 9:28 AM on May 10, 2006


Much of the value of an Ivy League education, or any college education, comes from the interactions with fellow students and the faculty. Fellow students push you harder than you would likely push yourself and their insights will truly enlighten you. Reading the books without discussing them in the right group provides only a part of the overall education. Further, it's not just what one learns about the subject at hand but what one learns about how to learn. It would be extremely difficult to match a good college education with time spent in a good library, and even more difficult to match a college education at a top university or top program where you are surrounded by not just brilliant professors, but brilliant students.
posted by caddis at 9:28 AM on May 10, 2006


One of the reasons I decided to switch to Physics early on in school (I had started as a History major) was that I figured, from a knowledge perspective, I could probably teach myself many things later in life. But physics was not just textbooks. There are some hard ideas (in particle physics, in quantum mechanics, in cosmology) and the only way to get my head around them was:

1) Working through problems complete with all the mathematics involved. Being able to bring up difficult points in class to the professor - who knew it cold.
2) For more nuanced issues being able to discuss things with TAs and peers.

I think the reason me and other mefi physics-types can be kind of dismissive toward others here who have merely read lots of conceptual books about Physics is that, although they sound convincing, they dont seem to really "get it" in the way someone who has worked through the equations has - actually worked through GR problems in Misner, Thorne & Wheeler, done the problems in Sakurai or other texts.

Its one thing to understand the principles behind, say, boson and fermion statistics - its another to actually see how it arises from the symmetry (and anti-symmetry) of the wave equations.
posted by vacapinta at 9:30 AM on May 10, 2006


Without peers and teachers you lack the challenge and synthesis you need to really Learn.

In the void of an infinate library, you could certainly learn a whole lot, but without people there to disagree with you, to want to be taught by you, and to help reason with you, I'm not sure you could put all that book learning together.

So maybe with a buck fifty for late fees, a circle of peers, and a wise instructor or two you could maybe save your 150k, provided they are all just as dedicated to the same goal as you.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:34 AM on May 10, 2006


"In Biology, one could get Campbell's Biology and just dig in."

I rather disagree. Memorizing facts only gets you so far in science, and though most textbooks are good about giving you the facts, I've never encountered one that managed to tie it all together like professors did. Furthermore, understanding things that've already been discovered won't do much to teach you how to think like a scientist. Understanding how to construct an experiment, how to read a paper and understand why the researchers did what [and identify things that they could've done better], developing a sense about when strange results in the lab are errors and when they might signal something interesting... that's all stuff that one gets from _doing_ science, rather than reading about it, and it's hard to do biochemistry as a hobby, unless you're a millionaire. None of this is even addressing other valuable aspects of college - learning how to collaborate with others, working with other students to figure out problems [and getting to see how other people think], being able to talk to professors when you don't understand something, being able to measure your progress with projects and tests [that is, being able to actually apply the knowledge and make sure it isn't just a superficial understanding], etc.

With time and effort and motivation, one might be able to get a good idea of the history and current theories of many subjects. However, many students want to do more than that - they want to be able to do research themselves. That's where the educate-yourself-in-a-library fails most, I think.
posted by ubersturm at 9:39 AM on May 10, 2006


Pwally, I want to answer your "great books you read in college" question also. One author who is influential to me to this day, that I read for pleasure in college is Umberto Eco. I think you might like his novels becuase they're *very* educational, but are very interesting and fun reads. He is, acorrding to me, one of the smartest guys alive on planet earth. He is insanely well-read in history, philosophy, theology, and in the History of Science. His books, both fiction and non-fiction, stand as some of the best stuff I've ever read.

Foucault's Pendulum (Jewish Kabballah Traditions, The Moorish Caliphate of Spain, Foucault and Industrial Sciences). Apparently, used ones available for 60¢ at Amazon. That's a bet I'd take.
The Island of the Day Before (Italy versus England in Naval Supremacy, Longitude (history of science), 1700 alchemy and "black magic).

I also recommend Kant and the Platapus if you care about things like how "categories" work, how language shapes thought (don't worry this is not a Sapir-Worf book), and how we come to know things (epistomology).

Here's an amazon "list" with many of the books.
posted by zpousman at 9:41 AM on May 10, 2006


As a reference librarian at a very small, not particularly challenging college, I have to say that the attitude of many students today is exactly the opposite of the quote. It's more like "Why should I go to the library and learn things on my own when I'm paying so much money to have the instructors put it into PowerPoint for me?

As a homeschooling mom, I feel like I need to teach my children how to find a middle point between the 2 attitudes. It's almost like the serenity prayer:

Grant me the curiosity to investigate the things that interest me,
The ability to find the best resources,
And the wisdom to know when to call a professional.
posted by Biblio at 9:55 AM on May 10, 2006 [4 favorites]


I've said it before, but education done properly - in any field - is far more about what you produce than what you absorb. And there are very few people (some, but very few) who have the capability to produce excellent work without feedback, encouragement, suggestions and ideas flowing in from other people around them. Books are not able to look at what you've done and suggest how to do it better, or an interesting problem to follow up with; the librarian probably won't take a look at your philosophy paper and attack your position.

I'm often in the position of talking to potential scholarship students, who are extremely bright, just the sort of folks you would like to think of as potential autodidactic Will Huntings. They always display a vast amount of absorbed knowledge. They almost always falter when I ask them, "Tell me about an interesting problem you disovered on your own."
posted by Wolfdog at 9:58 AM on May 10, 2006 [1 favorite]


(It's certainly possible to go to an expensive school and come away with nothing more than the library would have given you. But that doesn't mean you paid for nothing - it means you didn't use what you paid for.)
posted by Wolfdog at 10:00 AM on May 10, 2006


For technical discliplines? Sure. School isn't a license to know things you can't know otherwise.. it's entirely possible to buy textbooks in organic chemistry, fund your own lab setup, make mistakes here and there that hopefully leave you with all your limbs, and come out as smart as any chemist. College both proves you did that to employers as well as doing it in a method that is hopefully as efficient as possible.

The same can be said for "different points of view", "methods of learning", and "growing up", all of which school instills in you. There are many ways to appropriate all of these. I just see schooling as a compact, intensive, and focused model for doing these things all at once in an effective manner.

Plus there's nothing else like a city essentially run by 20 year olds with nothing to do but work retail jobs while optimizing study routines for beer intake.
posted by kcm at 10:01 AM on May 10, 2006


I forgot to add the most important books I read in college that weren't assigned:
Focault's Pendulum
A Mouthful of Air by Anthony Burgess
Everything Margaret Atwood had written at that point
Punch magazine (no, really. It was eye opening to read satire from a different culture)
The Madwoman in the Attic
The D Case
posted by Biblio at 10:04 AM on May 10, 2006


When I saw that movie, the quote really resonated with me. I do a lot of educational reading on my own, and classes and teachers generally bore and annoy me. Also, my ability to get and do my current job came completely from self-study.

On the other hand, even the movie offers up a reason not to take Will Hunting's approach: making the connection between your self-education and your career may be difficult. Will is a janitor. Sure, it's partly because he identifies as a working-class guy who doesn't have the right temperament to deal with a white-collar world.

But it's also because there aren't many employment ads looking for 'Ph.D. in mathematics, or self-taught equivalent.' Yes, you can eventually find someone who will evaluate you on your own merits, but that takes a willingness to actually give a shit what other people think of what you know, and for an autodidact, that can be hard.

This question is really what the whole movie is about, actually.
posted by bingo at 10:23 AM on May 10, 2006


If you are able to graduate with a bachellors in a scientific discipline and still think you could have learned everything you learned in college from a textbook then whoever it was that paid for your education got gyped.

There is so much happening right now that's not going make it into a text book for years (or ever). If you aren't given a taste of that, If you don't get the chance to see the way a new idea develops (or dies) through a series of experiments and papers then you are missing something big.

It may be possible to gain that exposure through a disciplined pursuit of the scientific literature, but I know, for my own part, my understanding of such cutting edge work was greatly enhanced by discussions with professors and other students.

Furthermore, I think given the volume of scientific publications, you'd also be better off having a network of likeminded students and profs to help identify the most important papers to read and areas to follow.
posted by Good Brain at 10:32 AM on May 10, 2006


No of course not -- it's a stupid quote from a stupid movie.

I actually found the movie pretty good, and I think the context in which the quote is uttered is important.

Will butts in on an clash between one of his friends and a hoity-toity Harvard student who's trying to make said friend look bad by demonstrating his intellectual superiority. Will's not only read the books in the curriculum, he remembers everything in them, down to the page numbers, and so can catch the guy on what he's doing: simply regurgitating what he's read.

In the sense that Will's assertion about college vs the library is true at all, it's a condemnation specifically directed to this guy, who isn't demonstrating much beyond echoing what he's read. So, yeah... that guy in particular may well have been able to get his education from a public library.

But in a larger sense, the whole movie is about the character development of someone who's incredibly smart, probably smarter than anybody he's ever met by half, who has never taken the chance to take the risk of making himself part of anything other than a group of friends he grew up with. Of course he'd say something like that quote. That quote's probably there in part to paint the state of his character at the beginning, where Will has in fact gotten the public library version of education, and obviously gotten a lot out of it by virtue of his exceptionally keen mind. But there is, as everyone in the thread has pointed out, another side to a college education that comes from joining and interacting in the academic community, something one who simply stands outside and mocks it can't get.

And at the end of the movie, Will finally understands that in order to live, he has to take the chance on becoming part of something.
posted by weston at 10:51 AM on May 10, 2006 [2 favorites]


It really depends on the discipline. For instance, I doubt that the average autodidact is going to learn computer science as opposed to computer programming, because comp sci is a rather dry and mathematical discipline that changes slowly. Programming changes faster than you can blink, and because the books out there are extremely practical, unless you go out and read books on data structures, algorithms, compilers and operating systems, you're not going to get a comp sci education. You could get a job with it, though arguably comp sci gets you more of the foundations and makes learning new concepts easier.

History is a more autodidact-friendly discipline. I had a minor in history, mostly because I loved taking courses from my school's old Byzantinist, but if you're dedicated and pay attention you can get the goods from the books. Philosophy is tricky, because Anglo-American analytic philosophy is pretty much a closed field, but you can read the classics on your own. You'd stand a better chance at writing a history book without a degree than a philosophy book, as long as your references held up.

Language is hard as hell by yourself. I say this as someone who has consistently struggled for years as a language autodidact. And once you let your skills slip (I had four years of Japanese, and a semester of French, and I would be infinitely more comfortable conversing in French, but the 3 years of Spanish and fluent Esperanto factor in there), it's hard to recover them.
posted by graymouser at 10:56 AM on May 10, 2006


The quote is stupid. Thought-provoking, of course, but stupid. People don't go to college just to learn stuff they could get from books. And while you can get information from books, it's much harder to get perspective: which information is considered important and why? Which direction is the field going in? Which are the scholars you should be reading with full attention, because even when they're wrong their insights are more penetrating than anyone else's? You can make your own decisions about all this, of course, but the end result is that you're unable to communicate intelligibly with anyone who has gotten the formal education, and you wind up bitter and convinced that all those bastards are brainwashed into accepting a consensus opinion that you, only you, can see through. All the autodidacts I've known have been smart, knowledgeable about all kinds of weird stuff (but with gaping holes in their awareness because they never took a survey course), defensive about their lack of credentials, and pointlessly belligerent about the value of said credentials. Yes, you can acquire a unique perspective by going your own way, but in my opinion it's not worth the heavy price you pay.
posted by languagehat at 11:00 AM on May 10, 2006


What Will Hunting could have learned in college is how not to be a belligerent, self-defeating prick. Which is what he learns from Robin Williams and Minnie Driver, but if you're not fortunate enough to run into Robin Williams and Minnie Driver, college might be a good choice.

tear ass into Plato's Republic

Five words to live by.
posted by staggernation at 11:11 AM on May 10, 2006


I think the reason me and other mefi physics-types can be kind of dismissive toward others here who have merely read lots of conceptual books about Physics is that, although they sound convincing, they dont seem to really "get it" in the way someone who has worked through the equations has - actually worked through GR problems in Misner, Thorne & Wheeler, done the problems in Sakurai or other texts.

Amen.

I do however think one of the greatest skills aquired from college is the ability to self-teach. You can't teach yourself how to teach yourself.

In physics in particular, you must be constantly learning and adapting. When you get a phD in physics you aren't learning everything about physics as much as you are learning HOW to learn as much as possible about physics.
posted by ozomatli at 12:08 PM on May 10, 2006


Of course, do remember that the character who said this had some particular social problems, which that line of dialogue probably meant to highlight.
posted by odinsdream at 2:23 PM on May 10, 2006


Between books, internet news groups and the Web, I think you could get an education comparable to a University degree. The volume of coursework online is astonishing. Newsgroups, and possibly forums, have many smart users who engage in constructive criticism and dialog, possibly extending to mentoring. You would miss classroom discussion, being able to ask questions of an established expert, and a lot of interesting experiences. One very difficult part is sorting through the masses of crap, and being able to distinguish crap from useful, valid information. The questioner asked if you could get the information in a library, and my library has Internet access, as do many/most.

I used to know someone who studied and read a lot, and apprenticed in a lawyer's office, and passed the bar, without attending law school. No idea idea if that's still possible.
posted by theora55 at 2:42 PM on May 10, 2006 [2 favorites]


zpousman: In Biology, one could get Campbell's Biology and just dig in. And the sciences are also better at citing each other, so you can see better the debates and "schools" within the subject, picking it up as you go.

I'd disagree with that. Biology much like philosophy is a practice. The textbooks provide an introduction to the vocabulary of that practice, and the journals provide a court-side view of that practice in action. But it's like saying that you can become a basketball player by reading the theory and watching ESPN. You can be an amateur basketball player, and you can be an amateur scientist. You don't get to call yourself either just by reading a book about the subject.

Part of the problem is that in the sciences, the standard progression is that you get piled with tons and tons of vocabulary before you actually get mentorship as part of a research project. Perhaps the junior or senior year of college you can get your toe wet with an independent study project. I can't remember the name of any of my undergrad texts, but I do remember conversations I had with faculty and graduate students about Biology as a practice.

weston: But there is, as everyone in the thread has pointed out, another side to a college education that comes from joining and interacting in the academic community, something one who simply stands outside and mocks it can't get.

Well, on the other hand...

The academic community doesn't have a monopoly on knowledge, and I must admit that I'm frequently tempted to chuck the quest for credentials and find other knowledge communities. The university approach to knowledge isn't the only way, and I have frequent doubt that it's the best way.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:10 PM on May 10, 2006


I think this depends very much on the person. Personally, I couldn't have done it. I have always been one of those benighted people who has great difficulty learning things solely from books. This is true most acutely where technical or financial matters are concerned, but I'm sure there are plenty of people who have the same problem with history, languages or any subject you care to name.

I have an IQ that is significantly higher than average. People who know me say I'm very smart. I have an astrophysics degree. I don't tell you these things to brag, I tell you these things as background before I tell you that to this day I cannot for the life of me understand how mortgages work, or how the stock market works, or what on earth the words in my hopefully-purchased books on Perl, Java and XML might mean. Why can't I understand these things when I can understand general relativity and Fourier transforms? Why can't I understand these things when I have, for Christ's sake, been a successful programmer in the early years of my career? Because I haven't been taught them, that's why. I had to try and understand them via books and manuals. And I failed, repeatedly, over and over again and Lord, it did most sorely assail my self-esteem. Still does.

When I try to learm something unfamiliar purely from written words, my problem is this: I am very good with words. Cripplingly so. I see instant ambiguity everywhere. I see bad, awful, abysmal grammar and opaque, tenuous constructions. I see poor layouts and the incomplete or illogical development of ideas. I need to ask questions. I need ongoing and frequent clarification. Without access to these things I am lost. I am as a retarded child asked to grapple with brain surgery. I weep and mither in frustration. I have so many computing books... so very many... mouldering and dust-encrusted on my shelves. I rarely get past the second page before my mind is utterly fogged by doubt and uncertainty so all-pervading that it is simply pointless to continue.

So... err... nah. I reckon teechin helps. A lot.
posted by Decani at 4:23 PM on May 10, 2006 [3 favorites]


Really depends what you're studying. I definitely second all the people who say the important part about college is that it motivates you to learn even about stuff that might not otherwise interest you.

But it does depend what you're studying. Every course I've found on HTML and web design has been pretty awful, and that includes graduate courses.

But I can't imagine picking up a list of books and learning what I learned in college. Even if I read the same books... anyone who could immediately pick up Moby-Dick on their own and immediately get it is a smarter person than I am.

Of course, I didn't have to dump a hundred and fifty grand on college, luckily, and that, I think, is the best middle ground -- forget the name schools and go somewhere where you can be taught by professors.
posted by dagnyscott at 5:43 PM on May 10, 2006


Actually, you would need a library card to a university library. Most books I read in university (history major) just weren't available at the public library, even in Toronto which has an amazing public system. Some might have been in the Metro Reference Library, but I wouldn't have counted on it. There just isn't much public use for most academic books. I even found myself heading off to the slightly larger university downtown when I couldn't get a book at my uni - it might be one of only a few copies in the province.

Also, you probably couldn't find any journals in a public library, and online access involves university membership or hefty subscription fees.

It's a beautiful ideal, but you'd have to live beside the British Library to make it feasible.

And also be a genius - I know some people here think you can just teach yourself history, and you certainly could teach yourself the facts of history, like I could learn the facts of geography or biology or physicis, but I wouldn't be able to reproduce it. Facts in history is beginner history - the important part is understanding it, and being able to form coherent arguments based on logical evidence, and to write convincing essays supporting those arguments. There's also a lot of methodology issues that I'm only now (after 6 years of history classes) beginning to grasp, and I still have to turn to other people to be taught.

There have been self taught historians - at least few famous nineteenth century scholars, I believe, and Churchill (but he cheated by being there) - but they learned through writing history, and were probably somewhat genius-y.
posted by jb at 8:15 PM on May 10, 2006


I don't mean that other people don't know how to form coherant arguments based on evidence, but that it's specifically historical evidence (and how historical evidence works). It's hard for me to articulate, but there are just all sorts of things you learn that you don't really realise, until you start teaching undergraduates and realise what you now know.

I am also like Decani - I learn much better through discussion and doing than through reading. I still have to do lots of reading for my work, but I find it easier if I run the book through my head like a lecture, and make lots of sticky notes heckling or answering back or asking questions. And even then I would prefer to go to a lecture over reading an article any day.
posted by jb at 8:20 PM on May 10, 2006


Personally, I think one of the things that is really difficult to do on your own an a novice is to take a look at your own work, and identify its flaws. That's about 80% of learning right there, having a more experienced person say, "That's nice, but it would be even better if you did..."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:32 AM on May 11, 2006


KirkJobSluder has really answered the question in the best way possible.

Self-education is possible.

Without criticism however, you acquire correct knowledge and mistaken knowledge at the same time. With time, you can confront your own flaws and correct some of them. But without the support of an academci community, spotting and correcting your own flaws will take longer, and therefore gaining knowledge that is error-free will be harder.

A brilliant philosopher without an academic community will still be a brilliant philosopher. Take Sartre for example. He was very influential despite not doing a PhD in philosophy and refining his philosophical methodology to be professional and error-free.

Nevertheless, other philosophers criticize his work for being plagued by contradictions, confusions, and absurdities. Anotherwords, his work is brilliant, but with a peer review, it could have been more flawless. The professional philosophers who read his works spot problems that he could have correct, had he had a better philosophical training.

So, I guess no matter how gifted or brilliant a person is, the insights of others in his fields will help him in producing more solid academic work ;-)

(These testimonials to Sartre's error-ridden philosophy aren't my own; they come from Dermot Moran's Introduction to Phenomenology book.)
posted by gregb1007 at 1:47 PM on May 11, 2006


I don't think it's feasible - it's not what the line meant. He wasn't saying you can get an equivalend education at the library, he was saying that the guy had wasted his money because he hadn't used the opportunity his money had bought - he was just regurgitating from books, wheras what he had paid for was an education which goes beyond the library - professors to put things in different perspective, etc etc, but he hadn't gaining any of what he had paid for, perhaps he'd skipped all his classes having fun figuring he could just cram from the textbooks, or whatever.

I don't think the line was in any way meant to indicate a college education is possible from a library.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:40 PM on May 14, 2006


I'm the opposite of Decani and jb: I learn best from reading.

My university education was very narrowly focused--I took exactly three courses which were not in computer science or math. Almost all of my general reading (e.g. history, economics, political science) has been after I graduated from university.

I suspect that a good university education is better at exploring topics slowly, carefully, and in depth. But for a broad understanding, books for an intelligent general audience can be pretty good. They'll still give you a much deeper understanding than you would get from watching television.

I also find that the New York Review of Books archive is invaluable as a way of getting up to speed on topics I don't know anything about.

Some specific books that made an impression on me:

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (1999)

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy (1989)

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L Shirer (1960)

Memoirs, 1925-1950 and 1950-1963, by George F. Kennan

Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations by E. H. Carr

Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace by Hans Morgenthau

The Cold War as History by Louis J. Halle (1967)

No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior by Joshua Meyrowitz (1986)

The Age of Diminished Expectations: U.S. Economic Policy in the 1990s by Paul Krugman

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
posted by russilwvong at 4:43 PM on May 15, 2006


Oops, I didn't check the New York Review of Books link.
posted by russilwvong at 4:44 PM on May 15, 2006


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