What are the basics of a well-rounded self-education?
September 24, 2006 5:51 AM   Subscribe

What are the basics of a well-rounded self-education? I've always been the kind of person who immerses herself in a topic when I get an interest, but I feel like there are HUGE gaps in my basic knowledge. Of course, the nature of gaps is that I'm not exactly sure with what to fill them!

Because I can't currently afford to go back to college, I'm trying to sort of bootstrap this, using as many online resources as possible. I need some sort of structured learning plan/curriculum suggestion, I suppose. Otherwise, I'll find myself just gravitating towards subjects that I already know backwards and forwards.

I know this is sort of an ambiguous question, but even if I don't get an answer that fits what I'm looking for, I'm sure my fellow MeFites will have interesting suggestions!
posted by polexxia to Education (29 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
You could try Fadiman and Major's New Lifetime Reading Plan, or some of the other Great Books lists, so often recommended to ardent seekers of self-improvement. There's a lot of good stuff on them, worth your time.

But you'll generally find it difficult to gain much from them about the realms of math, or any of the hard sciences, or applied sciences such as engineering. And you won't see much in the Great Books lists that is riotously funny, or "alternative" in world view [see the second link above for the "Aren't they all Dead White Males?" discussion].

Still, on your own, you've got to start somewhere, and this is what the greatest minds recommend as as the core for a person with your request. So, dip an oar in the water, and start paddling.
posted by paulsc at 6:04 AM on September 24, 2006

It would help if you could provide a more specific goal. A "well rounded" education is too vague. Even if you went to college, different colleges would define "well rounded" in different ways. Are you trying to join the cultural elite (more Shakespeare needed)? Are you trying to build up your general knowledge to help you achieve everyday things (bake cakes)? Are you planning to go on a game show?

I have a somewhat similar goal, though I AM happy to roam where my whims take me. But I'm sort of trying to touch on the major achievements of mankind (e.g. creation of complex music) and I'm trying to get the basic knowledge I need to understand these lofty topics.

I study...

1. history
2. science
3. math
4. art history
5. music
6. literature/drama
7. computer programming
9. psychology
10. logic
11. rhetoric
12. philosophy
posted by grumblebee at 6:10 AM on September 24, 2006

13. mythology
14. geography
posted by grumblebee at 6:10 AM on September 24, 2006

I should add that this is too long a list to allow you to deeply penetrate. So if you really want to attempt it, you'll have to aim for general knowlege. That's what I do. Then I narrow in on certain subjects, like Shakespeare and Calculas. My general knoledge helps my study of these specific subjects.
posted by grumblebee at 6:12 AM on September 24, 2006

Final thought: many people I know who CLAIM to be well rounded have huge gaps in the maths/sciences or in the humanities. When I was a kid, I quickly got shuttled into the Artsy group, and it was goodbye Science for a couple of decades. I'm playing catchup now.

You can't fully appreaciate Art without appreciating science and vice versa.
posted by grumblebee at 6:16 AM on September 24, 2006

As a person from a science background (who had a liberal arts education including background in the humanities) I have to agree with grumblebee.

The "self-educated" circles tend to mostly involve people who read a lot of books, meaning fiction, history, and literary analysis. It can be harder to get into science on one's own (perhaps due to many concepts not being self-evident to the layman) but it's a critical part of being a fully educated person.

MIT OpenCourseWare
posted by rxrfrx at 6:38 AM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

My advice--which might not play well here--is that online is not the way to go. The way to get 'well-rounded' is to use the library. In my experience, despite the hypertextual nature of the web, it's really in reading long, old-fashioned books that you run up against new ideas in a meaningful way. Online resources (like Wikipedia) are often too short in terms of format. You get through a given topic faster, but in not nearly as deep or integrated a fashion. So I say: go into your local independent bookstore, and either buy substantive books there that interest you, or write down their titles and get them from the library if you're in saving mode.

My other piece of advice is that the real secret is to be patient. I'm a literature grad student, so my job, I suppose, is to read all day and 'acquire knowledge.' One thing I disocvered pretty quickly is that it takes forever. To read a good history book, a good biography, a good work of upper-tier popular science, or serious literature just takes time. Once you're comfortable with that, though, you get to learn and read in a really in-depth way about whatever strikes your fancy, without feeling like you're falling behind or wasting your time. Over the summer I spent two weeks reading Richard Ellman's biography of Joyce, and another couple weeks reading Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale; a lot slower than browsing the web, but a lot more memorable, and useful in terms of making connections and bumping into ideas I wouldn't have come across otherwise.

Finally, I'd say: don't forget the power of serious periodicals. One year of reading the Times Literary Supplement or New York Review of Books, and you will have gathered a surprising amount of evenly scattered knowledge. The TLS is, as its name suggests, mostly literary--but in every issue they will review, at length, several good new science books in all sorts of fields.
posted by josh at 6:42 AM on September 24, 2006 [2 favorites]

Get an encyclopedia for teens, and read it through. That will fill in the basics of non-pop culture. Then, get a book on the history of music, art, and film for the last hundred years and read that. That will help with pop culture and will just be fun. Cap it with an intro book to literature if you'd like. All this stuff can be geared towards kids, since that's the only age where we try to give people broad-brush overviews about the world.

Bonus: if you are trying to learn another language or if you know another language, get an encyclopedia at the appropriate reading-level for you in that language. Read it after the English one and it'll reinforce what you learned in English (assuming English is your native language) while helping you learn or keep in shape on your second language.

A lot of the above will be review, but it'll be quick and painless and will help you tie things together in space and time that you already know, while adding in stuff that you've forgotten or never learned. And give you an idea of where your gaps are, so you can explore those fields.
posted by lorrer at 6:43 AM on September 24, 2006

Well, I do (at least vaguely) support the Great Books theory of learning, but something that I HAVE to do in order to learn is both discuss and write, things that college is pretty damn helpful for. You might want to look into either joining or starting a book club, especially a Great Books book club. That way, you'll at least have some external motivators and the ability to discuss themes.
posted by klangklangston at 6:57 AM on September 24, 2006

In terms of semi-structure:

Berkeley has courses on iTunes

If you identify an area you'd like to know more about, you can often find syllabi online for courses at many universities. I've done this when I wasn't able to fit a class into my schedule but it still sounded interesting. Looking over the syllabi can give you an idea of what the key texts of a field are to add to your reading list.
posted by stefnet at 7:14 AM on September 24, 2006

I adore this book, "The Well-Educated Mind." It not only has a great syllabus for a very well-rounded self-education, it is very encouraging.
posted by jbickers at 8:03 AM on September 24, 2006

I have a little theory....

Given the size of the body of human knowledge and the capacity of one individual in one lifetime, we are all pretty much all equally ignorant.

Einstein has been quoted as answering a question once with "I'm no Einstein!"

If you subscribe to this view, it makes it a little easier to confront the frequent lack of specific knowledge that we all encounter. I've spent a successful career in routine ignorance and uncertainty.

I've finally come to the conclusion that the most educated folks I run into are the ones who keep learning, always challenging themselves, and who ask the best questions rather than have all the 'right' answers.

Don't fret too much about what you don't know, but I'd recommend going towards things that make you uncomfortable and that have some generality. Personal favorites of mine are math and science, but in middle age I am beginning to gravitate more towards art, music, philosophy, and community building. It's all useful, fun and growth producing. You know where you're weak.

Contrast your goals with those of the people who think life is the next episode of American Idol, Fox News, game shows, or golf and pat yourself on the back!

Good luck!
posted by FauxScot at 8:28 AM on September 24, 2006 [2 favorites]

I'm popping back in to this thread, to make a case for a parallel learning track, which is the experience of culture necessary to its full appreciation. What I mean by this is that it is one thing to be conversant with criticism of art, art history, and the biography of an artist, and yet quite another to stand 6 feet in front of a Van Gogh for 15 minutes, and to take out the recorded museum tour's earbuds, and listen only, with full effort, to his paint. In the same vein, it is worthwhile to buy CD's of Mozart and Brahms, and spend a bit on a good stereo, and make yourself a regular Thursday night classical music hour, while reading up on those great men, and the remarks of others who learned from them or questioned their choices, but it is another thing entirely to dress up, and go sit in Boston's Symphony Hall on a Tuesday evening, or buy yourself a season's pair concerts ticket.

If you are serious about self development, you owe it to yourself to spend time and money in gathering experiences which have greater value than that they are merely pleasant pastimes. Travel can be broadening, but it can be distracting, too. Music can be distracting, or it can be a journey of enormous self-discovery. You have to find the honesty in your own soul to risk and to try, experientially, to come to own, for yourself, some kinds of knowledge, and to do so in conjunction with your larger program of self-education and, for want of a better secular term, spiritual development.

So read, yes, certianly; but aspire to know Beethoven, on his own terms, as much as you love Poison concerts, and don't let the opinions of others become, wholesale, your own, for lack of effort in confronting an orchestra, first hand. Make a real pilgrammage, to some good museum, that costs you something, to see a big Pollack hung before you, before you think seriously that you yourself could have thrown paint on canvas with as good a result.

Any less committment to your own development is short sighted, and you'll turn out lopsided for things read, probably, to boot.
posted by paulsc at 9:03 AM on September 24, 2006 [4 favorites]

I'd have to agree strongly with josh, and add the London Review of Books to his list of periodicals. The LRB and NYRB both have a pretty good archive of free articles on the web, as well as 5 or 6 every two weeks from the latest issue. You can follow up any of the ideas in each article with more in depth study.

Of course, as people have said above, this is not likely to be too useful for more vertical subjects like maths or physics. I'm guessing you're in America, so I don't know how it is there, but in Australia you can take individual courses at universities not as part of a degree (but countable later).
posted by claudius at 9:35 AM on September 24, 2006

Count me in as another guy strongly agreeing with Josh. The Web has enormous breadth but it's not so strong in the depth department. You can use the Web for looking up books, for finding names of other possible sources, etc. But you'll find depth in the books.

Find the best library in your community and make that your second home. The local university will probably have the best selection and they will usually offer borrower's cards to local people for an annual fee. And remember: inter-library loan is your friend; I've done well by it over the years. I've picked up a book on ice diving from Alaska's library system. I got another book -- out of print, selling for three figures on Amazon -- on contemporary submarine technology from a small-town library in Florida. (I assumed it was the author's hometown.)
posted by jason's_planet at 9:46 AM on September 24, 2006

I went to a college that makes a strong effort to turn out "well rounded" individuals. It mostly succeeds.

In part it's success is due to it's curriculum (no one gets out without a year of science, foreign languages are hard to avoid, PE is a requirement for and everyone gets a heavy dose of the humanities).

I think the biggest reason for it's success is the people involved. The faculty are passionate about their work and willing to share their other interests, but the most important part is the students themselves. Most of them arrive with a broad curiosity that they want to nurture, and being around such people helps reinforce your own curiosity and learning. Helping someone else understand difficult subjects helps sharpen your own knowledge of those subjects.

You say you can't manage to go back to College at this point, but it strongly encourage you to find like-minded people to interract with as you pursue your personal curriculum. Find reading groups and discussion groups in your area. Go to lectures and talks, and talk to people afterwords.
posted by Good Brain at 10:46 AM on September 24, 2006

My knowledge of things scientific was quickly updated to the cusp and expanded greatly upon being introduced to The Science Masters Series. Covering topics such as evolution, the origins of the univers, memes, periodic tables, numbers, this is up to date thinking* on all the most popular scientific topics and written by some of the best experts in the field such as Paul Davies, Richard Dawkins, Richard Leaky, Daniel C. Dennett and Stephen J. Gould. They are very readable if you paid any attention at all in high school sciences classes and at 170 pages each it's hard to get more bang for your time invested when it comes to thinking great thoughts.

*well, up to date for 1996, books like The Last Three Minutes need a major update but still serve an excellent purpose.
posted by furtive at 10:56 AM on September 24, 2006

not a curriculum but a very useful 'method' for what you're attempting:
(I reread this periodically.)

The two most relevant parts:
A) "Abstract knowledge: except for lots of learning, you will need to pay attention to the quality of knowledge and its abstract applicability. You cannot just memorize thousands of facts. You have to consciously explore areas such as logic, probability, statistics, game theory, decision theory, computing sciences, optimization, as well as other branches of mathematics and other sciences. You have to develop a love for logical thinking, scientific method and skepticism. Even if you are a movie critic, you will still need a quality logic to frame your judgment. Remember that all knowledge is volatile and may be subject to falsification at any time. Keep your mind open to new truths even if they seem to turn your present vision of the world upside down. "
B) "Clear goal: even the smartest and the most knowledgeable brain does not deserve the status of genius if it lives in a vacuum. If you switch your focus and interests indefinitely, you may end up with little creative output to show for your talents. Establishing a clear goal for your life should be your first priority. If you are very young and still do not understand yourself or the surrounding world, you can safely commit yourself to enhanced learning. Until your goals crystallize, learning itself may be your temporary goal. However, you cannot keep on learning for the learning sake indefinitely. At some point you need to focus on a big goal and your learning should be focused on achieving that goal. Choose your goal by a combination of your own talents and its utilitarian impact. What do you think is the best thing you could do to make the world a better place?"

At this point, it sounds like you're building a foundation, so I'd recommend a general book like "A Brief History of Nearly Everything" along with at least one hard science book and one humanities book at a time. Then keep doing this until you start to develop a more particular, unique goal but even then, always read somewhat outside your specialty!
posted by Furious Fitness at 11:14 AM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Make sure you can read music, have a basic understanding of music theory and history, and can play a stringed instrument and a wind instrument to an audience's general satisfaction.
Or, if you wish, you may substitute the piano for the two instruments.

This has probably brought more joy into my life than all the many days I have spent in classrooms at the many schools I have attended.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 12:04 PM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

I would emphasize process: how do you learn to think, read, write, and analyze. The goal should be an attitude toward new information, and a method for processing and absorbing it.

The "read the encyclopedia" entries, while responsive to your question, do not do much to enhance your ability to critically assess and evaluate. In fact--insofar as reference books purport to represent a single, authoritative viewpoint, they are less than helpful.

Look at rhetoric, logic. Learn how arguments are constructed--and refuted. Learn how history is written. Learn the assumptions behind different fields of study, and their impact,

Learn, in short, how to learn. That's the challenge for audtodidacts.

(And everyone else.)
posted by Phred182 at 12:23 PM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

As for Great Books: most of the Great works of canonical English-language literature are really excellent reads, once you get into the slightly alternative way of talking. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, et al require just a bit of patience, but once you get going they are funny and irreverent and pointed and all the things that make reading fun. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are raunchy and hilarious, if you can be a bit patient with the language. Shakespeare and the great Greek playwrights are all funny and raunchy and speak to themes that are still with us today.

Get the two-volume Norton Anthology of English Literature, or the one-volume Norton Anthology of Poetry. Work your way through some big famous folks from there. You can get basic details about the movements, biographies of specific authors, major themes of works from the Internet. Then you can see which you like, and find actual books to read about them or their style.

Another thought: look up university syllabi on the web for a subject you're interested in. Google "Introduction to philosophy syllabus" for example, and you will get a bunch of good introductory reading lists.

Just off the top of my head, good philosophy stuff would include: If you're serious about getting a pretty heavy understanding, Roger Scruton has a nice Short Introduction to Modern Philosophy which covers the big figures of western philosophy from the 1500s to the 1800s. There are also "lighter" introductions. You could use something like that in conjunction with reading some of the actual works of each philosopher that the intros talk about. (Immanuel Kant is famously difficult to read; don't let that put you off philosophy). Among ancient philosophers, Plato is great to read -- read up on the story of Socrates's death online, then read the Apology and the Republic. Aristotle is hard to read without also being in a course; you could skip him for starters, or read someone who describes what his views are. Read Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy, preferably along with some short introductory commentary. Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy is fun, quick, and an engaging look at philosophy in the early 20th century.

You could also get an Introduction to Philosophy textbook of the kind that are sometimes used in intro courses in universities (offhand: John Perry and Michael Bratman have one that is commonly used, and Joel Feinberg has a couple) these have very short snippets of famous works, along with short explanations of what's going on in the work and a bit of context-giving. There was a novel several years ago called Sophie's World which pitched itself as an introduction to philosophy in the form of a story -- I know a lot of people liked it; I never read it myself.

It's a nice idea to get familiar with basic logic. A fun course book for that might be Sweet Reason by Jim Henle; it has lots of fun verbal examples to keep you going, which might be hard if you're working by yourself. If you get a logic book, be sure you get one with the answers to the problems in the back.

A few science books that you could get a lot out of by reading on your own:
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (If you've never read it, do. He spends the whole book carefully offering evidence for the effects of natural selection.)
Philip Kitcher, Abusing Science (Against creationism)
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (this is where the phrase "paradigm shift" comes from)
James Watson, The Double Helix (first-hand description of how Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA)
John McPhee's books about geology; The Control of Nature is a fascinating one, and his trip across the North American continent is collected in Annals of the Former World (Also, get a basic geology textbook. Understanding Earth is a good one.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:14 PM on September 24, 2006

"Autodidacts." Talk about a self-defeating post.

The point is, fact acquisition and memorization--encyclopedia readin'--can interfere with education. Education is a process, not a tank to be filled.

Consider yourself "educated" when you have built, and are fine-tuning--your abilities to:

--process, weigh, and apply new information.
--make connections and associations among diverse ideas and facts
--express yourself clearly
--be flexible but not easily swayed

It's a lifetime process, but there are a few ways to be sure you aren't "educated":

--If you feel utter certainty on subjects in a variety of areas and you cannot foresee changing your mind.
--If you are stuck in a morass of relativism and can't take a stance on anything.
--If you consistently have contempt for those who disagree with you, regardless of subject.
--If infomercials work.
--If you permit authority figures, wishful thinking, superstitions, or prejudices to rule supreme over your thoughts and choices. (Note: those things can get a vote, but if they're driving, you're probably not educated)

Intellectual curiosity and desire are superb indicators. I wish you the best of luck. Sounds to me as though you're on your way.
posted by Phred182 at 6:22 PM on September 24, 2006

I like grumblebee's list, and I agree that the library will be more useful than the internet. Some suggestions:

Science - Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is a nice easy intro to the history of science and the scientific method.

Geography - Buy an Atlas and a good wall map. Put the Wall map up somewhere obvious (back of the loo door is always good), and everytime you hear about a place you can't immediately pinpoint, look it up.

Literature - Seconding The Well Educated Mind as a nice intro. Look into unabridged classics as mp3's if you have a commute or other dead space in your life.

History - The Well Trained Mind is by the same author about designing a homeschooling system that is based around a chronological study of history, and has some interesting things to say. I have yet to find a good overview of history, but the Teaching Company has some interesting lectures that are pretty cheap to download when they're on sale (generally at least once a year).

Note that you will never know everything, and that this is a lifelong undertaking. ie. Don't go insane trying to know it all.
posted by kjs4 at 11:41 PM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

You guys have given me some FABULOUS leads. I guess I wasn't entirely clear in the first post: my background is history, literature, computers, and pop culture. I lack in sciences (hard and soft) and in practical skills. I didn't quite mean that I am only looking for Internet resources for the coursework (for lack of a better word), but more like a "what you should know" kinda thing.

Don't they have "what every grown up should know", just like they have "What your Xth Grader should know"... that would be rad. LOL
posted by polexxia at 12:04 AM on September 25, 2006

I dont know if this is helpful, but I frequently go to the college bookstore and browse their textbooks for things that look interesting to me. It's a way to find books, chosen by experts, and it's alot cheaper then paying for a class. Also I will look up college bookstores online, pick a subject, and then browse Amazon to see what deals I can get. I also like listmainia.
posted by govtrust at 12:10 AM on September 25, 2006

sorry you might also try this list

Modern Library Top 100 non-fiction
posted by govtrust at 12:16 AM on September 25, 2006

I think the books about "What your Xth-grader should know" spin off from the original project, which was called The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. The new, third edition of the book is available free online at Bartleby.
posted by cgc373 at 1:38 AM on September 25, 2006

To help find the gaps, something that might be of use could be thinking about chunks of society (stereotypes are ok) which you would find pretty unfamiliar.

I oppose the thinking that education is for employment, but thinking about the range of occupations (paid or unpaid) that society spans (especially occupations held by people you don't know, or don't want to know) seems to me to be a quick way to feel an idea of the range of human endevour and help find your weak areas.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:07 PM on September 25, 2006

Don't they have "what every grown up should know", just like they have "What your Xth Grader should know"?

I know you're kidding, but I think there's a reason why such a book doesn't exist -- or, if it does, why it can't really be helpful (at least in doing what it claims it does).

Presumably, there ARE things every Xth Grader should know. He should know those things that he NEEDS to learn before he's on his own in the world. He needs to learn how to take care of himself (manage his bank account, keep healthy, etc.) and he needs to learn a general body of skills/knowledge that will expected of him in a wide variety of occupations and lifestyles. For instance, logical reasoning is useful in most jobs.

So as kids, we hopefully learn how to live and how to learn. Then, as adults, we LIVE AND LEARN. Trouble is, there are so many ways to live and learn. A computer programmer and a lion tamer both need to practice safe sex, balance their checkbook and read street signs, but beyond that, they need completely different types of knowledge.

The What Every Grown Up Should Know is the whole library. Or rather it's "how to use a library card."

However, there are many grownups who skipped (or forgot) large portions of What Every Xth Grader Should Know. So it might be worthwhile going back and checking that out.

But once you ARE grown up, the fun not learning everything -- it's learning whatever you want to learn.
posted by grumblebee at 12:41 PM on September 26, 2006

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