You can certainly self-study history without the help of teachers or institutions. All you really need are your books, access to the internet, discipline, and a strong interest in the subject.
While colleges may guide you through a curriculum, and support you with professors and research materials, these programs aren’t necessary to study history.
What’s necessary is a willingness to read and learn.
Thomas Jefferson even once said this regarding how to study history:
“While you are attending these courses you can proceed by yourself in a regular series of historical reading. It would be a waste of time to attend a professor of this. It is to be acquired from books and if you pursue it by yourself you can accommodate it to your other reading so as to fill up those chasms of time not otherwise appropriated.”— Thomas Jefferson, Letters to Thomas Mann Randolph
Of course, it’s easier to become a history buff, or historically informed, than an actual practicing historian. But, despite its difficulty, some great minds have still managed to do it.
In this article I’ll share some of these self-taught history scholars, explain why history lends itself well to self-directed study, and share some reasons to read history outside of school.
Want to Self-Study History? Check out my self-education roadmap for Western history, where you’ll learn a step-by-step process for studying the subject.
Examples of Self-Taught Historians & Experts
David Hume, a famous enlightenment philosopher by trade (not a bad trade), wrote the classic work The History of England.
This is common— experts who cut their teeth in other fields writing histories, although probably more common in the past.
Author David Mcculough (actually my buddy’s relative), an English major, has penned such best-selling books as The “Greater Journey: Americans in Paris”, “Truman”, and “John Adams”.
And you probably already know some well-read friend or relative who can talk endlessly about a certain part of history. They likely obtained most of that knowledge, if not all, through their own learning.
Now, you can’t study all of history, of course. Too much has happened. But, you can learn some of it, and become an expert in a few regions and/or time periods of history.
Why It’s Possible to Self Learn History
Compared to other subjects like physics or even philosophy, history actually lends itself quite well to self-directed study for a couple of reasons:
- Very Little Equipment is Needed: Unlike chemistry you don’t need special equipment to get deep in your study of history. Tools only really become necessary if you become a professional Historian doing cutting-edge research.
- It’s a Humanities Discipline: The Humanities are usually pretty easy to study on your own because the main way to learn them is through reading, thinking, and writing/talking — a triad which will not only teach you history but also sharpen your mental faculties.
- There are Thousands of Great History Books: There are plenty of books on almost every part of history you could imagine, from a general history of pirates to a history of the Spanish Civil War. You could also read the classic history texts chronologically.
- There are Numerous Helpful Online Resources: There are plenty of people and institutions creating free video courses, podcasts, newsletters, and other formats to aid you in your self-directed study.
As you can see, studying history on your own and getting to a point where you’re more educated about a certain period of time than the average history undergraduate is completely possible, as long as you put in the work and time.
If you studied consistently for years, reading voraciously, thinking deeply, and learning the arts of finding, weighing, and interpreting evidence, you could even make a career out of it as say a self-taught Historian or a Journalist and Podcaster (looking at you Dan Carlin).
Or perhaps you could become a Political Columnist or an Author known for their historically-grounded analyses of current events or enlightening books and biographies.
And if you’re in it for the fun, you can certainly learn enough about history to wow your friends at the dinner table or turn heads at the bar.
Disclaimer: If becoming a Historian respected in academic circles is your goal, it’s likely a good option to get a PHD in History at some point. But that can come later, after years of writing and studying in the field on your own. And it’s not always necessary.
Why Should I Self-Educate Myself in History?
I’m persuaded that history study should make an appearance in every self-education plan, for reasons I outline in this article, which I recommend checking out.
Self-studying history can bring you many intellectual benefits, from increasing your stock of knowledge to sharpening your critical thinking skills, both of which will aid you in any aspect of your life.
When people sense that you’re a sharp and informed person, they’re more likely to listen to you or give you what you want.
Further, if you’re considering a history degree, but aren’t sure if it’s worth the money, studying it on your own first helps you determine if the subject is something worth pursuing. .
And if you’re a writer, like me, you can improve your arguments and enhance your stories with historical references. But, these are just a few of the many reasons to self-learn history.
Below are some of other reasons to self-study history:
- You Wish to Build Your Historical Knowledge: Knowing how to hit a golf ball well is cool. Knowing two opposing theories for why Hitler didn’t seize his opportunity to capture the British in Dunkirk inside and out is badass.
- You Want to Know if History is Your Calling: Considering a Bachelor’s, Master’s, PHD? Test the intellectual waters first with some reading before spending thousands.
- You’re Pursuing a Political Career: Policy analysts, political scientists, and even politicians, the good ones, need a grounding in history to excel at their crafts.
- You Desire to Be a Better Thinker and Writer: Reading history forces you to think. Is this true? Why did this occur? How did Y impact X? Also, as you read, you’ll expose yourself to great writing, which will improve your own.
- You Want to Add Intelligent Points to Conversations: When you know history, you’ll see news and current events in a new light, and be able to use references from history as you discuss issues with others. Or, contribute to the great conversation.
- You Want to Improve at Your Academic Discipline: Historical data is used to create policy, legislate, and build social, economic, literary, and cultural theories. Economists, philosophers, literary theorists, sociologists, psychologists, and others should read it.
- You Want to Know How We Got Here: Studying how societies and relationships between governments and citizens evolve over time clues you into how we arrived at our current problems and fortunes. You’ll better understand why you are you.
I don’t think there’s a person in the world who wouldn’t benefit from studying history, except for maybe Putin; truth might be a bit too much of a shock to his worldview.
Through its study, you learn to think critically, you expand your perspective, you grow as an individual — as we all do when tackling hard tasks — and you learn virtues to imitate and value, and horrific acts to avoid and denounce when you see them happening again.
I think an overlooked reason for teaching yourself history is that you get to walk and talk with the greats, be it Cyrus The Great or Abraham Lincoln. You get to hear their plans, watch them in action, and learn from their mistakes and brilliance.
Finding such role models to emulate and learn from has, at least in my experience, been one of the most satisfying parts of history self-study.
Self Learning History
Self learning history will deepen your understanding of the present and provide you with intense cognitive training.
If you want to start learning history but aren’t sure where to start, check out my guide to self learning history, where I walk you through how to systematically approach the subject as a beginner.
Or, if you want to freshen up on the history of the United States, hop over to my US history self education roadmap.