It’s a testament to the universe’s harsh sense of humor that right after college graduation my intellectual curiosity awoke from its adolescent, party-addled stupor and became enamored with books, history, literature, philosophy, politics, science, and intellectual life in general.
For the most part, during my career as a student, I wanted to learn nothing. I was immature. Too young. I wasn’t ready.
Besides, learning was something adults made you do, so I rebelled against it. It was a chore, something I did because I was supposed to, and we rarely fall in love with anything we feel is forced on us.
Suddenly, at 23, I was free to pursue my own education. And, something amazing happened. I wanted to learn everything! I was a new person entirely. Books started appearing on my doorstep faster than I could read them.
Without the leash, I was going into every backyard in the neighborhood of the mind, running naked and wild, stepping on glass and eating stuff I wasn’t able to digest, sure, but enjoying it, and learning how to learn, nonetheless.
The mysterious world of knowledge called to me like the sea calls to a sailor, and I was more excited to sail across the various disciplines than I’d ever been.
Just a year after I received my diploma for my econ degree, I was walking out of my local hometown library with an armful of books on psychology.
Then, next month, US revolutionary history.
Then classics of political philosophy, and so on.
This is something you never would’ve seen me doing during my years of formal schooling., except maybe for the tail end of my senior year when my curiosity was starting to show early signs of throwing off the blankets and getting out of bed.
In fact, if my grandma, a former teacher, history buff, who had the sharpest tongue of anyone I know, was to rise from her grave today, I’m sure she’d shriek in joy about my change of heart towards her beloved books.
I’m 27 now, and over the last four years I’ve been doggedly trying to give myself a well-rounded education, especially in the humanities. I still am trying, and it’s been a fun, if challenging, experience.
Feeling Like I’m Making Up for Lost Time
I feel like I’m making up for lost time, like I squandered an opportunity to apply myself in college, missed a chance to spend four years doing barely anything but reading serious books and thinking lofty thoughts, all without society telling me to go get a full-time job.
The harsh truth is that I did in fact squander it, and this realization stings. I got a piece of paper, but not a true education.
Just this morning I was at a cafe trying to read American Pastoral — part of my DIY curriculum in literature.
But I couldn’t pay attention to Philip Roth’s rant because I was too busy eavesdropping on an interview going on at the table next to me. (I can never pass up a good interview; they’re reality tv, the stakes are high, people are nervous, I love them; also, I’m sure Roth would’ve done the same).
The interviewee was a college girl applying for law school. At the time I tuned in she was talking about college and all the classes she was taking — French philosophy, American literature, something about physics I think.
She was also sharing her extracurriculars, of which there were many.
As if to agitate my regrets about not applying myself in school, she mentioned she was president of the philosophy/psychology club.
“Damn I would’ve loved to do something like that!” was my initial thought.
Alas, she quickly dampened my self-frustration, for when asked why those two subjects were in one club, she said they’re close enough subjects that they just smush them together. This made me wonder if they don’t just meet up to smoke weed.
Anyway, regardless of the truth of her accolades — sitting there, pretending to read, an econ major who spent more time partying than studying at school — I was feeling a bit angry at myself.
Feeling a bit foolish. Feeling a bit behind. Feeling a bit jealous of the opportunities she was taking advantage of, wishing my intellectual awakening occurred a bit earlier.
But, as the interview went on, I remembered something important, something everyone interested in self-education should remember.
It’s Never Too Late to Start Taking Your Education Seriously
I was a different person back then, more interested in rising socially and falling in love with girls than with books. It was a maturity thing, and now I know what I’m interested in, and can pursue learning with love and intensity. It’s never too late.
After all, Winston Churchill said his education began the day he left college.
“I began my education at a very early age; in fact, right after I left college.” — Churchill
I’m 27 now, and over the last four years I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be educated and how to approach self-directed study.
I’ve also been engaging in it on a daily basis— trying different approaches to giving myself a strong foundation in my major subjects of interest, primarily the humanities and classic books of the Western canon, but also some social and natural sciences as well.
I’ve learned a lot, not just about the subjects, but about the practice of self-education. About what it does to your mind, your actions, and your beliefs. About what works and what doesn’t. About what education is, and what it isn’t.
Still, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the major fields of inquiry and have only begun to understand how to perform self-directed learning effectively.
My hope is that on this blog I can share my challenges, mistakes, successes, and findings from 4 years of self-education and wide reading.
By doing this, I hope to help fellow autodidacts plan and execute their own well-rounded educations outside of school.
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Thanks for reading. I wish you the best in your studies. Remember, it’s never too late to start.