A surefire way to hurt your argument’s impact is historical ignorance.
Nothing makes you appreciate the luxuries we have now — freedom, education, security, privacy —more than an understanding of what our predecessors did to attain them.
And, quite often, nothing provides a more intellectually stimulating evening than a deep dive into a well-written and rigorously researched history book.
Perhaps you’re interested in studying history on your own for fun. Maybe it’s to enhance your performance in your career, or to figure out if it’s something you want to study formally. Maybe you just want to become more well-read in history because you believe it’s important.
Whatever your goals, this 7-step self education roadmap will help you attain fundamental knowledge of history systematically and on your own, outside of any formal program. Once finished, you’ll have the background knowledge and skills to go pursue a specific period or event.
Although I do engage in self-education religiously, and do my research, I am not a certified teacher of history. As an autodidact, take this guide and any other you encounter as a flexible template rather than law. At the very least I hope this guide gives you some ideas about how to systematically approach your studies. At the very most I hope following it exactly takes you where you want to go intellectually.
That said, let’s answer a question that usually stumps aspiring autodidacts in history.
Can You Self-Teach Yourself History?
It’s possible to self-study history without the help of teachers or institutions. All you really need are your history books, access to online courses, discipline, and an interest in the subject. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “all that is necessary for a student is access to a library.”
While colleges may guide you through a curriculum, teach research methods, and support you with professors and materials, they aren’t necessary to study history.
Many autodidacts have done great things outside of academia:
- George Orwell: Via self-immersion, he wrote “Homage to Catalonia”, an acclaimed personal account of the Spanish civil war that’s commonplace in History classrooms. I’m a big Orwell fan but didn’t love this one — maybe it was the material. “Road to Wigan Pier” I enjoyed much more.
- Dan Carlin: Holds only a BA in History and hosts an extremely popular podcast called Hardcore History, which is known for its attention to detail and accuracy. Much of the topics he discusses on the podcast he learned on his own.
- Norman Ohler: Has no history degree and wrote the modern historical classic “Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich”. His lack of a formal history education didn’t stop him from doing serious research or from winning both critical and commercial acclaim for his work.
Self-education is a viable route not only for those interested in studying history for knowledge, but also for thinkers who want to produce books, YouTube channels, blogs, or podcasts about history.
Disclaimer: If becoming a Historian who’s active 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.
A 7-Step Roadmap for Self-Learning History
While there’s no one single way to self-learn history, I have created a roadmap you can follow that will help give you the primary education you need before going off on your own and learning about whatever time period you find most fascinating.
If you follow this process, which requires consistent study, you’ll go from someone with little historical knowledge to someone who knows the fundamentals of historical study, has read the classical texts of history, and is even specialized in the history of one place/time.
There is logic driving the sequence of steps, but if you want to mix and mash them or skip ahead, feel free to do so as well.
1. Learn How to Read History Texts Like a Historian
When a historian reads a history book written by a contemporary or writer of the past, they aren’t just interested in the content being shared.
Although the facts, events, wars, stories, and commentary are informative, the historian is also concerned with the structure of the book and its argument.
They read the book critically, analyzing the text and the book’s arguments, weighing the evidence, and, in a sense, engaging in a conversation with the author by taking notes, underlining, and thinking critically as they read.
Practicing active reading not only makes the process of studying history more enjoyable, but it also increases the chances that you remember what you’ve read.
To learn how to read a historical text like a historian, check out the following resources:
- The Landscape of History: This introductory book teaches you about the historical method and helps you understand how historians approach their craft. After reading, you should be better equipped to assess historical texts with a more analytical eye.
- How to Read for History: This article from Rice University teaches you an effective three-stage history reading strategy that will enable you to get more out of your history readings and retain more information.
- The Well Educated Mind: Required reading for anyone trying to give themselves a classical education. It taught me how to approach my history readings, what to take note of, what to underline, and how to evaluate the arguments. It also has a list of the most important histories ever written — the ones that most evolved historiography as a discipline.
Reading a book deeply will enable you to fully understand what is being said in the book and to form a critical opinion about the book, which you can support with sufficient reasons.
If you think some of what the author said is true and some inaccurate, and you can express this verbally or in writing, people will take your historical knowledge seriously, degree or no degree.
For more, here’s a cool reading and note-taking system from a history PHD student:
Pro Tip: If you want to memorize a cool fact or concept, pause at the end of the page and paraphrase what you just read to yourself in your own words. It’ll stick better that way. When I started doing this I noticed tremendous improvements in my ability to recall information during conversations.
2. Read One Sweeping History as a Primer
Now that you know how to approach your reading like a scholar of history, it’s time to hit the books. It’s often beneficial to start with a book that covers a lot of ground, as it gives you a nice survey of events from which you can select the periods and places you find most interesting. Later on in your studies you can focus on those.
Here are some sweeping histories to check out:
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind: Boasting a 4.39 on Goodreads, Yuval Noah Harari’s history takes readers from hunter and gatherer times to the modern age, answering such fascinating questions as why do we believe in gods and human rights? This book is one of my favorite histories — it’s hard to put down.
- The Dawn of Everything: If you love to challenge accepted beliefs, this new book will be a fun read, as its authors attempt to do away with held theories about humanity’s social development.
- The Penguin History of the World: For an introduction to the major events of world history and how they led us to where we are today, check out this book by J.M Roberts, the man The Guardian called “The leading historical mind of his generation”.
These books tend to be incredibly popular amongst beginners. They are easy jumping off points. Plus, if you haven’t studied much history, they will give you context and a nice timeline of the world’s most important events, movements, and people.
That way, when you read narrower history books that cover say 20 years, you’ll know where to place it in time and which events, catastrophes, and revolutions came before it.
3. Read the Classic Histories
It’s a good idea to start with the best histories ever written. In The Well Educated Mind, Educator and Historian Susan Wise Bauer provides a list of the classic histories that did more to evolve the writing of histories than any others:
Keep in mind that these are books produced by thinkers from the Western world. You can read all of them in order, as she prescribes, or bounce around. I recommend hitting at least four before going to the next steps.
Below are just a handful of the history books she recommends:
- The Histories: Written by Herodotus in 430 BC Greece, this founding work of Western historical literature documents the rise of the Persian empire and the conflicts between Greece and Persia. You also get to learn about the Assyrians, Egyptians, and other civilizations around at that time.
- The Prince: Machiavelli, an Italian political philosopher, wrote this practical work of history in 1513 to teach princes how to win and maintain control of a principality, based on his historical findings of how other princes succeeded and failed. This one felt relevant to power politics today.
- A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: Mary Wollstonecraft wrote this groundbreaking work of feminine philosophy in 1791 as a response to the prevailing idea of the day that women should not receive the same rational education as men.
- Democracy in America: De Tocqueville, “a man on whom nothing is lost”, studied the social and political conditions of America in 1835 in an attempt to understand the country’s form of democracy and why it was succeeding. His findings are recorded in this masterpiece of political science and history.
- The Souls of Black Folk: W.E.B Du Bois wrote this seminal work of history and sociology in 1903. He discusses many of the racial issues of the time in a series of essays.
- A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century: Barbara Tuchman’s history of the 14th century in Europe won the U.S National Book Award in 1980. In documenting the Black Plague, Hundred Years War, and other horrifying events, she illuminates the lives of all peoples, from the nobility to the peasantry.
Susan Wise Bauer recommends reading them chronologically by when they were written, so you can see how each writer adds to the discipline and is impacted by those who came before them.
At one point along my self-education path, I followed this chronological approach. I read Herodotus, then Plato, then Machiavelli. But I soon learned that following a sequential list was too restrictive for me. I kept finding myself rushing through works to get to the ones I really wanted to read.
I ended up falling out of studying the classic histories because I got stuck on a few books that bored me, and then I felt too guilty to skip them, worried the next book wouldn’t hit as hard without finishing this one (an inaccurate belief). All that doubt and friction made me give up.
To stay motivated, I needed to give myself some leeway to read what interests me at the moment. These days I use her list but I read it in any order I want, letting my curiosity decide.
That said, not everyone is me. Some of you may thrive using Susan’s chronological approach. If you take it though, I recommend giving you curiosity more power than the list. If you really want to skip over Plato and gobble up The History of England, go ahead. Seeing the evolution of the form is interesting, but it’s most useful for those who intend to write histories or Phds who need to analyze them.
It’s not like philosophy where you’ll find yourself struggling to understand Hegel if you didn’t read Kant. Order of reading is less important than actually doing the reading.
On that note, if you want to read more books but lack the time, consider getting an Audible membership so you can listen to books on-the-go. I like to use it at night my eyes are shutting but my mind still works.
They offer a 30-day free trial for their Premium plan (you get 1 free audiobook, 2 if you’re an Amazon Prime member).
4. Supplement Your Readings with Other Resources
Now, some of these books on that list are pretty tough-going, so you may want to hit the topics from different angles using youtube videos, lecture series, contemporary secondary books by more current scholars, and other resources.
These can help clarify anything confusing, fill in gaps, and deepen your understanding of the text.
For example, as you read through The Peloponnesian War, a book regarded as required reading for political officials, generals, and liberally educated citizens, it may be worthwhile to consult a lecture, like this one from Yale:
Or, after finishing reading Plato’s The Republic, you may want to see what contemporary scholars have to say about Plato as a thinker and the intellectual and political of Athens in which he wrote. You therefore may pick up a copy of Political Dissent in Democratic Athens.
Or, you may just want to move onto the next classic. Once again, let your curiosity be your guide while striving to deeply investigate the subjects, questions, and happenings that most interest you.
5. Narrow Your Focus to One Specific Event or Period
Now that you’ve wrestled with some of the classics, you’ll have a better sense of what topics most enliven your curiosity. It could be politics in ancient Greece or the life of an average serf in 14th century England. Or perhaps you want to learn more about the military leaders in ancient China or WW2.
After you’ve chosen your period and place, I recommend selecting at least three books on them or enrolling in an online course that covers them.
It doesn’t matter what you pick as long as it’s something you feel the need to learn more about. For me, it was American history in the revolutionary period.
To immerse myself in this era, I read a biography of Benjamin Franklin, Gordon S Wood’s introductory history “The American Revolution”, the most important Federalist Papers, and a history about the feuding founding fathers.
Choosing one period gives you the ability to become one of the top 1% most knowledgeable people about something in history, and this can do wonders for your confidence as a self-educator.
Plus, you’ll be better able to practice your study skills as you go deep into the subject. For example, you’ll practice comparing one author’s argument to another’s, something that can only be done by reading multiple books on one topic.
These are intellectual skills that can only be acquired by going deep into one period. But they are transferable to the study of other periods.
So, when you’re tired of studying ancient Mesopotamia, you can take the study skills you’ve acquired to the Russian Revolution and continue growing as a student of history.
6. Find and Take an Online Course
There are thousands of online courses and MOOCs from top universities out there that will guide you through a systematic curriculum packed with recommended readings, recorded lectures, quizzes, assignments, essay topics, and more. Below I’ll go over some places where you can find history courses about your period of choice.
Udemy is an online course marketplace with a wide selection of history courses, from lectures on Greek Culture and History to the History of the Middle East. The average cost is around $15 per course, and each comes with a series of lectures and assignments.
Many of the courses are taught by former or current teachers. But some are taught by erudite autodidacts like yourselves! At a low cost, you can learn as much or more than a college student about a historical period of interest.
Here’s a snapshot of the content found in the Greek Culture and History course:
The nice thing about these lecture-heavy courses is that you can easily crush a few during lunch or other breaks in the workday. You could also listen to them on the go as you mow the lawn or something, as long as the images aren’t important to your understanding of the material.
edX is an online course marketplace with thousands of free courses. Many of the history courses on the platform were designed by top institutions like Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and other Universities. Most are also self-paced, so you can work through them at a pace comfortable to you.
One especially cool thing about edX is they offer the ability to enroll in programs, sets of courses about a similar topic. For example, if you are interested in Chinese history, you can enroll in the HarvardX’s History of China: Modern Era XSeries Program, which includes five courses to be taken in order:
After finishing this program and watching its hundreds of hours of lectures, you will easily be one of the most knowledgeable people in your network about modern China.
Open Yale Courses
Aside from books, my personal favorite way to self-study is through Open Yale Courses. Although the courses lack the quizzes and modern digital interface of the other platforms, you’re able to download the syllabi and handouts that a student at Yale would receive. It feels like you’re in an actual college course, for free.
These courses are also heavy in their suggested and required readings, as most administrators at Yale believe reading is the best way to learn.
As an avid reader, and writer, I love this, and am often disappointed when other online courses just consist of a few articles here and there and mostly 15 minute videos. But, that’s just me. Choose which method works best with your learning style.
As of today, Yale offers history courses on the following subjects:
There are plenty to choose from. I myself have been going through the course on the History of the Civil War on my self-directed studies curriculum. The professor is an insightful, engaging, and powerful lecturer:
As you can see on the syllabus page, there are plenty of assigned readings from primary sources, history books, novels, essays, and other resources:
Source:Open Yale Courses
And the course instructs you on which readings to do before each lecture, as you can see on the far right under Assignments:
If you have the desire to simulate a rigorous college experience during your self-directed history studies, without the huge bill, Yale Courses is likely a good choice for you.
If you can’t find a course that strikes your interest at Yale but you like this approach, check out MIT OpenCourseware. They don’t provide lectures but you can download the syllabi to interesting history courses and work through the readings and assignments on your own.
7. Follow Your Interests
At this point in your self-education in history, you’re already a serious autodidact. From here, it’s important to let your curiosity be your guide, and to dig into the time periods and events that most interest you.
Consider going to museums, reading primary sources, talking with professors or other history buffs, and traveling abroad to the places to supplement your readings and lectures.
And, continue reading books. They’ll supply the bulk of your knowledge, while also challenging you intellectually and sharpening those mental faculties like memory, analysis, comprehension, and verbal reasoning.
If you’re looking to dive into a new period, check out this list of the best history books ever written. Otherwise, check out the best practices for studying history as an autodidact that we’ve listed below.
4 Best Practices for Self-Learning History
These best practices should be followed throughout the self-education roadmap. For example, you can talk and write about what you’re learning during any of the steps above. These best practices will ensure you get the most out of your studies.
Talk and Write About What You’re Learning
One of the best ways to internalize what you’ve read or heard during your studies is writing or talking about your learnings. Putting the concepts, events, ideas, and commentary expressed by professors, lecturers, and writers into your own words improves the likelihood you’ll remember the material.
In ancient Greece and much of the middle ages, when classical education was still eminent, teachers called this the rhetoric stage of an education.
Here are some ways to ensure you are applying the knowledge you gain:
Start a History Blog
Create a history blog where you write about your learnings while also helping other people learn about the subject. For example, you could start a blog on Egyptian art history or the generals of the Civil War and find a following.
But, regardless of whether or not you monetize the blog, the important thing is that you’re spending time thinking and writing about historical subjects, and forming a deeper understanding of it in the process. Teaching through writing is also one of the best ways to master a subject.
Create or Join a Reading Group
Reading groups are where you and other people meet weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly to discuss readings you’ve all done.
For example, my buddy Jackson and I are currently working through Albion’s Seed, a sociological/historical book about the British origins of American culture. We aim for 100 pages a week, but feel free to choose a number that works for you.
Some groups elect hosts who create conversation-starter questions before the meetings. Not only are reading groups a great way to become conversant in what you’ve studied. They are also a great way to strengthen your friendships or make new ones.
Talk with Friends
Seek out those who are intellectually curious or perhaps on their own path of self-directed studies and talk with them about what you’ve learned. This is the less formal version of reading groups.
When you feel you can add an insight from your reading to a conversation, don’t be afraid to try to summarize the difficult concept. It’s okay if you don’t articulate it perfectly. I’ve struggled with this. Just try your best to say it well. Then, whatever you missed or misstated you can go back and correct, so that next time you get it right.
Most of the public intellectuals or professors or just smart ass well-read people you hear speaking so eloquently on a tricky subject have made mistakes before. That’s how they got to this polished point. Keep attempting to call to memory and articulate the difficult ideas and it’ll become increasingly easier.
Use a Commonplace Book
Thinkers and writers like Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Woolf, and Ralph Waldo Emerson all kept commonplace books — notebooks for collecting thoughts, quotes, reflections, takeaways, and other pieces of inspirational or otherwise useful information they come across in their readings.
When reading history, this is a great place to summarize chapters (distilling them down to their main events), to write questions you might want to pursue later on, insights into human nature, society, or politics, and anything else that you find useful.
Travel to Museums, Sites, and Monuments
Museums and historical sites are wonderful for learning, especially when you take advantage of the tours. They can also be sources of inspiration to continue your journey of self education in history.
For example, after seeing the Colosseum, you might find yourself wondering about the military life of an ancient Roman, and then go buy some books on it.
Or, just the mere fact that you are planning to go somewhere new can inspire you to read up on that place’s history. Before our trip to Quebec City, my friend Jackson bought a book on the city’s history. After dishing out a few “fun facts”, he was promptly elected tour guide, as long as he’d stop initiating his talking points with “fun fact!”
Watch History Documentaries
When I’m burnt out from work and in the mood to keep learning, I’ll grab a beer and watch a documentary. One I watched recently was on the Three Mile Island nuclear catastrophe. One I’d definitely recommend is Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. It’s a particularly visually stunning and poignant documentary.
As a modern man who loves to end his day with a bag of chips and television, documentaries are an especially useful learning tool. Instead of crushing a few episodes of a show I can continue learning while also relaxing. Here is a list by Reader’s Digest of some other great history documentaries.
Self-learning history is an intellectually demanding and therefore transformative mission. By following the above roadmap and reading deeply over the course of years, you can acquire a level of historical knowledge that many history undergraduates do not even achieve.
If you’re interested in coupling your history studies with another tangential subject to gain some intellectual range, consider checking out our self-education roadmaps on Western Philosophy or English Literature.