23 March 2012

How to Become an Autodidact

Photo by Surachai
When you tell people you homeschool (or, at least, that you plan to when your child is old enough) one of the responses you will invariably hear is, "I wish I could do that, but I just don't know enough to teach my child."

That may or may not be true, but whatever the current state of your education, it is never too late to to learn more.  My daughter may only be approaching four, but I've been studying homeschooling and education in general for years now, and those that seem to have the most success with it are those who are, and teach their children to be, autodidacts.

If you haven't heard that word before, it sounds like a disease or something slightly kinky, I know.  But what it means, essentially, is someone who teaches him or herself.  A self-learner.  Someone who takes in new information for the pure joy of it, not become someone else is standing over them with a large, unfriendly-looking stick and a scowl.  And if we as homeschoolers teach our children nothing else, it should be the joys of being an autodidact.

But where do you begin?  When all you can remember of your public school education is sitting in an uncomfortable desk watching the time tick away as a teacher who was probably as bored as you were drones on about something completely irrelevant, it can be hard to know what to do because you've never been taught to learn.  There are several things, however, that most people who take learning into their own hands have accomplished, or hope to, and they are as follows:

1. Study the classics.

If you know anything about education, you probably guessed this would be on the list.  And you were right!  But wading into the ocean of classic literature that's out there is intimidating when you're on your own.  Where do you start?  And how do you figure out just what the heck these people were trying to say?

Reading classic literature is a skill that, like any other, requires practice.  The first book you pick up probably will make your eyes cross and your brain weep if all you've read for the last five years is chick lit (or nothing at all).  That's to be expected.  The brain is very efficient at pruning away paths that aren't needed for day-to-day life, and doing a little rewiring to get the "understand complex thoughts and big words" section up and running will take time and effort.  But don't give up, because while the first book will be difficult, the second book will be just a bit easier to understand, and the third easier still, until finally you're joyfully flying through Paradise Lost without a care in the world.

Once you figure how how to read classic literature, however, there's still the daunting task of deciding what to read.  Luckily, there are many, many very intelligent people out there who would love to help you with that.  The following books will provide you with an excellent blueprint for your ongoing education.

The New Lifetime Reading Plan  -  I own this one, and it's great.  The list is extensive, and there's just enough information about each selection to give you an idea of whether or not you want to read it, but without overwhelming you with far more information than you need.

The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had  -  This book is in much the same vein as the lifetime reading plan, but somewhat heftier.

Remember that there's a reason the first book is called the LIFETIME reading plan.  You aren't going to read through these books in a week, and honestly, you wouldn't want to.  Every book you read will increase your knowledge and understanding of who we, as humans, are as a species, so take your time and absorb every whiff of wisdom you can tease out of the books you read. 

2. Create a mental framework of world history.

Bear in mind that you don't have to know every detail of every city on the map- you just need a general understanding of what happened when so that when you read, say, The Iliad, you have some context to settle it in with.  A peg to hang it on, if you will. 

There are numerous lengthy tomes out there just dying to teach you about Clovis points or the finer points of how sewers came to be, but unless you have a burning need to extensively study plumbing, you can start with very basic books and follow your particular interests into greater detail as time goes on.  Some good selections to start with include:

A Short History of the World

A People's History of the United States

3. Follow your own advice.

Most of us who homeschool, or who are even interested in the practice, make our children observe reasonable limits when it comes to screen time.  We don't let them sit and watch tv all day because it isn't good for their malleable, developing brains.

Well, our brains may be old and dusty, but if we turn on the tv and hunker down on the couch with a box of thin mints every night when the kids are in bed, it's certainly not going to improve the situation.  Instead of catching up on episodes of The Walking Dead in the evening, settle in with a fuzzy blanket, a cup of warm tea, and a copy of something by Dickens or Tolstoy.  Even if you only replace half an hour a day with education instead of tv (or the internet, ahem) you'll see an amazing improvement in your clarity of thought and ability to understand complex ideas.  Give it a try.

4. Follow your passions, too.

And no, homeschooling doesn't count.

We've all got those quirky subjects we love to pieces.  Whether it's airplanes from WWII or the history of libraries or amateur physics, I've never met anyone who didn't have something about which they've always wanted to learn more.  So, learn more.  Not to get yourself a good job or a raise, not so you can make other people feel inferior at cocktail parties (though that can be fun too) but just for the sake and joy of learning.

The best way to go about this is to divide up your life much like a school year.  It doesn't matter whether you use trimesters or quarters, whether you take the summer term off or not, but by saying, "Okay, for the fall semester I'm going to study Russian literature and birdhouses," you're committing to a time frame and giving yourself an out, as well, if it turns out that you don't love learning about ham radios as much as you'd expected. 

5. Don't be afraid to start at the very beginning.

When I started college and realized just how much I didn't know, I was ashamed.  I didn't want to go back to pre-algebra so that I could understand the math I needed to succeed in a decent university's math class. 

However, nothing is more important in education than a sturdy foundation.  So, go back as far as you need to.  If you're utterly boggled by a basic book on world history, find a children's book and read that first.  If you want to learn calculus but can barely remember how to add, visit Khan Academy and start with basic arithmetic.  Really, it's actually better to go back further than you need, because if you try to work above your level without a solid foundation, you're going to find yourself hitting wall after wall because you don't have the necessary knowledge base to understand what you're learning. 

And remember, you have a lifetime to delight in learning all of this.  There's no rush.

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