Blowhard, Esq. writes:
One of the most fascinating spectacles of 2015 was the hilarious and horrifying student protests across American universities. The Red Guard hysteria spread from one campus to another with a voraciousness that would make the Bubonic plague jealous: Mizzou, Yale, Claremont McKenna, Amherst, Occidental, University of Kansas, University of Vermont, Princeton, Hamilton — the list just keeps growing. Through it all, two thoughts kept occurring to me: 1) “Is the revulsion that I’m feeling what my grandparents went through when the student radicals took over colleges in the ’60s?” and 2) “Why the fuck would any sane person want to go to college now?”
I guess I should rephrase that last question: Why the fuck would any sane person want to go to college for any reason other than the signalling function? Sure, there are always exceptions, but given the current intellectual climate, exorbitant cost, and confusion over what the university’s mission is in the first place, one could hardly be blamed for avoiding the entire enterprise.
Besides, given the widespread availability of quality college lectures, cheap ebooks, and other online resources, it’s easier than ever to educate yourself. So with that in mind, my nerdy list-making instinct kicked into action and I decided to create a DIY liberal arts curriculum. Looking for an ambitious and probably unrealistic New Year’s resolution? Here ya go. If nothing else, consider it a proof of concept.
- My focus is Western Civilization with an emphasis on Europe and the United States. The histories of Asia, Africa, Central and South America are undoubtedly important, but I’m sticking to what I know best. For those interested in the East this looks like a good place to start.
- This curriculum is centered on the humanities: history, literature, art, philosophy, religion, and law. Except for some discussion in the lectures on the Enlightenment, I’ve largely omitted the history of science. Those wishing to pursue that topic can start here. I’m also light on poetry and philosophy.
- No primary works by any living authors or artists. This course ends at WWII.
- Each section starts with a Great Courses series to provide a historical framework that I then flesh out with primary and good secondary sources. The GC lectures all reflect their discounted price. They go on sale frequently.
- Many of the classics can be had for free from Project Gutenberg, but I opted for Penguin or Modern Library editions for three reasons: 1) professional editing and typesetting; 2) for foreign works, good to great modern translations; and 3) contextual essays and other info. If you opt for public domain versions or collections from e-publishers like Delphi Classics, you can significantly cut your bill.
- I erred on the side of ebooks, but for some works I opted for dead-tree versions because art books don’t look nice on Kindle screens or an ebook version just doesn’t exist.
- For those who live in a big city or have access to a good library system, you can do this whole course nearly for free. Many libraries carry the GC lectures on CD or DVD.
- Supplemental reading recommendations are usually biographies and historical fiction, both of which I find to be excellent ways of delving into history. I’d also recommend liberal use of Wikipedia to fill in gaps or to pursue any alternate paths.
- There are many good academic monographs out there but I’ve avoided them in favor of stuff written for a general audience. If you prefer academic works, the GC lectures come with booklets that contain extensive bibliographies.
- My list is not meant to be definitive or a “canon” of any kind. This is my own quirky take on Western history and culture using works that are widely considered to be central to the West, that I myself have enjoyed, or that have been recommended to me by trusted friends.
- I’m sure many will quarrel with how it’s organized and how works are categorized. Because this is obviously your own education, of course feel free to reconfigure and reorder as needed.
- Equipment needed: Amazon Kindle (I like the Voyage, but the PaperWhite is $80 cheaper) and smartphone with the Great Courses app installed. I assume anyone reading this has a smartphone or equivalent device (like an old iPod Touch), so the final price omits that item.
Prehistory & the Ancient World (to the 4th Century)
I’ve divided this era into three sections: prehistory/early civilization, Greece, and Rome.
Big History by David Christian, $65. The BIG picture.
Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade, $14.
Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations by Kenneth Harl, $20. A cursory yet still good look at the origins of civilization. You may wish to spend more time on the Sumerians, Egyptians, etc.
Foundations of Western Civilization I by Thomas Noble, $65.
Ancient Greek Civilization by Jeremy McInerney, $35.
History of Ancient Rome by Garrett Fagan, $65.
Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity by Kenneth Harl, $35.
Literature & Art
The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich, $24. A great, affordable one-volume history of Western art to consult regularly. Those wishing to splurge on something more lavish and comprehensive can go with Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective for $300.
The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form by Kenneth Clark, $33. A how-to manual for cultivating an appreciation of beauty.
The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer, $25. Lots of versions out there to choose from. I went with Fagles’s translations because I find him to be more readable than others.
The Landmark Herodotus, $16.
The Landmark Thucydides, $17. Recommend hard copies of these since they contain a lot of maps and pictures that don’t render well on Kindle screens.
Aeschylus I and II, $6. The Oresteia.
Sophocles I and II, $6. The Theban plays.
Euripides I through V, $15. Medea and The Bacchae. These volumes of Greek tragedy, all edited by Lattimore and Grene and published by the University of Chicago, can be had on sale for $3 each.
The Aeneid of Virgil, $14.
Plutarch’s Lives Vol I and II, $16.
Philosophy & Religion
Tanakh, $12. It’s worth spending some time with a translation of the
Old Testament Torah from a purely Jewish POV. For those wishing to wrestle with the five books of Moses as interpreted by the Jewish sages, I highly recommend the ArtScroll Chumash for $30.
Republic of Plato, $13.
Symposium of Plato, $6.
The Greek Sophists, $6.
The Basic Works of Aristotle, $3.
Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, $0. Included in the Modern Library Greek and Roman philosophy bundle linked to immediately above.
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, $9.
Discourses and Other Writings by Epictetus, $10.
King James Bible, $8. Because it’s so central to the West, it’s worth having a hard copy of this one. I like the Barnes & Noble edition, which contains Doré’s illustrations, for $18. 45
The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, $10.
The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution by Denis Dutton, $9.
Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why by Ellen Dissanayake, $21.
History of Ancient Egypt by Bob Brier, $65.
Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, $8.
The Peloponnesian War by Kenneth Harl, $50. Very complex and sometimes hard to follow, but easier than reading Thucydides.
Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy, $10.
Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt, $14.
Medieval World (5th Century to 14th Century)
This era is divided into three sections: the early, high, and late Middle Ages.
Rome and the Barbarians by Kenneth Harl, $50.
Early Middle Ages by Philip Daileader, $35.
Story of Medieval England by Jennifer Paxton, $50.
High Middle Ages by Philip Daileader, $35.
World of Byzantium by Kenneth Harl, $35.
Late Middle Ages by Philip Daileader, $35.
A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, $14.
Literature & Art
Sir Gawain and the Greek Knight, $5. I like the Merwin translation, but there’s no ebook of it.
The Song of Roland, $12.
The Cathedral by William Cook, $60.
Prose Edda, $10 or Poetic Edda, $7.
The Sagas of the Icelanders, $13.
The Nibelungenlied, $10.
A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, $22.
The Divine Comedy by Dante, $11.
The Decameron by Boccaccio, $10.
The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, $16.
Philosophy & Religion
City of God by Augustine, $11.
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, $8.
Selected Writings of Thomas Aquinas, $13.
Digest of Roman Law, $8.
Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition by Harold Berman, $20. The ebook version of this one is poorly formatted (though not unreadable), so you might want to spring for a hard copy, which is actually two bucks cheaper.
The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I by Pollock and Maitland, $9.
Julian by Gore Vidal, $15.
Barbarian Empires of the Steppes by Kenneth Harl, $50.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon, $3.
The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins, $9. A refutation of 20th century revisionism that affirms some of Gibbon’s conclusions.
The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham, $15.
The Vikings by Kenneth Harl, $50.
The Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell, $60.
Era of the Crusades by Kenneth Harl, $50.
King Arthur: History and Legend by Dorsey Armstrong, $40.
The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, $5.
Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir, $13.
The Black Death by Philip Ziegler, $12
Shakespeare’s History Plays, $0. Included in the complete Shakespeare below.
Renaissance, Reformation, & Enlightenment: Early Modern World (14th Century to 18th Century)
This era is divided into two sections: the Renaissance/Reformation and the Enlightenment.
Foundations of Western Civilization II by Thomas Noble, $65.
History of Christianity in the Reformation Era by Brad Gregory, $50.
Birth of the Modern Mind by Alan Charles Kors, $30.
American Revolution by Allen Guelzo, $35.
Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon by Susan Desean, $65.
Literature & Art
Lives of the Artists by Vasari, $6. Explore the works of the Great Masters in more depth here and here.
Don Quixote by Cervantes, $10.
Complete Works of Shakespeare, $25.
Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of Milton, $3.
Diary of Pepys, $3.
Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais, $14.
Misanthrope, Tartuffe, and Others Plays by Molière, $5.
Robinson Crusoe by Defoe, $2. The first major English novel was an adventure story.
Gulliver’s Travels by Swift, $1.
The Life of Samuel Johnson by Boswell, $17.
Complete Novels of Austen, $19. Pride & Prejudice is the most popular and Persuasion the most critically lauded, but I prefer Emma.
War and Peace by Tolstoy, $1. I realize this was written in the 19th century but, for the ambitious, it makes a great companion to Desean’s history of the Napoleonic era.
Faust I & II by Goethe, $10.
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by Robert Greenberg, $95. Time to introduce the history of classical music.
Philosophy & Religion
Praise of Folly by Erasmus, $4.
The Essential Writings of Machiavelli, $4.
Complete Works of Montaigne, $24.
Pensées by Pascal, $8.
A Treatise of Human Nature by Hume, $8.
The Wealth of Nations by Smith, $2. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is also very much worth your time.
The Federalist & The Anti-Federalist, $16.
Autobiography of Franklin, $10.
Law & Revolution II by Harold Berman, $15.
The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt, $3.
Autobiography of Cellini, $9.
The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch, $19.
The Book of Common Prayer, $17.
Seeing Through Clothes by Anne Hollander, $31. Why not spice things up with a little fashion history?
Complete Works of Johnson, $2.
History of the English Language by Seth Lerer, $50.
Reflections on the Revolution in France by Burke, $7.
The French Revolution by Carlyle, $3.
Napoleon by Felix Markham, $9.
The Aubrey-Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian, $217.
Modern World (19th and 20th Centuries)
The two-part division of this era is obvious.
The Long 19th Century by Robert Weiner, $40.
The Industrial Revolution by Patrick Allitt, $65
Victorian Britain by Patrick Allitt, $50.
American Civil War by Gary Gallagher, $65.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, $8.
The Second World War by John Keegan, $22.
Literature & Art
Vanity Fair by Thackeray, $6. Better than Dickens.
Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by the Brontës, $8.
Complete Works of Dickens, $3. A Tale of Two Cities if you’re into the French Revolution, Hard Times for a portrait of life during the Industrial Revolution, while Great Expectations and Oliver Twist are the go-to evocations of Victorian society, and Bleak House is generally considered his best.
Moby-Dick by Melville, $4.
Complete Short Stories of Poe, $1.
Leaves of Grass by Whitman, $12.
Selected Poems of Dickinson, $3.
Complete Works of Twain, $3. Huck Finn is the one people usually talk about, but I like his nonfiction memoirs Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It better.
Collected Works of Conan Doyle, $3.
The Virginian by Wister, $7. The Western cowboy archetype starts here.
The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, $6.
How to Listen to and Understand Opera by Robert Greenberg, $65.
The Trial by Kafka, $7.
Ulysses by Joyce, $2.
In Search of Lost Time by Proust, $50.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Loos, $13. As I noted previously, Loos’s novel was wildly popular; she included Joyce and Churchill among her fans. Given the work she did for Griffith, she’s a nice transitional figure into the movies, which supplanted novels as the dominant narrative form in the 20th century. Fabrizio’s list of American films is a great place to start. I’d focus most on the 20s and 30s, ending with John Ford’s STAGECOACH, which makes a nice bookend to The Virginian.
Philosophy & Religion
Democracy in America by de Tocqueville, $9.
The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, $2 and Marx: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer, $5.
Collected Works of Chesterton, $2. Particularly “What’s Wrong with the World,” “Heretics,” “Orthodoxy,” and The Man Who Was Thursday.
Basic Writings of Nietzsche, $3. I like PR’s take: Nietzsche is the great stand-up comedian of Western philosophy.
Decline of the West by Spengler, $1.
Civilization and Its Discontents by Freud, $1. Freud has really taken it on the chin the last couple of decades, hasn’t he? Still, he was a big deal for most of the 20th century.
Irrational Man by William Barrett, $14. The book that introduced existentialism to America.
A History of American Law by David Friedman, $19.
The Romantic Revolution by Tim Blanning, $3.
Selected Poetry of Wordsworth, $3.
The Flashman Papers by Fraser, $174. A fantastic fictional series about British colonialism.
Lincoln by Gore Vidal, $14. Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series is a great alternative history of the United States.
Memoirs of Grant, $18. This edition for $1 is also good.
A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell, $13.
American Religious History by Patrick Allitt, $35. Russell and Allitt make excellent contrasts.
In Praise of Commercial Culture by Tyler Cowen, $14. Maybe the market isn’t the enemy of art.
Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America by Lawrence Levine, $28. The barrier between “high” and “low” culture is a lot more permeable than people like to think.
Stompin’ the Blues by Albert Murray, $10. An approximate for a used copy because this one is out of print.
Elements of Jazz by Bill Messenger, $16. Black American music was hugely influential in 20th century world culture. Lots of jazz and blues to sample on YouTube.
The Genius of the System by Thomas Schatz, $8. Hollywood movies from the 20s and 30s have never been topped.
Grand Total: $4,030
That’s a little over four grand for everything on the list — a tricked-out Amazon Voyage, about 33 GC lectures, 156 ebooks (actually, a lot more since many of the books are compilations), and 23 dead-tree books.
- While you’re at it, upgrade the dictionary on your computer and Kindle too.
- My anti-modernism reading list would make a great elective.
- Philosopher Roger Scruton on how the Left has destroyed intellectual life.
- Think this whole idea is kinda silly? You’re probably right. Check out Alex Beam’s cultural history of Mortimer Adler’s Great Books program.
It’s easy for those of us who went to college and have benefitted from the headstart a college degree gave us in our careers (or for those of us with more technical degrees, the necessity of a degree to even start a career) to say that college isn’t worth it. But of course, that’s bullshit. A college degree almost guarantees greater earning power throughout one’s life and provides an entry into most of the more intellectually fulfilling careers.
I’m also skeptical that online and/or self-directed courses can be a substitute for teacher-led courses. They are great supplements, I think, and a lot of fun. But for an 18 year-old with no idea where to start, having an established curriculum taught by qualified instructors is invaluable. They will expose them to things and ideas they probably wouldn’t have stumbled across on their own, and provide some kind of rigor around completing assignments in a timely manner. As a former teacher, I can’t tell you how many people need that structure.
Also, once you get out of the more elite institutions and into state schools, a lot of that trigger warning crap goes away. State schools are great institutions, for the most part, and still very affordable, at least out here in California. For the time being.
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“It’s easy for those of us who went to college and have benefitted from the headstart a college degree gave us in our careers (or for those of us with more technical degrees, the necessity of a degree to even start a career) to say that college isn’t worth it. But of course, that’s bullshit. A college degree almost guarantees greater earning power throughout one’s life and provides an entry into most of the more intellectually fulfilling careers.”
Fair enough, but do most people who get college degrees now go on to intellectually fulfilling careers? I don’t think so. And for those who are going into the trades — a career path that is frequently as or more lucrative than the college route — a curriculum like this can fill in the gaps such a person missed.
I’m also skeptical that online and/or self-directed courses can be a substitute for teacher-led courses. “They are great supplements, I think, and a lot of fun. But for an 18 year-old with no idea where to start, having an established curriculum taught by qualified instructors is invaluable. They will expose them to things and ideas they probably wouldn’t have stumbled across on their own, and provide some kind of rigor around completing assignments in a timely manner. As a former teacher, I can’t tell you how many people need that structure.”
Yes, the autodidact route isn’t for everyone. Being forced to attend classes and complete assignments has its advantages. But it’s not like the trad college route doesn’t have enormous downsides either.
Community and support are a big part of the trad experience. However, for those suited to it, you can get a lot of that camaraderie by participating in online forums or by blogging.
“Also, once you get out of the more elite institutions and into state schools, a lot of that trigger warning crap goes away. State schools are great institutions, for the most part, and still very affordable, at least out here in California. For the time being.”
This is a good point too. I got my undergrad degree in California. I went to a community college for two years then transferred to a UC. Far, far cheaper than the elite route and less intellectual trendoid bullshit indoctrination, although that kind of crap was still there at my mid-tier state university.
“Intellectually fulfilling career” was a bad choice of words on my part. I just meant a somewhat challenging and rewarding career. For instance, I’m a web developer. It’s not a dream job but it’s interesting and challenging and always changing. It is VERY difficult to get a job in my field without a bachelor’s degree of some kind, any kind, really, as mine is in English Lit. We don’t look at candidates without a degree, for better or worse.
I agree wholeheartedly that the trades should be given more attention and kids should be more exposed to them as a career option. I think there is a movement around that, with Mike Rowe from the show Dirty Jobs as a spokesman for it through his Profoundly Disconnected initiative: http://profoundlydisconnected.com/.
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“And for those who are going into the trades — a career path that is frequently as or more lucrative than the college route — a curriculum like this can fill in the gaps such a person missed.”
There’s a common belief that people going into the trades, aren’t really interested in this sort of material…and while that may often be true, neither are most college students. To the extent they grapple with material like this at all in today’s post-secondary educational milieu, it is often only grudgingly, as a sort of perceived vocational ed for a white collar job. Never-the-less, one of the best-read guys I ever met, was a municipal gardener up in San Mateo County (just south of San Francisco), and I think that as kolluj descends further into a sort of parody of itself, and as jobs in the trades continue to compare quite favorably to what one can obtain with a B.A. in Sociology or whatnot, we will see more people like that ie., people with an avid interest in cultural & intellectual life, who don’t work in the career paths most stereotypically associated with that sort of mindset (who may have also chosen to forego the $45K in debt, which would’ve paid for a higher educational experience largely devoid of exposure to such materials), still hungry for the sort of educational experience their grandparents might’ve had access to. I went to college without encountering hardly any of this stuff. I eventually got around to Plato’s Republic, Moby Dick, and some small portion of the other stuff listed here, but that was entirely of my own volition. My university experience included lectures about the Allegory of the Cave, but actually assigning The Republic, was deemed too much for us to endure, apparently.
Thank you for this. I looked twice, I admit rather rapidly, and I don’t see Toynbee’s “A Study of History”. I think this would would useful as one of the first books to read in that it gives an overview of the entire experience of recorded history, and its “26 civilizations.” Also the collected letters between Adams and Jefferson give a focused view of the energies and controversies affecting the development of the new nation, USA, and their different speculations about its future. A friend brought to my attention a recent book which I have not yet bought: THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES, By Jay Ogilvy–a unique view of history in analyzing its wars, as far as I can tell.
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Higher education may about lifestyle in the moment and about signalling after the fact. But the livin’ is easy and employers have not quite yet figured out an alternative to the credentials offered up by the industry. So for now, hacking higher education is still in the background.
Here’s a good book on it.
and an actual “place”
and the do it yourself communal approach was highlighted in the recent film The Ivory Tower.
And then there’s always the old stand-bys like St. John’s College, in Annapolis and Santa Fe. A full-on classics curriculum–no Teaching Company on Aristotle when you have Aristotle to read.
The problem with these places is that no one wants to go there.
But then we all know college is wasted on the young.
Who are themselves wasted.
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Also since I apparently old enough to be your grandpa, having gone to college in the Sixties, I am equipped to answer your question about how bursts of zaniness were understood back in the day.
As Dostoevsky wrote, “the proposition ‘two and two make five’ is not without its attractions.” For well-bred youngsters who grew up normal on the surface but (pace Paul Goodman) a tad absurd underneath, the idea of willful irrationality is hugely seductive. Stop making sense!
I may have sent this along before but here’s my take on 1969 campus craziness, written in 2000.
It was 1969 I think, and I was a student at a large Eastern university
at least as well known for its football team as its politics. I was
living in a so-called “co-op”, which was basically an old, beat-up,
university owned Victorian house. You got a break on tuition and
board since it was cheap for the university to offer the option and,
given my family’s income, the option made financial sense. In truth,
though, the real reason I wanted to join was that the co-op was a
kind-of “anti-fraternity”, a self-selected assortment of vaguely
countercultural misfits proud of its identity with the changing of the
times and its generally rebellious spirit.
However, where that spirit put us on the dial where “the revolution”
proper was concerned was not at all clear. Unquestionably, we all
tilted in that direction, but was this tilt a generationally-inspired
obligatory genuflect, or the real thing? I don’t think we knew.
Then one day there was a riot. It started out about racism on the
football team, but it was of course about a lot more than that. The
co-op was situated right on the main drag, so we were right in the
middle of it. Our front porch afforded a birds-eye view, as though we
were weather watchers looking at an approaching storm.
We saw the usual pattern, including a willed escalation of violence on
the part of the protestors, presumably in order to draw even more
police to the scene and, with a little luck, to get them bashing some
heads. You’ll recall the logic: you must bring on the repression in
order to show the bankruptcy of the system and then the people will
Things weren’t going that well that day for the riot. There were just
not enough participants against the police–witness our little group
watching things from the front porch of the house rather than diving
in. I remember some very angry and probably frustrated demonstrators
smashing the windows on cars right across the street trying to whip up
the crowd. Finally, it occurred to the demonstrators that what they
needed was a barricade, dammit! Once we have a barricade, we can
clearly demarcate our turf on this street from that of the police and
the barricade can serve as a symbol and rallying cry!
Then the question: how will we build a barricade? And the answer: the
pile of firewood stacked over there beside the co-op! And so our
firewood–the wood that served to stoke our communal hearth through
the difficult and snowy winter–was dragged out onto the street to
serve as a barricade.
That’s when I had one of my awakenings. I remember walking down into
the melee and taking the wood back to the house, piece by piece. This
act was not without danger: I remember one of the demonstrators, his
face contorted with rage, threatening to crack my skull with a
baseball bat. But as far as I was concerned the wood was going back.
What was my awakening? Oh, I guess you could say from a Marxist
perspective that I simply realized my bourgeois class interest. And
there is a sense in which I do not dispute this–although the
implications of even this interpretation are telling. After all,
“Amerika” was even then profoundly bourgeois and nowadays, with the
number of shareholders exceeding union membership, it is even more so.
So any kind of revolution under the circumstances needed to be
profoundly anti-democratic and elitist.
I also came to feel, in that existential moment when push came to
shove, how very much the participants in the riot were animated by a
whole lot more than simple idealism gone a bit rotten. There was a
real taste for the disorder and the violence going round-it was a
thing in itself. And I came to believe that my ingrained affiliation
with the left was nothing more than the product of pure hype, at least
as much as my taste in rock or my choice of deodorant. It was mostly
on the surface, and didn’t speak to me in any deep sense.
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Way too many people go to college; something made plain by juxtaposing two facts: 1) 65% of American high school grads enroll in college, 2) 50% of Americans have IQs below 100.
Having said that, the biggest problem with autodidactism is that you’re going to be excited by what you’re reading, by ideas and philosophies and theories, and you’re going to want to talk to people about all of that. And as an autodidact, it’s hard to find someone who will share your enthusiasms, someone who can help you correct your errors.
You get a lot more out of the material with a good teacher, and a great teacher will just blow your mind. Some of that can come from the lectures of the Great Courses series, but more as spectator than a participant. Likewise, interaction with peers who are wrestling with the same material can be incredibly fun and helpful. Yes, you don’t strictly need college to find your jedi masters and your peers, but that’s the likeliest place to encounter them. Plus, in college, you’ll have a lot more free time to sit around in a coffee shop reading and talking than you would if you were in the rat race.
Ultimately, however, the biggest problem with this laudable reading list is that the vast majority of people aren’t interested in any of this. At the end of the work day, most people just want to turn on the television and watch the Big Bang Theory, or NCIS: Peoria, or whatever. The majority of people have no interest in ideas, and little ability to think deeply about abstractions. (Remember, 50% of people have IQs below 100.) So, building a DIY college degree is fun for us, but few will ever try to do it.
There is, however, one group that is totally excited by deep reading in the humanities: successful middle-aged men.
For whatever reason, when many successful men hit 40 or 45, they go crazy for history and philosophy and literature, and begin to think about filling in the gaps in their education. This is especially true for doctors, dentists, engineers and other men in technically demanding fields who feel they didn’t get enough humanities in college.
I get into the best conversations with middle-aged men who are plowing through the history of Byzantium, or have decided to read all of Faulkner, front to back. And it happens to me all the time. And these are the same people who are buying the Great Courses lectures, and dragging their wives on history-themed tours of Europe.
Outside of that demographic, however, it’s very rare for me to encounter anyone who cares about any of this more than superficially, unless they majored in it in college.
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I seriously considered going to St. John’s as a high school student looking at colleges, but instead was given a scholarship to a state school and went there instead.
Your “classical” education is what they used to call the trivium/quadrivium, and it was a prerequisite for a young person to be educated in the western canon BEFORE going out into the world to pursue their field of study. It’s extremely hard to justify someone over the age of 20 spending years reading the Classics when a person in their 20’s needs to be out in the world learning skills and making money and fighting the battles of the present day.
The problem with education is that the trivium/quadrivium/classical education, whatever you wish to call it, was always for the intellectual, moneyed, upper classes. Universal education was the death knell of the classical education because the classical education, by its very nature of attempting to edify the tween and teenage mind with greek and roman literature, philosophy, and language, means that it is out of reach of the mostle feeble minded populace. At its foundation it is elitist. Universal education, with it’s no child left behind ethic, must appeal only to the lowest common denominator.
But I really must emphasize that these books ought to be a prerequisite to learning skills. I spent 4 years in college in a pseudo-liberal arts field before going onto medical school, and I would give anything to have those four years between eighteen and twenty-two to have learned the fundamentals of medicine, rather than puttering around in college. The time for my classical education ought to have been from kindergarten until starting college, where my real life’s work ought to have begun.
Grown men studying the classics seriously as a college major seems masturbatory to me. At the end of it you will be a better man who is no good to anyone. I read classical literature in my very sparse free time, but as a person and member of your family you have a duty to, at some point, interact and live in the present time.
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Pretty light on art and music, but those media are more sensory / concrete and can’t be summarized so easily for preservation and transmission.
At the end of the day, you still have to read the entire epic to experience the narrative, but you can summarize it through linguistic abstraction. These abstracts can be cataloged into a list, and curious people can consult them and dive further into whichever ones pique their interest.
You can’t give the gist of an image or sound sequence (of any real length). You can only experience the whole thing directly. Without a list of simplified “abstracts” to consult or to have given to them as a recommendation, most people are going to look at the vast sea of thumbnail images (or physical plates) and feel overwhelmed — especially if they are going the autodidact route and have no guide. Ditto for the vast sea of audio files (or physical discs) in music.
That’s probably why your list is also light on poetry — it’s the most concretely sensory verbal medium. It’s sort of about the narrative, or impression, or whatever — but it’s also sort of an after-thought to the sound pattern, the rhythm, and the myriad particular figures of speech that don’t make it into an abstract summary.
I have no idea how to solve this problem, but it does need to be pointed out and thought about. Otherwise we’ll only be left with an appreciation for our heritage in the world of ideas, and be blind to our sensory-physical creations.
The best art book I’ve read (not that I’m so well-read) is Romanticism by Jean Clay. No verbal, abstract, or ideological BS — only terse palpable prose to analyze the formal visual properties of the lush prints you’re looking at, and to explain how these separate choices lead to the desired holistic effects on the viewer.
He also published books on Impressionism-to-Modern-Art, and Modern Art (1890-1918), which I would recommend even without having read them myself, based on how wonderful the book on Romanticism is.
That will cover you from the late 18th C. up through WWI. From there, ask a specialist for books on earlier periods that are in the same vein and style as Jean Clay.
These are oversized books published in the early 1980s (they could only have been created in such a sensory-rich period), and must be found used or in libraries. Used copies aren’t expensive on Amazon or ABE, though — looks like under $10-20. I don’t use the phrase “mind-blowing” now that it’s a pedestrian nerd-gasm word, but I can’t emphasize enough how spectacular it is.
I’d go with Theory of Moral Sentiments rather than Wealth of Nations, which is like an economic version of Origin of Species — nobody reads it. It’s too bogged down in gritty naturalistic detail, and doesn’t draw out much in the way of patterns and insights.
For big-picture history, I’d go with Peter Turchin. War and Peace and War is a popular version of scholarly monographs he’s written about the rise and fall of nations and empires, in a general and comparative framework.
He also covers the rise and fall of political-economic stability within states, although so far there’s only a long, dense monograph on the topic (Secular Cycles). He’s writing a popular version, though, restricted to American history, coming out in the near future.
I would also include Theodor Mommsen’s “History of Rome”, which takes you from the beginning of Rome up to the death of Julius Caesar; and Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, which picks up with Augustus and traces the disintegration of the empire both in the west and that of Byzantium. Both works are also considered worthy from a literary standpoint. Mommsen was the first recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. Also Ernst Jünger’s “Storm of Steel”, the most celebrated autobiographical account of a soldier’s experience in the trenches of World War I. There is nothing like it. Great list of books you have there, Blowhard.
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Gibbon is there!
You’re right. I missed it.
Excellent article! I’ve always been fascinated by chemistry but only had the finances to complete a portion of a biochemistry degree. Once you’ve been to any higher education science course you quickly realize success lies in learning the material inside and out, attending lectures is only moderately helpful. Plus you can audit online MIT courses completely gratis!
Here’s what I’m studying now:
Medical Physiology, Updated Edition: With STUDENT CONSULT Online Access, 1e
Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, 15th Edition
Microbial Biotechnology – Fundamentals of Applied Microbiology 2’nd Edition
Hormones, Second Edition 2nd Edition
Organic Chemistry (6th Edition)
Biochemical, Physiological & Molecular Aspects of Human Nutrition 2nd Edition
Pharmaceutical Calculations 13th edition
Vitamin K, Volume 78 (Vitamins and Hormones) 1st Edition
$79.95 – (Kinda took it in the shorts – had to buy this one new.)
Foye’s Principles of Medicinal Chemistry Fifth Edition
The Biochemical Basis of Neuropharmacology 8th Edition
-Total Cost of Learning Biochemistry
(Technically $44.97, but I just happen to be very interested in Vitamin K.)
It’s easy to latch onto the whole Nikola Tesla bandwagon and extol his under-appreciated genuis, but there is another under-dog genius I’ve taken a shine to recently – Percy Spencer. I’ll close with the only quote of his I could find:
“I just got hold of a lot of textbooks and taught myself while I was standing watch at night.”
P.S. The Landmark Thucydides is phenomenal!
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Students would greatly benefit from the Great Courses lecture on a lot of these works.
Elizabeth Vandiver has great lecture series on Greek Mythology, Homer, Virgil, and Greek Tragedy.
Plato and Aristotle are going to be largely incomprehensible without some background. The lecture series by Robert C. Bartlett and David Roochnik are great for two different takes on the broad sweep of Greek philosophy, but Michael Sugrue on Plato is absolutely amazing. His take on the Sophists in the same course is great too. Roochnik has a separate course just for the Republic.
Anyone who takes the McInerney, Vandiver, Bartlett, Roochnik, and Sugrue courses will have a very solid grasp of Ancient Greece.
William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman and Phillip Cary have great lecture series on Augustine.
William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman are great on Dante.
Thomas Aquinas is also going to be incomprehensible to any new student. There is no Great Courses lecture series on him, so I’d go with Edward Feser’s short introductory book.
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A book on Darwinian evolution would be very helpful, as well as some introductory EvPsych books. Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate would be my first picks.
Cochran and Harpending and Dutton presume this knowledge.
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Introductions on Economics too. Smith won’t make sense without it. In fact, I would say get rid of Smith.
Great Courses lectures:
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics
Joseph Heath, Filthy Lucre
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The Quran is going to be incomprehensible too, without some background. I’ve included an intro to the book itself, a couple books on Islam in general, and a biography of Muhammad.
Michael Cook, The Koran: A Very Short Introduction
Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick, The Vision of Islam
Malise Ruthven, Islam: A Very Short Introduction
W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman
There’s also a Great Courses lecture series on Islam by John L. Esposito. I haven’t listened to it and he has a rep as a bit of an Islamic apologist. But it might still be good.
I decided to do the same for the other religions too, as there are similar difficulties in all cases. I’ve included scriptures and translations where those weren’t in your main lists.
The best three introductions I have found are as follows:
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
John Stott, Basic Christianity
Wayne Grudem, Christian Beliefs
However, they are all from a broadly Protestant perspective, and have different strengths.
Michael Coogan, The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction
Luke Timothy Johnson, The New Testament: A Very Short Introduction
Richard Baukham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction
E.P. Sanders, Paul: A Very Short Introduction
Timothy Luke Johnson has some good lecture series on both Jesus and Paul for The Great Courses. There are some lecture series on the Old Testament as well, but I haven’t listened to them.
I haven’t read them, but there are short introductions by Jacob Neusner; Norman Solomon; and Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Lavinia Cohn-Sherbok.
Isaiah M. Gafni has a Great Courses lecture series.
The Mahabharata, adapted by R.K. Narayan
The Ramayana, adapted by R.K. Narayan
The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Barbara Stoller Miller
Hindu Myths, edited and translated by Wendy Doniger
The Rig Veda, translated by Wendy Doniger
The Upanishads, translated by Eknath Easwaren
Klaus K. Klostermaier, Hinduism: A Beginner’s Guide
Mark W. Muesse has a very good Great Courses lecture series.
Basic Teachings of the Buddha, edited and translated by Glenn Wallis
The Dhammapada, translated by Eknath Easwaren
The Lotus Sutra, translated by Burton Watson
The Heart Sutra, translated by Red Pine
The Diamond Sutra, translated by Red Pine
Rupert Gethin, Foundations of Buddhism
Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught
Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction
PaleoRetiree recommends David Eckel’s Great Courses lecture series.
Confucius, The Analects, translated by Annping Chin
(New Penguin translation with good commentary to actually make this work comprehensible)
Michael Schumann, Confucius and the World He Created
Daniel K. Gardner, Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction
Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo
Chuang Tzu, translated by David Hinton
I haven’t read any of them, but there are short introductions by James Miller, Eva Wong, Louis Komjathy, and Hans-Georg Moeller.
Minor religions have been left off of here.
The most helpful theoretical books on religion in general I’ve come across are:
Stewart Guthrie, Faces in the Clouds
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind
Ara Norenzayan, Big Gods
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane
Rupert Ross, Dancing with a Ghost
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As far as recent history goes, I would include books (or lecture series, if available) on The Third Reich, Communist Russia and Communist China. Biographies of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin and Mao would be good too.
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Here are the Columbia University Core Curriculum lists:
Click to access 2015-16%20LIT%20HUM%20SYLLABUS_1.pdf
Click to access CC%20Syllabus%202015-2016_0.pdf
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