Education is touted as the greatest way to get ahead in this world. And, in general, it’s a great strategy. Maybe you have the perfect idea for an invention and you need a little engineering know-how, or maybe you just need to get ahead of the guy in the next cubicle over. No matter what plan you have for getting ahead, odds are a little learning will help. The problem, as I see it, is that education is also an industry. You want a string of fancy letters behind your name? Prepare to pay for it.
While you may need a certificate in order to be a licensed professional of some sort, however, you don’t need to attend an expensive class for many of your other learning needs. There are plenty of stunning examples of people who have gotten ahead based on their self-education — enough that there is a fancy term for them; they’re called autodidacts. Step up and join the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Stanley Kubrick and Frank Zappa.
Resources — Getting Started
The Independent Scholar’s Handbook — PDF: The Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars has made The Independent Scholar’s Handbook available as a free download. It’s a full book (322 pages) of information on how to study on your own, as well as tips on finding resources on the topics you want to study.
The Autodidact Project: Ralph Dumain has put together information about autodidactism — self-education at the Autodidact Project, including a number of study guides.
Resources — Learning Materials
The LifeHack How-To Wiki: Consider starting your self-education right here with LifeHack. There’s even an article on self-education on the wiki that you might find useful.
Fathom: A number of universities, led by Columbia University, have put together a whole host of free resources at Fathom. The information is arranged into courses, making it possible to take short classes from the American Film Institute, the London School of Economics and other prestigious institutes for free.
Wikiversity: While there are some pretty significant gaps in the do-it-yourself courses Wikiversity offers, I’ve found some great resources on science and business subjects — two areas that my college major just didn’t emphasize.
Mentoring and Interviewing: Just sitting down and talking with someone who is more of an expert on a topic than you are can introduce you to new areas of learning that you hadn’t even considered. You can set up formal interviews with experts or have more casual conversations.
iTunes U: Through iTunes, a huge number of schools offer recordings of lectures in every subject. Currently, I’m working through Stanford’s course on the Future of the Internet, and after that, I’m thinking about listening in on an evolutionary biology class.
Your Local Library: Most libraries offer far more learning resources than simple how-to books. My boyfriend is currently working his way through our local library’s collection of Chinese lessons on CD. And if you aren’t familiar with your local library, I recommend PublicLibraries.com — it’s a huge directory of public libraries, mostly U.S. with some international listings.
TheHomeSchoolMom.com: TheHomeSchoolMom.com, along with thousands of other homeschooling websites offer up all sorts of free educational resources from curriculums to texts. While these sites rarely have advanced coverage of a topic, if you’re looking to start with the basics, you’re likely to find exactly what you need.
Project Gutenberg: While there are a number of websites where you can get free e-books, Project Gutenberg is one of the best known, and seems to have one of the widest selections. You may not be able to find many technical works there, but if you’re interested in the classics or history, Project Gutenberg is the place to go.
Staying on Track
Anyone can read a book. Most people can even report back on the pertinent information that book contained. But it can be much harder to synthesize information together from multiple sources, especially if those sources have been picked out without a clear plan of attack. I’ve been known to do this — I pick up random books at the library and start in on new topics with no plan whatsoever. Learn from my mistake — trying to put together ideas on the fly can be extremely difficult.
If you’re starting in on a new topic, it makes sense to make a plan of some sort. Your plan doesn’t need to be much more formal than “I’m going to read the Wikipedia article on Topic X, and then check if the library has any of the books Wikipedia cites.” That much of a plan, though, keeps you from coming up with a book list with fifty books that you won’t be able to finish. (Once again, I speak from experience.)
From there, your self-education can be as simple as reading and taking a few notes. I generally try to write up some sort of report or article on a new topic, just because information seems to stick a bit better when I explain it to someone else. I can just about always find a new home for such a report, as well — a blog post, an article, etc. Occasionally, I even manage to get paid for all that learning I’ve done.
I don’t have anything against formalized learning — I really enjoy lecture-format classes, actually — but if I took all the classes I wanted to, my student loans would be equal to the national debt. Studying on my own has made continuing my education far less expensive and potentially more interesting. I never know what my new learning might suggest for the next topic of study.