Teaching Yourself. A Course of One's Own
In economist by training, Claire Reid was tired of taking a backseat whenever she and her husband got together with friends and talk veered to the news.Skip to next paragraph
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"All current events tie back to a historical event," she explains, "and everyone around the table would chime in with historical references." None more so than her husband, George, an Atlanta lawyer and avid history buff. "I saw a real gap in my knowledge," she adds, and she set out to fill it.
At the time, she worked full time - so she devised a systematic way to study American history on her own time, at her own pace, in her own house.
She joined countless others who have developed independent study programs - tailoring their pursuits to their specific interests and learning styles.
The result can be a program with a well-defined end, such as learning Spanish well enough to read Cervantes in the original. It can be a project limited to one summer vacation. Or it can evolve into a lifestyle.
Whatever the case, there are two identifiable keys to success: commitment and flexibility. As Mrs. Reid worked her way from Paul Revere to Richard Nixon - a voyage that ended up lasting almost seven years - she read nothing but the prescribed book on her night table.
Newspapers were the only exception. Even if a friend recommended a novel or a book review caught her eye, she never deviated. "I figure these books will be there at the end," she says.
Robert Lawrence, a science teacher in Benton Harbor, Mich., agrees.
For years he has pursued a three-pronged independent study of literature, philosophy, and science. At lunch time these days, he will either pull out Rousseau, Heroditus's "Persian Wars" (which he deems more literary than historical), or a book by Carl Sagan. But under no circumstance will anyone ever spy him perusing the latest bestseller or a history of, say, filmmaking.
When it comes to mapping a course of study, however, the less strict the plan, the better. Kay Mussel, associate dean of academic affairs at American University in Washington, has coached many a student through independent study, and she advises nonstudents to take full advantage of their freedom by working at their own pace and adopting "an exploratory approach - you start with something and see where it leads you."
The only structure Reid imposed was that she progress chronologically. Otherwise, she says, "I let it evolve." When she realized that she remembered the material better from biographies than straight historical accounts, she "redirected." When she came across an inventor or an industrialist that helped shape a period, she made a note of it and read his biography next. Similarly, Mr. Lawrence does not map out his reading ahead of time. He lets every book dictate its sequel, with the link often proving thematic.
But Lawrence is rigid about "journalizing." "Every day I try to come up with one thought on something I've read, one perception I have not had before," he explains. "If I write it, I've learned it."
Although journals may not suit everyone, it is noteworthy that the only thing Reid says she would do differently today is take notes and keep a record of the material.
Hit the library
What also comes through time and again is that an independent study project is no more daunting than taking that first step. This can be as easy as reaching for "The Reader's Adviser," a six-volume bibliography found in most public libraries. From world literature and history, to economics, anthropology, and technology, "The Reader's Adviser" breaks down the categories into manageable subtopics and lists seminal books within each. It also gives a brief biography of the major players in each field.
Another good starting point is the library's subject catalog, although Barbara and Lee Dudley of Atlanta warn that this is never enough. They spend seven months to a year researching the history, language, economy, and art of a place they plan to visit.