Five-Year Humanities Plan

By request, here is the "five-year plan" that my older son is following.

Introduction and educational strategy

What this document is. This is a roadmap for the next five years of your course of study in humanities. It does not cover science, the parts of social science outside of humanities, or math. It does cover (or should) everything else, but at a very high level. Art and music are not listed beyond generalities, and many minor works that you might read are also not covered.

Use the maximum number of years before college: five. Since you’re just now finishing up seventh grade, you have five more years of official school before you’re college age. Now, it might be possible for you to complete all the requirements for a high school diploma before that, but the way I see it, the more advanced you are when you are ready to apply to college, the wider the range of colleges you’ll be able to be accepted at. If you do advanced high school and college-level work until you’re 18, in 2024, then you’ll be much better able to get into (and to be able to handle) the best sort of university you might want to get into.

Math constrains when you are considered “done.” Besides, if you were ready to “graduate early,” it would be because you had finished math early; you don’t get a STEM degree today if you didn’t go through at least one year of calculus in high school. Since you will finish algebra in eighth grade, it’s unlikely you’ll finish calculus until you’re a junior or senior (although you might finish before the end of your senior year).

The nature of the program I’ve got you started on. I have you started on a “classical humanities” program, which means there’s an emphasis on classical literature, but that we intend to go through all of history (especially Western civilization) by comparing history and literature, and to a lesser extent art, religion, and philosophy. “History” includes not just thick summaries of history like Susan Wise Bauer’s History of the Ancient World, which you will read all of over the first few years, but also source books like Herodotus, speeches, myths, etc. The “source” materials ends up overlapping with religion, especially in ancient history, and with archaeology, as you’ve already seen. “Literature” includes mostly novels when you get to the 18th century or so, but before that includes mostly poetry, many plays, and some stories (modern short stories as well as fairy tales, etc.). “Art” includes not just the study of paintings but also sculpture and architecture and even archaeology again. “Religion” includes not just holy books like the Bible but also what might better be considered mythology, as well as some ancillary but important writings like Luther’s 95 Theses. “Philosophy” includes stuff like Plato and Descartes but also some influential thought-provoking essays like Machiavelli’s The Prince and Montaigne’s Essays.

You can’t do it all. Even though you have five whole years (and more, since there’s the summer before your eighth grade and the summer after your 12th grade) before you are 18 in the fall (that’ll be 2024), when many young adults apply for college, there is no possible way you can read “all the classics” in that time. This isn’t because you’re going slowly (since you started going through Hesiod and Homer, it’s been easier to see what pace you can get through this material), it’s because there is so much in the way of classics. There are extra readings, like the stories from ancient Sumeria and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, that maybe we should have skipped if we’re going to focus on the most important stuff, but I’m not going to sweat that. Reading all that alongside the Bible was actually a great introduction to ancient texts, so that now you can go through more important classics like Homer more confidently and appreciating them more.

The general strategy: the essential highlights. But if you can’t do it all, how can we decide what you should do? Well, having studied all of the humanities myself (though I certainly have not read “all the classics”), I have a rough idea of how much there is to read, that is totally essential, in the different eras of Western history. So I propose that you study as follows:

  • ancient subjects: 1.5 years
  • medieval and Renaissance topics: 0.5 years
  • early modern and Enlightenment (including early American) topics: one year
  • nineteenth and 20th century topics: two years

What I don’t want to happen is that you get finished with a certain part of history and there remains several essential (not just “important,” but absolutely crucial) classics you haven’t read, and so you end up skipping them. What are examples of “absolutely crucial” classics? You’re reading one now: the Odyssey. Some others include Herodotus, Plato’s Republic, the New Testament (at least parts of it), Dante’s Inferno, the most important Shakespeare plays, etc. When you get into more modern times, it becomes more controversial or hard to decide what is “absolutely crucial,” but ones I think you must have read would include Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre in British literature, at least one great Russian novel such as Anna Karenina (but probably both that and Crime and Punishment), in American literature Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn, and in American history both the Constitution and at least a selection from the Federalist Papers. These are the books that are embarrassing not to have read if you want to call yourself educated, although plenty of badly educated people skipped many of these. I’ve read 95% of them.

A good idea of what the “great books” are can be found by looking at Britannica’s list, compiled by philosopher Mortimer Adler.

The rest of this document will be an outline of what you’ll study, with the “crucial” books listed. I’m not 100% sure of this list. The ones I have in bold are my best guesses about what the most important books are. Some of the other books are probably just as crucial; maybe some don’t belong on the list, and maybe there are some books that aren’t on the list, that I have forgotten about. So we will revisit this list before starting each period.

Art and Archaeology books. Books to consult include:

  • The Art Museum
  • The Story of Art
  • A World History of Art
  • The Great Book of Archaeology

Why not use a lot of anthologies? In some cases, anthologies will be our friends. For example, rather than buy each Greek play individually, we’ll probably just buy one or two anthologies. But my bias will be to have you read entire works, or at least very substantial extracts, rather than a little bit from everything. “A little bit from everything” ends up being both boring and confusing, and a great deal is lost from many great writings if you don’t view it as a whole. That is especially true of literature and much of philosophy. It is less true when selecting from things like essays, speeches, and aphorisms. As to history, the more of a work, the better; just a little of any history is pretty useless, but cutting a bit here and there can be fine.

That said, selections were made from most of the following. Reading all of the whole list would probably be impossible for the vast majority of students; there’s just too much to do.

Lectures. You will continue to watch lectures to go with the readings from The Great Courses Plus, The Great Courses (audiobook versions, cheaper), and YouTube when nothing is available from those sources.

Ancient Times

March 2019 through December 2020 (ages 12 through 14)

Earliest Civilizations

Unit 1: Earliest History, Especially Mesopotamia (finished)

  • Myths from Mesopotamia; particularly, Gilgamesh
  • The Old Testament, selections from the Pentateuch
  • The Code of Hammurabi

Unit 2: Egypt and Other Pre-Greek Civilizations (finished)

  • Green, Tales of Ancient Egypt
  • The Tale of Sinuhe, trans. R.B. Parkinson
  • The Book of the Dead

Ancient Greece

June 2019 - May 2020

Unit 3: Early Greece (mostly finished; through June 15)

  • Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days
  • Homer, The Iliad
  • Homer, The Odyssey

Unit 4: Foundational Texts of Eastern Religion

  • Confucius, Analects
  • Selections from Buddhist texts; see Anthology of World Scriptures and Huston Smith's The World's Religions
  • Selections from earliest Hindu texts
  • Tao Te Ching

Unit 5: Herodotus and the Persian Wars

  • Herodotus, Histories
  • More of the Old Testament (prophesy, exile, and post-exile)

Unit 6: Greek Poetry and Theater

  • A bit of the presocratics, from Hakim, Historical Introduction to Philosophy
  • Greek Lyrics, trans. Lattimore
  • Aeschylus: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, Eumenides
  • Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus (summary), Antigone
  • Euripides: Medea
  • Aristotle, Poetics

Unit 7: Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War

  • Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
  • The Trial and Death of Socrates (already read; re-read on your own)
  • Aristophanes, The Clouds
  • Plato, Symposium

Unit 8: Greek Philosophy

  • Plato, The Republic, Bk. 1-2, 6-9 (selections)
  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (selections)

Unit 9: The Hellenistic Period

  • Plutarch, Life of Alexander
  • Old Testament, post-exilic selections
  • Bhagavad-Gita selections
  • Epicurus selections
  • Throughout, look at, read about, and react to major works of art

Ancient Rome

Unit 10: Early Rome (753-292 B.C.)

  • Re-read your own Daily Writings and lecture notes
  • Livy, Books 1-10 and Moses Hadad, Ed., A history of ROME

Unit 11: Punic Wars (292-134 B.C.)

  • Livy, Books 21-45 and Hadad
  • Plautus, The Braggart Soldier, The Brothers Menaechmus
  • Terence, The Girl from Andros, The Mother-in-Law, and The Eunuch
  • Cato the Elder, On Agriculture

Unit 12: The Late Republic and the Civil War (133-44 B.C.)

  • Cicero selections
  • Sallust and Hadad
  • Lucretius (maybe)
  • Caesar, one or both of On the War in Gaul and On the Civil War
  • Catullus short selections
  • Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Unit 13-nn: The Early Roman Empire (44 B.C. - 284 A.D.) NEEDS BREAKING UP; NOT ALL NEEDS TO BE DONE

  • Virgil, Aeneid
  • Virgil, Georgics
  • The New Testament, selections
  • Seneca
  • Epictetus
  • Marcus Aurelius
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses
  • Lucan, The Civil War
  • Petronius, The Satyricon
  • Tacitus, Annals
  • Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars
  • Juvenal, Satires
  • Longus, Daphnis and Chloe

Unit nn: The Later Roman Empire (284-476 A.D.)

  • Augustine, Confessions

  • Look at, read about, and react to major works of art

Medieval period

Spring 2021 through Fall 2021 (age 15)

  • Re-read your own Daily Writings and lecture notes
  • Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
  • The Koran (also spelled Qur’an; selections; I’ve read only bits)
  • Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People
  • The Song of Roland
  • Chretien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances
  • The Lais of Marie de France
  • Beowulf
  • Aquinas (selections)
  • Dante, The Divine Comedy
  • One Thousand and One Nights
  • Boccaccio, The Decameron
  • Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
  • Look at, read about, and react to major works of art

Renaissance, Early Modern, & Enlightenment periods

Winter 2021-22 through Summer 2022 (ages 15 through 16)

  • Re-read your own Daily Writings and lecture notes
  • Machiavelli, The Prince
  • Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
  • Erasmus, The Praise of Folly
  • More, Utopia
  • Montaigne, Essays (selections)
  • Shakespeare, plays you haven’t read and selected sonnets
  • Galileo, Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences
  • Cervantes, Don Quixote
  • Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy
  • Milton, Paradise Lost
  • Milton, Areopagitica
  • Pascal, Pensees
  • Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
  • Locke, Second Essay Concerning Civil Government
  • Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
  • Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and The Social Contract
  • Rousseau, Confessions
  • Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (done, but re-read alone)
  • The Federalist
  • An anthology of shorter poetry and drama (Moliere, Racine, Voltaire) from this period
  • Listen to/look at, read about, and react to major works of classical music and art

19th and 20th centuries (not finalized)

Summer 2022 through summer 2024 (ages 16-18)

  • Re-read your own Daily Writings
  • Goethe, Faust
  • Shelly, Frankenstein
  • Pushkin, Yevgeny Onegin
  • Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
  • Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
  • Declaration of Sentiments (The Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention of 1848)
  • Douglass, Narrative of the Life
  • Melville, Moby-Dick
  • Dickens, Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities (or some other famous novel of his you haven’t read yet)
  • Twain, Huckleberry Finn (done, but maybe re-read)
  • Darwin, Origin of the Species and Descent of Man (selections)
  • Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party
  • Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter or House of Seven Gables
  • Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  • Tolstoy, War and Peace
  • Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
  • Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground
  • Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
  • Arnold, Culture and Anarchy
  • Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil and/or Genealogy of Morals
  • Conrad, Heart of Darkness
  • Re-read your own Daily Writings
  • Freud, at least one of The Interpretation of Dreams, General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, or Civilization and its Discontents
  • Russell, The Problems of Philosophy
  • Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Woolf, To the Lighthouse or A Room of One’s Own
  • Faulkner, one of his novels; I read Light in August so maybe that
  • Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  • Kafka, Metamorphosis and The Trial
  • Camus, The Stranger
  • Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
  • Orwell, Animal Farm and 1984 (done; might want to re-read when you’re 17 or 18)
  • Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism
  • Rand, The Fountainhead and/or Atlas Shrugged
  • Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  • Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
  • An anthology of shorter poetry and drama (Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov, O’Neill, Sartre) from this period
  • Re-read your own Daily Writings
  • Listen to/look at, read about, and react to major works of classical music and art


An idea for theological self-education

I almost wrote: "a crazy idea for theological self-education"

Let me describe what I am doing, and how I might want to go on doing it in the future. This description has two parts: (1) the method I propose to use for studying the Bible, and (2) the method I propose to use for getting an "independent" degree, if I can possibly interest some qualified theologians.

How I will study the Bible, again

Beginning one year ago (December, 2019) I started reading the Bible cover-to-cover. I did so in 100 days, still finding time to look up answers to questions with the help of study Bibles and commentaries and suchlike. When I finished, I immediately began re-reading it with a little online study group, this time following an OT-once, NT-twice, all-in-one-year plan. I am of course doing more in-depth background study. Now that this pass through is about 80% done, and I am thinking about what I will do next.

One thing that is clear to me is that I will continue to study the Bible, although I will do so more slowly and carefully next time through (beginning in March). I have toyed with various ideas for concocting a Bible commentary of some sort, and I have all but decided on one particular approach. Namely, I will be answering a limited number of questions about the text, limited particularly by the amount of time I want to spend on each chapter. Maybe I will also prepare a little paraphrase, but maybe not. Here is the result of an experiment demonstrating this idea:

As a grad student, I made myself quite adept (in the opinion of my examiners) in my ability to explain the philosophy of David Hume and Thomas Reid, simply by going through the text and answering every hard question I could think to ask about the text. So I would like to do something similar with regard to the Bible.

If I get through the Bible in three years—again, OT once, NT twice—then I can spend only so much time on each chapter. On the other hand, reading more slowly, I will have time available to do research and writing that, reading faster, I would have to spend in just reading. This still might be too aggressive: it's about two chapters per weekday. On the other hand, that includes many short chapters, and it is actually only 52 verses per day, and that is assuming I get get weekends and two full weeks off every year. Besides, when I go through the NT the second time, I will be revising and adding to what I have already written.

I have thought about studying theology more systematically, which makes some sense, because not only am I a philosopher and have strong interests in theological questions, but I am also 180 pages through writing a book summing up my versions of (mostly philosophical) arguments for the existence of God. I have been chipping away at it a page here, a page there, a few pages per week for the last nine months or so. It has come steadily. (I have a growing mailing list of theologians and theology students who have offered to give me comments...although few have done so so far. Let me know if you are into theology and want to join the list. I will send new manuscript versions as I make them.)

Beyond work on that, perhaps I will somehow incorporate theological study into my reading of the Bible, but the Bible will remain my main focus. You see, whenever I crack open a book of serious theology, I read a page or two and immediately ask myself, "Why would I read this instead of the Bible, when I have not determined how I would answer many interpretative questions about the Bible itself? I mean, why go to all this trouble of struggling with the answers to specific questions about the meaning of the text (because that really is what theology is about, in my opinion) without first fully acquainting myself with the text? Would that not be much more efficient?"

On the other hand, I can see perhaps incrementally developing answers to a limited number of theological questions by reference to, and in the context of, relevant passages in the Bible. So I might have a question about Original Sin, and I might add new bits to the answer in light first of Genesis 3, and then later in light of texts from Paul. After all, a lot of the sort of questions I am inclined to ask about the text are questions concerning apologetics and theology.

But in any case, I will certainly be finishing this book about the arguments for the existence of God, and to do so I will want to review a fair bit of philosophical theology—the same sort of thing I used to teach to undergraduates in a philosophy of religion course at Ohio State, although now I would be reading at a higher level. I have actually started doing so already.

A theology degree by examination?

Since I am actually wrapping up my first draft of this book manuscript, called God Exists, I started hunting around for reviewers, theology types who were interested in discussing the issues and giving feedback. As I was thinking about this, though, it occurred to me that what I really need is some expert guidance. "Perhaps I might want to get a theology degree," I thought. And then it occurred to me that I sure do not want to go back to some modern, compromised, dysfunctional institution (which thinks it is doing absolutely fine). I mean, I don't have to. I don't need the degree; I want the learning. Still, wouldn't the degree be nice to have? In any case what I need is the help that would typically go with the degree.

So then I thought: "What about my old interest in degrees by examination?"

My latest thinking on that is: there would be nothing more inherently valuable about a degree from an institution like Harvard than a degree that were endorsed and "granted" by three Harvard faculty members. Traditional employers might respect the official degree, but what if I don't care about traditional employers?

Why not simply do the study for a particular degree in this way: you develop a portfolio (of some sort) with occasional help from experts, and then sit for a written and oral exam, and portfolio and thesis evaluation, by a panel of three more experts? Then when you say, "Oh, sure, I have an M.Div. But it is an Independent M.Div., or I.M.Div., granted by Jones, Smith, and Brown." Assuming those three are well-known, then why shouldn't this be respected as the equivalent of a traditional M.Div. that a thesis committee with those three on it would approve? Similar committees are responsible for determining all advancement in the context of big, bureaucratic educational institutions.

This might be revolutionary; but at this point, it is a revolution that I think needs to happen. We need to make the degree-granting process independent of giant, expensive, and increasingly totalitarian universities.

Of course, I might have trouble finding even one person who is willing to put his own reputation on the line by "granting" an "independent degree" to an independent scholar, or "recognizing" such. But I would be willing to serve as the student in such an experiment.

Any interested and qualified Bible scholars and theologians out there? Want to be on my committee? We would potentially show undergrads how to get such degrees outside of the traditional university system, too, which would be a great thing.

Besides, I won't be finishing anytime soon. So you'd have time to back out if you want. I won't be hurt, because I'm mostly after the knowledge as opposed to the degree.


In Memoriam: Charles Boone, Philanthropist Responsible for Reading Bear and WatchKnowLearn

This day before Thanksgiving, I sit to write about a man I am thankful for. I celebrate the contributions to online knowledge of Memphis-area philanthropist Charles Boone. Now that he has passed away—August 28, 2020, at the age of 85—I feel privileged to be able to share something he asked me to keep private, until after he died.

In particular, Charles was the mysterious benefactor behind WatchKnowLearn and Reading Bear. When I was working for him, he lived alone with his dogs on a nice estate in a big house, two ponds (one stocked), and lots of woods in Lakeland, a distant suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. When I first met him, he was around 71 and already bragging about how he had outlived everyone in his family. Charles was a remarkably open and nice guy, although he could sometimes be a tightwad, as I have found many rich folks are. The first time I met him, he said he'd take me to lunch. I thought we were going to some restaurant, maybe a nice one. He took me to the local Costco and we ate a bunch of free samples. Maybe it was a test. I think I passed, if so. He was very unpretentious that way. He was very easy to like. I remember driving hither and yon, including out to the state capital once to lobby someone, and discussing the projects and much else, besides. I don't think he really had a mean bone in his body.

Our association began in 2007, when I was still working hard on Citizendium. He said he wanted someone to organize an "American Idol for teachers." He said he wanted to hire the guy who started Wikipedia. I told him I didn't have time for another project, but I asked him to help support Citizendium. He agreed to, but asked me to consult a bit for his project. Over the next year, he asked me to do more and more, which is one of the main reasons I was doing less and less on Citizendium throughout 2008. By late 2008 I was working more or less full time developing a new project. He invited me to come live in the Memphis area, but it wasn't necessary, and my wife and I had already settled in the Columbus area. I ended up worked for him at a distance for something like five years.

The new project wasn't an American Idol for teachers. I persuaded Charles to let me organize a directory of the best educational videos online, reasoning that there was already plenty of great stuff online, it just needed to be made more findable. It was called WatchKnow—later, under new management and after I started working on Reading Bear, renamed WatchKnowLearn. It launched in 2009 and remained in active development until 2011 or so. It quickly gained tens of thousands of videos in a large directory of videos, in a format that teachers say they found very useful. It was (and is) 100% free of charge to everyone, and ad-free. That's because Charles paid for it.

In 2010, I showed Charles a video I had made of my toddler son reading. He was amazed and said he wanted me to make a digital version of the program I had used to teach my son to read. So he hired a new CEO for WatchKnowLearn and I switched to start developing Reading Bear, which I did for two years. I began by doing background research, among other things writing this free book. Then I dove into the project, which was hard work, designing the software and working closely with the developers, making the word lists, collecting the pictures and videos (after arranging to get them donated by an early exec of Shutterstock), and then actually producing 50 presentations. Every separate sound of all 1,200 words and corresponding sentences had to be matched, by hand, so that the right part of the words were being highlighted while the audio was heard. Truly it was a labor of love. But I hear that many kids as well as ESL students used it to learn to read. My second son was one of the first beta-testers; he was using it as I was still making it, when he was a baby. Like his big brother, he was reading picture books by age two and chapter books by age three. Anyway, Reading Bear got many good reviews and helped a lot of people learn to read English. Charles paid for that and he rightly took pride in it.

By late 2012, Charles had gotten married, again, he was passing ownership to a third party (who, sadly, haven't done much with them since; they're 100% out of my hands). So Charles' interests took him elsewhere for half a dozen years. Both projects were finished, and Charles wasn't ready to develop them any further. I moved on to other projects.

Interestingly, it was just last summer, 2020, when we got back in touch for the first time in a while. He said he wanted to get back into developing a new project. Would I be interested in developing that old "American Idol for teachers idea" for him—for real this time? I was consulting at the time, so it was easy for me to say yes (although I have since moved on to full time starting the Knowledge Standards Foundation). We even said, sometime in early August, that we would negotiate a salary and get started very soon. But then I stopped hearing from him. A few weeks passed, I got worried, and I contacted a mutual acquaintance, who told me the bad news. Apparently, Charles had passed away just a couple days after our last call. It warms my heart to know that he was wanting to develop more free educational content projects until the very end.

The "American Idol for teachers" idea, by the way, is a very good one. It would not just be another Khan Academy. We would do a search, probably in the form of an actual competition with cash prizes and an employment contract, for the very best K-12 teachers. Then we would work with the teachers and professional videographers and produce professional videos covering the entire K-12 curriculum, complete with supplementary material like lesson plans and worksheets, and make it all available online for free. The result would be something like TheGreatCoursesPlus.com, but for kids, and absolutely free.

Someone ought to do that project. It always amazes me that so many philanthropic dollars are spent on education, and so few are spent on actual content that students can learn from. What a waste. Listen, education philanthropists—what the world needs are boatloads of high-quality free educational material. That really is of great benefit to the world. There still isn't enough really good free educational stuff. Yes, even still. Not enough people understand this. Charles understood it, though.

Charles had other philanthropic activities as well. He used to talk about how he bought expensive smart boards (interactive displays for education) for classrooms in poor areas that couldn't afford them. He had other projects, too. I'm sure he didn't tell me about all of them.

Charles wasn't perfect, as he himself admitted early and often. He was a Christian man who cared deeply about improving the lives of poor kids, especially around the very poor Mississippi Delta region. He was unassuming and, for religious and other reasons, asked me not to publicize his name until after he was dead. Since he has passed away, I feel happy to be able to share about his work. RIP, Charles.


15 Principles for New Homeschoolers

A Twitter thread.

1/ Be kind; be gentle; listen to your kids. You now have the opportunity to let them learn in a way that really gets them into learning. This is wonderful, and it is why homeschooled kids do so well. Don't be harsh.

2/ Start foreign languages early. You aren't well-educated (sorry) if you don't know a foreign language. This teaches not just another language, but deep principles of grammar, geography, and foreign cultures. Important. If you don't know one, learn with them. Duolingo is cool.

3/ Don't be anti-intellectual; knowledge is incredibly important. The classics are classics for a reason. Read them to and with your kids if you've never read them yourself (I read many kids' classics for the first time when homeschooling).

4/ If something (like a textbook) isn't working for your kid, don't blame the kid. Switch. Obviously, use your judgment. Don't avoid math, e.g., because your kid doesn't like any math. But find the best math program for your kid. This seems to be very personal, and that's OK.

5/ Ignore those who tell you that it's OK to just let your kids do absolutely whatever they want. That's a terrible idea. Children need direction. Some need a lot; some thrive on only a little. But you should set standards and expectations in all cases.

Learning is the goal IMO.

6/ Do hard things. Seriously consider studying Latin. No, really. I learned a fair bit of it myself with mine. It's hugely beneficial. Whether or not you're a believer, read the Bible all the way through. Gently push your kids (not too young!). Cheerfully set high expectations.

7/ You will have to do preparation, not to lecture (who lectures to their homeschooled kids?), but choosing new books, making schedules, changing plans when they don't work, etc., etc. Planning ahead helps a lot, really. The more organized you can be in your planning, the better.

8/ Take special time for things your kids particularly like. If they're inspired by computers, give them time to program. If they love art, give them time for art. Etc. Work it into your routine and watch them blossom.

9/ Don't worry about the "socialization" thing. Homeschooled kids are generally nice and well-behaved. There are many opportunities for them to (safely!) interact with other kids, at church, YMCA, Scouts, clubs, library meetings, etc.

10/ At younger ages (6-9?), my view is that kids don't really need to study all day long. They can greatly benefit from free time and will use it in productive ways…unless they have bad gaming habits or whatever. (Stop them!) As they get older they'll need to put in more hours.

11/ Small kids (ages 0-8 or so) need something close to constant attention in order to get through the work you have planned. This won't last forever. They in particular benefit from careful planning and the little things like gold stars.

12/ There are bazillions of great educational apps. Find the best (keep looking), use them, and use YouTube educational videos intelligently, but don't let your kids get hooked on a handheld. Don't let them have the code to unlock it. Change the code if they find it out.

13/ You can do this. You're going to be learning alongside them. If you're working with kids below the high school level, the material is not hard. You can (and should) read the text to them when they're young, and explain things, and find maps and videos to supplement, etc.

14/ Older kids need lectures to go with their literature, history, science, etc., because the material is becoming more systematic and in-depth. If they're working at the upper high school level, check out The Great Courses and The Great Courses Plus; also YouTube and Amazon.

15/ When you're starting out, you're going to have to think about some deep, philosophical questions, about the purpose of education. I think the purpose is to get kids to understand the world, especially the human world, in depth and breadth. Think it over. It will matter.

Bonus:

16/ One way to start:

  • List the subjects you want your kids to study.
  • For each subject, search online for homeschool curricula. Take notes, compare, and try the one that seems best. I'd avoid canned curricula in which all the choices are made for you.
  • Purchase/check out.
  • Make a study schedule or lists of subjects each day of the week. Which works? See!
  • But it can be a good idea to set goals (e.g., ch. 1 by Apr. 25, etc.). Adjust.
  • Make an quiet place for study.
  • Enforce rules gently or your plans will be sure to fall apart.

Dive in!


Should we be satisfied with mediocre schools?

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the conservative educational thinktank, the Thomas J. Fordham Institute--whose tagline is "Advancing Educational Excellence." Petrilli argues that it's totally okay if his children study at a school that is "often mediocre." This a breath of fresh air in regards to his honesty and candor, at least. What sort of school should he want for his children? "Not a school that is just 'adequate or average,' much less mediocre, but one that, by design, helps to prepare kids for 'life’s endless frustrations.'"

This is the attitude that literally frustrated me to distraction when I was a student in the 1970s and 80s, and which led me to homeschool my two boys. It is refreshing that Petrilli admits that his children's school is mediocre and that, out of consistency, he wants to make a virtue of not-quite-necessity by saying this is a good thing, because it prepares them for the many frustrations of life. But no, I argue that we should not be satisfied with mediocre schools, and the quality of education is an important enough thing that, barring some sort of educational revolution--not likely--then we should seek other solutions. Homeschooling is ours.

We don't regret our choice in the least. To give an example of what they're doing now, my 12-year-old son is about to read the classics of archaic Greece, Hesiod's Works and Days and Theogony, and both the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer. As to my 8-year-old, I read the Odyssey to him when he was five, at his request, and am now halfway through reading the Iliad to him. For his own part, he's polishing off the Harry Potter series for fun and continues to watch science videos aimed at high school students.

I ask myself: What can account for such a stark difference of opinion between Petrilli, who finds himself arguing that mediocre schools are good enough for his children, and me, when I absolutely insist on giving my children an excellent education?

Part of this, no doubt, is the difference between a conservative and a libertarian. Conservatives are generally inclined to defend the current system, warts and all, even if they are (as in Petrilli's case) committed to "Advancing Educational Excellence." The incursions of institutions on liberty and, yes, excellence naturally piss off libertarians.

But let's look at Petrilli's actual argument. He says that life is full of mediocrity and boredom; kids should learn to cope with it. I find this argument transparently weak. Have we heard any stories, much less seen hard evidence, that homeschooled kids, who do not have to deal with the bullshit of a regular school, are somehow hampered by their lack of experience with daily mediocrity and boredom? Not at all. If anything, the unremitting mediocrity of most regular schools (both public and private) beats down many kids, turning them off to learning and stifling their ambition, especially in the case of boys in recent decades.

I would argue, to the contrary, that small human beings naturally bristle and rebel at stifling mediocrity, and if this rebellious spirit, which is the same as the desire for excellence, is not beaten out of them, it will serve them very well in adulthood.

So that argument won't do, and Petrilli acknowledges he might be rationalizing:

To be sure, I might be rationalizing. To find the money to send two boys to private school would require a painful change in our family’s lifestyle; likewise with becoming homeschoolers. But the truth is that we could do it if we wanted it badly enough. So I have a strong self-interest in conflating “mediocre” and “good enough.” Maybe I’m just trying to feel better about the fact that I haven’t figured out how to get my boys into a school that’s excellent.

I don't know Petrilli, so I can't say if his refreshing candor here is correct in his case. But it does have the ring of truth to me. I think that many of us ambitious adults do place our own interests before those of our children, and perhaps this is natural for us. But others feel quite differently about the matter.


I joined a homeschooling legal defense association

Actually, I joined the Homeschooling Legal Defense Association (as a rank-and-file paying member). Authoritarianism is on the march, and while homeschooling has enjoyed a golden age in the last couple decades, having achieved both acceptance (even a measure of prestige) and legal freedom, I'm worried that that might be changing. It isn't any particular event, just the steady, low drumbeat of left-wing concern that people might be doing something with children that isn't closely monitored and controlled by the state. "How dare citizens educate their children independently?" they think. "Surely, the experts in our government-run education establishments know best. Why can't we be more like Germany and Sweden, which have superior public schools, while homeschooling is illegal?"

If people are becoming so ignorant or unsupportive of basic American civil rights and freedoms such as freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, Fourth Amendment privacy rights, and basic due process—depressing, isn't it?—then we can predict that, within the next five or ten years, a major push to control or even eliminate homeschooling will get under way in countries where it is still legal (such as the U.S., Canada, U.K., Russia (!), Poland, South Africa, and Australia).


Modern education and culture, or, what did you think would happen?

I. Modern education and culture

Look at where we are in education and culture today. Let's catalog the main issues, shall we?

School children are often not taught to read properly, and too many fall behind and grow up functionally illiterate. Yet students are kept in schools practically all day and are made to do endless amounts of busywork, and then they have to do even more busywork at home. The efficiency of the work they do is appalling, as their textbooks and assignments are all too often ill-conceived, being repetitious, deadly dull, and designed without any consideration for what individual children already know (or don't know). Generally, they aren't taught classics (but more on that below). So despite all that work, despite graduating at rates as high as ever, the average child emerges into adulthood shockingly ignorant. The educational process is regimented; little humans have essentially become cogs in a giant, humorless, bureaucratic machine. The whole process is soul-killing.

Growing up in these bureaucratized intellectual ghettos, it's no wonder that rebellion has become de rigeur, that everyone calls himself an individualist although few really are. Popular culture with each passing generation is more dumbed-down, delivering entertainment that can be effortlessly consumed by maleducated conformist rebels, increasingly avoiding any scintilla of intellectualism, any uncool and boring reference to any of the roots of Western culture. On TV, popular music, and the Internet—the ubiquitous refuges of the young from the horrors of the educational machine that dominates their young lives—one can navigate content of all sorts without any exposure to the classics of literature and the arts, or the root ideas of Western religion and philosophy. If a few lucky students are exposed to these things at their more academic high schools, most are not, and the taste for "the best which has been thought and said" is ruined by the presentation in a system that "critiques" and renders dull as much as it celebrates and usefully explains. It's a wonder if any students emerge with any taste for the classics of Western literature, art, and thought at all.

A problem about Western culture, for the modern world, is that it is intensely critical and challenging. The classics are beautiful, but hard—both difficult to appreciate and presenting lessons that require us to take a hard, critical look at ourselves. Although the classics can be profoundly inspiring and sublime in beauty, they require time, attention, intelligence, seriousness, and sincerity to appreciate. In the context of today's soul-killing schools, students are too exhausted and overworked to meet these challenges. Many students are also too narcissistic—having been told by their parents and teachers that they are already brilliant, having been idolized by popular culture for their cool, attractiveness, and cutting-edge thinking about everything—so the classics require a kind of self-criticism that is wholly foreign to many of them. It is no wonder the classics simply do not "speak to" the youth of today.

Moreover, almost all of the classics were created by white Western men. Spending much time on them is politically regressive, or that is what school teachers are trained to believe. Instead, the left at universities have been building a new kind of more critical culture, at once holding up the grievances of historically marginalized groups as a new gospel, while actually revering popular culture. Teachers and administrators marinade in this left-wing culture of criticism at universities for six or more years, before they make the choices of what pieces of culture are worth exposing to children. So, again, it's a wonder if any students emerge with any taste for the classics.

At the college level, matters have become dire in other ways. Everyone is expected to go to college, and at the same time universities have become corporatized, so that the students are now treated as "customers" whose evaluations determine how professors should teach. So, naturally, grades have inflated—which would have been necessary to coddle the "self-esteem" or narcissism of youth—and the courses themselves have been dumbed down, at least in the humanities. But who needs the humanities? Degrees in the liberal arts generally are held to be a waste of money, especially since college has become so expensive, and fewer people are pursuing such degrees. Even if one believed the knowledge gained through liberal arts degrees to be valuable enough to warrant spending $60,000/year, one spends much of the time, in most of the humanities, marinading in that same left-wing critical culture that produces our schoolteachers—so one wouldn't be exposed to the classics in the way that would incline a student to sign up for one of these degrees in the first place. So it's no wonder if students and their parents are finding it increasingly plausible to skip college altogether. This is a sad mistake, considering that young adults today, navigating a rapidly-changing world, are more in need of the wisdom and intellectual skills inculcated by a liberal arts education than ever before. And most recently, the consequences of our failure to pass on two of the ideals essential to Western thought—free speech and freedom of inquiry—has led to thoroughly illiberal efforts to "shut it down," i.e., prevent politically unpopular ideas from getting a hearing on campus at all. This is all in the name of intersectionality, empowering the disempowered, tearing down bad old ideas, and protecting the sensitive feelings of coddled students.

II. The once-radical ideas that got us here

Our education is degraded, and we are falling away from Western civilization. So how did it come to this? I put it down to a perfect storm of terrible ideas.

(1) To be effective in a fast-changing society, we need up-to-date know-how, not theory. American society developed out of a frontier mentality that placed a premium on a "can-do" attitude, an ability to get things done, with theorizing and book-reading being a waste of time. That might be understandable for the pioneers and peasants of a frontier or pre-industrial society, it is a terrible idea for the complexities of industrial and post-industrial societies, in which wisdom, trained intelligence, and sensitivity to nuance are essentials. Nevertheless, American parents and teachers alike generally seem to agree that practical knowledge and know-how are more important than book-larnin'. You would think that this might have changed with more people than ever going to college. But it has not.

(2) Books are old-fashioned in the Internet age. When, in the 2000s, the Internet came into its own as the locus of modern life, we began to ask, "Is Google making us stupid?" and to "complain" that we lacked the ability to read extended texts (long articles were "tl;dr" and books boring, old, and irrelevant). I think many of us took this to heart. Educated people still do want their children to read, but the habits of adults are slowly dying; you can't expect the children to do better.

(3) Western civilization is evil. "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go," chanted those Stanford students in 1988, which became a watershed moment in the development of Western culture. At the time, it might have seemed a bit of left-wing excess, and just one side of the complex Culture War. But, in fact, it proved to be a taste of things to come. Many Western civilization requirements are long gone. What was once the province of the newly-created Women's Studies and Black Studies departments, and a few left-wing professors, gradually become the dominant viewpoint in all of the humanities. Why study the classics when the classics simply represent the point of view of the oppressor?

(4) Social justice is the new religion. Hand-in-hand with criticism of Western civilization came an increasing respect (which is good), then celebration (which is fine), and finally a veneration (which is undeserved) of everything that has traditionally been set in opposition to Western civilization, especially the usual identity groups: women, races other than white, ethnicities other than Western, religion other than Christianity, sexual orientation other than straight, etc. At universities, making these identity groups equal to straight, white, male, Christian Europeans has become nearly the only thing—apart from environmentalism and a few other such causes—that is taken really seriously. For many academics, intersectionality has replaced both religion and any apolitical ethics to become an all-encompassing worldview.

(5) Psychology is more scientific, accurate, and credible than philosophy and religion, and self-esteem must be cultivated at all costs. The gospel of self-esteem came into being in the 1970s, right around the time when the self-help publishing industry became fashionable. With the collapse of traditional (especially Christian) belief systems, people cast about for general advice on how to live their lives, and psychology delivered. As self-esteem was a key element of much self-help psychology, it was only natural that the parents of Generations X and Y would pull out the stops to protect the feelings and sense of self-worth of their precious darlings.

We have changed. Despite their education, too many of our children cannot read well, and fewer and fewer of us read books. Whatever we do teach or read, it is rarely classical literature. Classics have become an unexplored country, dull and reviled, to many of us. Recent generations are the first in centuries in which the upper echelons of society are quite shockingly ignorant of their own Western heritage. And here I don't just mean books, I mean also basic Western principles, ideas, and values. For many young people, social justice, psychology, and especially popular culture have replaced religion and wisdom literature. Popular culture may be a crass wasteland, yet it guides our youth more than ever, as being the only kind of culture that most of them have preparation and taste for.

We have declined. In past generations, this analysis would have sounded like scaremongering. Today, the analysis has come true; it is a postmortem.

But—and here I speak to the older generation, especially educated old liberals—what did you think would happen? This is precisely what some people did predict in decades past, because society's leaders were teaching a certain set of ideas to the leaders of the next generation:

European civilization colonized and exploited the world; it is irredeemably racist and the main source of the suffering in the world today.

Inequalities are deeply unfair, and white men have the best of everything; so we should celebrate everyone else and take white men down a peg or two.

We must be avoid saying anything that might even be thought to be offensive to disadvantaged identity groups.

Christianity is completely irrational and doesn't deserve a role in public life.

Science, and psychology in particular, studies all we need to know to live and be happy; philosophy and religion are based on muddle-headed superstition.

The self-esteem and sensitivities of young people are precious and must be protected from the buffets that life threatens to give them.

Even today, some of these ideas might sound ridiculous to some of us. But if you've been paying attention, you can't deny that these once-radical ideas have become increasingly mainstream.

III. The radical ideas that might guide our future

The desperate state of education today is predictable, given former trends and earnestly-expressed convictions. It was called scaremongering to say that these ideas were hacking away the roots of Western civilization—and yet they did. So one wonders: What can we predict about the future, based on ideas now growing in popularity, ideas that it is quite reasonable to believe will guide the education and enculturation of the next generation?

Here are some controversial ideas that are in vogue at universities today:

Free speech is a dangerous idea, and it certainly doesn't include hate speech and harmful speech.

What determines whether speech is harmful is whether it causes its listeners to react with emotional pain.

But we can disregard the pain of "privileged" people—"male tears," "white tears," and all that.

Those who are really plugged in know that books aren't really what's important. Know-how is what's important. You can just look up things online that you need to know.

Popular culture is worth careful academic study, at least as much as "the classics" or "high culture."

Higher education isn't important except as a credential to become a corporate drone and in some fields.

Grave inequalities persist, and our very civilization is racist. We ought to tear down and malign all the productions of white men.

White society, and white people (whether they know it or not), are all racist, and all men (whether they know it or not) perpetuate a sexist patriarchy.

Religion isn't just irrational and wrong, it's evil, and we should take steps to stamp it out and perhaps prohibit it.

Reproducing does great harm to the world. Life is an evil. Babies are not to be celebrated. We should stop having them.

All of these ideas have plenty of adherents on campus today. They might well shape the next generation. If so, what might our brave new world look like? Let's listen in to the monologue from a typical, center-left future student, shall we?

"It's 2047. The way some people talk, you'd think it was, I don't know, 2017 or something. Check this out. I heard someone, and I don't care if she was a black woman, actually citing the Bible in class? That triggered a lot of people, and she was kicked out, of course. I doubt they'll let her back in. It just goes to show you how many people still believe that superstitious bullshit, even though it's revolting hate speech. But you know what, I was kind of impressed about what she was reading, before I realized what she was reading. It sounded like Old English. Who reads crap like that these days? Well, I guess she can. But it's still bullshit. You don't have to be able to read it to know that.

"It's not just superstitious bullshit, it's totally irrelevant. Books are so lame! My favorite professors don't teach books, they teach modern media. When I started this major, I swear, I had no idea pop music and movies were so deep. Seriously! So why do we require students to read so many books at all? Last year I was required to read three books for required Communications courses. Everyone knows that books aren't really what's important; knowledge is free for the taking online. Everything's there, instantly! Besides, the most influential thoughts of the last forty years are all in the form of briefer texts online. I'm thinking I might want to drop out. Half of my friends didn't even go to college and are just being trained by their employers. But you know, I think those tend to be the more conservative people, you know? So...

"Anyway, at the very least, it's time to stop requiring that we read any books written before 1970, or maybe 2000, especially if they were written by white men. I mean, of course white people and men are still welcome at our universities, it is perfectly fair that they wait their turn in classroom discussions. I hate it when some white man just starts talking first. You can hear some people hissing when they do. After all, everyone knows that less privileged people have more valid and relevant perspectives, and hearing white people and men—and on some issues, let's face it, hearing ignorant, insensitive white men at all—causes the marginalized great pain. We can't forget that white Western civilization persists even today, despite our best efforts. We renamed the state of Washington, but not the capital of our country—it continues to be named after the very embodiment of a white, slave-owning, breeding patriarch! That pisses me off so much!

"And speaking of breeders...don't get me started on the breeders. We had to fight tooth and nail against the misogynist, patriarchal society just to make it possible to license parents. But now we're allowing almost everyone to be licensed. What's the point? Surely we've got to prevent so many people from breeding. We don't let just anyone drive, right? We need to start imposing some restrictions. I know it's a little simplistic, but sometimes, simple is the best way: we could just, for a while, restrict the number of children white people could have. I know it sounds shocking, but look—everybody knows they use the most resources, they're the most racist, they create the most inequality. And they're still a plurality in this country. So it's really a no-brainer. It's 2047!"

Maybe that sounds over-the-top. But that's the point. There are cutting-edge activist types who would find all of this commendable or at least very plausible. And just think: the cutting-edge ideas of 1987, which would have sounded totally bizarre and radical back then, are totally up-to-date today, in 2017. I'm similarly extrapolating, from the "cutting-edge" ideas of today on the same topics to how those ideas might be evolve in another 30 years.

Also, of course, it could get much worse. Illiberal societies have been much worse at different times and places in history.

Am I predicting that the monologue is what awaits us? No, my crystal ball isn't that accurate and history never unfolds smoothly or predictably. What I'm saying is that it's a natural extrapolation from ideas about education and culture today. Is that what we want? If not, then what kind of thought world are we trying to build?


Independent study, a replacement for college

There are many things wrong with higher education today, as I've argued on this blog. It's way too expensive.  The amount of bureaucratic overhead is simply ridiculous. The focus on education as vocational training has deeply undercut appreciation and practice of the liberal arts. It has become too business-oriented, meaning that ratings by the customer—the students—count for far too much. The gospel of publish or perish has if anything become worse, and the quality of scholarship has suffered. Far too few faculty members are actually tenured or paid what they are worth.

But beyond all this, we have a special reason for concern. For anyone committed to the liberal arts in particular, the stories we hear coming out of academe are increasingly alarming. I won't make the case here, but it's not at all unreasonable to think that students, especially in the "soft sciences" and humanities, will simply be indoctrinated by their professors and bullied by their fellow students if they are not politically correct enough. There is a point at which the amount of intellectual dogma, dishonesty, and intolerance is so overwhelming that a college education (and especially a liberal arts degree) becomes more an exercise in indoctrination than training the rational mind. No doubt it depends on the institution, the major, and the professors. It's really the luck of the draw. But I would be concerned. I am concerned for my two children.

However that might be, I think we need another sort of option.

I've already argued that getting an education via tutors and a degree via examinations is a good way to pop the education bubble. What I want to do now is record a few thoughts on how a student might actually pursue college study independently. (This is not advice; or, follow it at your own risk!)


Move to a city with a lot of professors. Most big cities would do, and while Boston is maybe the most famous college town, other excellent ones in the U.S. would include Chicago, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City.

Find one or a few good academic advisers. If they aren't 100% committed to you, pay one who will be. This person will help you plan your course of study, give you advice on many things, receive regular reports from you on your work, and encourage you and kick your ass as needed. Obviously, you'll want to find someone fairly like-minded, especially in terms of your academic goals. It needn't be (and probably shouldn't be) someone who has the title "academic adviser." Many academics will do just fine.

With the help of your academic adviser, map out your course of study for a year. It doesn't have to be complete, but you should know a year in advance what you want to do.

I'd create a web page explaining what's going on. This way you just send people to that URL where they can learn what you're doing, what you've studied so far, read samples of your work, etc. This will make it easier for you to get professors interested in helping you.

Professors are not all created equal. Lots are brilliant, excellent teachers, and very fair-minded, even today. Some are just execrable. So here you'll have to do your research. Find professors who are inspiring, clear (or understandable to you, anyway), and make time for you (but they should be if you're paying them).

Pay professors by the hour. One hour a week ought to be enough. The main thing you'll be doing is reading and discussing what you have written about a subject the professor knows about. Maybe offer to take them to lunch.

If a professor sends you to a grad student, forget 'em, unless you're doing introductory work, or just getting tutoring for some standard course. For more advanced work, look elsewhere. Trust me, I was a grad student for eight years. They will be cheaper but they won't be as good. Of course, grad students can grade and tutor certain kind of work and that can be well worth it.

I'd want to live centrally so I can visit professors from various campuses. I'd also want to live with some other students who are doing what I'm doing, rather than with enrolled students. I think independent students living together would encourage each other to stick to it. You might even be able to get some sponsors that way; a group of you doing this is a good cause, well worth supporting.

You don't have to think about your studies in terms of discrete courses. You can, and it might be a good idea. But reading a series of books or article collections, however long it takes you, is also a good idea. Bear in mind that grad schools will still probably want you to quantify your work if you ever want to apply to one.

The bulk of your work, unless you're in one of the hard sciences, will take the form of reading and writing. You'll read books and other things, and write essays, and your professors will read your essays and give you detailed feedback. Then you'll revise. Of course, in science and math you'll have to do problem sets and pay to get those graded.

Consider auditing college courses if you like. Offer to pay the professor to read and mark up your writing and exams, if that's possible. If it's possible for you to sit in on discussion sections, as long as it doesn't cost too much, you might consider doing that.

There are lots of free courses online. You probably know that. They are a great resource; you could use them instead of attending boring lectures in big impersonal lecture halls. Live lectures can be great, but it's the luck of the draw again. In any case, lectures aren't good enough on their own. You will get a better college education if, in addition to watching lectures on video and reading books, you speak face-to-face in real time with an expert passionate about the subject and interested in you in particular. That's really essential.

Do a "senior thesis" or "senior project," i.e., an extended piece of writing or other significant professional accomplishment on a narrowly-focused topic that requires about a year to finish. This will be impressive to grad schools and be a reasonable basis (in part) on which experts can judge your level of accomplishment.

You probably have a few different options for securing a college degree. Suppose you have put all your work on a website. This includes papers, comments by professors, exam scores, the whole nine yards. (Of course, it can be password protected.) On the basis of that, I suspect some professors would be willing to sign their name on a statement (probably for money to compensate them for their time in making the evaluation honestly) to the effect that the amount of work that you have done is equivalent, or more, than the amount of work normally needed to secure a B.A. or B.S. in in their field at their institution, and that your level of scholarship is also commensurate with that of a college graduate in the field.

A GPA? Transcript? You might even finagle a GPA for yourself. Get professors to agree in advance to grade you on chunks of work. Have them edit a document that you write, stating what was accomplished, credit equivalent at their institution, when the studying was done, and the name, institutional affiliation, specializations, and contact information of the professor. They write the grade in and sign it. You make a PDF of this signed document and save the original and give them a copy. Do this for all the independent study courses you do with various professors at various institutions, and make all the PDFs available alongside the grade in your self-made "transcript." My guess is that that will work for many purposes.

Award yourself a "B.A. (or B.S.) by independent study, endorsed by..." On resumes, you can add a brief paragraph explaining how you got a bachelor's degree without having enrolled anywhere. For example, a philosophy graduate might on his resume (I'm totally making this up), "B.A. Philosophy by independent study, endorsed by Profs. Smith (Harvard), Jones (MIT), Kim (Boston University), and Wang (Boston College)." Then in a footnote you describe your program and, especially, you link to the endorsements by the professors who did your final assessment. Make sure these endorsements are uploaded correctly on LinkedIn or some other such website where people publicly endorse other people.

Be prepared to pay professors for endorsing your work and "awarding" you a degree. Especially if it is an independent professor, someone you didn't study with (or, not much), it's going to take them time to look at your portfolio and decide that you've done the work and have shown the knowledge that you need to show.

Will employers accept your "bachelor's degree"? I can't make any guarantees (the risk is all yours!)—but why don't you ask some? Speaking for myself, if I looked at your page and your statements checked out (e.g., I saw the PDFs, got confirmation from the professor that the program was legit, and saw the LinkedIn endorsements), then I would. In fact I'd say, "Here's an entrepreneurial, independent-minded go-getter. This is the kind of person I'd like on my team!" Of course, boring conventional types might turn their noses up at this, but hiring decisions for good jobs are often not made by boring, conventional types.

This is going to be much cheaper and probably better education than you'd suffer through at most universities these days.

Finally, if you do this—or have done it—then email me with your story at yo.larrysanger@gmail.com. I'd love to hear about it.


Why study higher mathematics and other stuff most people don't use in everyday life?

This video was posted in a Facebook group of mine here:

I find it ironic that some of the most listened-to speakers about education explain that the cure to our educational ills is to point out that education is unnecessary. I call this educational anti-intellectualism. Here's another representative sample and another.

It is possible to make the argument, "X isn't going to be necessary for most students in life, therefore X should not be taught," for almost everything that is taught beyond the sixth grade or so. After that, we should be taught "critical thinking" and vague "analytical abilities" and "reading comprehension" and other such claptrap; that seems to be the natural consequence of this commentator's thinking, and sadly, he is not alone.

The fact that educated people like this teacher, and all the people who approve of this stuff, cannot answer the question is very disappointing. It's not surprising, perhaps, because it's philosophy and philosophy is very hard. Moreover, there are a variety of sort-of-right answers that subtly get things wrong and might end up doing more damage than good.

In the latter category I might want to place E.D. Hirsch, Jr., one of the most prominent education traditionalists alive. (He just published a book I got today called Why Knowledge Matters, and he might have updated his views on this; I'll find out soon.) Hirsch's argument is that we ought to learn classics and, essentially, get a liberal arts education, because this is the knowledge we use to interact with other educated adults in our culture. It is "cultural literacy" and "cultural capital" and this is something we desperately need to thrive as individuals and as a civilization.

That's all true, I think. If Hirsch made the argument as, essentially a defense of Western (or just advanced) civilization—that we need to educate people in Western civilization if we are to perpetuate it—then I'd be fully on board. But Hirsch as I understand him appeals particularly to our individual desire to be a part of the elite, to get ahead, to be able to lord it over our less-educated citizens. This is a very bad argument that won't convince many people. If Hirsch or anyone makes it, I would put it in the category of arguing for the right conclusion for the wrong reason.

The argument I'd give to this math teacher is the same I'd give to someone who says we shouldn't memorize history facts or read boring, classic literature or learn the details of science or what have you. Of course you don't need that stuff to get through life. Most people are as dumb as a box of rocks when it comes to academic stuff (yes, in all countries; some are worse than others).

The reason you get an education, and study stuff like higher math, is more along the following lines. Education trains the mind and thereby liberates us from natural prejudice and stupidity. This is the proper work for human beings because we are rational creatures. We are honing the tool that comes more naturally to us than to any other animal. One must realize, as people like this educated fool and so many others seem not to, that education, such as math education, is not merely a tool in the sense of "abilities." The content, or what is known, is a deeply important part of the tool; in fact, as Hirsch does argue correctly and convincingly, any "analytical abilities" brought to a text will be very poor without relevant subject knowledge. If you want an analogy, it is a poor one to say that a course in logic sharpens your wit, to say you want to have sharp wits, and therefore you should study "critical thinking"; the heft or substance of your wit's ax is all the rest of the knowledge behind the cutting edge. Getting an A in a logic class (a course I taught many times) without knowledge of math, science, history, literature, etc., gives you about as much heft and effectiveness as a sharp-edged piece of paper: capable of paper-cuts.

The core of the argument for knowledge is that academic knowledge forms a sort of deeply interconnected system, and the more deeply and broadly that we understand this system, the more capable we are in every bit of life. This is true of us as individuals and also as a society or civilization. It is completely and literally true that the fantastic structure of modern civilization as we know it, all of the historically unprecedented developments we have seen, is a direct outgrowth of the deep commitment of our society's leaders—since the Enlightenment—to education in this system.

The system I refer to is deeply connected, but that doesn't mean it isn't also loosely connected in the sense that one can learn bits here and there and benefit somewhat. That's absolutely true. This is why it's possible for the math teacher to say, "Well, you don't really need to know higher math in order to live life." Some people are geniuses about literature but don't remember anything about any math they learned beyond the sixth grade.

But as everybody with higher education knows, in fact it is absolutely necessary to learn higher math if you are going to learn higher science—both the hard sciences and the social sciences, both of which require heavy calculation—and deal intelligently with statistics and probabilities, as is necessary in politics, or the financial part of business, or some of programming, etc.

This is because the "deep structure" of reality is mathematical. To declare that "you don't really need to know it" is to declare that you don't need to know the deep structure of reality. Sure, of course you don't. The birds of the air and the fish of the sea don't. But do you want our children to be more like them or more like fully rational, aware, human creatures?


Teaching reading — two suggestions

America’s literacy problems could be solved if parents, preschool teachers, and daycare workers did just two simple things. One is obvious. One is not.

First, we should read a lot more to our babies, toddlers, and preschoolers — say, at least an hour per day. That means picking up a good old-fashioned book, putting a kid in your lap or sitting up close in a small group, and reading the book to the kid. And do voices! Kids love voices.

To turbo-charge your little reader’s skills, simply point at the words as you read them. You’d be amazed at how much this helps them. Retirees can help by volunteering to read to kids at a local preschool or daycare.

That’s all common-sense advice, right?

My second piece of advice is less obvious: We should start teaching our little ones to read before kindergarten, at home and in our preschools and daycares.

Ten years ago, this would have just sounded crazy. Then we started hearing about “baby reading” and how little Emma or Aidan started reading at age one. You probably think their parents must have pushed their kids, and you don’t want to be one of “those parents.”

I am one of those parents, but I didn’t push my boys. They both started reading at age one. How?

I didn’t use workbooks, software, or other systems designed for five- or six-year-olds — that’s a terrible idea. Instead, in addition to all the reading I did to my oldest son, I showed him a lot of flashcards, when he was a baby. He seemed to get a kick out of them. If he didn’t, we stopped immediately.

When he was about two years old, in 2008, I started making him a new kind of card, with words put in phonetic groupings. We started with simple CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words, like “dog,” with a picture on the back, and gradually we worked our way to harder words. Lots of other parents used my flashcards (free online) and praised them highly. At the same time, we started using some “teach your baby to read” programs.

All together we didn’t spend much time on all that sort of training — no more than a half-hour a day — but we did keep reading to him a lot, maybe one or two hours per day. Of course he spent most of the day playing like any other kid.

The result? At age three, he was reading at the 3rd to 4th grade level. You can find a video I made of him on YouTube:

My second son was born in 2010, shortly after I bought the first iPad. We did lots of flashcard apps, which show big words and colorful pictures. I strongly recommend using whatever flashcard apps your baby likes the most. There are a lot.

At that time, I was working on WatchKnowLearn.org, funded by an anonymous Memphis-area philanthropist. He saw the video of my son and said, “Why don’t you make a reading program of your own?” The result was ReadingBear.org— I based it on those old phonics flashcards I made, but it’s a lot more than just words and pictures. The words, all 1,200 of them, are pronounced at four speeds, they’re used in a sentence, and a picture and a video illustrate them. Thanks to that Memphis philanthropist, the website is 100% free, ad-free, and nonprofit.

My second son was just as good a reader as my first by the age of three:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wmlOkiOo08

Users tell me that regular use of Reading Bear leads to spectacular results. But you’re not limited to that. Lots of other free or cheap tools — apps and websites — are available, too.

Now, here’s the point: Reading Bear and those other tools need not take much time. They aren’t terribly challenging. Just find the tool a child likes — there’s so much to choose from, you’ll find something. It doesn’t require pushing or forcing. Just 15 minutes a day, and within months, children as young as two can be reading out loud, as two boys did.

Why isn’t every Head Start preschool in the country making use of these freely-available tools? We know they work, and they can solve our illiteracy problems. So why aren’t we using them?

Just two things, and so many problems connected to poor education will disappear: read to very young children religiously for an hour per day, and start teaching them with these 21st century reading tools that they like.

If we do these two things, we’ll see our country’s reading problems disappear.

Larry Sanger (yo.larrysanger@gmail.com) is co-founder of Wikipedia and has helped developed many other educational websites, including ReadingBear.org. Sanger has posted a free book on his experience teaching his son, How and Why I Taught My Toddler to Read. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2000 from Ohio State University.