Define your objectives
Make a learning plan
Find a mentor
Connect to a community
Show your work
The Next Step
While The Edupunks' Guide to a DIY Credential
by Anya Kemenetz is perhaps the best book on the subject, and there are several ways of dealing with the problems of self-teaching -- here's a short introduction.
Define your objectives
Your objectives should clearly state:
what you want to learn and
why you want to learn it.
Suppose you want a college degree, to get a good job, but what kind of job, and where? Or you have always had a passion for, say, history or antiques and want to learn more and get some credit for what you've learned already. Or you feel as if the education that you got (or are getting) just doesn't fit your vision of what you want to do with your life. Do you have a degree you'd like to finish? A focused set of objectives? Or are you unsure as to your eventual goal, or have something far more comprehensive in mind?
Working on this part of the program can be facilitated by various career and psychological testing websites. If you need a degree to help you get a job, it can help to talk to people who work where you'd like to get the job and ask where they went to school and what they took as a major. If you just want to learn a specific subject, start searching and reading the Internet.
If you wish a classical or liberal arts education, How to Read a Book
, The Lifetime Reading Plan
, the St. John's College
Program or the Harvard Classics
might give you some ideas, as will various histories of education. Some interesting hints of what an education can and should be like can be found in:
(a play from the tenth century), the first act is set in a medieval schoolroom, and shows late Roman education in action
: the beginnings of "progressive education"
Johannes Poinsot's description of the curriculum of Arts in the University of Alcala in Introducing Semiotic
by John Deely
's essay On the Education of Children
(imagine having a father like his…)
Marquis de Sade
's Eugenie de Franval
(be glad you don't have her
's kindergarten (even if you have no kids, playing with the blocks is incredibly
fun -- and at least try
's writings on PNEU, which is what most Victorian and Edwardian kids did when they were "tutored privately"--Mary Poppins
was conceived as part of this movement
The ABC's of Reading
by Ezra Pound
(I can't believe that this book is almost a hundred years old. Can you?)
The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy L. Sayers
(yup, the mystery writer.)
The Paper Chase
(the movie or the book or the TV series): the Ivy League at its best. Take notes.
One important point is the study of history. Most people in the United States have never studied history, as opposed to Social Studies, which purports to teach "American citizenship through an integrated study of history and the humanities" -- plus bits and pieces of economics, civics, social science, psychology, and other fields. What this means is that history, per se, is broken up into little black-and-white moral fables that at best, fail to convey the truly messy and conflicting nature of the narrative of humanity and its Universe, and at worst, are sheer fabrication. (Did George Washington chop down the cherry tree, or pray publicly before Valley Forge? Did Christopher Columbus prove the Earth was round, or discover America?) Not having a knowledge of history is sort of like not knowing how sex works. You can do without it, theoretically, for some time, but neglecting it altogether is going to make you less of an adult, and is potentially quite dangerous….
Lastly, made by Ms. Kamenetz is that living, cognitive, social and/or relationship skills are rarely given much attention in academia these days, although they might prove more useful than more traditional subjects. Personal finance, housekeeping, cooking, physical fitness and basic health information, how to make and keep friends…everyone needs to know at least a little of all of these. "Life Skills" needs to be taken out of Special Ed and made part of everyone's education.
2. Make a learning plan
The hallmark of edupunk is the learning plan, which takes the place of a "normal" curriculum.
This is the meat of the matter, and can be as simple or as complex as your life permits. Obviously, you're going to have to start thinking realistically at some point: if your life involves two jobs and care of three small children and a large dog, you'll have to have a different plan than a nineteen-year-old heiress or a retired general. But there are workarounds, and this is where edupunk shines.
When the idea of "education" goes from "being in class" or "studying" is widened to "any educational opportunity" a surprising chunk of time can be carved out of even the busiest schedule. A lot can be gotten from books, and it's possible to get a great many titles in ebook form (some even for free!) from Amazon
, Project Gutenberg
and the Internet Archive
. Salman Khan
's Khan Academy
has a world-class curriculum in math (and a few other subjects), done in his own unique style, and there are programs galore that archive lectures from MIT
and other colleges. There are distance learning programs, some very good, from colleges like the University of Illinois
Publishing and the for-profits Kaplan
and the University of Phoenix
.College-level lectures and mini-courses are available from such odd sources as the TED talks, the New York Public Library
, and the RAND Corporation
. The BBC's Learning English and Brush Up Your Grammar programs are justly famed world-wide. There are now whole cable networks devoted to everything from classic movies to farming, and several proprietary sources have learning DVDs that cover many basics. In times to come, these DVDs will probably show up on eBay, filesharing, and the like, just sayin'.
A working learning plan, therefore, can include everything from traditional courses to such casual commitments as "read Anu Garg's 'A.Word.A.Day' every day", "watch a documentary every week", or "work in the community garden Fridays". Some churches offer music, history and Latin studies courses that aren't all
just proselytization. You might want to research an internship or part-time job in or near your field: Larry Ellison
, no less, once took a bottle-washing job in a biotech firm just because he wanted to learn more about biology. Quincey Jones
wanted to learn about what was new in medical research...and works part time in a hospital in Sweden. If your goal is something a little more comprehensive than just a few courses here and there, you might want to include going to concerts or museums as part of your plan, or other life experiences like cooking, travel or exercise.
Saylor.org is a good place to start if you want to replicate a traditional American liberal arts degree. By combining various educational materials from sources across the Net, they can give you a good idea of what you know already or don't. Other open-source online universities like University of the People exist, and more are popping up, every day.
As for the traditional brick-and-mortarboard institution, edupunks (like classical Preppies) favor small liberal arts colleges over large, "brand-name" universities. There are several reasons for this: first, larger institutions tend to be more about research and (let's face it) their own prestige over teaching undergraduates. What you're going to get at most "name" schools isn't a quality education among the best and brightest (or at least the sons of the rich and powerful) that will guarantee that you'll be "set for life", as much as four years being taught beside a whole lot of other wannabes by teaching assistants, being given inflated grades and hit with a huge debt in exchange for a piece of paper that will serve you well to get... your first job.
That's right. Employers aren't interested, after you've worked someplace before, in where you went to school as much as how well you did afterwards. If you graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, but your work history shows you to be a screwup, you're going to be treated as a screwup. Smaller schools mean smaller classes, more opportunities to make friends (funny how that works out) and more focus in general.
Also, you'll probably have a unique set of experiences -- making brooms at Berea, dressing in 1920's garb to watch a croquet match against the Navy at St. John's College -- that you just can't duplicate elsewhere. One interesting tip: most of these places are in the South and Midwest, places where most people would think would only have "second best" or "fallback" schools. And some of the best schools are tiny: two hundred students or less. The absolute smallest is Deep Springs College, at 26 students (at maximum) on an isolated cattle ranch: it's amazingly good (and incredibly hard to get into).
The book you want here is "Colleges that Change Lives", by Loren Pope (revised by Hilary Oswald). Which deserves a node to itself, keep posted...
3. Get a mentor
At some stage, you'll find that it's a lot easier to find your way through a given body of knowledge by having a guide. This is essential if your plans involve something potentially dangerous --like repairing chain saws-- can't be adequately conveyed in films (like perfumery or chicken sexing) or is just too big to be dealt with by random reading. Also, it's helpful to have someone around who can steer you away from dead-ends and tempting byways that become memorialized in libraries when the acquisitions librarian (some fifty-odd years ago) felt it necessary to buy up the entire twelve volumes of 'The Golden Bough', or populate the entire Chinese section with the works of Lin Yutang (who was a dear guy, but not too helpful when it comes to contemporary Communist China) . Having a mentor helps keep you focused, can give you feedback on your progress, and can help you get credentials for your work.
At present there are few hard-and-fast formulae for getting a mentor. Traditionally, this was a faculty advisor or other trusted teacher. If your interests lie in a craft or trade, you can look for people who you know do admirable work in that field. Here again, you should think in terms of reality: Oprah Winfrey might be famous, but you might find that you might have more in common with someone who has more time for you. Read blogs and pick other peoples' brains. Ask questions of academics in fields that turn you on: they're far more accessible than you think, and are often flattered that someone would think to ask, for instance on how to reproduce cuneiform to make jewelry, or how to get access to various documents in computing history. "Erm, is it true that Bell Labs once published an RFC on the possibilities of using carrier pigeons as part of the Internet?" (The surprising answer is yes!)
4. Connect to a community
Along with a teacher of some kind, it's helpful to have some peers. Reading, writing and learning are, whether you think of them this way or not, social activities. Back when, if you wanted to discuss, say, Baudelaire's poetry or making Torchon lace you were pretty much sunk unless you were from a literary or lace-making community to begin with. Nowadays, there are fan clubs, circles, chats, and suchlike for almost any activity or subject you can imagine. By talking with others about projects you can get over rough patches, find new friends, and get fresh ideas on what and where to go next. If you're still in high school, or enrolled in a college already, you might not fit socially with the people you're in school with, and it's nice to have a plan B. (The Internet was made for lonely souls studying until dawn.) For people endeavoring to replicate the college experience outside normal school, this can be a lifeline. Joining a mailing list, meeting on IRC or having face-to-face meetups wherever you are, all are good ways to get together with people on your own wavelength.
5. Show your work
This can take the form of producing articles for sale on Etsy, books on Lulu or Amazon, blogging and/or journal entries, with photos or movies of your work, or standardized test scores. Citizen scientists and private scholars are finding their day in the sun with the Net, and even established academic journals have published no less an unlikely author as Iggy Pop, who weighs in (as an amateur historian himself) with an appreciation of Edward Gibbon.
Don't listen to your family, or close friends, put your work out onto the World Stage, let others be dazzled by your genius!
6. Get credentials
This is one of the definite bottlenecks in the system. As it stands now, you're more than welcome to listen to lectures, speak with students and teachers, and even get copies of reading lists and tests from many universities, but to get the actual parchment you have to enroll in the school and pay tuition. At present, there are few resources that will take your reading list, a few test scores, and a few papers and hand you a diploma. Some cred can be gotten by showing your work (see above) and there are some colleges, not all diploma mills, that will take your accrued work and with a very little time in an actual classroom, give you credit. Here, the Bear's Guide (written by a professional investigator into diploma-mill scams) is your best ticket to get you where you want to go.
Jailbreaking education is one of the main aims of edupunk. Why should jocks and sororities feel like they run the show? Especially since they're actually the ones missing out?
7. The Next Step
Having done all this, there's nothing to keep you from doing it again (and again and again. Do it again, do it again…). Learning is a lifelong process, and you might find yourself wanting to learn about a whole different set of subjects as an older adult than you did at sixteen. However, you might want to give back to the community of other edupunks, keeping the community active, or find out about how to move on from where you are.
You can put lectures on YouTube, you can write and publish books. You can volunteer to mentor others. Keep it in a backpack or go brick and mortar, go it alone or join with others to form your own collective…or even a commune. Seems like quite a few colleges started that way, back in the day…
Someday, we're just going to have to put together a campus for all the other guys, with luxury dorms, plenty of Greek Honor Societies and a winning football team. Poor slobs...