Adult self-education refers to the process of continuing education or, in some cases, re-education outside of the realm of formal education. This generally takes three distinct forms: the desire simply to acquire new skills or knowledge, the desire to investigate and understand a particular topic, or the desire to re-learn about the world starting with foundation materials (in essence, getting the education that one wishes they had). The first two forms are fairly straightforward; the last deserves deeper investigation.
Acquisition of New Skills and Knowledge
This form of adult self-education is the most straightforward and is also the most common. This usually involves things such as computer programmers teaching themselves a new language or people in communication positions working on their public speaking.
Why do this? The usual motivation is for career advancement. If one can teach themselves a new skill or acquire a new knowledge set, then this becomes an additional item for a resume, which can help with a change in position or in moving to a better or higher paying job.
Common methods The usual method one follows when acquiring a new skill or knowledge set on their own is the acquisition of some sort of reference (i.e., a book on how to program in C++ or a guide to learn to play the guitar), followed by a gradual progression through the reference, following the instructions, until the skill or knowledge is learned to a degree satisfactory to the learner.
Investigation and Understanding of a Specific Topic
This form of adult self-education revolves around the desire of an individual to understand a particular area; for example, one might want to learn about Christianity or become more aware of current events.
Why do this? There are a lot of motivations for this, but it often boils down to a personal interest, often triggered by some sort of change in the influences in one's life. For example, many people deal with the loss of a loved one by searching for answers in various religions, or they might befriend someone with very strong libertarian beliefs and want to understand that ideology in more detail.
Common methods This type of adult self-education usually relies on investigating a series of source materials on the subject and thinking about them. It often involves discussion, particularly if there is someone that is bringing about the interest in the topic, and in some cases the process will lead the learner to find an expert in the area with which to communicate.
Re-Education of One's Self
This is easily the most challenging and far-reaching type of adult self-education. Basically, this type of adult self-education revolves around re-establishing the foundations of one's understanding of the world.
Why do this? As with the last type, there are a lot of reasons for trying this. Some people do it because they feel under-educated as a whole; others may feel as though they're missing out on elements of understanding the world; others might try it simply because they love learning. As for me, I got into self-education after college because I felt that most of my educational life was just rote memorization of facts rather than understanding of concepts, and that, I decided, was because I was missing much of the classical foundation I needed to really understand ideas that came later.
Common methods There are a lot of methods used for this type of self-education, and it is usually a customized synthesis of methods developed by the learner themselves. A brief listing of the most common of these follows:
Sitting in on survey courses in many subjects at a local university. This works well if you can spend your break each day doing this. The fact that you're not taking the course for credit and grades is often a big help; since you've actually got the motivation to get to the classroom and don't have any sort of end goal other than actually understanding the material, you can spend the time to actually absorb and understand what's going on rather than cramming topics into your head.
Immersing yourself in a steady course of reading, building up from fundamental ideas. The goal here is to begin with the basics that later ideas will fall back upon. A starter set, for example, would probably include a bible, a good world history text, and probably a book outlining the basics of grammar and rhetoric; I particularly like the Little, Brown Handbook. Once these are tackled, you can let your muse lead you, but don't jump into the deep end of ideas without building up to them. For example, don't read Milton Friedman before you read Adam Smith.
Writing in a journal. Many people attempt to balance this learning process by summing up their thoughts in written form in a journal. This is distinctly different than a diary-type journal; instead, the goal is to try to relate the ideas in your head and make connections with other things you know. Personally, I find journal writing to be very useful, as it forces me to organize my thoughts and practice my writing skills. In fact, in this type of analytic journaling, you can find reams of source material for writeups at e2; I often find source material for my writing outlets through journaling on the thoughts that have entered my mind recently.
Tackling written works alongside reading guides. Many people want a helping hand in exploring some of the more complex issues that can arise in the mind while reading. This is often aided by selecting works that have supporting study materials available for them to use as an aid while learning. Cliffs Notes are often helpful in this way; in my college days, they would replace books, but now they are a truly great supplement to them. Also, works of literature that include reading group guides with them are a bonus; self-evaluation of these questions often provides great insight and food for thought.
An Example of Adult Self-Education: Me
I became interested in the topic of adult self-education after leaving college. I found an interesting and rewarding job, but it quickly became apparent that the skills that were useful at my job (effective public speaking and computer programming skills) weren't things that I learned in the classroom; they were things that I had taught myself. So I began to look at my educational career, and I couldn't help but wonder: did I actually learn anything after grammar school? I did, of course, but much of it was just an accumulation of facts, not a real understanding of anything. Things had become such a rat race to keep high grades that the actual prospect of learning and processing things fell to the wayside.
So I started over. I started out literally with a review of the English language in terms of grammar and rhetoric using the Little, Brown Handbook, which I basically only used for assignments when I took my introductory English course in college. After parsing through this for a bit, I realized I wasn't getting a whole lot of use out of it, so I started actually doing some of the exercises on my own, and I found that when I really cared about learning the subject rather than just getting the assignment done, I could actually absorb the concepts as they were presented.
After this, I moved onto the bible, which might at first glance seem odd, but it provides a critical backbone for all of Western literature and of much of world history as well. I used Matthew Henry's bible commentary (noded here at e2 by dann) as a guide to help me get through the book. It isn't necessary to be of the Christian faith to get many useful and fascinating things out of the bible.
I made the mistake of directly following the bible with a lot of Greek and Roman writings, but what I actually should have done is taken a brief detour into world history by reading a singular volume on the flow of it, just to get an understanding of the themes of the growth of civilization. From this point, my reading has branched out into all sorts of topics; I paired up Ulysses and The Odyssey, and with the basic understanding of the world of the United Kingdom in 1900 from the study of world history coupled with a better concept of grammar and rhetoric than I had at any point in my life, the experience was extremely enjoyable and brought countless dimensions to life in my mind from both works.
Sources and Further Reading
The following sources were used in the creation of this writeup and are excellent reads if you're interested in this topic.
The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise-Bauer (ISBN: 0393050947) is probably the most straightforward work you'll find on adult self-education in the classical school. Wise-Bauer focuses heavily on the concept of journaling as you learn, but overall the book is a fantastic treatment of adult self-education.
The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams (ISBN: 0192823698) is a classic work in which a man deals with his own educational failures and turns to a self-educated philosophy, much as I have. Henry Adams has been an inspiration in my life, largely due to this book.
The Well-Trained Mind, also by Susan Wise-Bauer (ISBN: 0393059278), is ostensibly a book on homeschooling, but it actually delves into the root causes of the need for adult self-education: the poor job that the public school system does in actually teaching students how to think.