Education is a Life

Self-Education: How I Do It, by Jane-Emily

Georgiana’s post about self-education got me thinking about the many projects I’ve taken on over the years.  I’ve been homeschooling classically for ten years now, and I’ve spent a good bit of my time filling in my own gaps and continuing my education.  In fact, the more I looked at the classical curriculum, the more gaps I realized I had.

I am the product of a mediocre public school education. When I went to school, teaching grammar was not in fashion.  I got only the sketchiest idea of American history and even less of world history.  The first good math teacher I had was for Algebra II in my senior year of high school, and it took a good community college math course for me to realize that I’m not inherently bad at math.  I did go to an excellent state university, but I was ill-prepared for the work. I missed quite a bit because I wasn’t at the level I should have been.  I felt woefully underprepared to teach my own children.

I did have a huge advantage, though.  I decided early on to classically homeschool my children when my oldest was just three.  I had the gift of time – years in which I could expand my own education while my daughter did the early-grade work that I was confident in teaching.

First, if I have to give just one piece of advice, it is that developing a habit of reading widely and with intent will help you the most.  It is very easy for me to retreat into comfort reading of fluffy mysteries and other light material, which has its place but should not be all we moms read.  Choose books that widen your horizons, that you can learn from, and have one going at all times.  (I usually read more than two books at once and always have a fluffy one for relaxing along with more serious reading.  If you aren’t a multi-book-tasker, adjust accordingly.)

The rest of this post isn’t so much advice as it is talking about what has worked for me.  You may find that audiobooks are the answer to the Great Books Question* or that watching MIT lectures online is your thing.

Now for the nitty-gritty.  Georgiana was absolutely correct when she said

When I decided to self-educate, I wanted to learn everything but soon realized it was a trap! Unless you have a blank appointment book and scads of free time, there aren’t enough hours in the day to master all the subjects at once. With so many amazing interests to pursue, you must choose wisely.

I usually worked on on thing at a time, although I was always reading books as well.  I can’t live without reading.  But when it came to math or Latin or logic, I could only do one at a time.  I used a lot of summers this way because that was when I had a little more time and energy to work on something that needed concentration.  I prefer to do exercises with pencil and paper, so I have used spiral notebooks for note-taking and practice sets.

Math: Luckily for me, Khan Academy came along right when I needed it!  It was fun to practice arithmetic and fractions on the Khan website and earn badges (the site has changed a lot from when I was using it heavily, but this has reminded me to jump back in).  I strengthened my skills and cleared up some points that had always confused me.   Then, when it was time for my daughter to start real algebra, I went through the entire textbook over the summer so that I could be sure that there were no nasty surprises waiting for me.  When we did geometry, she and I filled out flashcards together, each making our own set of postulates.

Latin: I was a somewhat reluctant convert to Latin.  I kept reading all these articles about how great Latin was, and I was skeptical – as I’m sure many are!  But I thought Memoria Press’ Prima Latina wouldn’t be too much of an investment, so I tried it out.  I was hooked!  I learned so much myself from that course for 6-year-olds that I decided I’d better do Latin in our home.  For that I needed to learn some Latin, so I invested in Henle I for myself and started doing the exercises.  I did a lot over a summer–even on a road trip while sitting in the car–and I learned quite a bit about how Latin works.  Henle is a Catholic text that prepares the student to read Caesar’s Gallic Wars, so the exercises really made me laugh; the sentences are nearly always either something like “Mary prays for the people” or “The centurions slaughtered the Gauls at the gate.”  If I were to do it over again, I might choose the Cambridge Latin program instead, but Henle was quite enjoyable and inexpensive too.

Logic:  I’ve tried several logic texts.  The more math-y they were, the worse I did.  I eventually had some success with Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic, a text for adults. I ordered it from Amazon, grabbed a notebook, and worked through the book and exercises, mostly over a summer.  I also read through my daughter’s book,  A Rulebook for Arguments, which I really liked.

Science: We talk a lot about science in our house.  My husband is very interested in physics, astronomy, and technology, while I like chemistry and astronomy.  Mostly what I’ve done for self-education has been to read popular science books, such as Richard Muller’s excellent Physics for Future Presidents (I think all high-schoolers should read it) and Oliver Sacks’ lovely Uncle Tungsten.  There are so many really interesting, enjoyable, and educational science books out there to benefit us.  Head on over to the library and see what you find.

History:  This one was fairly easy because I really enjoy reading history.  I sought out history books that would help me with whatever period was coming up in the my children’s curriculum.  Although American history is still not my strong suit, I did enjoy watching Joanne Freeman’s American Revolution lectures from Yale.  They are fabulous and really fun to watch!

I also got Susan Wise Bauer’s three volumes of world history for adults.  They are excellent.

Literature: I’m a librarian and a literature major, so in a way this has been the easiest area for me.  On the other hand, like anyone else, I sometimes balk at the prospect of reading Aristotle!  For a long time, I would pile up Great Books that I meant to read, but somehow I just wouldn’t get to them very often.

I’ve improved my serious reading skills by doing several things recommended by Susan Wise Bauer in The Well-Educated Mind.  I’m better now at keeping notes and reading deeply.  I also enjoyed Mortimer Adler’s classic how-to-read manual, How to Read a Book, and I even found (in a homeschooling store) a workbook titled How to Read ‘How to Read a Book‘ and went through that.  Note, though, that Susan Wise Bauer covers literature and biography, while Adler talks about science and history and doesn’t deal as much with literature.

What really worked for me was not a Coursera course (I would love to…someday) or willpower or a book club. I saw people online joining reading challenges, and I liked that idea.  It’s a blogging thing, so I had to figure out how to start a blog, and then I joined a bunch of challenges.  Somehow, having a list of things to achieve makes it easier and more fun.  Having a little online community of people interested in the same sorts of books and doing the challenges really helped me become more ambitious in my own reading, find interesting new books and ideas, and stick to it instead of retreating into reading mostly fluff.  It’s easier to tackle an intimidating work of literature if we do it together, as a readalong; I’m currently participating in one for The Faerie Queene.  I read so much more serious and/or classic literature now!  Having a blog forces me to record my thoughts clearly, and I can look back at the hundreds of books that I’ve read in the last six years and feel accomplished.  A blog certainly is not the answer for everyone, but do keep some sort of record of your reading so you can see what you’ve accomplished.

Now that my children are teenagers, I am really seeing the payoff.  I can keep up with one kid’s algebra work and spot problems.  I can do a home chemistry course and enjoy teaching it.  I can talk modern history with my older child and explain background or fill in gaps. Just the other day we had a conversation comparing Dante’s use of Christian and Greco-Roman figures with Spenser’s.  So I’m here to tell you: if your kids are little (or if they’re not), take time now to train and fill your mind–for your own benefit and for your children.  Before you know it, they’ll be asking tough questions about history and science.  Besides, it’s a good feeling.




*The Great Books Question is, of course, “How do I read Plato when I have all these kids to care for and a house to run and all I really want is some chocolate??”

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Jane-Emily–Jane-Emily is a classically homeschooling LDS mom of two girls, and a librarian at the local community college, very part-time. She loves to read and will pick up almost anything. She also loves to sew and mostly does quilting, heirloom sewing, and smocking. And she’s a Bollywood addict. Jane-Emily is our Webmistress.


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