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Self-educating in the big four: History, Physics, Maths, Literature

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I'd like to give myself a grounding in some of these subjects and then later to move onto philosophy. I know Leonard advocates them as the fundamental subjects of study for a child's education. You study history to learn about man as he was beyond your immediate perceptual surroundings and cultural atmosphere; you study physics to learn about nature; maths is useful in understanding epistemology and developing a method of thought; literature is for the study of conceptual art which serves to unify all knowledge and allows one to ground the abstract in the real world with emotion.

 

I've been thinking about how I want to approach the study of these topics. Because the subjects are broad, deep and difficult I'm not yet to sure what kind of goals to set myself. There is a limit to my time outside of work. 

 

So far my only ideas are to selectively pick books from strongbrains.com and maybe listen to some ARI lectures too (on history and literature). 

 

Has anyone tried to do this themselves? What kind of curriculum did you develop and how did you go about it? Where did you find support?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What about biology, linguistics, computer science, medicine, neuroscience, music, fashion, interior design, cooking, meteorology, etc? Really, any subject is fine, I disagree that the four you mention are fundamental for education. Those subjects you listed may be more abstract, but aren't more fundamental, developmentally speaking. A plan of study is good, just don't limit yourself. Personally, I like computer science and psychology best for understanding epistemology.

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I would focus on history, philosophy, and economics, if it were me. I'd only do physics and math(s) if it pertained to my field of work. With history, I'd suggest picking a topic or time period that interests you and start there. As you go, you will come across other issues or time periods that connect. Move on to those areas and read about them. With philosophy, I think it might be a good idea to go through an anthology. I'd suggest Copelston's starting with Vol. 1 and going forward. He's religious, but his work is considered to be a classic, and it's well-done. Then, try to read the primary works of major philosophers after you have a grasp of them from your reading from the anthology.

Edited by secondhander

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You need to drive this by what you already know, and what you will find interesting. Does Physics interest you more than History? Have you always want to learn more about electricity, or nuclear physics, or electronics? 

You can either dive in to something specific or take an approach that gives you broader coverage. You can even mix the two. I think it also depends on which approach you will find more interesting. Diving in is usually more meaty: for instance reading a bio of Napoleon. Yet, one needs to have some idea of the broad picture, so you can peg your specific knowledge. 

 

In my case, with history, I used a couple of really basic texts to get an overview of American History (I'm talking about text books that cover the entire history in under 200 pages of light text aimed at middle-schoolers). If you did your schooling in the U.S., you probably don't need this. After that, I dove into areas that interest me in U.S. history: the biographies of the founders, the biographies of certain famous industrialists, the history of the great-depression era, and the civil war.  Little else interests me in U.S. history, though I did also look at U.S. in the middle-east. In Europe, a lot is available in English about the English kings, particularly Henry-VIII and Elizabeth. Lots is available on Greek and Roman history: if anything, Objectivists are likely to give this more importance that is due. Eastern history is understandably given short shrift in the west, but it does not make sense to pass it over, if one wants a picture of the world, particularly if one is looking more than a thousand years ago, where the East (Persia, India and China) were  important. Along with books, I like to get historical movies that are fun, but do not stray too far from reality. Along with those, I use the Wikipedia as the place to get a broad overview, and other sources for specifics.

 

One could also take a more systematic approach. A simple way would be to say that by the end of the year you will be able to answer the AP US History test to your satisfaction. Or, the AP World History test. setting up an aim like this means you will find books that teach the subject, and you can even get sets of 500 flashcards that can act as 500 google searches to take you down all sorts of paths. Or, you could look at things this way: ask yourself what countries in the world have the highest populations, what countries have the highest GDPs, what are the two most important countries on each of the continents. Then, for each of these, do you have a Wikipedia-level overview of their history. 

 

If one wants to be a well-educated consumer of news then a smattering of world-history can be  based. On that, you should really add a little more depth of world-history since WW-1, because that is what really moves events today (Paul Johnson's - Modern Times is a great book for that, because it touches on all areas of the world, but also give color.)

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A very useful book was "The Philosophers Toolkit". I felt this helped equip me with skills applicable to most areas of enquiry. It will help you to identify ways in which an argument or claim is being stated and appreciate the strengths and limitations of it.

This I think helps because it also gives you ideas for further exploration. I.e. if you realise a weakness in an interesting argument, plot or theory you may then want to follow up on that by seeing if anyone else has addressed it. If not you may even find yourself looking to produce something of your own.

It really all depends on what your purpose for studying is, the value you want to get from it.

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I don't see any reason why those are specifically important, but I think if you need to pick a few topics to teach a child to develop their ability to think and understand the world they would be sound choices.

 

For some reason, I cannot stand reading plain history. Most history is the history of wars and power struggles, and that bores me to tears. But if it's the history of something that I'm interested in then it can be quite fascinating, like the history of computing, the history of the industrial revolution, the history of Microsoft, the history of science, the history of financial bubbles, and so on.

 

I have only vague knowledge of recent history. Everything I know I've gleamed from other people's discussions, from short reading on Wikipedia, and from documentaries.

 

I went through a period of deep fascination and interest with economics and now I can't stand to read any more about it. I know enough. I understand enough. I got what I wanted from it, and now I'm content. It's evolved more into an interest in the specifics of finance, investment and business, and the specific history and mechanisms of actual markets.

 

But to address your questions,

 

For physics and mathematics, you could study for 20 years and never know it all. You will have to constrain your breadth and depth. You can find a great many free books and a great many guides if you Google around. I also highly recommend that you read 'Logical Leap: Induction in Physics' before you begin. I believe that'll give you a great base and context in which to think about physics. Then you can track down physics textbooks and dive in. Amazon lists are also very useful. I'd stick with classical physics such as Newtonian mechanics, thermodynamics and electromagnetism first.

 

The same advice goes for mathematics. There are plenty of threads around the internet on a self study course for mathematics, and free videos and books are numerous. I think it generally goes: Geometry, Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus. But you can find that if you Google it. For calculus, I highly, highly recommend you start with 'Calculus Made Easy' (public domain and free) which I wish I had read in high school. It would have saved me so much confusion.

Edited by Peter Morris

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What about biology, linguistics, computer science, medicine, neuroscience, music, fashion, interior design, cooking, meteorology, etc? Really, any subject is fine, I disagree that the four you mention are fundamental for education. Those subjects you listed may be more abstract, but aren't more fundamental, developmentally speaking. A plan of study is good, just don't limit yourself. Personally, I like computer science and psychology best for understanding epistemology.

Studying computer science is also more likely to help you career wise than history, literature, physics, or math (although the latter two could also be helpful).

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What about biology, linguistics, computer science, medicine, neuroscience, music, fashion, interior design, cooking, meteorology, etc? Really, any subject is fine, I disagree that the four you mention are fundamental for education. Those subjects you listed may be more abstract, but aren't more fundamental, developmentally speaking. A plan of study is good, just don't limit yourself. Personally, I like computer science and psychology best for understanding epistemology.

I'm definitely interested in some of those. Yes, you can use other fields in science to help guide you in using your conceptual faculty. Quoting Peikoff from "Teaching Johnny to think"

 

 

It (mathematics) is the clearest example of logical rigor... A student who grasps a proof in math gets an invaluable training in rigor, precision, and logic, which he cannot get elsewhere

The other part is that maths will underlie and be relevant to some of those subjects you mention.

 

For history his reasoning is as follows:

 

History is the subject that will best introduce the student to the whole ream of the humanities and social sciences, the best entry to the study of the nature of man. All the other humanities and social sciences are too abstract and theoretical for the early years. For a young child, they are necessarily floating. He has no factual basis yet to tie them to reality...

First, he needs facts: What are governments? What kinds have been tried so far? What did they lead to? He needs an array of factual data before he can theorize and evaluate competing theories....

 

Philosophy, economics, and politics are on the highest levels of the hierarchy...

 

To study philosophy you need to know something about man. And that is what history gives you...

 

History is, in effect, the workshop for all humanities and social sciences, including philosophy...

 

History has to be the study of principles, and it ultimately should reveal to the student the role of basic factors in shaping human life, the role of ideas, and the effects of different ideas on different societies.

 

Given my education I tend to think of myself as this young child lacking concretes with which to integrate, especially when considering the next statement by Rand.

 

 

 

Ayn Rand:

 

How will I know what facts represent man by his nature, and which are mere historical moods or fashions? If I look around today there is tremendous evidence for the desire for conformity. I know it is not true because I know there were the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. I know what man was like in a different era, and therefore I am able to abstract what is essential that runs through all eras and conditions, and what is just a local variation. I can see what endures. I can discover which causes lead to which effects regardless f current fashions. I know what represents a principle, and what is just a chance variation.

 

Briefly on physics, Peikoff says:

"Mathematics teaches pure method. History gives the students the facts about man. Science gives them the facts about nature. In effect, science does for existence, what history does for consciousness. History gives the students the data for what one day will be ethics and politics; science gives them the data for what eventually will be metaphysics, the nature of reality...

 

"All subjects equally teach epistemology if they are taught properly; one is not more logical than the others...

The whole message that he should get from science is that this vast sprawl of factual observations is brought into the one comprehensible total by a few principles or by a brilliant theory... that is exactly the integration he has to learn. The atomic theory is a tremendously valuable thing to teach because of the range of observable data that it subsumes and integrates...

The rest of the natural sciences are in various ways dependent on physics or highly specialized".

 

He does emphasize that the way it's (whether physics, biology, chemistry etc.) taught is what's important, and that it needs to be related back to principles.

 

Concerning literature he picks it because it's art expressed in a conceptual medium (as opposed to music), and because of that it's also easier to teach. He goes on to say that "What history is to ethics and politics, what science is to metaphysics, art is to philosophy. Art is the data and the concretes of philosophy in specific, easily graspable terms. If history opens up the study of man, and science opens up the study of matter, art opens up man's view of the universe as a total. It gives the student the ultimate integration—man in relation to man, within the universe."

 

 

 

 

I would focus on history, philosophy, and economics, if it were me. I'd only do physics and math(s) if it pertained to my field of work. With history, I'd suggest picking a topic or time period that interests you and start there. As you go, you will come across other issues or time periods that connect. Move on to those areas and read about them. With philosophy, I think it might be a good idea to go through an anthology. I'd suggest Copelston's starting with Vol. 1 and going forward. He's religious, but his work is considered to be a classic, and it's well-done. Then, try to read the primary works of major philosophers after you have a grasp of them from your reading from the anthology.

I've started with pre-socratic philosophers and when my eyes start glazing I move onto history and fiction. I've picked this because I really enjoy learning about how so many things we see every day actually originate from a culture existed 2500 years ago...

 

"a real (as in, a platonic form) man"... "real strong"

"everything changes...we're always changing... always flowing" (Heraclitus)

academic number fixation originating from Pythagorean philosophers 

 

 

 

 

You need to drive this by what you already know, and what you will find interesting. Does Physics interest you more than History? Have you always want to learn more about electricity, or nuclear physics, or electronics? 

You can either dive in to something specific or take an approach that gives you broader coverage. You can even mix the two. I think it also depends on which approach you will find more interesting. Diving in is usually more meaty: for instance reading a bio of Napoleon. Yet, one needs to have some idea of the broad picture, so you can peg your specific knowledge. 

 

In my case, with history, I used a couple of really basic texts to get an overview of American History (I'm talking about text books that cover the entire history in under 200 pages of light text aimed at middle-schoolers). If you did your schooling in the U.S., you probably don't need this. After that, I dove into areas that interest me in U.S. history: the biographies of the founders, the biographies of certain famous industrialists, the history of the great-depression era, and the civil war.  Little else interests me in U.S. history, though I did also look at U.S. in the middle-east. In Europe, a lot is available in English about the English kings, particularly Henry-VIII and Elizabeth. Lots is available on Greek and Roman history: if anything, Objectivists are likely to give this more importance that is due. Eastern history is understandably given short shrift in the west, but it does not make sense to pass it over, if one wants a picture of the world, particularly if one is looking more than a thousand years ago, where the East (Persia, India and China) were  important. Along with books, I like to get historical movies that are fun, but do not stray too far from reality. Along with those, I use the Wikipedia as the place to get a broad overview, and other sources for specifics.

 

One could also take a more systematic approach. A simple way would be to say that by the end of the year you will be able to answer the AP US History test to your satisfaction. Or, the AP World History test. setting up an aim like this means you will find books that teach the subject, and you can even get sets of 500 flashcards that can act as 500 google searches to take you down all sorts of paths. Or, you could look at things this way: ask yourself what countries in the world have the highest populations, what countries have the highest GDPs, what are the two most important countries on each of the continents. Then, for each of these, do you have a Wikipedia-level overview of their history. 

 

If one wants to be a well-educated consumer of news then a smattering of world-history can be  based. On that, you should really add a little more depth of world-history since WW-1, because that is what really moves events today (Paul Johnson's - Modern Times is a great book for that, because it touches on all areas of the world, but also give color.)

I don't know where to start. My interests, hobbies are narrow and are not sciences where enormous abstractions are made and principles inducted. My approach so far is all over the place. I'm just starting as far back as I think is relevant, which to me is Ancient Greece. Thank you for that last book recommendation.

 

 

I don't see any reason why those are specifically important, but I think if you need to pick a few topics to teach a child to develop their ability to think and understand the world they would be sound choices.

 

For some reason, I cannot stand reading plain history. Most history is the history of wars and power struggles, and that bores me to tears. But if it's the history of something that I'm interested in then it can be quite fascinating, like the history of computing, the history of the industrial revolution, the history of Microsoft, the history of science, the history of financial bubbles, and so on.

 

I have only vague knowledge of recent history. Everything I know I've gleamed from other people's discussions, from short reading on Wikipedia, and from documentaries.

 

I went through a period of deep fascination and interest with economics and now I can't stand to read any more about it. I know enough. I understand enough. I got what I wanted from it, and now I'm content. It's evolved more into an interest in the specifics of finance, investment and business, and the specific history and mechanisms of actual markets.

 

But to address your questions,

 

For physics and mathematics, you could study for 20 years and never know it all. You will have to constrain your breadth and depth. You can find a great many free books and a great many guides if you Google around. I also highly recommend that you read 'Logical Leap: Induction in Physics' before you begin. I believe that'll give you a great base and context in which to think about physics. Then you can track down physics textbooks and dive in. Amazon lists are also very useful. I'd stick with classical physics such as Newtonian mechanics, thermodynamics and electromagnetism first.

 

The same advice goes for mathematics. There are plenty of threads around the internet on a self study course for mathematics, and free videos and books are numerous. I think it generally goes: Geometry, Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus. But you can find that if you Google it. For calculus, I highly, highly recommend you start with 'Calculus Made Easy' (public domain and free) which I wish I had read in high school. It would have saved me so much confusion.

I agree with you re: plain history. I hated it in school too. I remember when studying the french revolution we had to memorize a large list of causes. Like farmer discontent, bad weather or crops, queen saying that, village X doing this. I don't remember any of it anymore. I'm hoping that if one works through it correctly though you can hold onto all relevant information because you integrate it with everything you see around you today also. The words you use (e.g. the word "real" being used in phrases to denote the pinnacle of something being connected to Platonic forms), the technology you use, the news / politics. 

 

I've got a degree in economics and don't feel that I've learned anything useful from it. Supply / Demand is about the only thing I remember and lots of other random facts about markets which are easily learned elsewhere. Economics at uni was a mess of ideas. FWIW with my discussions of some people working at big banks on trading desks they never liked hiring business / economics / econometrics grads they always wanted the physics / maths graduates because they found that the former couldn't really think outside of the strict, vacuum contexts they were taught, e.g. crunching stats on very specific situations with econometric tools, i.e. they had not integrated the ideas into principles and tools for thinking about problems.

 

I don't plan on "knowing it all" in maths / physics. I'm trying to set myself a goal of learning some of the more essential parts of these subjects /  their history and then if I'm still curious continuing from there. In a way I'm free to do so because right now my central purpose in life is to find my central purpose.

 

Won't a logical leap in physics be too difficult with no physics background?

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Won't a logical leap in physics be too difficult with no physics background?

No way. It may actually be the most perfect introduction to physics ever written. Harriman explains all the details, and there is very little mathematics involved. I felt for the first time I could actually understand physics, not only what it was, but the actual physics, and I also felt a true appreciation for what the early physicists had done. The history of science is actually like a fascinating mystery story, but academia manages to make it into a dry process of boring calculations and memorization.

 

Just to name a few things, I understood for the first time in my life what a vector was and why it was important, why it had to be invented, and why a circling body is actually accelerating. I finally understood what F = ma actually means. I grasped the non-intuitive nature of 'mass' and why it had to be invented as a concept distinct from weight or 'heaviness'. None of that ever made any sense to me in high school or later. It was so simple and actually ridiculously interesting.

Edited by Peter Morris

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"The other part is that maths will underlie and be relevant to some of those subjects you mention."
Yes, but you didn't mention the rest as even considerations. Underlying doesn't on its own mean that it must get more attention, only a logical relation. In other words, Peikoff is right about foundational subjects, but it doesn't follow that you need a deep understanding before moving on. In terms of a general school curriculum, it is fine, but you're talking about self-education and your unique interests.

"Given my education I tend to think of myself as this young child lacking concretes with which to integrate, especially when considering the next statement by Rand."
Don't sell yourself short. You aren't like a child at all.  Do you really think your education, both independent and school, has left you stupid? I suspect not. I assure you, you have basic knowledge. You seem to only need to decide what to do next, not start over.

I see some dangers of short-sightedness showing, or at least, thoughts to be aware of which a deliberate logical order to learning everything and not straying from that order.

""a real (as in, a platonic form) man"... "real strong""
No, it's more like that a not-real man is a fake, a fraud, so a real man isn't evasive. If it is really a Platonic form the term means, you'd need to look up the equivalent Greek term or the relevant history of the word. To analyze that, you wouldn't just start at what you suggested.

""everything changes...we're always changing... always flowing" (Heraclitus)"
This isn't a denial of identity, it only means there is no absolute essence, or that a "river" isn't literally engraved into reality. There are moments in time, but what does that mean? Calculus, cognitive science, photography, film, musicology, etc, are all ways to look at what change refers to.

"academic number fixation originating from Pythagorean philosophers "
What fixation? Patterns and numbers are cool, but it can just as easily be due to downplaying engineering, or views on beauty, or even the philosopher Frege. Again, angles of study not dependent on a strict order. Build on what you know.


"My interests, hobbies are narrow and are not sciences where enormous abstractions are made and principles inducted. My approach so far is all over the place."
Contradiction. Being all over the place isn't narrow. Sounds like you just have a lot of interests, so maybe you feel uncertain about what to do next. If by narrow you mean not enormously abstract, that's not a problem. Is there any reason you can't study it all?
 

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What about biology, linguistics, computer science, medicine, neuroscience, music, fashion, interior design, cooking, meteorology, etc? Really, any subject is fine, I disagree that the four you mention are fundamental for education. 

The word "fundamental" doesn't mean they're more important, it means that education in other fields relies on previous study of these four. Which is just a basic, obvious fact for everyone who has studied them. 

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The word "fundamental" doesn't mean they're more important, it means that education in other fields relies on previous study of these four.

I know, and I disagree. I think those 4 are not -THE- fundamentals, though they are fundamentals.

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