Adelberg: Learning Self-Education

A real education means more than schooling.

by Steven Adelberg | 1/4/18 12:30am

Second in undergraduate teaching, ninth in campus beauty, 11th in postgraduate income potential and unparalleled in sense of community, Dartmouth College looks about as close as it gets to an ideal school — and about as far as it gets from the Arizona public schools I attended. In the land that touts Arizona Ice Tea, Barry Goldwater and a smashing 48th place ranking for public school funding per elementary and secondary school student, “education” meant endless regimens of busywork and chaotic history classes taught by an academically unqualified volleyball coach. It did not take me long before I realized that I would not get an education in the same place I got my schooling. More determined than dejected, I looked to the YouTube channel CrashCourse, the education company Coursera, the local library, my friends, aimless Wikipedia chains and games like Age of Empires instead. In the meantime, I dreamed of getting into a school like Dartmouth where I could finally get the education that the Arizona public school system did not provide.

When that dream became a reality and I stepped into my first class here at Dartmouth, the initial tour de force slowly gave way to a nagging feeling that something was missing. While professors here are phenomenal, I sat through engaging lectures only to realize halfway through that they were just summarizing the readings. With questions half-answered, possibilities half-considered and my mind half-stretched, I was bewildered. I thought, surely a school like Dartmouth knows how to foster an education. What was I doing wrong? Then it hit me. Education is not a product that can be passively received: It is a process we can only undergo ourselves. Professors can provide us with the raw material that we need to learn, but only we can turn what they give us into real personal growth.

Self-education promises to fill in the gaps left by schooling and to further self-development in a way that little else can. It is one thing to listen to a lecture on game theory; it is another to read “The Prince” by Machiavelli; it is yet another to find yourself on the wrong side of a broken deal while playing Risk. Proof, theorem and heuristic all in one, self-guided learning builds sophisticated personal understandings that watered-down lectures can rarely rival. Questions never go unanswered in self-education, and the only limit to the possibilities you can consider is your own imagination. Through a self-guided pursuit of understanding, you can explore diverse passions free from institutional constraints and develop authentic individuality.

Unfortunately, there are many drawbacks that come with the boundless possibilities of self-education. Without a teacher to structure our curriculum and set deadlines, we risk wasting valuable time identifying the necessary background knowledge needed or even just procrastinating. Comfortable within our self-defined specialties, we can easily ignore vast disciplines like STEM or the social sciences. With no classmates around us to counter our biases, we risk creating echo chambers that fail to challenge our budding theories and clear our misconceptions.

These drawbacks do not disqualify the path of self-education. Rather, they remind us that self-education is a supplement rather than a substitute for an institutional education. Neither institutional education nor self-education can succeed without the other. Just as someone needs to teach you how to read first before you can teach yourself different subjects from a textbook, self-education assumes a prior foundation of skills that an institution can develop best. At the same time, a strong liberal arts education gains its strength from the different philosophies students forge before they set foot in the classroom. Self-education and institutional education thus work best when they cover each other’s weaknesses; institutions offer the structure and breadth self-education lacks while self-education crafts the independent thinkers that institutions cannot mass-produce. Together, they can guide a student on an unswerving path toward intellectual development.

This term, I resolve to incorporate more self-education into my Dartmouth experience. I plan to follow another course or two on Coursera and find more YouTube channels like Big Think and Academy of Ideas. I hope to check out books at Baker-Berry Library with the same eagerness and voracity I feel when in line at King Arthur Flour and I aim to have at least five conversations that force me to rethink an idea I took for granted. Most of all, I hope the Dartmouth community joins me in this quest for self-education and embraces the curiosity at the heart of the liberal arts education.