More than a quarter century ago, a fellow I knew in the Boston area invited me to have dinner with him and his wife. When I arrived, I found my friend talking in his living room to a man in a jogging outfit—shorts, tank top, and, naturally, running shoes.
Jogging was a relatively new fad, but this man was all over it. He had read the few books then available about it, plus the journal and magazine articles also coming out. Finally, he said that he actually had to do some jogging before it got too late.After the jogging maven left, my friend asked me whether or not I would be surprised to learn that the fellow was a Harvard graduate. I allowed that I did not think it surprising, especially considering that we were sitting no more than a mile from the campus of that world-famous university.
“No,” my friend persisted, “I mean: is there anything in his attitude, his behavior, that would lead you to conclude that he might be a Harvard graduate?”
Being dense as I often am when I’m not really paying attention—or else having just been bored by someone discussing jogging—I didn’t follow his line. Patiently, my friend noted that the earlier guest had become interested in a subject and had made a point of going out and reading everything about it that he could get his hands on.
“That is typical of a Harvard graduate,” my friend concluded. Obviously, anyone could do that without the cost of Harvard’s tuition.
The catch is that it requires more than an indiscriminate capacity for reading. It requires a mental discipline designed to weed out nonsense from fact, the incredible from the credible. There is no substitute for going back to basics. If you are going to study a topic about which you know nothing, it would be a mistake to jump in over your head, to be too proud to pick up a book or an article aimed at grade-schoolers. You cannot reliably learn anything or evaluate your information sources if you do not understand them.
If you are going to read about science, and you do not understand the scientific method, you had better go back and learn it; the same is true if you are going to study an historical topic: be sure you understand the historical method of inquiry. (Both the scientific and historical method have to do, ultimately, with probable truth; in science, the experiment is repeated until a statistical analysis can determine whether the results are significant. In history, where no experiment is usually possible, the question is whether enough reliable, primary (first-hand) sources corroborate a fact.)
Another graduate of an elite school, Vardis Fisher, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in the 1920s, gave another helpful hint about evaluating what one reads in a course of self-directed study. He said that he would read a book on a topic of interest and, if his trained intuition told him that the author knew what he was talking about, Fisher would make a list of the other authors who were consulted in writing the book and noted what the author thought of these sources. Fisher then asked librarians for these other books, and when, in turn, he saw the bibliographies of those books, he would order them, too.
Of course, Fisher’s method is not foolproof by any means. Perhaps the greatest problem he ran into was that, as he pushed further and further into the authoritative books of earlier generations, he was reading out-dated opinions in many cases. On some topics, he became a twentieth-century man with the best information that the nineteenth century could offer. It helps to consult current journals, then, to find out what those who stand on the shoulders of those earlier sources are thinking. In the end, self-directed study can be as effective as—or even more effective than—traditional other-directed studies, but the key is learning how to think about what you are studying. Without someone to teach you how to think, learning how to do so should be your first objective in self-directed study. Of course, the best way to learn is by doing. Jump into a subject and learn how to think as you go. Also, learning how to think is not something you will one day master; you should continue to learn about it for the rest of your life.