Welcome to The Peking Review Virtual Course Catalog
Out of all of the books I have read (and a few I hope to read), I’ve put together a small but growing catalog of reading lists arranged as “virtual courses” in their subjects. If this is your first time here and you are new to virtual courses, take a moment to read the following introduction.
Why Virtual Courses
Many people ask me, “David, in a day and age when there are so many ways to take college courses or earn university degrees, why bother creating virtual courses.”
My short reply is “because some people don’t have to go to college to learn.”
But that seems a bit cheeky. So let me explain further.
We too often forget that the university education is a recent contrivance. Very few of the great people and great scholars of history learned from schools – instead, they took their learning from books, from experience, and from discussion with like-minded people. They were the self-taught, the autodidacts.
Susan Wise Bauer, who has been through the rigors of university and graduate school and is one of the most accomplished ancient- and medieval historians practicing today, has even written a book that offers a complete framework for self-learning. In the introduction to her book, The Well Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, Professor Bauer describes the good and the bad of graduate school, then says:
But you don’t have to suffer through the graduate school wringer in order to train your mind – unless you plan to get a job in university teaching (not a particularly strong employment prospect anyway). For centuries, women and men undertook this sort of learning – reading, taking notes, discussing books and ideas with friends – without subjecting themselves to graduate-school stipends and university health-insurance policies.
(By the way, if you are the least bit serious about self-learning, the minute you are done with this page you must go directly and purchase a copy of Professor Bauer’s book. The more you read of what she has written in her first four chapters, the more you will get out of your own learning.)
The number of people following that course is growing, and indeed many have become extraordinarily accomplished in fields for which they have no professional training or certification. Because of the Internet and the increasing availability of books, amateurs – people who have built their learning in a field via self-directed and self-driven study outside the “establishment” – are once again starting to drive significant advances or disruptions in their field.
Consider a few of my favorite examples:
- Frank Lloyd Wright, architect. Didn’t graduate from High School, dropped out of college. Started out as a draftsman in Chicago.
- Thomas Bopp co-discovered Comet Hale-Bopp. He was the manager of a construction materials factory. His astronomy was entirely learned on his own.
- Danny Elfman, Grammy– and Emmy-winning (and Oscar-nominated) composer and former front-man for the band Oingo-Boingo, learned everything he knows about music on his own, a fact that continues to rankle many of his fellow composers. Read his excellent 2007 commencement address to the North Carolina School of the Arts – it explains how he did it.
- Edward S. Miller, the corporate accountant and CFO who became a self-taught historian, wrote two books, War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan 1897-1945, and Bankrupting the Enemy: The U.S. Financial Siege of Japan Before Pearl Harbor that have forced a re-evaluation of how World War II began and was fought in the Pacific.
- John Parshall and Tony Tully were a couple of IT executives who, through their passion for history and meticulous research have re-written the history of the Battle of Midway in their magisterial Shattered Sword.
The point of this is not to suggest that you, too, should plan on writing a book at the end of your reading, but to note that even scholars and successful practitioners of a range of fields can still learn their craft on their own (laws permitting, of course – I would be really careful about trying to practice one of the professions – law, medicine, accounting, dentistry, aviation – without checking into your local laws first).
Taking Virtual Courses
Okay, so how do we get on with a virtual course?
Professor Bauer notes that “sustained, serious reading is at the center of the self-education project.” Based on her recommendations, I have laid out a course of serious reading on each subject, made up of books that I have found to offer both outstanding basic knowledge and provocative insights. Stick to one course at a time: it is the process, the discipline, of working systematically through a given subject that provides the value.
(This is not, after all, university, where you are compelled to study between three and a half-dozen subjects in parallel. This is self-teaching. And we are a bit more civilized here.)
As you read through each of the courses, take notes. Analyze and evaluate what you are reading for validity and truth. Discuss what you are reading with others, online if it is easiest for you. And then find ways to express your own opinion about these issues. I do so on my blogs and, increasingly, in print. So can you.
So take a look through this list and start. I’ll be adding courses, so let me know if there is something of interest to you. If I can’t help, I can probably send you somewhere that can.
Good luck, and good reading!