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The Mysteries of Western Civilization and Improved Dinner Party Conversation in Six Weeks Or Less

by Staff


Tags: Online, education, free, courses, iTunes U, College, university, Stanford, MIT, Science, ,

Man in Library ReadingLast May I proudly received my college diploma and promptly forgot most of what I’d learned since high school. Six months later, my brain had atrophied to the point where all I had to show for my fancy education was a set of pretentious anecdotes to throw around at dinner parties. And I’m rarely invited to dinner parties.

I decided that I needed to exercise my mind before my diploma became a glorified paperweight. After minutes of thinking, I came up with a plan: I would listen to free university lectures online, plugging up the holes in my education. I thought the project could chart a path to self-discovery and the heights of genius.

The first days of my project were exciting. Prestigious universities from Yale to MIT offer recorded lectures online, and many lists of courses can be found through Google. The litany of subjects that I could study with just a few clicks stunned me. Would I choose to brush up on my long-neglected scientific knowledge? Or would I study the history of coffee?

My inaugural lecture was a course by Edmund Bertschinger and Edwin F. Taylor called Exploring Black Holes: General Relativity and Astrophysics from MIT’s iTunes U. That sounded like a challenge. Within minutes I was watching a pair of upper-level physicists explaining how upper-level physicists understand the nature of time and space by looking through black-holes. It was just like college: I understood what was going on, but just barely.

That night I went to a swanky party and amazed everyone by dropping cool phrases like “Hawking Radiation” and “Super Black Holes”—phrases I didn’t know existed that morning. I celebrated my success by devouring the host’s wide spread of hors d’oeuvres: the taste of wisdom.

The next morning, pushing through the grimy darkness of a post-party headache, I forced myself to subscribe to a multitude of new courses. I downloaded a Stanford talk that featured the Dalai Lama chatting with neuroscientists and a course on “the built environment.” In college I had heard of these ideas (I think I wrote a couple essays about them) but now I thought I’d actually learn about them.

Weeks later, I have come to admit defeat. As of today, I have failed to listen to a single course in its entirety, though my goal was to cram three semesters of academic work into three weeks. My visions of unscrambling the mysteries of the universe and impressing women have yet to be realized. I now admit a taint of over-ambition in my project. I have realized with gathering horror that the pressures of post-college life have robbed me of my idle time to learn.

One day I may return to my attempt at self-education. For now, though, I will try to accomplish the more manageable goals that escaped my ambition during my college tenure: eating three meals a day and getting semi-regular haircuts. That territory, for the time being, is uncharted enough.

Brendan Mackie