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

| 1/18/2008 3:09:00 PM

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.

monte asbury
1/30/2008 8:25:05 PM

Brendan, you just related a tale that could have come from an ADHD patient guide. Perhaps it is simply the humor of your writing style. But if I had written it (and I could truthfully write something very similar, though not as adeptly), it would be straight from my ADHD way of looking at life. Finding out about it (at about 50) and beginning the treatment of it was the best thing that ever happened to me, both in terms of creativity and getting haircuts on a regular basis. Cheers!

tony somera_1
1/28/2008 4:50:56 PM

The fact that Bush has a Master's from Harvard should tell you something about the value of some lectures. Most academics won't rock the boat no matter what they see happen and are a self-censored bunch.

k. s. harris
1/28/2008 3:52:39 PM

Ihave a degree in Physics from Wellesley College. The last time I solved a problem on electical circuitry was at a recent Christmas party, when the hostess had her electric stove, microwave oven, electric hot plate, air conditioner, Christmas tree, television, etc. all going at once, and the system overloaded. I had her unplug a couple of things and then I reset the meter. She says I saved her party. I say you never know when all that investment in time and money will come in handy.