Your summer of beach reading is over. It’s back to school, even for the self-taught. Reader, didact thyself!
One would be hard-pressed to disapprove of autodidacticism. Consider a list of notable alumni from the academy of the self-taught: René Descartes, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, William Blake. Michael Faraday apprenticed himself to a bookseller and read everything he could before going on to figure out electromagnetism. August Wilson schooled himself at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh after dropping out of the ninth grade. Arnold Schoenberg claimed to be an autodidact, and who are we to dispute it? Frank Zappa advised, “Forget about the senior prom and go to the library and educate yourself, if you’ve got any guts.” Hear, hear. (Though if the prom band is playing Frank Zappa songs, we’re donning a powder-blue brocade tux and we’re going.)
The systematic didacting of oneself—it’s not a verb, but it ought to be—requires printed text bound between boards. Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, or an iSquint will not suffice. And because we subscribe to the advice of Isaac Watts in his 1741 volume Improvement of the Mind—“It is of vast advantage to have the most proper books for reading recommended by a judicious friend”—we consulted a roster of judicious friends to compile some required reading for an autodidact’s course catalog. (The course titles, course descriptions and book blurbs are our invention.) We grade on the curve and will allow you to set your own pace, but do proceed with one last piece of advice from the good Mr. Watts: “Have a care of indulging the more sensual passions and appetites of animal nature; they are great enemies to attention.” Your summer of beach reading is over. It’s back to school, even for the self-taught.
Reader, didact thyself!
Readings From the History of Scholarship, Including Some Less-than-Honest Practitioners
Walter Stephens, professor of German and Romance languages and literatures, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences
A scholarly survey of scholars looking at scholarship, including the role played by forgers, con artists, and other miscreants and blackguards. Course will encompass how Gilgamesh was lost and found (and first translated by autodidact George Smith), the fascination with ancient Egypt by Renaissance Italians, and making a case for forgery as the “criminal sibling” of criticism. Instructor notes that his doctoral dissertation was on the forger Annius of Viterbo, who appears in the first three books.
- Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship, by Anthony Grafton. Forgery has furthered scholarship in previously unappreciated ways.
- The Scarith of Scornello: A Tale of Renaissance Forgery, by Ingrid D. Rowland. The true story of a bored, wickedly bright 17th-century teenager who pranked Tuscans with forged Latin and Etruscan documents.
- The Egyptian Renaissance: The Afterlife of Ancient Egypt in Early Modern Italy, by Brian A. Curran. Of course, the scholars and artists of the Italian Renaissance studied ancient Greece and Rome. But they also took an intense interest in Egypt.
- The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, by David Damrosch. Title explains it all. Says instructor, “Makes Indiana Jones look dull.”
That Really Bytes: Issues of Computer Security
Avi Rubin, professor of computer science, Whiting School of Engineering
An introduction to issues of cybersecurity, cryptography, cryptanalysis, and electronic voting by one of the nation’s experts on digital security. Students will walk away from the course not only conversant in transposition ciphers and the Enigma machine, but with gnawing unease about data security and a yearning for paper ballots.
- The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet, by David Kahn. The ur-text on codes, secret writing, and cryptanalysis. Safety note: Students are advised not to drop 1,200-page book on foot.
- The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage, by Clifford Stoll. Tiny discrepancy in computer bill sets astrophysicist on trail of German hacker who turns out to be a spy. No, really.
- Secrets and Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World, by Bruce Schneier. No matter how sophisticated the security, someone will find a way to get past it. It’s human nature.
- Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting, by Avi Rubin. Author knows whereof he speaks: He is an expert on cybersecurity and director of A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections (ACCURATE).
Short Course on American Constitutional Law and the Supreme Court
Joel B. Grossman, professor of political science, Krieger School
From an expert on constitutional law, a historical perspective on the creation of the U.S. Constitution and the men and women in black robes who interpret it. Students may emerge from the course harboring higher regard for the former than the latter.
- Plain Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, by Richard Beeman. A nuanced narrative history of the constitutional convention of 1787.
- What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States, by James F. Simon. Jefferson versus Marshall, states’ rights versus federalism, executive power versus Supreme Court. Some stories go on and on and on.
- America’s Constitution: A Biography, by Akhil Reed Amar. The back story, article by article, amendment by amendment.
- The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, Jeffrey Toobin. Fifteen years of Supreme Court inside history, beginning with the Reagan administration.
- Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey, by Linda Greenhouse. Author was the first journalist to gain access to the papers of the man who authored Roe v. Wade.
- The Least Dangerous Branch: The Supreme Court at the Bar of Politics, by Alexander M. Bickel. First sentence: “The least dangerous branch of the American government is the most extraordinarily powerful court of law the world has ever known.”
- The Warren Court and American Politics, by Lucas A. Powe Jr. History and analysis of the court under Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Next: Educating children, musicians on musicians, and Einstein shaking his head.