The Autodidact Course Catalog
August 27, 2009 |  by Dale Keiger

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.

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.

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.

Next: Educating children, musicians on musicians, and Einstein shaking his head.