The Essential Education: If You Had Ten Years to Learn Anything, What Would You Do?

I can remember years ago having a discussion with someone about the purpose of college. I was arguing that university often doesn’t do a good job of preparing young people for the world of work, and my friend was arguing that I was missing the point. College isn’t about economic preparedness, but about educating people for life. Higher education shouldn’t be subjugated to the needs of the capitalist machinery.

I think this is mostly a fantasy. Like it or not, most people go to school for to improve their economic and social standings. High-minded ideals on the virtues of a broad liberal arts education are mostly lip service.

However, this debate got me thinking. Assuming you were to fulfill that high-minded goal of education, how would you do it?

I find it doubtful that the traditional university curriculum would be the best way to do that. Probably the best way wouldn’t involve an institution at all, but be something you undertook on your own.

What Would Be in Your Ideal Ten-Year Self-Education Quest?

So in this I’d like to engage in a speculative fantasy. If you had ten years, with the ability to support yourself on a modest stipend, how would you give yourself the best self-education in the world?

Admittedly, few people could put in ten years full-time, without working to support themselves. In that sense, this is a purely hypothetical exercise. However, I often find it useful to start with an ideal scenario first, and then make compromises to fit reality, than to start by immediately dismissing things out of practical concerns. Even if a ten year full-time self-education journey weren’t possible for most, perhaps it could be stretched through part-time study or sabbaticals over one’s entire lifetime.

Additionally, I’m going to focus on education purely for the sake of learning. The economic merits of skills and knowledge play no role in their importance. This doesn’t mean you can’t learn economically valuable skills, just that there’s no primacy given to learning accounting over art or finance over philosophy just because the former are more economically valuable.

Specialization, is similarly discountable. I want a broad-based education, deep enough to appreciate the richness of a subject, but not to devote every moment to a single skill just to become competitive in it.

Again, this isn’t to say that those motives aren’t important—they certainly are. But rather that it might be fun to imagine what you would learn if they weren’t important.

Think of this as the educational equivalent to the what-would-you-do-with-a-million-dollars speculation we often engage in to think about what are interests would be if we didn’t have to worry about money.

My Ten-Year Education Plan

Given this freedom to speculate, here’s what my ten year allocation of time would be, with explanations:

Side note: Since it’s causing the most confusion, don’t think of the below list as implying that the study of each of these subjects needs to be done sequentially. Many of them could be studied at the same time. Instead, it’s best to read this list as the relative allocation of time, not it’s exact scheduling.

1. Three years lived abroad, in different languages and cultures.

The first thing I’d add is the very thing I find conspicuously absent in most liberal arts educations: living in a different culture. Travel, moreso than reading books, is truly a mind-expander. Especially if that travel is done with the intention of immersing in a culture and not spectating it as a tourist.

In my three-year journey, I’d spend two full years in a stable location to maximize language acquisition and deep experiences. Preferrably one year in Europe and one year in Asia. South America or Africa would also be reasonable substitutes, based on your own level of interest. This could hypothetically be one year in Germany and one year in India, or one year in Spain and one year in Japan.

The third year of living abroad would be shorter stays over more regions. The goal here would be to get the breadth of seeing a lot more places to miss the inevitable gaps that occur from a more concentrated exposure to a specific country.

I wouldn’t do these three years in a row, but spread out over the decade. Long-term travel is one of the most exhausting aspects of self-education and one of the most dependent on enthusiasm to successfully execute. Feeling burned out by new sights is the easiest way to kill an immersive experience.

2. One year of philosophy.

I think the best approach here would be to take a number of survey courses, followed by some deep investigation into a few of the classics. Understanding Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is probably a wasted effort if the context is not properly supplied.

Six months covering general courses in metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, logic, etc. would be a good basis for selecting which specific works you want to study in more depth.

I would also spend at least a third of the time focusing on non-Western philosophy. This is often missing in a lot of philosophy curricula because the traditions are often not directly comparable. However, studying Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and other non-Western sources gives a greater sense of how the format of Western philosophy both assisted its development but also constrained it in subtle ways by accepting certain forms of argument but not others.

3. Six months of religion.

This could be seen as extension of philosophy, but it’s important enough that I think it deserves a separate space. One year here could be spent on all the major world religions. Even if you’re an atheist like me, I think this is hugely important because of the incredible force religion has had in shaping cultures and history.

4. Six months on world history.

Following religious studies, I’d spend six months learning world history. Admittedly this section is shallower than I put for philosophy, mostly because history is often learned indirectly through learning about other subjects (such as science, religion or philosophy). However, six months should be long enough to have a gist of the general history of most areas of the world as well as modest depth into a few key threads of history.

5. Two years on math and hard sciences.

I say two years not because these subjects are necessarily more important than philosophy or religion, but because they’re difficult enough that some minimal investment is necessary to learn anything interesting.

I’d probably focus more on math, since having a good grip of math underlies understanding almost all the other hard sciences. Perhaps a year to master calculus, geometry, statistics and discrete math. Another year spent to get a good foundation in the basics of physics, chemistry, biology and computer science.

6. One year devoted to art.

I’d spend a year split between studying the history of art and practicing creating art itself. Probably a month each spent learning the basics of sculpting, drawing and painting, then three months on a more specialized aspect of artistic development, pulled from whatever interests developed in the initial survey.

For art history, I’d spend time studying art from books, but also traveling to museums and galleries to see the art in person. This phase of the project could probably overlap with the third year of travel.

7. Six months on music.

I’d spend six months to learn a musical instrument. Learn to read musical notation and possibly the basics of composition. I think this could possibly be stretched into a year to encompass more instruments or getting deeper into composing, although that would probably involve scaling back on one of the other categories (perhaps art history).

8. Six months on meditation.

I’d allocate six months to be spent on an introspective journey. This would probably be spread throughout the ten years, although perhaps culminating in 1-3 months of dedicated time to some sort of meditative activity.

The goal here would be to more deeply understand yourself from experience, as opposed to from ideas and theory, as would be covered in the more academic sections on philosophy, religion and biology. I also believe that this pursuit would cultivate many of the characteristics you want such as temperance, discipline, patience and equanimity, which are often unrelated to knowledge.

9. Six months on economics and psychology.

I’m spending a lot less time on these subjects than I’ve devoted to others. In part because I feel that they are a lot less certain than the hard sciences, but also more theoretically constrained than philosophy. With hard sciences you can be more confident in the empirical results. With philosophy, you can be more open to the fact that they are speculative. However, I think there’s a lot of merit in learning the basic, relatively uncontested ideas in both fields.

10. Six months on practical skills.

In six months, I’d want to spend it learning the assortment of practical skills you’d want to be a self-sufficient, highly-functioning individual. Carpentry, metalwork, sewing, home repair, basic electrical work and plumbing, first-aid, simple car maintenance and others. The goal here would be to have a minimal competency in a bunch of occasionally useful simple skills, but also to create the confidence that one could easily learn more specialized aspects of these skills should the need arise.

Evaluating My Ten-Year Plan

In the space of ten years, perhaps from twenty to thirty (or perhaps as a retiree, from fifty-five to sixty-five), you could become decently versed in math, science, philosophy, religion, history, economics, psychology and art. You would know how to paint, sculpt, draw, play an instrument, fix a car, build a chair and write a computer program. You would speak at least three languages, although possibly more depending on how you allocated your travel time.

Even in the span of ten years, a lot would still be missing. There’s no anthropology. No literature or film. No architecture or athletics. However, the foundation would still be solid enough to build almost anything off of that in the future.

How Realistic Is This Plan?

This plan, as per my original conditions, is wildly optimistic. It assumes you can focus exclusively on self-education for a decade, without needing to work, support a family or be tied down to a physical location. It also assumes an unrealistic commitment to the higher ideals of self-education, with incredible commitment over a lengthy period of time.

However difficult, I’ve seen similarly lengthed self-education projects work to some extent. Benny Lewis spent around a decade traveling learning languages. Many in academia have spent a similar amount of time focused on a doctoral path that didn’t necessarily translate into job prospects.

What’s different about this ten-year plan isn’t that it’s impossible, but that it’s so thoroughly unconventional, few people would embrace it as an alternative to the more conformist paths available.

Despite these difficulties, some variant of this plan is how I see my own self-education unfolding, albeit with less long-term structure and certainly not a full-time commitment. I’ve already finished much of the travel requirement, and my exposures to many of the topics haven’t reached what I could do in the time suggested above, but they might reach that in time.

What Would Your Plan Be?

I’ve spelled out my hypothetical ten-year education, now I want to know about yours. Tell me what you would do if you had ten years to devote yourself to learn only the things you feel are important to your betterment as a human being.

What would you add that is missing in my list? What would you remove to make room for it? Where do you think I’ve spent too much time? Too little?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

  • Scott Young

    Epistemology is a good thing to study. Unfortunately I think many problems of fundamental justification are rabbit holes that have no current answer. You could spend your whole life trying to decide what “knowledge” is and not actually learn anything!

  • Scott Young

    I’ve never heard that term, could you enlighten me?

  • Scott Young

    Forgetting is natural. It can be ameliorated by spacing it out.

  • Bob Jones

    “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” This is what I would add: structure the learning so that there is a balance of discursive knowledge about a thing and actual experience doing the thing – preferably alongside a master. I believe this strongly applies to Philosophy and Mathematics for example.
    On the plan itself, I would decrease the travel to make time for more Philosophy, Math, and History, eliminate Religion by treating it as a part of History, subordinate Meditation to Philosophy, and give even less time to economics and psychology (for the reasons you gave).

  • ale

    The way people usually seek what to study or what to read when they seek to educate themselves in noble ways is what looking at what nobles studied at their time. They particularly seek to look at the part that deals with education, youth and adolescence of great people, great thinkers even in ancient times.
    Somebody is going to read Illiad by Homer because Alexander The Great read it on battles.
    Somebody is going to play such a piece because it had success at its epoch when it was composed (example : the Magic Flute). Somebody is going to read what somebody wrote because he was the tutor of somebody extremely famous in antiquity. That’s how it works. That’s how people who seek to elevate themselves towards a more aristocratic education do.

  • Scott Young

    True. A lot of “ennobling” self-ed is really a front for mimicking the habits of those we want to emulate.

    I guess the question is, how valid is that strategy. Assuming your goal in life was to know a lot, would doing this get you closer to that target, or would it be a self-absorbed signalling exercise?

  • Scott Young

    Philosophy is good. I like the idea of working with a teacher for guidance.

    Travel is the one part I definitely wouldn’t cut. I think a lot of travel can be shallow and vapid (but then again, the same could probably be said of most college class attendance), however I’m inclined to believe overcoming our narrow cultural perspectives is a huge part of the overall project of self-education, and I don’t think reading books can quite do that.

  • Dani Riekwel

    I basically have done this for the last ten years. I read a lot and as I work in childcare I have a lot of spare time which I usually focus on education

    1 years studying business
    1 year studying life skills as cognitive behavioural therapy for my then undiagnosed ADHD
    2 years studying child development particularly in relation to respectful child rearing, play, communication and learning opportunities.
    5 years studying sociolinguistics and world history with a focus on culture and language. Some of this at university but mostly not. Heavily influenced in the last 18 months by intersectional feminism as a critical discourse analysis tool.

    And this last year I have focused on permaculture as a workable solution to solving local problems of flooding and food scarcity that is happening in nz now because of extremem weather

    A lot of this time was spent abroad. I speak dutch and English fluently, French pretty well after a period of reacquaintance and basic mandarin and te REO.
    In this time I also learnt to play ukulele and have picked up the piano now as well.

    I have read 100 books a year since 2005… 98% non fiction.

  • Dani Riekwel

    Let me add – at no time am I ever focused on solely one topic.the timeline isore for how the focus shifted but I haven’t stopped reading about any of the items on my list and have excluded a lot of things I studied intensely for a month or two (like the history of Mormonism?! Fascinating!)

  • Dani Riekwel

    One more thing – tpattern languages and tiny house building. Spent a year on that for sure. Currently final design is being done and have found builders 🙂

  • I think you aren’t multiplexing enough. You can’t do art in foreign countries? huh?

    I’d separate the 10 years up into three different categories:

    Where you live, what you do for money, what you do for fun.

    What’s the right mix in each category that maximizes education? For each I think you could follow a 40/30/20/10 rule

    Where to live. 40% in the places that made the world what they are today (usa, eurpoe, etc) 30% in the places that will define tomorrow (shenzhen immediately comes to mind) 20% your home country and the last 10% in the undeveloped world.

    For ‘what to do for money’ I’d say 40% tech, 30% sales, 20% non-profit/ngo, and save up enough money that for one year, you don’t work at all.

    What to do for fun? 40% of the time do some form of art, 30% do something physical (sports, exercise generally),
    20% of the time do some form of communication/networking (writing non-fiction would count), and 10% focused on consumption and luxury

  • Pierre Menard

    I once won a bet similar to this. :).

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bet_(short_story)

  • Scott Young

    Maybe it’s just me, but doing travel the whole ten years, in my mind, would probably reduce the maximum intensity I could afford on the other parts. I’m not sure I could have done the MIT Challenge, for instance, if I had been living in a different country at the time.

  • Yeah, I can see that argument. I guess it depends on if you think things like that are more important than the life experiences you get through living and working abroad.

    I’d still argue the framework is the right one, but that maybe you’d say 40-60% living in your home country

  • Caro

    Thank you for the time is free and allowed spring board indeed.
    The best self education…And your plan.
    Reading your blog, it seems to me you are already quite familiar and educated in the fields you mention. Apart German in Germany and Religion maybe?
    So it would plan more like diving deeper into those fields for you?

    (My plan, if fairy time would give me 10 years away from my current way of living my life : it would interrupt things (self education and practice) ongoing; I would need to ask for a rematch.)

  • yourmothershouldreallyknow

    The more interesting question would be the 1 year free notion. In that context, I’d do 1 year of intensive math, science, and other areas, the result of which is that I would be able to read and learn any grad level work of significance, subsequent to that year. For instance, O-Chem, Biochem for being able to read medical and pharma literature. Stats and math to be able to read literature in finance, econ, and physics, as well as all areas, where we see intensive use of stats. In other words, all the highly technical wikipedia articles would be understandable.

  • WackoJacko

    Hiya,

    21-year-old Brit here. I’m currently undertaking something of a pivot in life, so what you’ve said marries up with my aspirations.

    To put it bluntly, I feel like a lot of time is wasted learning generalised skills. Why would I learn to build a chair, or fix a car, when I could focus on something that will earn greater income and allow me to purchase another person’s expertise? Why would I “make-do” with my meagre understanding, when someone who is highly specialised could do it more efficiently and create a no-doubt better end-product? In our modern society, we have no need for generalised workers; your time will (in my opinion) be better spent building deeper understanding elsewhere. To approach this from another angle – you don’t need to prove yourself by going out of the way to learn such varied topics.

    My own personal “objective” is attaining freedom from becoming a “wage-slave”. I have been in the workforce for two years and find it unutterably demeaning. I’m a human bloody being – chances are there are no more
    intelligent life forms than us lot for thousands of light-years in any direction, and we squander the potential of that intelligence like nothing I’ve ever seen.

    I don’t believe in a “10-year curriculum” as I view education as a life-long endeavour. Therefore, if there is something I want to learn which will provide value, I intend to tinker with that subject until I get bored or
    until I die.

    Thus, my formula to achieving independence looks like this:

    1. Maximising output / ability

    2. Minimising wasted time

    The subjects I would consider “core skills” in the modern world (for
    me) are:

    1. computer programming

    2. financial understanding

    3. critical thought

    1. To earn money. There are a lot of ways of earning money in the world. Not so many are as creative and capable of earning you decent money as software development / web development. There may be moments where you need to learn more advanced maths but that’s fine.

    2. To manage that money, and as it accumulates enjoy the benefit of compound interest. It would not be difficult to earn millions following path this dilligently (if you are frugal like myself). Also reduces the likelihood of people hoodwinking you out of your hard-earned dolla’

    3. Not falling prey to propaganda / advertising which will manipulate you against your best interests. Advertisers will steal your wallet, propaganda will muddie up your thoughts and brainwash you. This skill will allow you to
    sensibly take in sources of information without undue affect on your behaviour/character/understanding.

    Such a “curriculum” should not be segmented. I feel like you should prioritise what has the most benefit to you -right now- and go from there once you begin reaping the rewards. So my learning would look something like this.

    Step 1: learn programming, get a job related to the industry.
    Step 2: when you have the job and after a few years are earning sufficiently above your means, begin sensibly investing.
    Step 3: when you are free from such constraints as the 9-to-5 job, you can more or less do whatever the hell you want to. And sometimes you find exciting work and that’s enough.

    ___

    Important note: Perhaps a bit “edge lord”, but you don’t -need- to prove anything to anyone, ever. I have a bad case of inferiority complex which has stopped me “putting my name forward” so to speak. I wonder what my life would have looked like if I had developed more of a backbone earlier.

    Important note 2: Most employers want to screw you over with regards to how they compensate the time you work for them. Sometimes they don’t even know it, they’re just following “the market”. The market is screwing you over. Don’t be afraid to leave your job. Don’t be afraid to change entire sectors. One reason I picked programming as a core skill is that it’s so damn transferable. I can create software for learning institutions just as I can for financial institutions, there are subtle differences, but they are not insurmountable.

    A note on “critical thought”. It’s hard for me to persuade you of the importance of this. I’ve seen people who believe the most god-awful stupid ideas and waste their time dallying around with their heads full of crap. These
    are otherwise intelligent people. I’ve always been a bit of a pessimistic loner and quick to distrust, so it comes more naturally for me to say “that article is nonsense”. As a start, I recommend watching documentaries on
    the history of propaganda, your time wouldn’t be wasted by perusing material by Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek.

    A note on “wasted time”. Some may think spending a year abroad learning culture is wasted, while others think it integral to becoming a worldly and cultured character. I personally believe I wouldn’t attain much value from extended travel, it just doesn’t feel right in my bones. The “formula” is there to make sure you don’t waste your time when you’re learning whatever it is you feel valuable, be that world history or the sciences.

    Best of luck to you all.

  • Agezo Ozega

    Interesting to think about (even when money/work would be a limitation). I’m not someone with a lot of enthousiasm or motivation in general, but every once in a while I find something new that I become completely obsessed with. My strongest passions are game design and fiction in the form of comics/animation (and also a bit of composing music). I can spend 60 hours a week working on those and not get bored (to the point where I accidentally skip meals).

    My 10 years would probably involve learning/mastering the following skills (from most time spent to least): creating comics/animations, game design + programming, playing instruments, spanish, and maybe a bit of practical skills as well.

  • girafe

    or I have an idea
    You do that . You tell yourself what you want to learn but you also write the years-old you are when you plan to learn these things.
    You take this list
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outline_of_academic_disciplines
    And you write the ages at which you want to educate yourself with it.
    You may want to say you wish you had educated yourself earlier.
    But you are not going to educate yourself with “television studies” (look for it in the list) at 13 years-old or 12 or 15 or 17 ! but perhaps 19 yes ? I don’t know.
    There is a logic and most and for all, you establish the learning you want to do or the interest you want to have in the things in the course of a lifetime.
    Write the ages at which , instinctively, you think you learn the things you think of.
    With these stuff , you can do the life recipee of your choice. You can choose not to include elements of the list.
    You can have a life of your choosing.

  • FIREWORKS

    The problem is : not only you have to deal with the course of your lifetime but also your epoch.
    Because if you take for example Ophtalmology in Medicine and health sciences and that you Rufus of EPhesus’s life. The word “Ophtalmology” doesn’t appear in his wikipedia biography. Why ? Because, I uote wikipedia “He wrote several medical works, some of which survive. The principal one is entitled On the Names of the Parts of the Human Body. The work contains valuable information about the state of anatomical science before the time of Galen.”;
    The term and the academic discipline “Ophtalmology” appeared later on I think.
    Yes, the word ophtalmo and logy come from the Greek.
    So, you see, it’s different for me ! The state of anatomical science today is not the same as it was 50 years ago ! I won’t be able to do like he did.

  • TIME SAND

    SO this is not everything to read biographies. Do we gain time by reading that of contemporaries ?
    WHen we need inspiration for our personal lives?

  • technicly iron man is a geneticly altered human for wisdom in the sciences by a alien that ends up being on of his most powerful living suits to try and save humanity etc so unless our genetics are changed in that way it may be long periods of time before we can do something so ahead of its time its mind boggling.

  • Priscilla

    Loved your list, I would maintain most of the subjects, but tweaking a bit the time allocated to each… I have a self-education plan much more humble, as I still depend on a job for a living, but if I had the pre-conditions you mentioned, I would do it with the following modifications:
    Music – since I already study an instrument (harpsichord), I would maintain it as a constant practice over the years, but I would still allocate the six ‘special’ months for music to learn about singing technique, that I think would be helpful for developing further my musicianship and communication.
    Meditation is also a practice that needs to be a lifelong endeavor, so I would not allocate time to study specifically about its theory (I agree other subjects could approach this theme). I think it could be better if took some sparse, one-month retreats along the years, and of course, keeping with my daily practice.
    Math and hard sciences – I would reduce the time to only one year, as I would like to focus only on Math and Computer Science, to make room for other topics that were not mentioned. My inclusions would be Literature, Communication Skills and Physical practice, much probably Yoga (this latter also would add to develop other skills, since this system covers lots of aspects beyond physicality, as meditation, Philosophy, and would help me to understand better the Eastern culture).

  • pingpong

    YOur repartition is BAD: because you do as if subjects were separate. You don’t take into account that some subjects think about other subjects.

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