Friday, August 28, 2009

Interview: University of Chicago Professor Charles Lipson

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl
Featured self-educator: Charles Lipson
Self-educator's hometown: Chicago, IL

Date: 26 August 2009

(Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of interviews Wide Awake Minds will be conducting with educators and self-educators. If you enjoy these interviews or other material on this blog, please consider linking to us, mentioning us on Facebook and Twitter, and emailing and sharing our articles. If you would like to share your story as an educator or self-educator, please contact me. Thanks for reading!)

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor in Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago. He chairs the university’s major in political science and directs a graduate program called PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. Besides publishing extensively in political science, he has written several books to help students study more effectively.

WAM: What is the source of your interest in political science and international relations?

CL: I’ve been interested for a long time in the intersection of three areas: politics, economics, and history. I can remember these being my interests even when I was in the sixth or seventh grade. I lived in rural Mississippi, but I subscribed to The New Republic and lots of other magazines, not just newsweeklies but other interesting magazines as well, and I developed those interests for a long time.

I happened to grow up during an interesting period. I am a baby boomer, and I was in high school in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle and in college during the Vietnam War and the cultural revolutions of the late 1960s. All of these issues led to my ever-deeper interest in politics.

As an undergraduate, I majored in both political science and economics and then went on to graduate school in political science. Originally, I thought I would study American politics. But I kept an open mind and the most interesting questions at the time seemed to be in international politics. So I went in that direction, and I’m very happy I did.

WAM: Do you consider yourself a self-educator, a lifelong learner?

CL: Yes, absolutely. I view myself as a lifelong learner, and I think most professors do. After all, we never really left school! We think of learning and teaching as being a kind of seamless web. Also, I really enjoy learning about new fields. Almost every summer, for example, I tackle a new area that I haven’t really read a lot about, one that might not necessarily have anything to do with my primary field.

One year I read a lot of 19th-century fiction, and another I spent a lot of time reading about new developments in evolutionary biology. I continually read about the Western historical tradition. But until a few years ago, I hadn’t read so much about Ancient Greece and Rome. Now I’ve read a lot about the classical Mediterranean world.

For these projects, I simply find a subject that pricks my interest and start reading. I’ll stumble on something that interests me and follow the trail as one book or article leads to another. These days, I supplement my reading with podcasts or courses on CDs. As I explore a topic, I will often find a podcast for an introductory course and “take the course” through the podcasts.

WAM: Do you use blogs or other online resources in addition to podcasts?

CL: Sure, and I find them invaluable. The Web is a great resource. I’ll often look at course syllabi from around the world and see what books they assign in areas that interest me. I also look at blogs in whatever field I am exploring and at blogs like yours that identify resources.

A blog like Wide Awake Minds helps me in two ways. First, it identifies sources of learning in fields that interest me. Second, it discriminates among those sources, telling me which ones are best and why. When I’m looking for podcasts, for instance, I always read the analysis at Anne is a Man, which specializes in reviewing educational podcasts.

We are still at the early stages of a convergence of new media that allow people to acquire knowledge in new and different ways. Although I grew up in the age of print, I am now able to take advantage of countless electronic resources such as JSTOR, a database of academic articles, which I can access through the University library.

WAM: You devote a portion of your personal website to links and information about education, and you have written several books on higher education. What is the source of your interest in the subject?

CL: I think of myself as a teacher with an overarching goal of helping students learn. Of course, I spend a lot of time and effort studying my own subject (international politics and history), but my teaching interests range well beyond that. Some of the things I like to work with students about are not specific to my field. They are about how to study with real integrity or how to write a senior thesis. I have written books on both those topics. (Doing Honest Work in College and How to Write a BA Thesis, both from the University of Chicago Press). Many students I work with come from around the world, from China or India or Turkey or Mexico, so I wanted to write a book that addresses the specific challenges they face in studying here. I looked around and there weren’t any other books on that, and I felt I had something to say about it, so I wrote Succeeding as an International Student in the United States and Canada.

Besides teaching and writing on more specialized topics, I enjoy teaching courses on big ideas to incoming freshmen. In the morning, I might teach a course like that and, in the afternoon, teach a seminar on international politics to students at the M.A. and Ph.D. level. Ranging across these different levels is a lot of fun. It’s more interesting, at least for me, than teaching only one kind of course to one kind of student. Fortunately, I’m at a university that encourages this range of teaching and research.

WAM: Is there anything special about teaching at the University of Chicago?

CL: I think there is. One of the things I love about the University of Chicago is actually one of the things I love about your website, Wide Awake Minds. What really makes our undergraduates special is that so many of them actually love learning for its own sake. That’s what your website is all about, too.

There is certainly nothing wrong with learning something because you want to get something concrete out of it – say, studying organic chemistry because you want to be a doctor. But our university seems to have more students who love chemistry, even if they ultimately want to be a doctor, not a research chemist. Even in my own field, students might be going to law school or public policy school, but they often seem to love the ideas themselves. When I talk to professors at other selective schools, we tend to agree that our students are equally smart and hard-working, but we notice other kinds of differences. The rare thing about University of Chicago students is that they really seem to love learning for its own sake. What more could a teacher ask?

That brings me to another point - the value of self-education after you finish formal classes. I was an undergraduate at Yale, which was and still is a very fine undergraduate school, with smart, wide-ranging students. But one thing I noticed was that after graduation many of them become very focused on their own subjects – if they studied the blood system or investment banking, that’s all they thought about. They seemed to discard so many of the broad interests they once had.

By contrast, I had several other friends who went to what I would call mid-range state universities – not the top state schools like Berkeley or Michigan or Texas, but more mid-range state colleges – and some of them underwent pre-professional training to become nurses or businessmen, things like that. But after graduation, some of them persisted in educating themselves well beyond their jobs. They always had a novel on their bedside table or went to concerts, movies, and plays that were challenging. Watching them continue to learn helped me overcome some of the snobbery that comes attached to a fancy degree.

When you’re 21 and you graduate college, you’re only 3 innings into a 9-inning ball game. Maybe you think you’re done, but you won’t be able to bring a mature, adult worldview to your work unless you keep on learning. Who can really appreciate the depth and anguish of King Lear at age 19? It’s a play about old age - its fatal traps and personal betrayals.

So many of the goals of a liberal arts education ought not to be cast aside because we’ve entered a world of being a doctor or lawyer or because we have less time and more obligations to family and work. The value of reading War and Peace or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is just as great when you are 30, 50, or 70 as it is when you are 17. The greatest books always reward repeated readings.

WAM: Do you see self-education as a form of self-help?

CL: We have too narrow a view of “self-help.” We think it’s a small section of the bookstore that deals with losing weight or improving your relationships. In fact, almost the whole bookstore is a self-help section. If you walk into the classic fiction aisle and pick up something by Stendhal or Balzac or into the biography aisle and pick up something by McCulloch, you are helping yourself. Such books amply repay the effort it takes to read them.

Thank you, Professor Lipson, for your time and for the good work you do.

Please take a moment to visit Professor Lipson’s website and check out his books at If you enjoyed this interview, consider posting it to your Facebook wall or emailing it to a friend.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Learning the law through self-education

There are any number of reasons why you might want to study law as a self-educator: maybe you are a law student and you want to do some research for a law review article or study an area of law that you aren't currently taking a class in. Or you might be thinking of going to law school in the future, but you want to see whether you are actually enjoy the study of law. Or you might be studying politics and government or teaching it at the high school or college level. Or you might be interested in American history and the role of law and the Supreme Court in shaping U.S. institutions.

There is, of course, no substitute for going to law school. It is repeated ad nauseum in guides to the study of law that one must learn not only cases and "black-letter" law, but also "how to think like a lawyer."

However, whether you are in law school currently or interested in the law but unable to attend law school, there is no reason to suppose that you are confined to the material in your classes, on the one hand, or entirely cut off from the study of law because you didn't go to law school on the other.

Here are a few suggestions:

-Visit The Oyez Project where, among other things, you can download MP3 audio files of Supreme Court cases

-Consider purchasing, or borrowing from the library, a copy of Peter Irons' book and audio collection May It Please the Court: The Most Significant Oral Arguments Made Before the Supreme Court Since 1955 and its sequel, May it Please the Court: The First Amendment: Transcripts of the Oral Arguments Made Before the Supreme Court in Sixteen Key First Amendment Cases.

-Add a few legal blogs, such as SCOTUSBlog, the Volokh Conspiracy, the University of Chicago Law Faculty Blog, and the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog to your daily or weekly reading.

-Purchase used, older editions of casebooks covering 1L (first year) course material from sources on Also check out the Examples and Explanations series.

-Rent some great legal movies from Netflix (while remaining aware, of course, that these will often not reflect the reality of the law or the legal professions).

-Create a Powerpoint presentation or flash cards with legal vocabulary and important cases.

-Sit in on some cases at your local courthouse. Ask to shadow the work of a lawyer or judge for the day.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Learning from non-native English speakers

When we come into contact with a person who has difficulty expressing himself or herself in English, rather than jump to conclusions about the person's preferences, intellect, or educational background, we ought to ask ourselves how we would fare if we were forced to communicate in their native language. We can replace our prejudicial assumptions with a presumption that the other person is just as complex and interesting a person as we are.

Our default stance toward “linguistic others” is one of dismissal: we assume that we cannot communicate with them, we suspect that even if we could communicate, the other person might not have anything valuable to say, and in short we try to end the exchange as quickly as possible. But instead we could choose to adopt a basic posture of respect; we could try to move beyond thought-shortcuts and see the other person in the fullness of his or her individuality and humanity. (One good way to do this is to recognize that the place and circumstances of our birth as well as our language, heritage, and family, is nothing more than an accident – I could have just as easily been born in the mountains of Central Asia instead of Michigan).

We might communicate our respect with a smile and a few words, or by taking the opportunity to learn a bit of their language and something about the place they are from. We might also talk with them in English, but in a patient manner in which we are willing to slow down our own speech and hear the other person out even if they do not navigate the difficulties of the English language as quickly or as fluently as we do. Our own ability in English is no more than an accident.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Some books are an education in themselves

I was struck again today by the realization that some books are so good and so chock-full of ideas that reading them can be an education in itself. Two books I am currently reading meet that standard: Charles Taylor's A Secular Age (philosophy, religious studies, history of ideas) and Erich Auerbach's Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (literary criticism, religion, history of ideas).

Neither of these books are easy reads. I intended to read both during my August vacation, but it looks like it could take me as much as six months to finish them, since I can only read about ten pages of each at a time before I have to turn to something else. But when you read for self-educational purposes, it is important to sometimes choose books that are slightly above your comfort level in terms of their difficulty. Even the most advanced readers can easily find books that are "above their heads" - books written in distant places and times, books written in difficult English or in another language, books in a field that you have little background in. If you choose such books wisely and then rise to the challenge and struggle through them, you can have an immensely rewarding and educative experience.

On page after page of Taylor's book, for example, the reader is bombarded with references to ideas, religious practices, sects, and thinkers familiar and obscure. The trick as a reader is to remember to be curious about these allusions: don't be so concerned with making your way through the book that you forget to ask, for example, who Gregory of Nyssa was, what beliefs characterized the school of Arminianism, or what the word neuralgic means. (And that's where a quick Google search can come in handy).

I recently posted excerpts from both books on my general-interest blog if you are interested in a sample.

Other books which have struck me as providing an "education in themselves" in the hands of advanced, curious, self-educating readers and with the assistance of good secondary literature or teachers include:

-Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (history, international relations theory, psychology, narrative, military strategy, literature, etc.)
-The Bible (Biblical Hebrew, Koine Greek, literature, poetry, narrative, history, religious studies, mythology)
-Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (religion, psychology, literature)
-The plays of William Shakespeare (psychology, history, religion, drama, language, literature)

...and many anthologies, including:

-William Theodore de Bary, Sources of Chinese (also Japanese and Korean) Tradition (literature, history, art)
-The Norton Anthology of Poetry and The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry

I'd like to hear your ideas about books that fit this description, and why you feel they do - please share in the comment section if you are interested.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Music education and summer vacation

My sister, who is in elementary school, is taking piano lessons, and when she sees me practicing banjo during my visits home, she always wants to show me what she has learned on the piano. She clearly enjoys playing and has worked through a beginning method book.

But when I asked the other day whether she had been taking lessons and practicing, she said no, she was on break for the summer and would start again in the fall when school begins.

A few thoughts on this:

-If there is one type of study that requires regular, disciplined practice, as well as regular tutoring at the early stages of learning, it is learning a musical instrument. My own method of self-education involves reading and learning different things as my interests change: sustained study of a single topic is a challenge for me, so when I become interested in a topic, I try to read, write, and learn as much about it as I can before my interests move on. But this approach does not work when you are trying to learn an instrument. Learning an instrument requires sustained, challenging, repetitive practice, and it usually requires the help of a teacher.

-Educators and parents should make a conscious effort to dispel the notion that summer vacations constitute a "break" from learning because school is not in session. This is an example of how the widespread idea that education is simply "what happens in schools" is counterproductive. Education researchers have a word - the "achievement slide" - describing what happens to kids' brains during summer vacations. Many kids actually become slightly less intelligent because they simply do not exercise their brains over the summer. I don't think that means that we should have year-round schooling, as many policymakers are suggesting, but it does mean that parents as well as students themselves need to learn to continue their education year-round through self-education rather than bring their learning to a grinding halt because the school calendar says so.

Here's an excerpt on the importance of practicing one's instrument - it's written for banjo players, but you could substitute any instrument:

Knowing what to practice and making the best use of the practice time has so much to do with how well you will ultimately play the banjo. I once described natural ability to a student as someone who enjoys practicing and has determination. Sure, music may appear to come easier to certain people. However, many times the people to whom it appears to come easier are the same people who can sit around for hours at a time digging in for ways to improve and wouldn't want to be doing anything else.

An observation I made from reading about some of the banjo masters' practice time was that in many cases banjo players who have made significant contributions or have had styles named after them flat out practiced all day when they began. No one handed it to them. They just had desire and invested the time.

Ross Nickerson
--The Banjo Encyclopedia: Bluegrass Banjo from A to Z

And here are a few helpful articles about helping your child learn a musical instrument:

-"Why having your child learn a musical instrument is a good thing"
-"Why Should Your Child Learn Music? Here's My Story"
-"Should My Child Learn to Play a Musical Instrument?"

Feel free to submit your own ideas, thoughts, and links in the comment section.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Interview with the University of Chicago Magazine

UChiBLOGo, the blog of the University of Chicago Magazine, interviewed me about Wide Awake Minds and the idea of self-education today.

Check it out here, and please pass the interview along to others if you enjoy reading it. Thanks for helping to spread the word about self-education!

Some RSS feeds to consider subscribing to

In my most recent post, I suggested that RSS feeds and a feed-reader such as Google Reader can be an incredibly useful tool for self-educators. But what feeds should you subscribe to?

A great little tool created by Geeky Weekly allows you to generate an HTML list of your Google Reader subscriptions. I've pasted a partial list of my subscriptions below to give you some ideas about feeds you might consider adding to your feed reader.

Obviously, many of these will be of little interest to you. Some of them, such as those that I use to practice world languages, will be utterly useless to most readers. But I decided to keep these links of little interest in the list in the hope that they might give readers an idea of the range of uses to which they can put their feed reader. If you are studying a language, subscribe to the feed of a newspaper written in that language. If you want to keep up with local news in your current community or in other places you've lived or visited, subscribe to news sources in those areas. If you are trying to work out your political views or you want to broaden your understanding of alternative ideologies, subscribe to political blogs and news sites from across the spectrum.









Google Reader, RSS Feeds, and self-education

RSS feeds are one of the most valuable tools on the Internet for self-educators. If you read online media (blogs, websites, etc.) but aren't familiar with RSS feeds and feed-readers, you are missing out on an enormous resource, and you should consider taking 10-15 minutes to set up a Google Reader account and subscribe to blogs and sites in your interest-area.

This video is helpful as an introduction to RSS feeds and their importance:

You can

The Internet can be an enormous time-waster, but its resources for self-educators are infinite. Google Reader (or a similar application) can help you organize some of those resources and use them in a more efficient way.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka: An Excerpt

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

...To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. The effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in the Kansas case by a court which nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the Negro plaintiffs:

"Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system."

Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected.

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

...We have now announced that such segregation is a denial of the equal protection of the laws.

...It is so ordered.

Chief Justice Earl Warren
--Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1953). The decision was unanimous (9-0).

Friday, August 14, 2009

College advising and self-education coaching services

I am now offering college advising as well as academic and writing coaching services at a below-market rate through e-mail, phone, Skype, instant messaging, and in-person consultations.

I can help students of all ages reach their academic and professional goals. Whatever your goals and interests, whether you are preparing to apply to college, learn a language, or develop an interest into an area of expertise, creating a personal educational plan can be vital to your success.

My services include (but are not limited to):

-Assistance with identifying skills and growth areas and creating a self-education action map.

-Assistance with writing and editing college admissions essays, managing the admissions time-frame, and researching and selecting colleges.

-Assistance with learning a subject area inside or outside standard curricula.

-Assistance with selecting a major and planning college coursework.

-Assistance with turning an interest or hobby into a developed, actionable skill or credential.

My qualifications include:

-M.A. in International Relations and B.A. in Political Science from the University of Chicago.

-M.A. in Education with Secondary Certification from the University of Michigan (in progress).

-Lifelong experience as a self-educator.

-99th percentile scores on the verbal GRE (Graduate Record Examination) and verbal SAT and a 97th percentile score on the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test).

-Extensive writing and editing experience, including articles published in national and regional publications.

-Work experience with three Fortune 500 companies.

Please contact me today, and consider taking a moment to mention my services to friends and colleagues who might benefit from them.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Interview: Self-Educator Margaret Viola

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl
Featured self-educator: Margaret Viola
Self-educator’s age: 21
Self-educator’s hometown: Oshkosh, WI

Date: 8 August 2009

(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of interviews Wide Awake Minds will be conducting with educators and self-educators. If you enjoy these interviews or other material on this blog, please consider linking to us, mentioning us on Facebook and Twitter, and emailing and sharing our articles. If you would like to share your story as an educator or self-educator, please contact me and I’ll send you a questionnaire. Thanks for reading!)

What is your profession or area of study?

College student – concentrating in Physics, minoring in East Asian Studies (emphasis in Mandarin Chinese).

Does the description of the self-educator’s mind as a “wide-awake mind” resonate with you?

Yes – the term is clever and quite apt. It captures the essence of “active awareness,” of “conscious evolution” that pervades the individual who is master of his/her own mind.

Who are your educational, intellectual, artistic, and moral role models?

The artist Marc Chagall – who “painted with his emotions,” so to speak; I admire his ability to honor and listen to his intuition. I also consider the late Peter Jennings, the famous ABC News anchor, an intellectual and moral role model – he was an individual who embodied dignity with humility, whose intellectualism was exuded through kind and compassionate dialogue with and for the world. I hold Condoleeza Rice in the highest regard for her discipline and elegance, two traits which, I believe, are just as valuable as pure intellect. And lastly, Margaret J. Wheatley is a phenomenal force for change and global compassion and awareness. I cannot read enough of her writing!

How have you felt about your formal education? What changes do you think should be made to America’s system of formal education, or to the way we think about education?

I have often been frustrated by the arbitrary rules that formal institutions set as their metrics of educational success. I find the present grading system, the tenure system, windowless lecture halls, and (often badly written) exams to be stifling wastes of time. However, in present-day society, the college degree is a necessary credential, and one that I am only nine months away from earning.

An absolutely critical change that must be made to the American educational system is the adaptation of curricula to the “visual-spatial” learner. Current methods only educate those with the old “audio-sequential” learning style, which leaves some of the most brilliant minds in the dark.

20% of the population is able to think multi-dimensionally, that is, think in terms of moving images rather than verbal-auditory symbols. That 20% consequently thinks at a rate many times faster than their audio-sequential counterparts. These brilliant people are labeled “dyslexic.” Can you tell that I am one of these so-called "dyslexic” individuals?

What do you see as the importance of reading?

The importance of reading is that it is a bridge from one mind to another. Individuals who dislike reading (as does my dyslexic brother) can reap the same benefits from audio-books and educational tools such as a pen that will “say” a word out loud as my brother looks at it.

My curiosity leads me to the texts I read; currently I am reading about “energy medicine,” Eastern philosophies, and “conscious evolution" to global awareness. Dacher Keltner is one of my favorite modern writers and scholars – I would like to see his thoughts on the “wide awake mind!”

Do you find that conversations and other exchanges with other people can be educative, and if so, do you seek out such exchanges?

I think the challenge of intellectual conversation is essential! I long for the experience of the “French Salons” of the Enlightenment era, and I try to re-create such events in my apartment in Chicago in my spare time.

Do you feel that it is important to follow current events and/or participate in political debate, and if so, why?

I believe in the oneness of all things – of the global “web” of life, in which an action, a thought, has a ripple effect on the whole. And therefore I feel it is so, so very important to listen to the global dialogue with compassion, and contribute one's own voice. I believe that by openly “hearing” the viewpoints of others, we create an environment in which our own viewpoints are welcome – fostering the reciprocity essential for global prosperity.

What books would you recommend to other self-educators, that is, to other people who want to make a conscious effort to learn more, discover more, and expand their minds?

I wish that everyone in the world could read Margaret J. Wheatley's book Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope in the Future. I also strongly recommend Eckhart Tolle's The New Earth. If everyone on Earth read just these two books – the change that could arise from the compassionate awareness the texts foster would be limitless! And for those with a more practical eye on the future, I strongly recommend A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink.

Thanks, Margaret, for reading and sharing your insights!