Sunday, October 10, 2010

Books received: Charles D. Hayes, "Existential Aspirations" and Jennifer Ouellette, "The Calculus Diaries"

I received two books on self-education for review last month: Charles D. Hayes' Existential Aspirations: Reflections of a Self-Taught Philosopher (Autodidactic Press, 2010) and Jennifer Ouellette's The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse (Penguin, 2010).

Hayes' Existential Aspirations is a manifesto for self-education - particularly in philosophy, politics, and other fields in the humanities and social sciences - written in an urgent tone.  For Hayes, self-education through reading, writing, thinking, and exploring is an essential part of making the most of one's limited leisure time on Earth.  Self-education is not solely about self-improvement, though that is a worthwhile goal; it is also about fulfilling our responsibility as citizens of a fragile world.

The more we learn, the more we realize how much we do not know.  Accordingly, even as education empowers us by deepening our understanding of the world and of ourselves, it is also humbling.  As such, education is an antidote to the tempting but destructive certainties of egotism, jingoism, and fundamentalism.  Like Hayes' other works, Existential Aspriations can broaden readers' exposure to the world of ideas: Hayes generously shares excerpts, quotes, and ideas from his voluminous reading, and he effectively communicates his own ideas and opinions as products of a lifetime of serious reading and thinking.

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I have not yet had a chance to review Ouellette's The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse (Penguin, 2010), but it may interest readers who would like to read more about self-education in mathematics - a topic I haven't written much about. It has always seemed to me that those students who approach math from the perspective of self-educators have more success than those who go through the motions of math classes without becoming personally invested in the subject or committing to working through problems and concepts independently.

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