Education without a Classroom


When Rick and I were newlyweds in Boston, at nearly every party or fireside someone would strike up a conversation by asking, “Where did you go to school?”

“BYU,” I would answer. “What did you major in?” “Economics.”

“Oh!” (Interested) “Well, do you plan to do anything with it? I mean are you going to get a master’s degree?”

It was a logical question in Boston where people go to school the way other people go to work. The Boston area harbors dozens of colleges; students comprised about half of our ward. The chapel itself is a short walk from Harvard University. It was fun to feel the intellectual vibrations in the air, but even though I had no use for a master’s in economics, the educational fervor made me ask myself questions like, “Am I really missing something? What is an education for? How does it relate to the gospel?”

Actually, Boston was only making me explore the idea I’d heard all my life—that I should be continually educating myself for my own self-improvement, to set an example for my children, and to equip myself to rear them. I turned to the scriptures to see what I could find about education and read this counsel:

“Study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (D&C 90:15).

“Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).

“Obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion” (D&C 93:53).

Apparently, I told myself, the Lord feels there is a lot to gain from secular knowledge. I wasn’t completely sure then what it might be, but my desire to keep learning was supported by the scriptures so my next question was “how?”

I could have gone back to school for that master’s degree, and it sounded very attractive. I could continue my education, be prepared to find a good job should I lose my husband, and gain a fair depth of knowledge in my subject—a welcome change from feeling that I knew a little about a lot of things, but a lot about nothing. Also, I’ll admit, the prestige of working on an advanced degree sounded appealing.

However, Rick, a graduate student himself at that time, pointed out that advanced degrees do not educate in a thorough, well-rounded way; their purpose is to prepare people for occupations. In the case of doctorates and master’s degrees, that means training to do research. The thesis is an exercise in applying research skills. Doctoral candidates are expected to make original contributions to their fields, hence the subject must be narrowed down so the student can get at the frontier, leading to highly specialized study.

I was looking for something else. I wasn’t interested in specializing, but in learning in a variety of fields at various depths. I also needed flexibility to work around my responsibilities at home with our small children. What I really needed was a personal study program.

I started with a simple reading plan and have since used dozens of study programs, rigid or lax depending on what fit into my life at the time, but all satisfying. I do feel as if I’m continuing my education, not through a second-rate alternative to the formal classroom, but in the best way for me. I’ve also discovered many other women who are trying to keep learning, each with her own interests to develop and her own obstacles to work around. Here are some of our experiences.

Because I like reading, the easiest place to begin was with books. I’d always liked the classics of fiction. Now I added books on art appreciation, an explanation of physics for the unscientific, and a practical book relating finance theory to the stock market. Then, as I became more convinced that this system could really work, I began to choose topics that I had always been interested in but had never studied, and spent a couple months reading in those areas: Chinese history, Picasso and his art, childbirth and child psychology. …

It was a very loose but very satisfying way: to simply choose a subject and concentrate on it for several months. It was free (I use the libraries and rarely buy a book), it didn’t require a babysitter, and it could be done any time of the day or night. It can be painless even if you don’t like to read because you can take small doses if you want to. (Someone calculated that a person who reads just fifteen minutes a day can read twenty average-length books a year.) Finally, I wrote a short review after I finished each book. This review let me record any information I wanted to recall and helped me to evaluate insights I’d had. I now have on hand a growing file of summaries I can refer to.

Reading for education takes planning and some discipline, however. Study can be like exercise—beginning a new subject area may be as painful as the first week of jogging. It takes both time and effort to concentrate for any length of time and to get used to unfamiliar jargon and new concepts. I remember when I first began a study of biblical archaeology I could hardly get past the names of the various tels and dynasties. They were so confusing and unfamiliar to me that I almost gave up. But soon the subject became familiar enough that I could read about it with ease and enjoyment.

Where can you get ideas on what to read? One way is to choose a subject you’re interested in and look it up in the card catalogue of your public library. Head for the shelf that has all the books on that subject and pick out the two that look most interesting. Or ask the librarian to recommend a couple of them.

If you can’t think of a subject you’d like to know more about, think of a person. Through biographies one not only learns about an individual but about a period of history. Another simple way to get recommendations on what to read is by asking a teacher or someone whom you consider to be well educated. They’ll enjoy sharing a favorite book with you. One mother I know reads selected books that her ten-year-old daughter brings home from school. She says she enjoys not only the books but also sharing the experience with her daughter.

Many departments in high schools and colleges have lists of books they recommend to their students. A little effort could give you dozens of titles. Once you’ve gotten started it’s easy to keep going as you become familiar with authors you enjoy. I once asked a student of English literature if he’d read any good books lately. He recommended, Ariel, The Life of Shelley by Andre Maurois. I enjoyed the book so much I looked for other books by Maurois and was delighted to find he had written quite a few. I’ve read three more of his biographies and one play, and plan to read the others. Then I think I’d like to read a book about Maurois. And so it goes.

When looking for good things to read, don’t overlook magazines. Rick, whom I consider to be well educated, rarely reads a book outside of his profession. But he reads Scientific American, National Geographic, the Wall Street Journal, and other periodicals that give him many ideas from different fields.

A reading group can be a helpful support if you would like some company. With a little effort you can form one on a neighborhood basis, through Relief Society, or by an ad posted in the local library. I attend a reading group composed of wives of professors from my husband’s department at school. Our discussions provide new insights as well as social interaction.

Obviously, I love reading and find it an ideal way of increasing my knowledge. But there are many other ways.

In addition to learning new ideas, for instance, you can learn new skills. A friend of mine was making clay pottery when someone offered her free singing lessons in exchange for lessons in how to throw pots. Since then she has exchanged many other skills, from language lessons (a friend taught her Spanish for a half hour and then she taught the friend English for a half hour) to learning how to cast silver in exchange for yoga lessons. It is easy to find people with whom we would like to trade skills. The important thing is to recognize our own skills—cooking, crocheting, furniture refinishing, canning, playing tennis or the piano—and not be shy about offering them with others. A lesson in almost anything we know how to do can be traded for lessons in another skill.

Another way to expand our education is to get involved with our children’s education. A friend who decided to take her children to the zoo wanted to prepare them first, so she began reading about zoos. She learned a lot about how zoos are funded and maintained, as well as about animals and their environments. My four-year-old is taking violin lessons by the Suzuki method which means I coach his practices every day. I don’t play the violin, but I now have high admiration for violinists as well as a growing understanding of how a four-year-old learns.

Music lessons for yourself can be highly rewarding. Another friend has loved blue grass music all her life but put off banjo lessons for one reason or another. Finally she answered an ad in the newspaper that offered the first lesson free. She loves it. Her husband brought his guitar out of the attic, and now her entire family plays and sings blue grass together. Our stake music director, a fine organist, offers a ten-week course of free organ lessons to anyone in the stake who is interested.

Hobbies can also be turned into highly educational experiences. One woman enjoyed listening to personal histories. She began conducting oral history interviews and has a fascinating collection on tape.

We have a chance to increase our knowledge every time we meet someone new. All we need to do is realize that everyone knows something we don’t, and sharpen our listening skills. If the chance occurs to have a good chat with someone—whether with a shut-in or with a new acquaintance at a dinner party—let your curiosity be your guide. Learn to ask open-ended questions, ones that cannot be answered by just yes or no. Find out what their specialty is, and you’ll have a private tutor for as long as your visit lasts.

Your own husband, parent, or roommate can be another private tutor. I have no idea how to change a tire, fix a leaky faucet, or repair a broken toaster. Promise yourself to work right beside your husband on the next job so that you can learn how things work.

And don’t overlook TV. Many educational shows can be taken as is or used as starting points for further reading. The PBS series of Shakespeare plays is one of my current projects. When I have time to prepare by reading the plays first, viewing is more meaningful and therefore more enjoyable. TV is also a great medium for sampling cultures in faraway parts of the world, or for learning about science in layman’s language.

Field trips to the candy factory, to the fire station, to local historical sites, museums, or famous spots can be educational—especially with a bit of background preparation. Public libraries are full of books on local history, and it’s fun to take family outings to see where special events occurred.

One family I know takes a carefully researched vacation to a different place each year. Before going, they start asking people, “What is there to see in such and such a town?” They write for pamphlets and guides from the Chambers of Commerce and prime each other with facts.

There are also more formal ways of pursuing an education. Adult education classes offered by high schools, community colleges, and technical schools; Church Educational System adult classes, Relief Society minicourses, and other Church programs; special seminars, conferences, and lectures; public libraries, historical societies, Audubon and horticulture societies, and various other organizations. Home study programs are offered by many universities. All these offerings are advertised, and you can be on the mailing list.

Of course, secular study should always be balanced by a study of the scriptures. The scriptures not only provide a solid base from which we can approach our study of the world, they also contain some valuable insights without which our education would be incomplete. In fact, a true understanding of the universe and our place in it is impossible without a good understanding of the doctrines found in the standard works.

Church leaders have suggested many ways to study the scriptures: book by book from beginning to end or researching by topic. As you study the scriptures, keep in mind the excellent gospel instruction available in Church lesson manuals, from Church schools, and in many LDS books written on gospel subjects.

Our Heavenly Father has blessed us with the resources we need to continue learning all our lives. He has given us brains with infinite capacity, a world too complex to ever bore us, the freedom to pursue our own interests, and the ability to structure our own time. All we need to do is take advantage of the possibilities that daily surround us.

Pam Bookstaber, mother of two children, has moved this year into the Edgemont Thirteenth Ward, Provo, Utah