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  • Writer's pictureTim Tibbitts


Updated: Feb 25, 2020

I went to Brown University, a place not known for oppressive requirements. At Brown, if one so chose, one could design an independent study project (ISP) or a group independent study project (GISP) for a semester or even an independent major. Even with all this freedom, my monkey-mind still found ways to feel restricted. After all, once you signed up for a standard course offering, there was sort of an expectation that you’d read most of the books the prof put on the syllabus–and in pretty much the order in which they appeared there.

I have a very clear memory of sitting in my tiny apartment junior year being completely enchanted with a book I’d just finished for a course, and being completed excited about reading the next book. The problem was, the book I was excited to read next wasn’t the next book on the syllabus–it was the next book that had lodged itself into my consciousness while reading the first book. I distinctly recall wishing that I could design an ISP the course description of which would only list a single book–the first one. The rest of the syllabus for the semester would reveal itself as time went along, as my experience of each book led to a decision of what to read next. I never attempted to push this idea past the admitted open-minded administration. At that point in my academic life it was all I could do to keep my head above water; I didn’t yet have the perspicacity or the gumption to figure out how to launch and execute such a project.

But now I do. In fact, I do it all the time. My “ISP” is otherwise known as Self-directed Life-long Learning, and it’s one of the great pleasures of not being in school anymore. Because school had been such a part of my routine, indeed of my self-definition for so many years, for years after I finished school, when I came across an idea, a language or a body of literature I found interesting, I used to say, “Gee, I’d like to take a class in that.” Now, I go get a book, or I go online, and I start learning. It’s the most wonderful thing! I start where I choose to start, and I follow my interest where it takes me. I am constantly engaged in the course of independent study I dreamed up between assignments junior year of college.

A recent example: My current obsession is opera. A friend introduced me to a wonderful book called Opera & Ideas, essentially an exploration of European intellectual history using opera as a point of departure.  So a chapter comparing Mozart’s and Rossini’s treatment of a pair of Beaumarchais plays–in the context of Enlightenment thinking versus the early 19th Century conservative/cynical reaction against the Enlightment–led me to Tim Blanning’s The Romantic Revolution, which led me to Wikipedia to learn a bit about Hegel, which led me to purchase a copy of Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism. When I finish that brief volume, I’ll dive back into Opera & Ideas to read about Schubert and Berlioz as exemplars of Romanticism–and then onto wherever those chapters lead me next!

Sure, there’s something comforting about a syllabus, about someone smart having structured a meaningful, ideally in-depth exploration of a bunch of related ideas. But from the vantage point of my late forties, I wouldn’t trade for a minute the freedom to have every class be my own ISP.

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