Ivy League Education at Home Part 3: Historical Study

Written by on May 20, 2009 in Ivy League Education at Home - 7 Comments

dec-of-independence“History is a vast early warning system.” – Norman Cousins

History is powerful. Know what happened in the past, and you’ll be better prepared to interpret your world, avoid repeating mistakes, and influence the future of your nation.

When you get past dry descriptions and delve into the stories, history can also be rather pleasurable. There are thousands of remarkable, surprising, and significant accounts to consider.

In this week’s lesson, we’ll take a look at three ways you can give yourself a liberal education on the history of Western civilization and the world.

Assignment 1: Get a Textbook (But Don’t Use It Too Much)

History is one of two subjects where I find an actual textbook to be useful. Why? Because history must be understood in context. Many people pick up bits of history and study particular parts of history in isolation. However, knowing where these pieces fit in the larger puzzle of world events is essential to a complete liberal education.

Any basic, college-level textbook will do. You may be able to find one at the library or pick one up at a local used bookstore. You can’t get a complete understanding of history by reading a textbook; just use it to help yourself visualize the “big picture.”

Assignment 2: Understand the Three Defining Periods of Western Civilization

History is expansive. College grads, even those from the Ivy League, are nowhere close to recognizing all of the important events / people / places / periods of world history by the time they graduate.

However, Ivy League students do develop a familiarity with the time periods and movements that were essential to the development of Western civilization and the culture we know now.

By understanding the history that shaped our society, you’ll recognize how our government, policies, and beliefs have been influenced. You’ll be able to learn from the mistakes of our past, and become a better citizen.

Start by studying the three major forces that shaped Western culture: The classicalism of Ancient Greece and Rome, the Christianity of the Middle Ages, and the enlightenment of the Modern Era. I’ve provided no-cost resources that can help you research the history of these periods and links to out-of-copyright books that can help you understand the ideas that were prevalent.

julius-ceasar Classicism of Ancient Greece & Rome

America was founded on many of the principles that came from ancient Greece and Rome. From their history, we gained appreciation for the republic, adopted the idea of a free society, and learned how to organize a government through the formation of a congress.

Helpful Websites:

Insightful Books:

  • The Iliad and The Odyssey – These epic poems set the foundation for a rich literary tradition and were read widely in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as in the following periods.
  • Writings of Plato – This classical Greek philosopher set the groundwork for many of the ideas discussed throughout Western civilization.
  • Writings of Aristotle – A student of Plato, Aristotle continued the philosopher’s tradition.
  • The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans – Plutarch’s famous book memorializes the key figures in the classical period and explains their role in history.

Christianity of the Middle Ages

As Christianity spread through the ancient world, new ideas emerged. People began expressing loyalty to a higher power, more influential than any governing authority. This ultimately created conflict and the need to separate religion from the state. Today, people still argue over with the way this separation affects our society and laws.download film Power Rangers now

Helpful Websites:cross-statue

Insightful Books:

  • Confessions – St. Augustine’s book is the first known Western autobiography. He details his live in the Middle Ages and his conversion to Christianity.
  • Summa Theologica – This massive work by St. Thomas Aquinas was designed to cover all of the theological teachings during this the time period.
  • The Divine Comedy – Dante’s epic poem best illustrates how Medieval Christians saw society and the afterlife.
  • The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer’s brief stories are a more humorous look at the way religion has affected the lives of travelers.

Enlightenment of the Modern Era


Science and reason gained respect in the Enlightenment period. Instead of (or in addition to) religion, people began to decipher the world with logic, experimentation, and critical thinking. They put individual rights and deism over submission to a higher religious figure. Even in our modern society, the values of the Enlightenment and the values of Christianity continue to clash.

Helpful Websites:

Insightful Books:

  • An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – Philosopher David Hume explores human thought, ideas, understanding, and doubt.
  • Critique of Practical Reason – Immanuel Kant shares his philosophy for coming to conclusions about what is true and knowable in the world.
  • The Age of Reason – Thomas Pain’s famous deist work argued for a more reasoning, logical approach to religion and challenged the inerrancy of the Bible.

Studying Western civilization through these three themes will give you a framework for adding more in-depth knowledge.

Assignment 3: Expand your Studies

Once you have a basic understanding of the history that most directly affects your world, it’s time to branch out. History can be studied in so many ways: reading primary sources, watching movies, browsing through history books, or exploring the many sites dedicated to niche historical topics.

Choose a segment of world history you want to know more about and make reading / studying a habit. Here are some virtual resources to get you started:

Hyper History – Extensive collection of timelines, mini-biographies, and more.
PBS History – Biographies of important people organized by period.
Eye Witness History – Accounts of history straight from the source.
Timelines of History – Dozens of timelines from many historical periods.

Wrapping it Up

Keep pursuing history and you’ll gain an in-depth understanding of how our culture, and other cultures, came to be. Whether or not you enjoy history now, you’ll probably develop a taste for it as you continue your readings. Most people who get past the simplistic high school textbook find that they love reading the story of the way the world has changed.

Know of a useful history resource I missed? Have a learning tip to share on this subject? Please leave your suggestions in the comments section. The more resources and ideas we have, the better.download film A Cure for Wellness

Next Week: Literature

7 Comments on "Ivy League Education at Home Part 3: Historical Study"

  1. chris May 22, 2009 at 6:50 am · Reply

    thanks jamie,

    Fantastic website you’ve got here – a goldmine for any self-learner!

  2. Simply Mother May 26, 2009 at 7:39 pm · Reply

    I love this website. This is exactly the kind of thing I want to study, and the way I want my children to learn! You’re in my google reader.

  3. Angel Melendez May 27, 2009 at 1:16 pm · Reply

    Wow! Thanks a lot for this information. LOVE YOUR BLOG!!

  4. Anon June 1, 2009 at 9:18 pm · Reply

    Some of the best history ever was written by the Greeks: Thucydides, Herodotus, and Xenophon. These books are both histories and part of history. You could hardly
    argue they are less relevant today.

    Also, one should read critical approaches to history and historiography such as
    R.G. Collingwood’s “The Idea of History” and books by Michel Foucault. Many
    other great philosophers were acute observers of history. Likewise, many religious
    documents in different world religious have a distinctly historical approach.

    Recently, there has been a “people’s history” movement, which attempts to tell
    history from the standpoint of ordinary people as opposed to political leaders/warlords.
    A must-read would be “A People’s History of the the United States.”

  5. Anon June 1, 2009 at 9:23 pm · Reply

    There needs to be a distinction between reading the history written by others, and actually
    doing it yourself. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a historian, the experience of
    trying to write a history yourself relying only on primary sources is invaluable.

  6. Jamie June 11, 2009 at 11:19 pm · Reply

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Anon, you’ve suggested some great resources here. I would definitely agree that the Greek-written histories are relevant to this post. Interesting point about writing your own history from primary sources too. I’ve never really thought about doing that, but it seems like a great way to learn about how history is written and how mistakes are so easily made.

  7. Steve Jarrett July 31, 2009 at 9:43 am · Reply

    You can’t do better than the 11 volume “Story of Civilization” by Will and Ariel Durant. It is an ivy league education in itself since it not only gives the history but the literature, religion, philosophy and leaders and thinkers for all the periods covered. It is just too bad that Will Durant was unable to continue the series through the 20th century.


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