- Modern technology has made it easier than ever to learn from the world's greatest teachers.
- The human mind does a better job learning from listening than from reading.
- Audio lectures have a few disadvantages compared to an actual college education, but they also have some advantages.
This last year, while continuing to earn a salary by teaching and doing research, I have been secretly sitting in on courses from professors at Stanford, Columbia, Duke, Oxford, Yale, University of Chicago, Colgate, University of Queensland, University of Waterloo, and Harvard Law.
I feel especially guilty about how little my year of first-class education cost. The official price tag of a year at Stanford is $74,574; but I managed to get all this premium education for $149.50.
Too good to be true? Or better than fiction?
I got this cut-rate deal on a year of top-notch education by doing it “remotely,” or “doubly remotely.” An annual deal on audible books offered a number of so-called “Great Courses." I also bought the audio versions of several nonfiction books I had wanted to read but never gotten around to.
My virtual “class time” came to 411 hours. Considering the time spent on monthly exams, a year in college classrooms involves a little less than 400 hours. Since I re-listened to many parts of the lectures, I spend well over 500 hours of virtual "class time." I also got to hear clean, well-edited, idealized versions of each professor’s lecture materials and ideas.
Educational Goal: Rediscovering Human Nature
My objective for the year was to learn as much as possible about human history and prehistory, for a book I'm working on with my son Dave: “How to Solve Modern Problems with a Stone-Age Brain: Human Evolution and the Seven Fundamental Motives” (forthcoming from APA books this year). Each chapter opens with a discussion of what anthropologists, historians, and evolutionary biologists have learned about how people in traditional societies address different “fundamental human motives” (protecting themselves from bad guys, making and keeping friends, gaining status, finding mates, keeping mates, and caring for family members). The book is organized around our remodeled pyramid of human needs, which I’ve talked about elsewhere (and in Kenrick, 2010; and Kenrick and Griskevicius, 2013).
After reviewing what we learned about people in traditional societies, we delve into the special problems of reaching those same goals in the modern world, where our evolved ancestral mechanisms are often miscalibrated, and sometimes actively parasitized by technologies designed to exploit our deepest desires for profit. Along the way, we offer advice from research conducted by social, evolutionary, and positive psychologists. Think Charles Darwin meets Abraham Maslow and Dale Carnegie.
After decades of teaching and researching evolutionary psychology and social psychology, you'd think I’d know enough to write such a book. But the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. That’s good news, not bad. Because:
- Humans have brains that love to gather information
- We invented languages to easily pass on that information to others
- We created technologies to take information storage and transmission to astounding new levels.
Audio-books are the latest step in this cultural evolution, using new technology to connect with our evolved preferences: Our brains are designed to get information in spoken conversation, reading doesn't come as naturally.
Is listening to an audio lecture the same as a college education?
Will I recommend my 17-year-old son skip university, and spend four years picking and choosing his own learning materials? No.
1. The biggest downside of doubly distant learning is absolutely no contact with the other students and professors.
2. Without examinations, it's hard to have enough self-discipline to learn all the material.
3. To pass those examinations, you need not only the 390 hours of class contact time, but double or triple that time outside class reading and studying.
4. An actual college degree makes a profound economic difference: According to one review of the evidence it increases income from $37,024 annually (for high school graduates) to $ 60,996 (for college graduates). It also opens 57 percent more job opportunities, and is now a prerequisite for two out of every three jobs.
Audio lectures versus books versus e-textbooks
Audio lectures sometimes include supplementary notes, but it’s not like having the textbook. Whenever possible, I also bought a copy of the hardcover book. For example, after listening to Robert Sapolsky’s brilliant series: “Biology and Human Behavior: The neurological origins of individuality,” which is accompanied by a pretty informative pdf, I nevertheless wanted to know more. I ordered a copy of his book “Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst.” The new hardcover book set me back all of $21.18.
(I talk more about Sapolsky’s lectures in my next post, make a few recommendations, and share some of what I learned from other great lecturers during my year of moonlighted continuing education.)
Even great hardcover books don’t have the pedagogy of a college course. Modern e-texts are another technological advance; the one I use for my social psychology textbook includes review questions every few pages, clickable mini-lectures from prominent researchers around the world, and lots of active-learning exercises).
Two incidental advantages of audio auto-didacticism
There are a couple of other advantages of educating, or re-educating, yourself with audio lectures and audio books. First, I often fall asleep reading an actual book in bed, or a big soft chair. With audiobooks, I can “read” on my feet, while doing other things. Speaking of which, audio lectures and books completely transform otherwise unpleasant daily tasks, such as washing the dishes or driving around town, into truly desirable activities. Our kitchen has never been so clean as it has this last year.
Kenrick, D.T. (2011). Sex, murder, and the meaning of life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature. New York: Basic Books
Kenrick, D.T., & Griskevicius, V. (2013). The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think. New York: Basic Books
Kenrick, D.T., & Lundberg-Kenrick, D.E. (2021). Solving Modern Problems with a Stone-Age Brain: Human evolution and the 7 Fundamental Motives. Washington, DC: APA Books. In press
Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. New York: Penguin.