I am sitting in the more formal dining room, rather than the living room, because it is the room with the best light, and because it is not as cluttered with the paraphernalia of boyhood. I often find that I can breathe better in this room, perhaps even think better. There are two young persons (allegedly napping) down the hall. It surprises me that lately it has been my two year-old, rather than my four year-old, who has been fighting the midday nap. It does not surprise me that this agitates me beyond belief. I’m selfish like that: you see, the hours between 1 pm and 3 pm (or even 4 pm, if God is being particularly kind) are MY TIME. My husband is still at work* and the boys are resting. This is the time I get to myself… to do what I please.
And lately, it pleases me to read books about the post-Roman world of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. I know, right? I’m not precisely what you might call a medievalist. If I had to pick my favorite time period, it would be the world on the cusp, just before the Age of Steam-Driven Empires, and just until the first great war. The 19th century, if you like, though my interest reaches a bit before and bleeds out somewhat into the 20th. Change was in the air, and not all of it for the better. But for now, I’m immersing myself in the world of Constantine and Charlemagne, and all because of the Yale Open Courses and a former professor, Paul Freedman.
I am thirty-two, and at present am employed as the Chief Domestic Diva (read: stay at home mom) of the Markov Family. Probably not what was expected of me when I entered Yale University as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman. In fact, though I always knew that I wanted to be a mother, I know that I didn’t think through what that would mean for my “career path.” (At this point in my life, you see, that is the sort of thing one puts in quotation marks.) I have been thinking ahead lately to a time when my boys are in school and I would like to re-enter the workforce, and though I am not sure precisely what I would like to do when that time comes, I know it involves some sort of teaching and writing. Having gotten that far, I came to the conclusion that the best mode of preparation was to do a great deal of reading and studying.
I lack the time and discretionary income to do advanced degree work, even from home, but we do live in a marvelous age of free online university courses, and so I decided to begin with a professor that I knew I liked, studying a time period that seemed interesting precisely because it was such an unknown. Most of us, let’s face it, still carry around that horribly inaccurate image of “The Dark Ages.” I also enjoy my readings because they are not focused on: nutrition, childrearing, or housekeeping. It seems as though nearly all of the reading I have done over the past six years has been such practical fare… and while that has its place, I (as a graduate of the Humanities program at Yale) am delighting in learning for its own sake.
All that being said, it is becoming increasingly obvious that you can never go home again. Make no mistake, sitting in my air-conditioned dining room in Arizona I am not “getting a Yale education from home.” Anyone who listens to these lectures and thinks that is deluding themselves. The real Yale education, as I experienced it, had far more to do with the discussion sections so casually mentioned in the lectures, office hours with the professor, and of course extensive reading of the sort of books one does not find in the Phoenix Public Library. Then again, I have opportunities I did not have then: I have time to listen to lectures repeatedly, and to supplement other lectures and books (in this instance those from the Teaching Company’s Great Courses series). I am able to read entire books if I want to, not the section that is photocopied into the Course Reader. (The “luxury” of not having the reader available to off-campus students is that we must purchase every book.)
While I don’t have access to the professors and graduate students I used to know, (nor even the suggested paper topics for the course, which are not among the materials supplied by Open Yale Courses) I do have the skills acquired over the years of writing research papers. If I find myself so inspired as to write an essay, I’m sure I can cobble together my own topic and bibliography. More likely I’ll keep extensive reading journals (having just re-read How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren) and process my responses on this web site.
I am different now than I was in 1999 when I first entered Directed Studies, a freshman-year intensive study of the Western Canon. Life has changed my perspective: I am a Christian, I am a wife and a parent. This and many other factors will play into my readings as I work my way through the “Great Books” again, but I am not afraid. Any book truly worth reading is worth reading again, and worth reading properly. If I have any goals for this period of “Self-directed Studies,” it is that I wish to know that I have read, understood, and engaged with these books in a way that I was not at leisure to do while I was a student at Yale.
* Today it happens that he is overseas, but I am speaking in general terms.