This page is part of my series on arete. If you have not done so, please start from the Arete Guide page.
Building a Foundation of Knowledge
The good news is that conceptual knowledge takes the least amount of time to acquire, so this is an area where we can make a lot of progress.
Before we get started, let me tell you about one of the best ways to learn the sort of material you’ll be learning in this category. Believe it or not, it’s flashcards. No, not the way you’ve probably done them in the past. Science and technology have made this old technique far more powerful than it ever was before. In the late 1800s a scientist named Ebbinghaus did experiments that showed how memory fades over time and how reviewing material affects the rate at which you forget. The importance of his work is that we learned that over time, you have to review less frequently. This discovery was used to create a system called spaced repetition, where the better you know a fact, the less often you review it. Modern software offers many easy and efficient ways to use this technique.
I am going to make a recommendation here. I am going to recommend that you immediately install Anki. Anki is probably the best flashcard program out there. It’s what I’ve been using for several years now. Use Anki to study what you learn in this section. Here is a really good review of Anki.
Cultural knowledge is important because you are constantly exposed to allusions and references that you are expected to know as a member of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, or wherever else you live. Cultural knowledge also makes you appear sophisticated and well-educated.
I’ll suggest some books to help you get started and then give you some study tips.
- Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know should be where you begin your journey. This book will teach you why this knowledge is important; why it isn’t taught; and many fascinating insights into learning, reading, and understanding. The end of the book contains 5,000 names, phrases, dates, and concepts that every American should know. If you are not living in America, this book will still be useful, as the vast majority of concepts are important throughout the English-speaking world. My Suggestion: Read the book and then work your way through the list at the end. Create flashcards in Anki for any of the items that you do not already know. It is important that you do not waste your time with terms that you do know. You do not need to study those.
- The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know will help you easily find the meaning of unfamiliar terms that you find in Cultural Literacy. This will aid you in making flashcards in Anki.
- Test Your Cultural Literacy IQ, Updated & Revised, will help you test your newly won cultural literacy, as well as expose misconceptions and teach new material. Each test is about 50 questions long and related to a certain subject such as history, or science. My Suggestion: Work your way through the book one test at a time. Check your answers and make Anki flashcards for whatever questions you got wrong. The correct answers are all fully explained at the end of each test.
- Bonus Book Suggestion: An Incomplete Education: 3,684 Things You Should Have Learned but Probably Didn’t is an excellent book that covers a wide array of topics. This will definitely help you fill in gaps in your knowledge. I especially liked the sections covering what you need to know to read Victorian literature. Included are pictures of all the horse-drawn carriages that get mentioned in Victorian-era novels. The book is entertainingly written with a good dose of humor. My Suggestion: This book is very dense with information. Read it and put a mark in the margin next to anything you think you want to memorize. Don’t try to memorize all the information unless you really want to.
Vocabulary is really just a part of general knowledge. Every word represents some kind of concept, so the study of words is partially the study of concepts. There were some interesting experiments with bilingual children that suggested that knowing more words for color actually allowed the children to better distinguish between colors.
It’s estimated that you have to know about 90% of the words you read in order to understand what you are reading, so having a good vocabulary will support you in learning just about everything else. Here are some suggestions to help you develop a strong vocabulary:
- Just download one of the many shared vocabulary decks in Anki. Anki users create and share decks of flashcards that you can use for free. There are many vocabulary decks out there. Just go to File –> Download –> Shared deck
- Webster’s New Explorer Vocabulary Skill Builder will teach you the meaning of 1000 words and about 200 word roots. Knowing the word roots will help you guess the meaning of new words. My Suggestion: This book is divided into 25 units and each unit is divided into 5 groups of 8 words. After each group of 8 words, is a quiz. If you can work through 3 groups of 8 words every week, you will make your way through the entire book in under a year. For optimum retention, add each word to your own Anki deck as you go along.
- Vocabulary Cartoons: SAT Word Power does a great job of providing images and rhyming words to help you remember the meaning of 290 words. There sequal, Vocabulary Cartoons II: SAT Word Power, provides even more. The mnemonic devices in these books set them apart from most other vocabulary books. I highly recommend them. My Suggestion: Try learning about three words a day from these books and for maximum retention, add them to your Anki vocabulary deck as you go along.
- 2000 Most Challenging Obscure Words is for when you feel you want to take on some really tough words that you may never get the chance to actually use. This is for those of you who just plain love words.
- Merriam Webster’s Word of The Day is a service of Merriam Webster. They introduce new words daily, and have a podcast version. My experience has been that unless you write these words down and study them, you will just forget them by the next day. These words are also not chosen for their usefulness as are the words in most of the sources above, so you may not get a lot of bang for your buck by studying them. This service would work well, however as a source for Anki flashcards.
Scientific knowledge includes pretty much everything we know to be true about the universe. It’s somewhat difficult suggest a handful of books that will give you a good overview of science as a whole. Certainly, I could list a few textbooks, but let’s try to make thing enjoyable and focus on science popularization books, which are a whole lot more fun than the textbooks your school district chose for you in high school.
- An Incomplete Education: 3,684 Things You Should Have Learned but Probably Didn’t was mentioned before in the cultural literacy section. It also has some good sections on science which makes it a candidate for this section as well.
- A Short History of Nearly Everything is Bill Bryson’s overview of several scientific topics. This one book alone will give you a good overview of several scientific fields, making it a perfect starting point for developing our scientific knowledge.
- A Briefer History of Time is Stephen Hawking’s updated overview of relativity, the big bang, black holes, and similar physics concepts. This book was written to be more accessible than A Brief History of Time and also to address new discoveries in physics. I found this book to be really fascinating and easy to understand. I highly recommend that you read this, but be warned: unless you make some flashcards or study this material in some way, you will forget a ton of really interesting stuff that you will want to tell people about later in life. OK, if you’re a physicist, that probably won’t happen.
- The Book of Popular Science (The Book of Popular Science, volume 1-10) is a 10 volume encyclopedia of scientific knowledge covering not just basic conceptual information such as how many planets there are and the anatomy of cells, but also practical information about how things are made in factories. It’s like the late 1950s version of the website How Things Work. I’ve seen this book in libraries and it looks pretty good, but I haven’t read the whole thing. I want to warn you not to be put off by the fact that it was published in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There is a great deal of science that has not changed since then. Read this entire series and you will be quite erudite. There is also a New Book of Popular Science, but I don’t know how it compares to the original.
- THE SELFISH GENE (30th Aniiversary edition) is a book that blew my mind. Dawkins manages not only to get the reader to see genes in a whole new light, but to see ideas in the same way. Dawkins creates the concept of the ‘meme’ in this book. You may have seen that term elsewhere. Although targeted towards a general audience, you should have a basic knowledge of genetics which you should have gotten in school. I recommend all of Dawkin’s books, though some are not written for laymen.
- The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature is also a fascinating read that manages to make the taken-for-granted topic of sexual reproduction seem mysterious and compelling. Here in this book are marvelously interesting accounts of parasites that use mind control or castrate their hosts, and two sexually reproducing species of fish that form an asexually reproducing hybrid when they mate.
- The Cartoon Guide to Genetics (Updated Edition) will teach you the basics of genetics in a pretty painless way if you need to brush up on them (or learn them for the first time). This book would prepare you for The Selfish Gene or The Red Queen.
There are many many more science popularization books out there and I don’t think you can go wrong. The books I’ve suggested will provide you with a solid foundation and may help you discover a topic to pursue in more depth.
I haven’t made many suggestions about making flashcards here because there is so much to know that it’s hard for me to point to a list and say, “memorize all of these terms.” I leave it to you to decide what you find interesting enough to want to memorize.