By now you might be wondering where the name Septivium comes from. Literally, it means “the seven ways” or “the seven roads” in Latin. In medieval universities there were two stages of education, the trivium followed by the quadrivium. Together these made up the septivium: “logic, the four liberal arts, natural sciences, and divinity” (ref). While I don’t aim to recreate the education system of the distant past it’s interesting to have a brief look at how a rounded education, as it was then, was structured.
The trivium consisted of:
- Logic (or Dialectic), the art of thinking.
- Grammar, the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought.
- Rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another.
(All descriptions by Sister Miriam Joseph, quoted at Wikipedia.)
The quadrivium comprised:
Wikipedia suggests these four years of study gained the student an MA (presumably the trivium was a BA?).
In her 1947 essay, ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’, the English author Dorothy L. Sayers wrote about the importance of the trivium as a preparation for learning: “The whole of the Trivium was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to ‘subjects’ at all.” In an age where education is focused increasingly on gaining marks in exams much of Sayers’ essay still seems relevant as she talks of the need for children to learn about learning itself. They should be able to evaluate the texts they read, connect ideas from one subject to another, take part in debate and form a coherent argument, and, ultimately, continue to learn.
While I don’t plan to devote a comparable chunk of Septivium’s schedule to this kind of thing it does suggest that maybe some time should be spent on broader topics outside of the usual academic subjects: how to read, learn, reason, argue, etc.
For years, long before the idea for this site, I’ve been mildly obsessed by the idea of the “Best Books”. For any given topic, I imagine, there must be a single Best Book to read. If you’re going to read a single book about something, which should it be?
I expect this question is easier to answer for some subjects than others. Maybe it’s also easier if the subject is narrow. For example, if you want a good overview of typography then The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst (Amazon US, UK) is usually suggested as the Best Book. But what if you want to learn about the history of the world in one book? There are such books but in a single volume they will probably be necessarily sketchy or else lean toward a particular period or region (for English-language books, probably Western civilisation).
Breaking a large topic into smaller chunks isn’t necessarily easy either. If you wanted to cover all of history in two books, is that easier? Maybe it’s even harder. What about three books? Six? Ten? How would you best break the subject up into smaller ones? Is it better to read one brilliant, but narrow, book over two or three broader ones?
Years ago I came across CanonicalTomes.org, a site which now only exists at archive.org. It enabled anyone to contribute names of books to a directory of subjects with the aim of finding the “definining works” for each one. It’s very patchy but there are some interesting books there and it suggests one way of gathering this kind of information.
In 2007 someone on Ask Metafilter asked What single book is the best introduction to your field (or specialization within your field) for laypeople?. Again, there’s some fascinating reading in there in a vast array of topics, from the broad to super specific. It also makes apparent the importance of the book-suggesting-person’s qualifications (in the loosest sense of the word) — some posters are obviously well read and suggest a single book after reading well around the topic. Others suggest a title with no backup information and, unless many others agree with them, I wouldn’t take their advice without further research; maybe this is the only book they’ve read on the subject and they’ve missed better ones.
An example of the well-read book-suggester is John Baez on his page How to Learn Math and Physics. I know nothing about him but his recommendations for books on these topics make it clear he knows what he’s talking about (as far as I can tell). No doubt others with similar levels of knowledge would suggest different titles but having to choose between suggestions from several well-read people is a good problem to have.
Often, without access to experts in a particular domain, finding out the Best Book on a topic is, like finding the answer to many difficult subjects online, a case of research, reading many points of view, and triangulating the right answer as best you can.
If you have ideas for how to find out the Best Books for many different domains, I’d love to hear them.
Welcome to this new site.
What’s it all about? I’ll describe the two thoughts that combined to lead me here.
First, I’m all too often aware of the gaps in my knowledge of the world. Like you, I’m reasonably well educated but we all suffer from our limited time in school coupled with education’s narrowing of our focus as we progress. At age fourteen I stopped studying history, biology and chemistry. At sixteen, geography, physics and English literature. And these are only areas of knowledge that fall within conventional school subjects — some topics aren’t on conventional curriculums.
Of course, like yours, my knowledge has increased since I left full-time education but only in a haphazard manner, picking up bits and pieces through newspapers, books, magazines, TV, etc. This is better than nothing but it lacks the structure that even the most vaguely organised learning provides. New facts and concepts land in a void dotted with clusters of random bits and pieces picked up over the years, rather than contributing to a coherent view of how the world works.
On to the second thought. A possible solution occurred to me when I came across The Personal MBA. The site provides a reading list of business books which, along with some real world business experience, aims to give people an education similar to an MBA without the huge cost. The books and other topics can be discussed in the online community. This really excited me — I wanted to start reading and I’ve never previously wanted to do an MBA.
And then I thought… couldn’t something like this work for a broader topic than business? A topic as broad as… everything?
How about a reading list featuring the very best books on dozens of topics, allowing readers to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, connect the dots between disparate subjects, and discuss these ideas with fellow readers around the world.
Get a degree in everything.
So that was, and is, the general idea. In the next few posts I’ll elaborate on some of the related thoughts I’ve had, and discuss some of the many unresolved problems and questions involved.
If this idea intrigues you I’d love to hear your thoughts at any point. And if you know someone else who might be interested, please point them this way. Thanks.