Is there some subject about which you'd like to become a leading expert? Some historical figure who has always fascinated you? Some problem in society or nature that you'd be intrigued to explore?
You can!m The joys and rewards of scholarship, science, and social inquiry are no longer the exclusive domain of those with jobs as professors. Tens of thousands of Americans are engaged in exhilarating intellectual pursuits. They're conducting their own researches -- not because it's their job, but for the joy of it.
"Avocational scholarship" -- the pursuit of truth in your favorite field, as a life-enhancing leisure activity -- is burgeoning.
Most of us are intimidated at first by the proposal that we could learn any subject so well that we would be real experts on it. But there are numerous examples to show that a passionate preoccupation with one's subject, over an extended period of time, can indeed yield expertise. Moreover, the process of obtaining such knowledge isn't onerous, but quite enjoyable. A dramatic example:
Norman Macbeth, a retired lawyer, got interested in what today's scientists thought about Darwin's theory of evolution. He bought three widely available paperbacks to bone up on the subject. A careful reading of this hadnful of quite accessible books led him to conclude that "Darwinism was going to pieces, that there was no struggle for existsence, and that the scholars no longer talked about the survival of the fittest."
Intrigued by this finding, which seemed little-known despite its admission by some leading scientists, Macbeth pursued the matter further, finally writing up his reflections in a short book, "Darwin Retried," which won plaudits from scientific and literary critics, including distinguished professors such as Jacques Barzun and Sir Karl Popper. A second example:
Another serious amateur scholar is Ronald Story, who works for the Tucson (Arizona) Gas & Electric Company. Some years back he bridled at the irrationality of Erich von Daniken's cosmological theories as expounded in such best sellers as "Chariots of the Gods."
So had many scientists, but they had merely grumbled into their lecture notes. Story marshaled the evidence and wrote a compelling book debunking von Daniken, which won praise from experts ranging from Thor Heyerdahl to Carl Sagan.
Cornelius Hirschberg did it in the humanities. "I have read on subways, trains, and buses for 40 years," says this retired New Jersey salesman and store manager. "I've done approximately 10 hours of reading a week for about 2,000 weeks. Those 20,000 hours add up to at least five college degrees.
"I got in that much reading during what would have been wasted time which I had to lose and couldn't control in any case." He concludes, "The subway university is one of the best in the world."
Is such study a burden for Mr. Hirschberg? On the contrary -- it is a major joy of his life. "I live my life at its best, with art, music, poetry, literature, science, philosophy, and thought," he says. "I know the keener people of this world, think the keener thoughts, and taste the keener pleasures."
How can you get started on scholarship as a hobby? A new booklet by Allen Tough, "Expand Your Life" (College Entrance Examination Board, New York, 1980), suggests the steps to take:
1. Consult your local librarian for beginning books on subjects you'd like to sample, and also just browse in those subjects on the shelves.
2. Sample courses, conferences, workshops, or discussion groups on the subject by checking out your local newspapers for special "continuing education" sections and advertisements in late August and early September, and again in late January and early February.
3. Familiarize yourself with the myriad of offerings by correspondence, through the local public library's copy of the Guide to Independent Study Through Correspondence Instruction.
4. Check out tape cassettes by world-renowned experts, available on most subjects and special interests. Most libraries have a good selection, or consult the commercial catalogs such as those listed in the box.
5. Browse in academic and scientific journals to get a quick immersion in the concerns, lingo, and new developments in your field of interest. Don't worry about not being able to understand most of the text -- you're just trying to get a feel for what and how the serious scholars in the field go about their researches.
6. Find out if there's a Learning Network operating in your community, through which you can link up with other people interested in learning or teaching your subject.
7. Take a look at "Colege On Your Own," by Gail Thain Parker and Gene R. Hawes (Bantam, 1978). It is an excellent compendium of reading lists and study outline tips for the major fields of knowledge.
Says author Tough: "All of us find ourselves, from time to time, too comfortably habituated to a limited range of activities and interests. We get so used to our lives, our concerns, our friends, our committees, that we hardly see them. Yet the culture in which we live offers an enormous choice of possibilities to expand our lives."