Top 5 Ways to Get Smart without Reading

21st century classroom with audiobooks

This pre-modern vision of the future got it spot on. Educational technology has managed to transform books into audio files, but somehow has not thought to eliminate the drudgery of sitting in a classroom of uncomfortable seats. Notice too the student cranking the machine as punishment for his behaviour. The only lesson he will learn that day is how to conform to the absurdity.

A lot of great literature was never meant to be read at all. Did you read Shakespeare in school? Why? It’s a stage play. Did they make you read Star Wars, the book? Of course not, the movie was better. Most poetry is much better read aloud, most stories for that matter. Even the bible was intended as a compendium rather than a good read.

The Oxford Dictionary says that if you are illiterate you are two things:

1 unable to read or write

2 ignorant in a particular subject or activity

It is no accident that the English language uses the same word to describe these two things. The inability to read or write automatically ensures one’s ignorance of information. Traditionally, anyone without access to books or school had little hope of thriving in our world. That is what we have always been told, because until now that has always been true.

Not only is reading not the only source of information in this world, it is not even one of the best.  There are effective methods of learning that do not require the Dewey Decimal System. They are all around us:

Documentary Films

The Mediatech at the NFB provides an archive of thousands of films.

The variety of topics that have been thoroughly examined through the magic of film is staggering. In many ways docs provide particular narrative advantages that literature cannot. Visual medium can capture moments candidly and accurately making many subjects more accessible. Speaking of accessible, the number of docs available on YouTube alone will keep you busy for a long time.


With podcasts, there really isn’t much use lugging heavy books around.  There are currently thousands of works of literature available for free or cheap that will be read to you by either a professional reader or in some cases the very author of the book. The same goes for podcast on any number of topics from history, to university lectures to interviews.  In the case of spoken-word and storytelling it is the only way to ‘read’ it. Podcasts like The Story Engine, Hardcore History and The Memory Palace bring storytelling, spoken word and history together.

The Ancient Greek Scholars, who we look to as our academic role models, typically had slaves read to them in much the same way. When well read, it allowed for relaxed contemplation while strolling through their Mediterranean paradise. Socrates never wrote anything down, and it is believed that Homer was totally blind. Illiterates!

Audio-books are not just for the blind. They are sometimes the preferred, often the intended means of transmitting the information. Especially if you like the outdoors.

Lectures and Discussion Groups

If you want to take the podcast-lecture one step further, go to the actual lecture. Sometimes you can sit in on a university lectures, but professors don’t usually take kindly (see below). There are still a lot of lectures that are specifically open to the public. Community groups and cultural organizations also provide a wealth of ongoing readings and discussions. They are delighted when people actually show up to them.


City walking tours in particular require no reading

Museum tour-guides are total grinders. For a small price, sometimes free, they will part with a seemingly endless supply of expertise. There are countless museums in every city all lovingly put together for you to visit. Far more can be learned from the tactile experience of visiting one than simply reading about it in a book.

Talking to People.

Sounds pretty obvious. So many problems that I have come across in my life could have easily been solved by spending 5 minutes with an expert. Everyone is an expert on something. Some people are experts on things that have no relevance to you. Save them for later. Find the people you want to talk to and meet up with them for a chat. Many of us have lost the patience to sit and listen. Perhaps all those years of classroom incarceration put an end to any such desire.

The fact is that people who know a lot about certain things tend to like talking about those things. You have to write an essay on the Plains of Abraham? Find one of those guys from the historical re-enactment club.  They will tell you everything. And then some.

Oh wait! You’re in school? Sorry. If you are in school, your teacher will be delighted to tell you that none of the above sources of information are legitimate. Chances are, your school has enough trouble with you using the internet for research.

There is a very good reason for that. When they tell you that non-published information is unreliable, what they mean is “unfactual”. It is has not been approved by a central academic oligarchy. To use anything outside of this carefully monitored system of knowledge is to be marginal and shiftless.

While academics should certainly defend this standard of knowledge and their own value associated with it, they are not the only ones with knowledge. They are simply the only ones holding it as a commodity. The value of that commodity lies in its scarcity of supply. They supply the written word much the way the government controls money, the gas company provides your heating and TV networks decide what you will watch. In school we are taught to depend on the written word for knowledge and trust nothing else.

We are not encouraged to learn what educators call “Metacognition”. It is the art of learning. It is knowing one’s own best way to learn something. It is about developing ones own system of knowledge  instead of trying to fit into someone else’s. Most importantly, it is about establishing one’s own set of values and living up to it. Teachers need to learn it just as much as their students.

It is all a question of goals. Are you learning just to get qualifications for a job? Then you need literacy. They have you where they want you. But if you just want knowledge for the sake of knowledge, then it is out there for you. Its free, and its cheap too.

So learn. You don’t need to go back to school. You don’t need to do your homework. You need to choose what you want to know and stop wondering if it is something you are supposed to know. You will know it when you see it.

Spanish version Espagnol