There is one thing, and only one thing I can think of, that can be found only through self-education. It is the discovery that self-education is a vanity.
I speak from experience, at least half a century of it, and probably more because I seem to have been born with this vanity. I can remember, for instance, at the age of three, being confronted by a woman (NOT my mother) who was determined to teach me how to read. Vividly, I remember thinking, “I can figure this out for myself.” I did, as it turned out.
But I could never have done it if I did not hate this woman, and was willing to do almost anything to avoid her cloying company. And to her credit, she had got me started by the irritating way she pronounced individual letters. The penny dropt, as it were, and starting with the very attractive letter “g,” I was off to the races.
Often we credit ourselves with little victories of wit or charm that were in fact learned by mimesis. Others taught us, by subtle and sometimes unintentional example. The desire to be able to do, or understand things, may be innate. We may be on fire, but someone else lit the match.
“You didn’t light that!” as Mister Obama might put it.
As ever, what he did say was almost half right. The business, or anything else that you recall building up, working day and night with heavy risks and responsibilities, depended from the start on things that just happened to be there, waiting to be used. It did not follow, however, that the guvmint put them there. In most cases that guvmint merely appropriated what was already there, and bureaucratized it.
I mention this because it is a point no one should ever forget; especially Catholics, who ought to know a bit of history, and therefore know that schools, universities, libraries, hospitals, nursing homes, granaries, even roads and irrigation ditches, go back — way back. Public and cooperative enterprise was not something that, say, Karl Marx suddenly thought up.
But returning to this question of the alphabet — to “a” since like “g” it has an interesting shape – it had to start somewhere. Verily, it seems to have started in several places, in what we call the childhood of our race, and in none of those places did it spring fully formed like the headbirths of Zeus. In the legends of several races an inventor is named, but in each case, whether or not he once existed, he could only have adapted from example.
For many years now I have had the habit – I can’t remember how it got started – of adopting some summer reading program. A topic is chosen, not quite at random, and for two or three months through the heat, I read anything about it I can get my eyes on.
Naval architecture, for instance. Or Gothic masonry and structural engineering. Or modern Chinese history. Or beetles. Or the Age of Justinian. Or Ethiopia. It was Aristotle, in the wonderful summer of 1973. This summer it is Anglo-Saxon literature, with some focus on Beowulf, and too, the homilies of Aelfric and in the Vercelli manuscript.
This may strike gentle reader as eccentric. Usually, it is something that “came up” in May, or earlier, that had whetted my interest. I take it up in the spirit of a hobby, now that I have the time. Seldom do I progress very far, so that by Labor Day, when unavoidable activities return, I have become no expert.
Rather, if it has been a successful summer, I acquire a serious appreciation of how little I know on the chosen topic. I begin to see how I could spend a whole lifetime studying it, and still not feel I had wrestled it to a draw. I have at best made my life a little richer, by my little exercise in “self-improvement,” and kept myself entertained.
Yet with the passing years, I begin to understand the need for teachers. So much time could have been saved, so many stupid errors avoided, had I put myself in the hands of someone who had studied the subject properly from the start.
This is quite an admission, on my part. I left school and home at age sixteen and went off to see the world. I judged – correctly, as it turned out – that as of 1969, the school system in which I had been involuntarily enrolled was in catastrophic disorder and collapse. It was wasting my time, treating me and others as if we were retarded. An arrogant little cuss, I thought that I could find my own teachers, and flourish in my new life “on the road.”
And it is true that education should not be confused with institutional (and now heavily bureaucratized) schooling. At the heart of it is a teacher and a student.
A certain J.M. Cameron, university professor and living hero of my youth, once told me that all his best students had been “self-educated.” But I failed to understand what he meant by this. He did not mean they did without teachers. Instead, they made good use of materials before them, and read constantly above and beyond what had been “assigned.”
These memorable students of his realized that they must actively participate in their own education. This in turn required humility of them: the ability to understand their own dependence on every aspect of the “tradition” in which they were being reared.
When I look at the disaster that has befallen Catholic schools and universities on this continent and apparently throughout the West, I am inclined to blame not only the slink-spined administrators and the teachers seeking easy lives. A large part of it was caused by people like me: cocky and willful and imagining themselves to be “independent scholars,” when there are no such things.
*Image: A Scholar in His Study by Willem van der Vliet, 1627 [private collection]