Thursday, May 26, 2016
Late-Night Thoughts on Learnin'
I sometimes fail to write down a late-night, lights-off idea I have, convinced, of course, that the idea is so profound/beautiful/true that I could not possibly forget it.
Which I invariably do. Forget it, that is. In the morning's mist I discover that sometime in the dark the idea has mounted a nightmare and galloped away--usually forever.
Anyway, the other night, awake in the dark, I was thinking about schooling and education--two quite different processes, one terminal, the other continuous. And some of it lingered into the morning ... bad news for my readers.
Schooling, of course, is the terminal one. At some point in our lives we all stop going to school--taking classes and exams--borrowing money to do so. Shakespeare ended early--the equivalent of middle school; Mary Wollstonecraft had virtually no schooling--as did her famous daughter, Mary Shelley (though she had a wonderful tutor in her father, William Godwin); Jack London quit after 9th grade--then, later, a single year at the University of California Berkeley; Hemingway--high school; Fitzgerald, a bit of Princeton; and on and on and on. I have a friend who has multiple "terminal" degrees (a couple of doctorates), but I dislike that term--terminal degree. It implies an end.
But I fear that far too many of us equate schooling with education. As soon as we complete our formal schooling, we can begin suffering from the deception that it's over now. We've done it. We're educated.
No, we're not. No more so than an eagle just out of the egg is ready to fly. Schooling is our egg.
All school does--at whatever level marks the end for us--is provide the broadest of outlines of knowledge; in school we glimpse the blurry--and ever changing and expanding--horizons. That's all. The end of schooling is the bare beginning of our education.
The last couple of years I taught American literature at Western Reserve Academy (11th graders; I retired in 2011) I had students do lots of reading--the "canonical" writers, from Anne Bradstreet through some contemporary writer (whom I always tried to lure to campus to meet with students). Then, near the end of the year, I would remind them that we had read (in most cases) only one work by each of those significant writers. We read The Scarlet Letter, not The House of Seven Gables; we read The Great Gatsby, not Tender Is the Night; The Awakening, not Chopin's short stories; etc.
And then I would read a list of notables whom (and works that) we didn't read at all. A very, very long list that I never read all of--time's winged chariot, and all. (A few examples: Willa Cather, James Fenimore Cooper, Henry James, J. D. Salinger, Richard Wright, John Steinbeck--who won a Nobel Prize, Joyce Carol Oates ... don't make me keep going.)
I had a tremendous literary background at Hiram College (1962-66), where (duh) I was an English major. One professor especially--Prof. Abe C. Ravitz (now a Facebook friend!)--gave us very long reading lists for each course. This was good. It gave me a tremendous background. But Dr. Ravitz always reminded us--overtly, tacitly--that was by no means all; this was by no means sufficient. It was the beginning. The barest beginning. The implication: You are not educated. You are novices. You've seen only the previews of the coming attractions. But here is the tiller. It's your turn to sail... Etc.
Ignited by the fire of Dr. Ravitz, of many friends and colleagues, of my wife, I became more and more convinced that schooling alone--even at its best--is inadequate. It can not be the end.
I'm starting to sound like a commencement speaker (not that I would really know: I've never been one!), but rather than fight it, I'll just sail away on it into the sunset with some final thoughts.
School is the beginning; life is education. Of course you learn so many things once you're out of school--things about work, career, love, heartbreak, success, failure, family, health, illness, mortality, and on and on. You don't need classes on those things. Daily experience is sufficient, thank you. But these sorts of things--as critical as they are--are but one sort of education.
The rest must come from books, from study, from a commitment to learn as much as you can in the time that you have.
I'm seventy-one years old right now. I've been battling cancer since late in 2004. Time, to me, is the most precious thing of all--for it defines and limits all else. Every second with Joyce is critical--as is every second with our son and his family and other loved ones.
But I also want to sigh my last with the knowledge that (for as long as I've been able) I've kept at it--I've kept reading, writing, going to plays and good (okay, and some very bad) films, traveling to places of significance (historical, literary, whatever), visiting museums, talking with people who know more than I do ...
And hovering all above? The certainty that I will never read all that I want to, see and do all that I want to. (Oh, do I rue the years--years--when I neglected--or took for granted--that complicated organ that resides in the attic above my eyes!)
What worries (maybe even terrifies) me in our country today is the presence of so many people who seem perfectly satisfied with what they already know, who seem to value pleasure and entertainment above all else. Who are absolutely not interested in hearing other points of view, of imagining the lives and situations of people who are unlike them (in religion, race, economic status, gender identity, and on and on). Who have no questions, only answers--answers that are firm and fixed. Who see no complexity or ambiguity in any social or political issue. (There's my answer and the wrong answer.)
The arts--literature, drama, film, painting, sculpture, etc.--help us do that. Imagine. See complexity and ambiguity. Enter the lives of people unlike us. And to the extent we neglect our imagination--and our empathy and sympathy--we endanger ourselves, our very democratic way of life. Open minds, open hearts ... you know ...
I know: This is preachy, annoying. But remember--It all came from a late-night reverie partially remembered in the mist of morning, and you know what that is worth.