Wednesday, July 22, 2015

`Trust Your Own Thieving Heart'

On occasion, a student will address me as “Dr. Kurp,” mistaking me for a Ph.D., I presume, not an M.D. (or D.V.M). There was a time when I would have failed to disabuse them of the error. As the first on either side of my family to go to college, a parade of initials after a name once impressed me. But after three years at the university I dropped out and remained a dropout for thirty years until I finally earned a B.A. in English in 2003 – an accomplishment that has had precisely no impact on my life, though I had a good time doing it. Since then I’ve known some smart Ph.D.’s, but more of middling intelligence, as well as some dummies. Jacques Barzun noted that “a professor is to a teacher what a cesspool technician is to a plumber.” Besides, two of the wittiest, not broadly but deeply read people I know are high school dropouts. Another distinction I’ve learned on the job: The smartest Ph.D.’s are generally in science and engineering. They actually know things, often useful things, unlike their weaker cousins in the humanities. In his memoir Try to Tell the Story (2009), the film critic and author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes of his own lackluster efforts at education:

“To this day, I am excited by reports of home schooling or of kids who somehow missed out on `school’ altogether, but who turned out to be smarter or more successful than those with formal education. So I love stories about Gore Vidal or Warren Beatty having no college degrees, and I am moved and sustained by the plain evidence that people like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin survived so many handicaps and deprivations and yet knew the human heart as if they had invented it.”

Vidal and Beatty are not my idea of admirable autodidacts, but I concede Thomson his point. He notes that Orson Welles dropped out of school, never to return, at age sixteen. He might have added that Henry James spent less than a year at Harvard Law School before dropping out. Melville, who had Ishmael boast that “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” never spent a day in higher academia. Nor did Tolstoy, Twain, Conrad, Proust, Mencken and Orwell. Boswell says Johnson advised him “to have as many books about me as I could.” Combined with curiosity and attentiveness to other people and the world, that would seem to stand as a reliable recipe for a well-educated man or woman. Thomson qualifies his claims a little:

“Of course, I cheat: I was sent to good schools, and I was there more often than not on the financial sacrifice of others. I remember the current left by great teachers. So it was my attitude as much as my experience that told me the kid in school was an invader and a pirate—take what you can and trust your own thieving heart.”


Place to stand... said...

I love this ! I find myself thinking - 200 years of civilisation and we come to this when I look at the National Curriculum.

In 1851 we had our Great Exhibition, industrialists, pioneers, mavericks, self made men - there is not a jot in formal education to encourage entrepreneurial courage or initiative.

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

I, too dislike it. The "education" of today and the ease with which Ph.D.'s are distributed. Not that I am in the game, but I know enough about it. I don't have a lot of respect for much of the work coming out of the proliferation of M.F.A. programs in creative writing.