Tuesday, May 01, 2018

`Even Erudition is Possible Outside Academe'

For about half an hour I was tempted to pursue a Ph.D. in English. I had just earned my B.A. at age fifty, thirty years after dropping out at the end of my junior year from a state university in Ohio. My lack of a degree had never been held against me in all my years as a newspaper reporter. Naively exhilarated by the newly minted bachelor’s degree, my judgment was impaired. I was non compos mentis. Cooler heads, two of whom had Ph.D.’s, suggested a doctorate would be a waste of time. In my three-decade absence, the study of literature at the university level had degenerated. Professors no longer read or taught anything I would find of interest. The adviser who had overseen my senior thesis on Henry James said I would end up frustrated, bitter and probably unemployable. She laid the blame for the destruction of literary studies on her generation, the one slightly preceding mine. She called advanced degrees in English “a racket.”

My B.A. changed nothing. For three months I exclusively read books by and about Henry James, which is close to my idea of a vacation, and I took a class in human genomics. I don’t regret the money or effort invested, but neither do I think it sharpened my wits or made me any more marketable or cosmopolitan. I had a little fun and I now take added pleasure in Robert Conquest’s observations on a university education in Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2000):

“. . . people can be educated, cultured and so forth without having been to university at all—as with dozens from Benjamin Franklin to Winston Churchill, from Shakespeare to Einstein, to say nothing of the great women writers of the nineteenth century. Nor is this only a matter of genius. Even erudition is possible outside academe, a point illustrated perfectly by Gibbon himself [Conquest has just quoted Gibbon on the ineducability of Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ son and successor, Commodus], the greatest of historians, who did indeed attend Oxford briefly when fifteen years old, from which (as he tells it) he got nothing. What all of them had was, in the first place, reading. We all know dozens of people, especially from an older generation, who are as much at home in these worlds—except in special fields—as their Bachelored and Mastered and Doctored acquaintances.”


E Berris said...

Well, thank you for this. Now I no longer have to feel I should focus on one topic properly, but can continue to leap about like a butterfly, picking up new pieces of interesting information hither and thither and making odd connections. And I have always felt quite strongly that if you pursued one topic properly you would need to spread your net as wide as possible to include all the ramifications and trivia, which would not be at home in a Ph.D thesis. Maybe it's time I read some Gibbon for myself too. But congratulations on your B.A.
S. Berris (frozenink)

Tim Guirl said...

When I was a student at a small university in the late sixties, Dr. Albert C Adams ran the English Department. He was a formidable presence and a stickler for standards. When the draft was reestablished in 1969, many male students who flunked the required general English classes became eligible for the Army draft. The poor man was hounded as a moral Quasimoto to reduce standards so that everyone passed, otherwise he was sending these young men to their deaths in the Vietnam War.

I flunked a basic math class taught by Dr. Arthur Adel, a world renowned astrophysicist, who could not explain basic math in a way that we could understand. I did not lose my eligibility to stay in college because of this, but after graduation served a year in the Vietnam War

milton said...

A good university education fosters intellectual rigour and critical thinking. Reading widely is important, but it's also important to know how to read, and how to pick what you will read.