On Friday I read an essay in defense of autodidacticism by a retired history professor who read the Homeric epics at age seven. John W. Osborne concluded he was an autodidact while writing his doctoral dissertation on William Cobbett (1765-1835), the English journalist and author of Rural Rides who was much admired by those more recent autodidacts, A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell. Osborne quotes Carlyle’s description of Cobbett as “the pattern John Bull of his century, strong as the rhinoceros, and with singular humanities and genialities shining through his thick skin.” This recalls Boswell’s account of Tom Davies saying Dr. Johnson “laughs like a rhinoceros.’”
The sentence quoted at the top is from Fr. James V. Schall’s essay “Liberal Education: ‘MissingMany Allusions,’” collected in Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading (Catholic University of America Press, 2013). Father Schall is a formidably learned man. His education is the result both of rigorously formal academic training and something very much like informal, self-driven autodidacticism. His essays are laced with frequent references to secular writers, Johnson and Boswell in particular, and his reading is broad and deep.
The obvious risk involved in adhering strictly to autodidacticism is waywardness. We require the friction of other minds to buff away self-generated roughness. Few of us can polish ourselves. We are likelier to grow cranky and conspiracy-minded, mistaking brainstorms for insight while rediscovering what the rest of the world already knows. Had I read only the books assigned in class, I would today be only nominally literate. Had I read only the books that confirmed the thoughts I already possessed, I would remain marginally illiterate. Osborne writes:
“For both Cobbett and myself, unscheduled reading made the child father to the man. It led to his career in journalism and to mine in academe. It was self-education rather than twelve years in a public school which allowed me to complete the college work that prepared me for graduate school. The mature Cobbett boasted that ‘books and literature have been my delight.’ His intensive personal reading helped to develop that direct, vigorous style of writing which still holds a reader’s attention. Knowledge imparted in classrooms -- what Ben Jonson called ‘schoolcraft’ -- would have smoothed our way early in life but might have cramped our individuality and led us along other paths.”
Fr. Schall reminds us of the thrills and risks of self-education: “We can read without learning at all. We can have read only one book, the Bible or Shakespeare, but read it well. We can read many things, none of which move our souls to attend to what is.”