Friday, October 23, 2020

'In the End We Are All Autodidacts'

My youngest son is a senior at a boys’ boarding school in Ontario and in the middle of the university-application sweepstakes. He is applying to twenty-three schools, though without significant financial aid he may end up making falafel at Halal Guys next year. My job as father is to lend encouragement, of course, but I’m also aware of how devalued an American university education has become. We were fortunate when my next-oldest son was accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy. I work for a university engineering school, where the degeneration is less advanced than in the humanities. As an engineer or mathematician, you either know your differential equations or you don’t, and if you don’t you might want to give Halal Guys another look.


Douglas Dalrymple at Idlings shares some of my anxieties. In a post titled “Literature is for Amateurs,” he recounts how his son enrolled in a community-college class putatively devoted to writing, only to discover it was a reconvening of the Soviet Writers Union. At that organization's first meeting, in 1934, Isaac Babel told the apparatchiks, flunkies and thugs: “I have invented a new genre --  the genre of silence.” He meant that Stalin and his gang had made it virtually impossible for honest writers to write. Doug quotes an essay by Joseph Epstein, “A Literary Education.” I’ll see his Epstein and raise him another. This is the essayist writing to his friend Frederic Raphael in Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (2013):


“One of the great things about the bookish (and scribbling) life is that you never run out of things to read. Some people have better luck with their formal education than others, but in the end we are all autodidacts, going at things in our own disorderly way. Some have read more widely and deeply than others, but none can truly claim to be well read.”


All the best students are autodidacts but even they can use some encouragement along the way. We can no longer depend on most teachers or the apparatchiks in university administrations who enforce what Epstein calls “a small number of crude ideas.”

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