“Nobody anymore under the age of fifty has any education whatsoever.”
A rhetorical exaggeration, but still sobering. It’s tempting to assume ignorance metastasizes untreatably across generations, that the young are willfully blind to their inheritance. Many are, and have been taught by parents and teachers to scorn learning. But the opposite of ignorance is not a college degree but unconditional curiosity. My essential education occurred not in classrooms but in libraries and wherever I happened to be reading a good book or listening to someone more knowledgeable than I.
The writer quoted above is Guy Davenport in a letter to James Laughlin on this date, April 6, in 1994. Davenport speaks from experience. Less than four years earlier he had retired from the University of Kentucky after teaching there for almost thirty years. He goes on in the letter:
“I get so tired of all this idealism in the universities about multiculturalism. As if they thought it up all of a sudden. Back in 1970 I gave a course in Herakleitos and the Dogon, for sophomores and juniors. Nobody on the faculty noticed, of course, and imagine we’ve never had multicultural studies until now. . . . (I don’t think I taught anybody anything.)”
I know one exception to that final lament. Thanks to several years of correspondence with Davenport, my sole meeting with him at his home in Lexington, Ky., and most importantly my reading of his books, I can consider myself a reasonably well-educated man. Ultimately, all educated people are autodidacts. In the richest of his essays, “Finding” (The Geography of the Imagination, North Point Press, 1981), Davenport writes:
“ . . . I am grateful for the unintentional education of having been taught how to find things (all that I have ever done, I think, with texts and pictures).”
[Davenport’s letter can be found in Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (W.W. Norton, 2007).]