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On not suffering schools gladly

Thursday, February 7, 2008

"You don't write English," Carl Simpson once complained to this English-loving scribbler. He meant, I trust, the likes of Mark Twain' s "English as she is spoke."

I use too many long and strange words, others grumble. My sentences are too long, too full of obscure allusions, subordinate clauses, phrases in Latin yet! Sorry about that, chief. I can't help it. It's the way I am, the way I think. Here I stand, like Martin Luther, I can do no other. I cannot, I will not, recant! My best friend, an all-but-Ph.D., when asked a hard question, will say, "You'll have to ask Pat. I only went to college."

I didn't. Granted, schooling grinds the hard edges off its subjects (victims?), and that's likely a good thing, even a necessary one. Hard edges don't make for social peace or the smooth running of the social machine. But hard edges have their uses too, often vital ones. We need a smooth-running social machine. But maybe we need the occasional well-aimed monkey-wrench too. Hard-edged smartalecs are sometimes given to saying they don't suffer fools gladly. Maybe in the same vein it can be said of me that I don't suffer schools gladly.

School had been a bore, suffered ungladly. College, I concluded, would be more of the same. With some exceptions, I think so still. Too many profs are "them that can't."

Too many students are merely beating time against earning their keep, living it up at others' expense. The folks I admire, grudgingly, tend to be dropouts, the likes even of, say, Bill Gates or Sam Walton. One admires the "doer," even if what he does hardly seems worth doing.

Early on I sensed that all true education is self-education, and oneself is the subject to be educated about. Know thyself, as the Greeks put it. And as Shakespeare didn't quite add, "And it shall follow as the night the day, thou canst not then not know all else."

And to call what happens in schools "education" would be comical if it weren't so tragic. In plainer-spoken days, states had "Departments of Public Instruction." The business of schools is to instruct ("put in"). Education ("drawing out") clearly is something else altogether, the task chiefly of the self. The so-called "Department of Education" doesn't "draw out," it "puts in," or does its best. Its foes fret because "putting in" is preaching, not teaching.

And so often, schools defeat even their purpose, "putting in." Mention English literature to the average grad, and likely he'll say "God, how I hate it!" Because it was forced on him, like "rehabilitation" in a penitentiary.

Me, I came to it largely on my own. It was nothing short of falling in love, discovering a wonderful beloved, with whom to be faithful to one's dying day. Most pupils seem to "graduate" out of learning altogether, either the "taking in" or the "drawing out." That ordeal's over, thank God! For the self-educated, that "first love" settles into nothing short of wedded bliss.

I'll never forget, one day in Gladys Radford's world history class, when we were studying Greek mythology, a girl piped up, "If this stuff's not true, why study it?" Even then I was appalled. My answer then: Because it's beautiful, it enriches life, it furnishes our unfurnished imaginative world. My answer now: Because it's our cultural vocabulary. It's how we know ourselves, know and say what we are. Our men in Iraq are "martial" thanks to Mars. Our breakfast food is "cereal" thanks to Ceres, goddess of the harvest. And so on. Lacking this shared lingo, we're the dumbstricken would-be builders of Babel.

Others wonder how I happen to lug such clutter around in my head, let alone why I inflict it on my readers. I in turn wonder why they, those others, don't know such "stuff," or even seem to want to know it. Half the time life's a pretty bleak business. Only the mental furniture we fill our heads with gives it color and interest. The many furnish it from a flea market: "pop culture." The few furnish it as an enchanted palace, with the "high culture."

Half the time I wish all myth and superstition were true, literally, that there truly were demigods, trolls, fairies,etc. As Wordsworth wrote, after bemoaning a world far less crowded, complicated, and problematic than ours: "Great God! I'd rather be/A pagan suckled in a creed outworn ......

The sin of the self-educated ("sour grapes" to the schooled) is intellectual snobbery, arrogance. To make free with the proverb, they don't suffer schools gladly.

I asked a good friend if she saw me as a snob. "Only in your writing," she said. Honestly it startled me! And what can I do about it? Toady to my public by struggling to "write down" to their lowbrow level? That would be snobbery indeed, at least as I see it.

And anyhow, it's mission impossible. Try as I will, I can't "think down." And I see my mission as just the opposite: to "think up" and "write up." To urge my longsuffering readers to get on with their education: not that "putting in" they foreswore with relief after a numbing number of things called "hours" in a penitentiary or a bordello called a "school." Not the "putting in" of a smorgasbord of "stuff' to be found out there in the so-unreal "real world," but the "drawing out" of the essential thing, the thing that alone can make sense of all the rest: what's within, thyself.

One fellow had the obscurantist effrontery to call it "the kingdom of God." In a technological day and age, of course, the "smorgasbord" of "stuff" has its necessary place. But it belongs in what used to be called "trade schools," and should never be called "universities." And it's instruction ("putting in"), not education ("drawing out").

The saving grace of schools is, they bring together individuals who may help each other find themselves. Somebody said the ideal school would be Socrates sitting on one end of a log and a disciple on the other. Unfortunately schools are bureaucracies, in which Socrates and his disciple are hagridden with song-and-dance designed to rub those rough edges off and turn out well-adjusted cogs in the social apparatus, and with "communal thinking," whose theory seems to be that if we sufficiently pool our ignorance, wisdom will appear.

Me, I'll just plod on plodding on, letting those deplorable long and strange words sneak in, those poeticisms and subordinate clauses proliferate like amoeba, and those irresistibly apt Latin tags mar my prose like smallpox. In the forlorn hope that somewhere, sometime, by perversely refusing to "write down" I might encourage just one soul to "think up."￿