The Life of an Autodidact, Conclusion
Every significant literary or intellectual movement is really a little community of friends, who encourage each others’ talents and correct each others’ faults until they are thinking thoughts and writing poems they might otherwise never have attempted. I think of the influence of Belloc on Chesterton or, better still, of the Fugitive poets whose most creative period were their years at Vanderbilt and in the few following years before the group was shattered by ambition, mistrust, and the influence of more important friends out in the Great World.
The absence of such a community of colleagues and disciples is the irremediable defect in all programs of “distance learning.” Every week, it seems, I read of some Yankee-style shortcut to a college education, whether the University of Phoenix or some conservative-movement adventure in fund-raising. Some of these projects may be useful today, when a college education means little more than a piece of paper or the mastery of a technical vocabulary that permits business and sociology majors to pretend to know something, they are in fact more ignorant than the average village idiot. Whatever their practical advantages, they should not be confused with what used to be known as a college education.
There is simply no substitute for a community of discourse, whether that community is Aristotle’s Lyceum or the not quite so ancient College of Charleston (founded 1770), where I still remember the smell of the early 19th century houses in which I passed so many hours studying Greek, sometimes as the only student in the class. In those days we boys, whenever we were not talking about girls, talked incessantly about our studies. We learned each other’s enthusiasms. A friend majoring in chemistry rekindled my previous interest in science, while he, to return the favor, signed up for elementary Greek.
Such places do not exist any longer. My old college, absorbed by the state system, sends me a barrage of fund-raising appeals boasting of how much bigger and better the alma mater is. Bigger it is, but not better. By the late 70’s and early 80’s, poor old Henry Miller was in trouble for attempting to maintain the relaxed standards of the 1960’s. I ran into him on the street one day and he told me the French students had been petitioning the dean to prevent him from assigning his usual one novel a week in his advanced classes. Any one over 50 who is still supporting his Alma Mater is probably subsidizing the institutionalized enemy of higher learning.
The first dilemma families face is whether or not to send their children to any school. Up to a point, families may form a community of discourse in which their children can learn, but it is very difficult, as my Italian and French friends insist, to train up your little barbarians without the standards of discipline and study that are imposed by someone less indulgent than loving parents. I recall when a Rockford family we knew had to switch piano teachers and sent their children to our children’s teacher. After a few weeks of lessons, the teacher asked my wife, seriously, if the whole point of home schooling was to shield the precious darlings from objective evaluation. This lesson, which my wife and I learned the hard way, is a principal reason why so many home-schooling families form consortiums and even schools.
There is no simple answer. We live within a country as opposed to sound learning as it is hostile to the Christian religion. However, while most Americans accept the fake and flummery that is being palmed off by TV preachers, state universities, and whiz-bang online universities, some students—in or out of school—do not wish to go out of this world as ignorant as they were when they entered it. They are the students of all ages for whom I tried to prepare courses in history, classics, philosophy, and literatures, though those courses have long since gone the way of every misguided attempt to rescue Americans from ignorance.
We know that most schools and universities have long since ceased to be communities devoted to learning; we also understand that the virtual or online community is a contradiction in terms. But those who wish to learn may still enter, with a little help, into communities of the imagination.
Classics here provides the model. Students of classics are required to learn the languages, history, literature, philosophy, and art of two brilliant civilizations, Greek and Roman, and I have for 40 years approached every other period and culture in exactly the same way. I used to go into a Byzantine phase, rereading Gibbon and Runciman, trotting out texts of Eastern theologians, poets, and historians. Eventually the fever would pass and I found myself, once again, dallying in the fleshpots of the English Restoration or the Antebellum South. One miserable Summer I coaxed my wife into cooking dinners according to the prevailing culture, and these days we may irregular stabs at ancient Greek and Roman cuisine.
I created a series of foreign programs (which I called Convivia)= as an extension of my own method of self-education. To make the programs seem natural, I used to spend months, not only reading Roman Republican history and Latin literature, but also studying topography (the study of terrain and street layout) and art, until the point came when my imaginary world of republican Rome had fused with the reality of Rome today. Few of our students may have taken this adventure as seriously as I did, but most of them read something. Many learned a great deal, and when they went home, they knew how to begin learning about the Roman Republic or the French Revolution or the Scottish Enlightenment or ancient Sicily.
For a week or so, we formed a little community among ourselves, but we also reached out to another, far greater community of long dead men and women—warriors and statesmen, poets and painters--with whom our minds had become almost familiar as we walked their streets and examined their portraits, stood in their temples and knelt in their churches. For me these Convivia involved as much labor as pleasure, but they were my way of paying the debt I owed the mentors and friends who had shared their wisdom and experience with me.