The Life of an Autodidact, Conclusion

Thomas Fleming


January 27, 2019

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.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

21 Responses

  1. Ken Rosenberger says:

    A fine essay. I feel wretched for having missed the latest Fleming convivium in Sicily, but have at least been in contact with some of the participants, and will strive to make the next one. Stephen Heiner hit the nail on the head in his report from Sicily. The trips I began making to Rockford and Italy nearly 6 years ago have provided me with the community and instruction and influence and inspiration to understand what truly matters in this sad, dying age. Knocking about in the ruins of what truly was the best our civilization produced, reading the best books, admiring the best painting and sculpture, eating and drinking the best real food and wine, while conversing with the finest small community of friends on Earth, well, what better school could there be?

  2. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I am reading Alan Jacobs’ How to Think. In it he stresses that you cannot think for yourself. You can learn to think only by talking with and listening to other people. Some of those people must have beliefs different from your own, but every participant must be willing to honestly listen to and try to understand what the other participants are saying. Thinking, like learning, is not an individual undertaking.

  3. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    I know next to nothing about Mr. Jacobs, apart from his being an English major, but I wonder how he got the idea he could teach people to think. Perhaps he can, but his resume is not encouraging. The title reminds me of a more distinguished fraud who once wrote a book with the title, “How to Read a Book.”

    “It’s a Barnum and Bailey world,
    Just as phony as it can be,
    But it wouldn’t be make believe if you’d just buy my book.
    Without your cash,
    It’s a honky-tonk parade..

    I’ve obviously lunched too well here in Caltagirone–lovely town. , so take all with a grain of salt except this. Don’t ever read self help books. As a philosopher wrote.

    I ain’t asking nobody for nothin’
    If I can’t get it on my own…

    There are limitations, it goes without saying, and everyone might benefit from a course in Aristotelian logic, but an English prof? (Apart from real scholars.)

  4. Harry Colin says:

    I can say that despite not attending the program on Cicero that I was delighted to read from the suggested list of books to deepen what had been my capsule summary understanding of the great orator. Having a learned guide prevents one from wasting time with biographers and historians who occupy that space between mediocrity and foolishness.

    As for self-help books, I can remember back when someone had written a book about assisted suicide that achieved some level of notoriety; Barnes and Noble carried it under the “self-help” section.

  5. Allen Wilson says:

    The last word in self help?

  6. Allen Wilson says:

    I’ve reading my two De Bono thinking books a few paragraphs at a time, every few weeks when I want to waste my time, and cannot figure out how they could possibly be of any use.

  7. Dot says:

    My granddaughter is attending The College of Charleston. She made the President’s list which I understand is the highest level. She was advised to major in English. No matter how one looks at it, I think that is an accomplishment. I believe in continuing life long education and no matter how one gets it, it is knowledge gained. Not everyone has the time, or the means to meet the same rigorous requirements that is suggested here.

  8. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Almost everyone in the developed world has the time to do what is important to him. I used to offer staff members bonuses and salary increases if they would finish a degree or learn a language. No takers. There’s always TV, the internet, so many ways to waste one’s precious time. Having taught at my alma mater in the 1970’s and 1980’s I do not give them a penny in donations–and things are much worse now than they were 30 years ago. My last term teaching (part-time) a student quit coming to class and flunked the course. He called me to cry that his parents were coming to graduation and he hated to disappoint them. The dean of students called me in and wanted to know what we could do. I told him he could change the grade if he wanted to, and I would not make a stink, but that I would not change it. I told him quite bluntly what I thought of the College’s plummeting standards. He was not pleased, but since I put his own integrity on the line, he let the grade stand. As for the English department at the CofC, I recall a professor in the 1980s who said that when they were hiring a new faculty member, everyone got to blackball any candidate who had a better resume than he or she did. An undergraduate degree in English is a waste of time and money. The students are not required to learn much of anything–they can accumulate credits on pop fiction and lesbian novels, and when they get out they find out the only thing they can do is to enter the nightmare world of public education. Students cannot be blamed for not knowing what to do. That is the faculty’s job and they refuse to do it. There is no reason these days to go to college except to acquire a credential for future employment. English, alas, does not do even that. When I graduated, English students who wanted the AB degree from the college had to have either 4 years of college level Latin or four years of Greek. Some clever dummies got BS degrees in English. Fortunately, in those days, graduate departments and employers in the Southeast knew that a BS in English was truly BS.

  9. Dot says:

    I would never have offered staff members bonuses and salary increases if they would learn a language or finish a degree. It would have been a requirement. Neither would I change any grade of any student who failed a class. To do so is a disservice to the student. If I read your reply correctly, the faculty members “who got to blackball any candidate who had a better resume than he or she” was a disservice to the college and to the students. I hope things are better now.

  10. Allen Wilson says:

    Time is the most important factor. I work six nights a week, and night work takes its toll in terms of energy. At different times, when I was unemployed, I studied Wheelock’s Latin, a little Greek and French, a little Coptic, and enough hieroglyphics to read the first part of the Tale of the Two Brothers. Then I got a job. Now, I waste a few minutes now and then on De Bono because I usually don’t have time for anything else except this website, and I don’t want to start a major project under these circumstances.

    Twelve years ago, when I didn’t have to work weekends, I was one third of the way through the Fleming Jenney-based Latin course when someone moved in next door and set up a meth lab, and the toxic fumes interfered with my ability to concentrate, so no more studying. When the meth lab was no longer a problem, along came six day work weeks.

    But enough whining. What’s left is the half hour nightly commute, to which audio language learning is perfectly suited, so I’m about to embark on the last two levels of Pimsleur German (bought really cheap, second hand) and hopefully one day, a cheap second hand French course.

  11. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I would not classify Jacobs’ book as a self help book. He explains that a useful argument requires that all parties first understand what the other parties mean, and possibly even understand the most persuasive points of the otherside’s arguement better than than they do. He calls this arguing against the “strong man” instead of the “straw man.” He mentions a debating group at Yale that requires each side to describe the opponent’s position to the opponent’s satifaction before they can argue against the opposing position. A useful or authentic argument is one where there is the opportunity or possibility of persuading the other side that they are wrong and you are correct. (Or where you can be persuaded that you are wrong. This requires a degree of mutual respect.)

  12. Harry Colin says:

    It is shocking to read that staff members were uninterested in continuing education or language learning, especially when you Dr. Fleming was offering financial incentives. (It reminds me that I always seem to end up in the wrong place!) Especially surprising given where you were, if my assumptions are correct.

    When I was finishing up my last year working in higher ed, I decided to enroll in an introductory Japanese course that one of the graduate students – a native of Osaka – decided to offer as an evening course. When colleagues heard about this they reacted as if I had said I was going to hang upside down from my chimney. Incredulous all around.

    Years later, while in a long-stay hotel that was filled with with a bevy of Japanese businessmen, my relative handful of Japanese was enough to spark interest among them, as an American speaking any of their native tongue was an exotic specimen. We had some wonderful conversations – in English – and I learned much.

  13. Harry Colin says:

    Sorry! There should be no “you” in my first sentence; distracted typing.

  14. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Alas things at all colleges are much worse. It would be highly improper to insist upon extracurricular education as a requirement for employment. One offers rewards. This is a difficult time for anyone and I do not blame anyone for not wishing to do what I wanted them to do. My only point is that we pretty much lay up our treasure where our heart is: Two TVO’s or a course in German

  15. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Alas things at all colleges are much worse. It would be highly improper to insist upon extracurricular education as a requirement for employment. One offers rewards. This is a difficult time for anyone and I do not blame anyone for not wishing to do what I wanted them to do. My only point is that we pretty much lay up our treasure where our heart is: Two TVO’s or a
    course in German

  16. David Wihowski says:

    Regarding the very valuable and true comment about the “community of friends” being important to learning: It would be nice if we had some additional way to attempt to create those communities. Perhaps a forum where members of this online “community” could voluntarily offer location and “subject matter” to find others perhaps in their area interested in learning the same thing. This may be a silly idea, but for some of us long-distance travel (e.g. to Sicily or even Rockford) is not practical or even possible (work, age, family, disability, etc.) [Sorry but my American find-a-solution-for-every-problem attitude is hard to suppress…]

  17. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    If you would post something on our Forum with an appropriate title, I’ll post snippets on the main page to attract attention to it. A lot of course depends on both circumstance and personal temperament. The Milwaukee or Chicago areas, for example, will have more people willing to take part in regular face-to-face meetings, and some people–not I–are rather gregarious. Traditionally, church parishes are one rallying point for such things. Here in Rockford, unfortunately, most of the people who profess interest in literature and music are timid leftists. I know it is possible to cooperate with such people, but one has to be careful not to prick their very thin skins. In my own case, although I used to travel to meet leftist writers and editors whose work I admired, I now find it a waste of time, partly because I don’t want to compromise my own thoughts with their fears and prejudices and partly because the Left has become so so much worse than it used to be.

  18. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    I used to make a number of appearances every year, trying to encourage local readers to get together. It sort of worked in a few places, but now with limited resources and readership, it doesn’t make sense. I shall be addressing a group of agrarian minded hunters in western Maryland next month and afterwards giving a talk for readers in the DC area. On March 14, we are reviving the Ides of March lecture in Rockford. Before leaving, friends arranged for me to give a talk in Saint Mary’s Kansas–all in all, more in six months than in several years.

  19. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    When and where in Western Maryland?

  20. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    It’s a plantation called Woodmont and the occasion is an exclusive hunt for members of a society. All I know is that it is somewhere west of Hagerstown. Tentatively, the Flanders have invited me to do a talk at their home on March 3. DC area subscribers will soon be notified of time and place.

  21. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    There is a Woodmont wildlife management area open to public hunting adjacent to the Sideling Hill WMA in Western MD near Hancock. I have hunted both of them a number of years ago. There is a private hunting club nearby as I recall. As I have not hunted for a number of years because of my COPD I am not sure what game can be hunted in February. I will have to look it up later.