The strangest thing about school is that everyone takes it so seriously. Now, don’t get me wrong, when you’re paying two-thousand dollars every three months or so, it’s as serious as getting heart surgery for your cat (which is cheaper, I think) but people don’t speak of vets the way people speak of universities. The way people talk about places like Princeton and Oxford, you’d think Jesus Christ had taken a leak on them on His way home from the bar.
There’s nothing holy about getting a college education. It’s much more respectable to get a damned library card.
Anyone can do exactly what they’re told to do for four years, or even eight, should one happen to be especially susceptible. Convicts and soldiers do it all the time. Consider, though, the steel nerves and iron will of the person who, having selected the maximum number of books allowed by civic law, swipes that card in the slot at the front desk like it’s the sword of St. Michael, and gloriously enlists in the war against his or her own ignorance. Sole commander! Solitary soldier! Persevering hero!
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you — the autodidact.
University students act much the same as grade-schoolers, eating fast food three times a day and loving it, their rooms like poorly maintained thrift stores, grumbling and shuffling their way to classes, yawning their way through hours and hours of mostly pointless homework. They have no love for their professors unless late papers are acceptable, and no respect for the authors of their books, because most of their books cost more than a decent video game and read like a real-estate agent’s pamphlet on recent foreclosures.
Appropriately, most graduates take from their schools a heartfelt, lifelong pride. In their school’s football team.
The brave autodidact, though, drives out of the way after work to visit the used-book store, where (wonder of wonders!) paperbacks of classic literature and manuals on electrical wiring peacefully coexist on majestic, dusty shelves, twenty-five cents a’piece. The autodidact’s bookshelf is an autobiography: The Hobbit (sophomore year); Dracula (junior year); Catcher in the Rye (senior year); The Picture of Dorian Gray over summer, Beyond Good and Evil in the fall, and so on, and so forth. The Idiot’s Guide to Carpentry sits on a sawhorse in the new shed behind the house. Medicine and Hydroponics lies beside a row of potted plants in the closet . . .
The autodidact, rather than hoping that something comes of next semester’s required courses, selects desired knowledge like a street racer buying high-performance auto parts, plugs it in, and crosses another finish line in the grand prix of life ahead of the competition.
Meanwhile, grad students pay eighty dollars for some hackneyed hardcover book that’s three-weeks on back order. They’d buy a used copy, but the professor’s requiring students to buy the twelfth edition (there’s a new edition every year) and guess who wrote the damned thing? Oh, look, the professor did.
“I’m not learning anything from this stupid class,” one pupil complains.
“I know,” gripes another. “I can’t wait to get the hell out of here and go to work in the field, where I can actually learn something about being a psychologist.”
Three years in and well on their way to graduating magna cum laude, even the students know that if they really want to learn something, they’ve got to hit the library on their own. It doesn’t take long to figure out that learning to study from books in college is like learning to screw from porno on the Internet.
Anyone can tell you, the aim of college is a higher tax bracket, not a higher education. That’s just something they put on their letterhead so Random House will give their professors a shot at publication. You can’t count on a random team of experts to tell you what you most need to know. They don’t know what you’ve got figured out and what you haven’t got figured out, and even if they did, their method of education is to force you to read their recommended books under threat of scholastic failure. That’s like force-feeding a teenager mashed peas because they’re healthy.
You know what you want to learn. You know what you want to learn, and you know right where to go to learn it: the goddamn library. You really wanna show off? Take four or five classics to your favorite bar and channel change for an hour or five. Socrates, or Hemingway? Even better! Socrates, then Hemingway! Learn Spanish. Learn graphology. Phrenology. Egyptology. Amaze your friends!
And if ever you do decide you need a college degree after all, take my advice . . .
Go easy on them.
With half a care and a whole smile I remain,