The Finest University in Your Apartment

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.

Seriously, did you really finish all those books in high school, or did you study Cliff's Notes and ace the test? Exactly.

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 . . .

Having completed college, the graduate concludes his studies. Having concluded his study of Bauhaus architecture, the autodidact takes up arc welding.

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.

In many areas, there's just no teacher like experience.

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,

Yours Truly,




  1. As an autodidact, who left school at fifteen (unwillingly – my father decided that, as I was only a girl, I didn’t need a higher education, and my mother, from whom he was divorced, needed extra money) I have spent most of my life learning from books that I have been able to choose for myself. Much more satisfactory than having to read uninteresting stuff.

    I don’t like lending myself to imposed indoctrination. I like to choose my own subjects. Of course, this means that I have no diplomas, except a few for poetry, which I obtained in France by entering some competitions and obtaining high marks for poems, in French.

    I tried to enter university in France, but they didn’t want me because I was “too good” (?) and also because my Historical indoctrination had been in an Anglo-Saxon country, so they thought that I would be incapable of learning History from the French bias. Which proves my point about indocrination labelled “education”.

    Official education doesn’t like autodidacts. We tend to think with originality, and that might upset the rest of the class who, sheep-like, accepts being taught the “official” version of all subjects.

    I have always loved Lavoisier replying crisply to someone who asked him about stones which seemed to have fallen from the sky. (Some had been found vertically embedded in tree trunks, which were burned around the point of impact.) He said: “No stones can fall from the sky because there are no stones in the sky.”

    The local peasants all knew that the distinguished French scientist was wrong, but they didn’t have diplomas, did they? They only had their eyes to see, and their brains to deduct an answer from what they could see.

    When I was in High School in Sydney, I was taught that the smallest part of matter was the atom. Another absolute which isn’t true. Teachers should be a bit more humble when they’re in front of a class.

    Oh, and let’s have a bit more respect for autodidacts.

    • Dear Ms. Dennis,

      God bless you, woman. What marvelous points you’ve made. I adore that anecdote about Lavoisier especially; I hadn’t heard it before.

      I must admit that I have been fortunate enough to attend university (Long Beach State in Southern California) and that my experience there was a very positive one. I had swell professors, much of the time, one of whom I’ll actually see tonight at his book signing, and I was exposed to many books which might have taken a long time to find on my own.

      However, I didn’t meet many (any) students who began reading and learning on their own after starting college. College didn’t really change anyone I knew; it just polished us, and — as they say in Paris — you can’t polish a turd. I’d lay good money on the stagnating educations of my less-enthusiastic classmates. I bet half those bastards haven’t read a damned thing since our graduation party.

      Anyway, I didn’t write this piece to disparage university educations, so much as I wrote it to point out that a college education alone isn’t going to bestow any real smarts on anybody who wasn’t actively pursuing smarts to begin with.

      Honestly, I think education’s a real double-edged sword, anyhow. I mean, Pink Floyd wasn’t wrong when they called it another brick in “the wall.”

      This conversation could go on forever.

      Sure is swell to see you around, Miss! Thanks for stopping by and dropping a line.

      Yours Truly,


  2. In my mind’s eye, a college education is more determined by the student than the curriculum. My first time around (BA in Sociology) I tried to play the “college game” too much of the time and didn’t get much out of it except a piece of paper that said I earned a degree.

    When I was older and far more mature, I returned to college twice (BA in Journalism and MS in Social Sciences – Political Philosophy emphasis) and I played by my own rules. I got a lot out of both experiences and, believe it or not, top grades too.

    In Grad School, I discovered Karl Marx and this changed my worldview dramatically. In fact, my Grad School years were some of the most eventful in my life and I cherish them. (The school administration, however, didn’t cherish me. I had become a full-fledged left wing activist by then and they couldn’t wait for me to graduate!)

    • Dear R.T.,

      Ah, yes . . . I should have addressed this in my little bit. I’m trying to inculcate brevity this season, though; some of my pieces from last spring could have been published as novellas. Upside: shorter reads. Downside: unexplored areas per topic. Anyhow, it’s a solid point you’ve made.

      If one can “zen out” and focus on the worthwhile portions of a lecture, rather than becoming embroiled in the asinine digressions and juvenile sharpshooting that happen in classes every day, the experience can be most edifying. Anyone else is better off in the library, though, I maintain, because in every group of people there are bound to be more jerk-offs than sincere pupils of a discipline.

      Regardless, your point’s still very valid, and I’m glad you took time to mention it.

      Always a pleasure to hear from you, Sir.

      Yours Truly,


  3. Hi Both,

    I am an on and off autodidact, and I have to say that your post about the ‘higher education’ is striking a chord with the whole experience I had back when I thought or so everybody seemed to think – was the most important phase of my life. Tertiary education for me, at least in my experience was kind of a joke. It was like putting myself to go through a movie that I didn’t care for, but that I was ‘alert’ enough to catch all of the gist of the content. So I got my degree. And then while everybody else seems to have somehow cross the line, work and get married – I found myself thinking that no, I’m not qualified to do all that just yet, I need to get back to my ‘studies’.

    Nobody’s here in this small class. I’m alone but I am more engaged than ever before, miserable at times, but there’s nobody to blame, no lecturers, no smart-ass classmates, no certificates!

    I just wanted to say, I love your post, your cartoon, and everything else about your site. Have a wonderful day, Both. =) Or Night.

    Keep writing! Your intellect awakens people.

    Peace. :)

    • Dear Shanaz,

      Poisonally, I have never felt as engaged in any study somebody else set me to as I usually am in anything I have started of my own volition. I can’t believe that it’s any other way for anyone else. If one enjoys one’s work, one will work at it with inspiration. If not, it’s a form of slavery. It’s really too bad that society must enslave her population in public schools in order to force upon it even the smallest amount of intellect.

      I like that people still are autodidacts, even the on-and-off kind, as you say (and maybe even especially the on-and-off kind; I hate absolutes).

      Thank you once more for all the lovely things you’ve said. So long as people keep liking “In a Real World…” I’ll keep writing it.

      Yours Truly,


  4. Nailed it. Except, don’t go easy on them. Especially the other “students”. Their laziness lowers the value of a degree.

    • Dear Wetgoat,

      Well, hello!

      I — learned to go easy on them once. A third-year English major stopped coming to class, a guy I got along with well, and someone else told me that he had felt stupid because he didn’t understand anything I’d said at some point during a class discussion.

      I realize how this reply sounds, but it happened, and I regret it. You’re right, of course (I mean, what should I otherwise have done? Speak in Parentese?) but I still hate that it happened that way.

      Though I do agree with you, I must say that he wasn’t lazy — but he definitely would have lowered the value of my degree in English as a graduate.

      Ah, well. Sad topic.

      Yours Truly,


  5. May I forward this to my English professor? We had a conversation in class today about why creativity is so difficult to draw from students “these days.” Creativity depends on the knowledge gained as an autodidact, and I think this post highlights that need well.

    • Dear L.L.,

      Indeed, you may. Poisonally speaking however, I would not recommend this particular piece to my professor unless he or she were possessed of an uncanny sense of humor. Your grade, after all, depends upon it, and while I can assure you that my heart is in the “right” place — many people only see the gnashing of teeth when confronted with a smile.

      Yours Truly,


      P.S. — Should this actually get to your prof., I’d be interested in hearing what the good doctor thinks of this tommyrot

  6. “It’s as serious as getting heart surgery for your cat (which is cheaper, I think)…”

    I haven’t even continued with the rest of the article yet. That line caught my eye and made me laugh so much that the rest of the words on this page are just blurry, inconsequential, and inevitably support for that fucking tremendous sentence. Regardless, I will now continue…

    Thanks for the wit!

    • Dear Shaky,

      Why, hello! I did not realize you were still hanging around, Sir. I visited you at your place a few months ago, and it seemed as if you had packed up and moved on.

      Anyhow, I’m glad you enjoyed the bit about the cat, ha ha, and I hope you enjoyed the rest at least half as much.

      It’s good to see you!

      Yours Truly,


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