Thoughts on Autodidacticism

John W. Osborne

"THE ENDURANCE OF A CLASSIC canonized author such as Homer, then, owes not to the alleged transmission or universal value of his works, but, on the contrary, to the continuity of their circulation in a particular culture." So writes Barbara Herrnstein Smith in Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory (1988). This assertion, by a former president of the Modern Language Association, that classic Western literature lacks relevance for anyone without formal training, is coupled with a claim that popular culture more truly represents majority aspirations. The critic thus assumes knowledge about the proper reaction of Everyman and Everywoman to the printed page.

But I believe that self‑educated people—autodidacts—react to their reading in a manner that is personal and unpredictable. The result may be extreme individualism and disdain for common tastes. This essay will deal with my own early autodidacticism and that of the English journalist, William Cobbett.

I have always loved reading. And it was the two epic poems of Homer that I read in an English translation at age seven which first aroused my intellectual curiosity. But as a child I was immature, undisciplined, and easily tempted to avoid school assignments and bury my nose in a book. I used the high school library only for personal reading and did so poorly in class that I almost failed to graduate. Hearing the call of college, but lacking necessary focus, I went to work in the mail room of an insurance company. There, from age eighteen to twenty-three, I learned self-discipline. Evenings and weekends I read. The personnel manager suggested that I study books about insurance, but I found them dry. Instead, I was drawn to the classics of Western Civilization.

I knew that unless I effected a change, my future would be bound by the walls of a mail room. College students who worked there in the summer were different: a casual manner and detached conversation indicated that their destiny lay elsewhere. After leaving the place, I felt as did Dickens when he put behind him the blacking factory. It was a closed chapter in our lives.

At age twenty‑six I became a history major at the Rutgers University evening college for adults. After work, I received a 1950s‑style liberal arts education. At last absorbed in subjects which interested me, the feckless high‑school years were a distant memory. But before entering Rutgers I was essentially self‑educated.

Years of private reading shaped my personality. For over three decades as a professor I preferred solitary study and avoided collaborative projects, I also rejected any theory which emphasized historical determinism, class identity, or psychological behaviorism.

My thoughts about autodidactism began to form while writing a Ph.D. dissertation on William Cobbett (1763‑1835), an English journalist without formal education. The crucial event of his life occurred at age fourteen. Having been taught to read by his father, young Cobbett bought a second‑hand copy of Jonathan Swift's A Tale of A Tub. He later wrote, "The book was so different from any thing that I had ever read before: it was something so new to my mind, that, though I could not at all understand some of it, it delighted me beyond description; and it produced what I have always considered a birth of intellect. I read on till it was dark, without any thought about supper or bed." Soon afterwards, Cobbett spurned a gift of books about gardening and instead began to read the English classics. Perusing the above passage, I remembered my chance encounter with Homer among the two dozen volumes which belonged to my father, and my subsequent rejection of books about insurance.

The tendency of Cobbett's writing to digress may have been inspired by the loose structure of A Tale of A Tub. Its ridicule of religious enthusiasm no doubt prepared Cobbett for Hudibras, a lampoon of seventeenth‑century English puritanism, which provided Cobbett with quotations for his satirical journalism. Both books contributed to the playfulness which marked his use of language. But serious‑minded literary critics might consider A Tale of A Tub and Hudibras lacking in relevance for the young ploughboy.

Cobbett's inimitable writing style—vivid, racy, completely individual—expressed criticism of contemporary British governments. His vigorous attacks on privilege and corruption have led modern socialists such as the historian, E. P. Thompson, and the literary critic, Raymond Williams, to consider him as a major spokesman for an emerging working class. But Cobbett's unique manner of defining problems was widely recognized by his contemporaries. He was a spiky English original and entirely his own man.

True, Cobbett's robust egotism led him to ignore valid points made by others, and to make errors of judgment. His opinions would often have been improved if he had accepted constructive suggestions. But then, Thomas Carlyle would not have described Cobbett as "the pattern John Bull of his century, strong as the rhinoceros, and with singular humanities and genialities shining through his thick skin." Cobbett's brio allowed his writing to strike sparks and become popular.

Abraham Lincoln's career also stemmed in part from his reaction to imaginative literature. The untutored, frontier‑born boy who was even poorer than Cobbett learned arithmetic by writing with a piece of coal on the back of a shovel. Lincoln had four favorite works: The Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, Aesop's Fables, and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Like A Tale of a Tub, this literature has a rich imagery which fosters imagination. These four works contributed to the future statesman's extraordinary ability to use both the spoken and written word. And, like Cobbett, there was never any didactic experience in Lincoln's early life to make him aware of the importance of what he read; he found out for himself.

By definition, autodidacts like Cobbett and Lincoln lack a shared learning experience. Self-taught people have not participated in class discussions, cooperative projects, or dormitory bull sessions. They do not conform to any educational institution, and thus are lacking traits associated with certain schools or universities: "Eton grace," "effortless Balliol superiority," "Harvard man." In F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine says, "I want to go to Princeton, I don't know why, but I think of all Harvard men as sissies ... and all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters and smoking pipes." But for the autodidact the fields of learning are hardscrabble. And they develop individualists.

For example, after the 1906 British General Election, forty‑five newly elected Labor members of parliament, mostly from humble backgrounds, responded to a question asked of them to name the books and authors that had most influenced them. The top three were John Ruskin, Charles Dickens and The Bible. Most of the remainder also were within the canon of Western writing. Only two of the forty‑five cited Karl Marx. These members of parliament were participants in that rich tradition of reading for improvement that was an important characteristic of Victorian Britain.

The survey of Labor members corresponds to my own experience. The limited time available for recreation in a workday led me to prefer books which have endured‑what Matthew Arnold called "The best that is known and thought in the world." I have never been interested in writing which deals with sport, film, or any other aspect of popular culture.

I found a similar receptivity to Western culture among hundreds of adult evening students whom I taught at Rutgers. Although their formal educational background was not as deprived as Cobbett's or most of the British M.P.s, these students often had minimal exposure to "canonized" literature. Surrounded by the commonplace, they preferred the best.

This admiration of high culture by educationally deprived people indicates a need for aesthetic satisfaction among those who do routine work. This was recognized over a hundred years ago by both the socialist, William Morris, and the Tory, John Ruskin. Attempts to level culture for the goal of equality underestimate human powers of intelligence and imagination. Some academics may consider opinions of the self-taught to be ill-considered or even inappropriate. But the originality of these views strike a blow for individual liberty by confounding what George Orwell called "smelly little orthodoxies."

Consider again the farmer's boy who serendipitously bought A Tale of A Tub and absorbed a fantastical allegory full of satire and parody. It stretched young Cobbett's imagination and was indeed "a birth of intellect." My reading at age seven about combat between heroes in The Iliad made clear the individualism of the early Greeks and their belief in excellence. Fascinated by Homer's story, I absorbed important characteristics of ancient Greece long before being told in a classroom that what I had read was part of a canon.

For both Cobbett and myself, unscheduled reading made the child father to the man. It led to his career in journalism and to mine in academe. It was self-education rather than twelve years in a public school which allowed me to complete the college work that prepared me for graduate school. The mature Cobbett boasted that "books and literature have been my delight." His intensive personal reading helped to develop that direct, vigorous style of writing which still holds a reader's attention. Knowledge imparted in classrooms‑what Ben Jonson called .schoolcraft"‑would have smoothed our way early in life, but might have cramped our individuality and led us along other paths.

JOHN W. OSBORNE is Professor Emeritus of History, Rutgers University. He is the author of many books and articles on British history and culture.

SOURCE: Osborne, John W. "Thoughts on Autodidacticism", Modern Age, vol. 39, no. 2, Spring 1997, pp. 190-192.

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