Autodidacts & higher education

An early-morning drive to work, low sun gleaming through the remnants of fog, Vivaldi on the radio: Concerto for Two Cellos, a deeply mellow, haunting work of music…and I tried to recall my first encounter with Vivaldi’s music. I am quite sure it was an old Angel Records LP of The Four Seasons in my parents’ modest record collection. When I was old enough to read, I was curious enough about the music to study the record cover, where I learned that Vivaldi was born in 1678 in Italy and had red hair. Our ancient set of encyclopedias (The Book of Knowledge) said he taught music to little girls in convent school. These details, which taught me little about baroque music itself, nonetheless appealed to me as a child who wanted stories. The music seemed to tell me stories, as well–thunderstorms, blizzards, birds at daybreak, mountain streams, slow rivers in the summer sun.

Because I wanted stories, because I sought information and details, I turned to what seemed to me the most obvious place: the library. For three years of my early reading life, that was the Yonkers Public Library’s “new” branch, which seemed impressively modern at the time and which had a fabulous children’s area.

Why I associate Vivaldi with colored light filtering through the clerestories of the library, I don’t know. That’s just how memory works. I also associate my visits to the children’s room at the library with the beginnings of a lifetime of self-teaching through books, music, museum-going, travel, art, conversation, observation, research, and writing. That connection is a little easier to make. Because I was an introverted child, I watched more than participated in the events going on around me. When I wanted to know more, I was often too shy to ask–so I tried to find the answers myself in the place I imagined to be the best repository of stories and information. It was also the only place I knew that could offer such knowledge.

This brief explanation suggests that I became an autodidact because I was socially maladaptive. Or maybe because I was passionately curious about the world. Or because the library room was so magical.

Any of which may be at least partially true. But what I want to say in this post–far too briefly because the idea deserves further reflection–is that while I work in an institution of higher learning and while I believe in the value of higher education, I also believe we can educate ourselves exceedingly well without college degrees. Lack of a degree can limit people in the job market, no doubt; yet some of the most intelligent, interesting, best-educated people I know happen to be largely self-educated. The autodidact has the motivation of personal passion and the ability to be directed by chance and interest, not just to be guided through coursework considered culturally or economically valuable. Most of my older friends have become wise and clever by attending the school of hard knocks and through their personal curiosity and inventiveness; they are true autodidacts, even the ones who actually do have PhDs…but especially the ones who don’t.

Can I go so far as to suggest that we need our libraries more than we need our universities? Why not? I think I started my “college education” when I was six or seven years old because I had the desire to know, the curiosity, the interest. My parents encouraged me, which helped. (For one thing, I could not have gotten to the library if my mother hadn’t taken me there!) Some of my school teachers were also encouraging, but their encouragement mattered surprisingly little. What made the difference was the reward of finding something new, learning a new story, adding details to a foundation of things that interested me.

One of my tasks as a teacher, a poet, and as a mother is to foster that element of excitement when I sense it in someone and to encourage self-directness in each person’s education. Delight: a crucial ingredient in learning that can take awhile to locate but that will motivate a lifetime of knowledge-gathering. Maybe you can find it at the library, too.

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Ambition & failure

Some of my non-writer friends are surprised to learn that I am in the process of trying to get a new book into print. After all, Water-Rites just came out! So shouldn’t I be concentrating on selling that book and resting on my laurels awhile? To be sure this collection is a “success” before continuing on?

Those who write poetry or literary fiction, however, recognize that by the time a book finally gets published, the work in it is “old.” We are already well into new projects, working on new ideas, using new styles to express ourselves, addressing different topics. If I were to wait to write new poetry until after my book got into print, I’d probably never write another collection. The economics of the poetry world are too close to what Lewis Hyde calls the “gift economy” to imagine we can stop writing, sell a book, live off of the income and then write another one. Even many best-selling authors cannot do that. Poets are lucky to sell 500 copies of a book. We write for other reasons. Need. Love. Ambitions of a non-monetary kind.

Like all artists, poets take risks. Sometimes the changes we make in our work are not well-received. Sometimes they aren’t any good. Failure, however, can be a most excellent instructor. Sometimes, to shake myself up when the writing seems stuck, I attempt a completely different activity. Gardening clears my mind, and gardening offers many chances to fail at what I do. I’ve also tried watercolor painting, sumi ink calligraphy, modeling clay, embroidery, dancing, piano, and many other endeavors. I cannot claim to be remotely good at any of them yet each of these pursuits has taught me much…often through my lousiness.

janis ian

Janis Ian, 2012. Photo by David Sloan.

Recently, Janis Ian–singer, songwriter, science fiction author, and philanthropist–offered the commencement address at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. In her speech, Ian talked about being self-taught; being a self-taught success. And she had important things to say about failing, as well. She said, “We are rarely asked what success really represents to us, or why failure is so demeaning.” Then, she admitted that she herself had always avoided failure but that at a point in her life when she felt unhappy with everything she was producing, “I had to learn to fail before I could find my way again.”

Her approach was to take ballet lessons! At age 33. And she was awful at it, but she enjoyed doing it. Then she attempted other things at which she was terrible, and she learned to overcome some of her fear of failing.

An autodidact myself, even though I do have academic degrees, I found I could easily relate to Ian’s experiences. The part of her speech that spoke to me most was this section:

“You see, I am an artist. I believe that art saves. I believe it is often the only thing that stands between us and chaos. I have faith that while the world is crumbling, art survives. So to feel like my work was a mockery of what I could do, that I was not living up to my talent…well, it was killing me.”

Art requires us to do our best, to be ambitious and strong, to take risks and –occasionally– to fail. To fail spectacularly perhaps, or just to produce a bunch of small, humiliating, stupid failures…like dancing badly in your own room where no one can see you.

But dancing can feel so wonderful, so freeing, so different from writing! It’s worth doing badly. Sometimes when we have less at stake, we find new methods of expression and new ways to keep our fears, including the fear of failure, at bay.

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The full speech is available on Warren Wilson’s site here.