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.