(Note: This would be part 3...)
And, indeed, I did get a lousy education, truth be told. I am painfully aware of how middle-brow I still am. During those early years of the 90s, when my friends in university were out protesting the film Basic Instinct (seriously), I was working on the road crew and trying to read my way through every book I had ever heard was great. I watched as people who were getting the education I desperately wanted, but could not yet afford, denounced it as nothing more than “sexist, racist, anti-gay” rubbish. I can still remember a college feminist patiently explaining to me how the majority of Western art was a series of “rape scenes”. Well then, goodbye to all of that!
When I finally got to university, I tried to plug all of the holes that I could, but alas, even when I got to the “good school”, many of my courses were rushed and shallow. I remember being told to read scholars like Clifford Geertz or Jacques Derrida without having read the people who came before them. Derrida makes no sense without Plato, and perhaps not much sense with him; but I was never assigned Plato. It was always assumed that you got the foundations somewhere else- maybe in the German lyceum. Friends often commented on a notorious lit professor at our university who would frequently complain in her Modernism course that nobody reads Proust these days- but never assign anything by Proust.
The end result is that I am self-uneducated. I would say that I’m better read than most of the grad students that I meet, but there are constant reminders of just how much I still have to learn. I can see the road, dimly before me. And this is the most frustrating part of it: there is a road there; it really exists! I find myself always reading backwards in my studies. Say, for example, that I am studying 19th century travel-writing and I notice how much of it discusses the sublime; this leads me back to Burke and Boileau, and maybe Kant; and then back to Longinus, and eventually Cicero. Ultimately, all of those “dead white males” were able to take part in discussions that went back for centuries. The more you read in the Western tradition, the more coherent it becomes. It’s not self-contained or hermetically-sealed- there’s much that is eastern in the western tradition. But it is a tradition, or at least it was until very recently. Learning it is the work of a lifetime.
I find that the only people who really think that tradition is throwaway are those who are themselves versed in it and take it for granted. For the rest of us, there is much work ahead, and surprising rewards that we were never told about. Why did no one ever mention Plutarch for example? His Moralia are full of good advice and lively ideas. Why was I never assigned Longinus or Rabelais? Why was my education so damned passive when the tradition was once so much alive? It is hard to know who to blame for the fact that this tradition is now as dead as Dillinger.
And who cares who’s to blame? Maybe it’s just that a liberal arts education now has to be too many things for too many people. When I took Western Civ, we had a 1200 page text; now the course is called World Civilizations, in covers the entire world, and the text is about 300 pages. It’s like watching a train pass: oh, look, there are the Mongols! And there goes the Renaissance! Everyone wave! However, my hope that things will improve remains, rooted in one fact: I know that I myself received a good liberal arts education and was still cheated of a good liberal arts education. And I imagine that, one day, others will feel that they’ve been cheated as well.