Once upon a time, I decided to learn Japanese. I had none of the usual practical reasons: no business interests that would take me to Japan nor even an academic project comparing Noh plays with Attic tragedy. I knew next to nothing of Japan, though as a child, my imagination had been stirred by the Mikado, and later, when a college friend persuaded me to read the Tale of Genji, my mind was haunted by images of beautiful men and women spending languorous evenings composing allusive verses to the moon glinting through tree limbs mirrored in an azure pond.
I would never, however, have dreamed of learning Japanese, were it not for a friend and colleague at Miami University, who had studied in Japan. Under his influence, I began poking around in the Japanese literary classics, and, when I stumbled upon an old introduction to Japanese, I began learning the characters and a few basic words. Alas, it was not to be. My friend went away for the summer; I returned to South Carolina not long after; and although, every few years, I read a bit of Japanese history or literature, my mental picture, which has fewer details than a college survey course would provide, remains a compound of the Mikado and The Seven Samurai.
Had I been passionately interested, rather than merely curious, I might have persisted, but, without a friend’s support and in the absence of a Japanese community in McClellanville, South Carolina (a village of 500), my idle curiosity withered like the plants sprung from seeds sown on stony ground. As I look back over a life I am tempted to begin calling long, I can see that my career as an autodidact has been directed both by individual friends and teachers and by entire communities.
From my piano teacher, Professor Brewsaugh, though I was his worst student, I learned to love and respect the formal beauty of serious music and never to mistake even the best jazz or country music for the art of Bach and Haydn. In high school, I detested Latin, because we wasted time on toga parties and Latin bingo, but I did learn from my merciless English teacher, Eunice Caldwell, that the rules of English grammar are as inflexible as the laws of the Medes and the Persians. She also taught me French, but only as a dead language with irregular verbs to master, so I was not surprised to learn, 20 years later when I ran into her by accident, that all along she had really been a Latin teacher. When I told her how mean we all thought she was, I thought the dear lady was going to cry, but she brightened up when I assured her that she was the only teacher who did me any good.
Turning 17, I grew fed up with high school and decided to skip my senior year. When Harvard told me they would accept me only after graduation, I sulked and applied to the College of Charleston. Perhaps it was for the best. I should have been lost at Harvard, but, in a school the size of a small village (enrollment: 500), I was able to lead a normal life. I could not hang out with an intellectual set, because there was none, apart from our highbrow discussions in French class. From my French professor, Henry Miller, I learned that there is a way of carefully reading a modern text without succumbing to the stultifying fantasies of the “New Criticism.” Before a class on 19th-century novels, “Henri” would round up every translation in Charleston, and when he found there were copies of Zola circulating among certain low-minded students, he assigned Flaubert’s long but unfinished (thank goodness) Bouvard et Pécuchet—a book I have refused to read to this very day.
From my Greek teachers, Kiffin Rockwell and Walton Morris, I learned not only a love for the language and literature but an appreciation of the purely pedantic misery that is required of anyone who wishes to grapple honestly with a text. This was a hard lesson for a conceited young man of Romantic tendencies, more interested in “the glory that was Greece” than in the uses of the dative case or the articular infinitive. But, as the Marquis of Halifax put it in a maxim I am fond of quoting, “the knowledge that is got without pains is kept without pleasure. The struggle for knowledge hath a pleasure in it like that of wrestling with a fine woman.” Both my teachers had been the students of students of the great B.L. Gildersleeve, and they impressed upon me that I had to live up to a great tradition.
The value of pedantry was reinforced by my last mentor, Douglas Young, who taught me not only that the philological study of text and meter is an intrinsically amusing endeavor that sheds light on every passage of Greek tragedy but that every patch of ground on which human beings have lived and died has its own story to tell the traveler who will set himself aside to study the landscape and listen to the people. Once, as I waited for Douglas to finish up with an undergraduate, I heard him ask about the student’s hometown, and, when the young man told him, adding that an “Englishman” (Young was a Scottish nationalist) would not have heard of the place, Douglas proceeded to give the young man a brief lecture on the geography, river system, and history of his native region.
I am equally in debt to little communities as to individual friends for introducing me to cultural traditions I might never have understood. For several years, I stayed with my friends Giuditta and Giuseppe Podestà in their study center (CIESLO) near Lecco, and, from them and their friends, I began to understand the character of Lombardia and penetrate the dense and mysterious text of the greatest novel ever written, I Promessi Sposi. It was through the Podestà that I met the late Mario Marcolla, who, though he had a firm grasp of English, took the trouble to speak clear, simple, and slow Italian with me until I could throw away the crutches he provided and walk on my own.
The distinction I am trying to make is not between the collectivist community and the free-minded individualist. It does not take a village to raise a child, and, when the “national village” assumes the task of rearing and educating children, the result is a nation of village idiots. On the other hand, no one really educates himself, and those who think they can end up either as followers of a guru or as slaves to one or another intellectual fashion. Libertarians, who pride themselves on being rational individuals, are less tolerant of deviation than the Inquisition was, and, when a libertarian does begin to think for himself, he almost immediately becomes the nucleus of a “movement” that imposes his heresy as a new orthodoxy.
As a boy, I read and reread the autobiographical novels of George Borrow, who may have inspired my early desire to learn languages. Borrow was himself the “lavengro,” the master of tongues. In The Romany Rye, the author enjoys the hospitality of a country gentleman who has spent 35 years studying Chinese—but only the Chinese proverbs and verses written on porcelain. His fiancée had been fond of china, and, when she died, he consoled himself by studying the strange characters on the cups and bowls she collected. It was months before he accidentally discovered they represented the Chinese language. He also discovered, to his dismay, that the only available books on Chinese were written in French. Having nothing else to do with his life, he learned French sufficient for the study of Chinese, to which he dedicated all his free time. This story reveals two important aspects of autodidactism: first, the danger of falling into eccentricity (the poor man would never know enough Chinese to read literature or philosophy); and, second, the fundamental importance of friendship. Whatever he learned, as a grown man, was a testimonial of his love.
Every significant literary movement is really a little community of friends who encourage one another’s talents and correct one another’s faults until they are thinking thoughts and writing poems they might not otherwise have attempted. I think of the influence of Belloc on Chesterton or, better still, of the Fugitive poets whose most creative period comprised their years at Vanderbilt and the few following years before the group was shattered by ambition, mistrust, and the influence of more important friends out in the Great World.
This is the irremediable problem in all programs of “distance learning.” Every week, it seems, I read of some Yankee-style shortcut to a college education, whether the University of Phoenix or some conservative-movement adventure in fundraising. Some of these projects may be useful today, when a college education means little more than a piece of paper or the mastery of a technical vocabulary that permits business and sociology majors to pretend to know something, but they should not be confused with what used to be known as a college education. There is simply no substitute for a community of discourse, whether that community is Aristotle’s Lyceum or the not-quite-so-ancient College of Charleston (founded 1770), where I still remember the smell of the early-19th-century houses in which I passed so many hours studying Greek, sometimes as the only student in the class. In those days, we boys, whenever we were not talking about girls, talked incessantly about our studies. We learned one another’s enthusiasms. A friend majoring in chemistry rekindled my previous interest in science, while he, to return the favor, signed up for Greek.
Such places no longer exist. My old college, absorbed by the state system, sends me a barrage of fundraising appeals boasting of how much bigger and better the alma mater is. Bigger it is, but not better. By the late 70’s and early 80’s, poor old Henry Miller told me he was in trouble for attempting to maintain the relaxed standards of the 1960’s. Anyone over 50 who is still supporting his alma mater is probably subsidizing the institutionalized enemy of higher learning.
The first dilemma families face is whether to send their children to any school. Up to a point, families may form a community of discourse in which their children can learn, but it is very difficult, as my Italian and French friends insist, to train up your little barbarians without the standards of discipline and study that are imposed by someone less indulgent than loving parents. This lesson, which my wife and I learned the hard way, is a principal reason why so many homeschooling families form consortia and even schools.
There is no simple answer. We live within a country that is as opposed to sound learning as it is hostile to true religion. However, while most Americans accept the fake and flummery that is being palmed off by TV preachers, state universities, and whiz-bang online universities, some students—in or out of school—do not wish to go out of this world as ignorant as they were when they entered it. They are the students of all ages for whom we have begun preparing courses in history, classics, philosophy, and literature.
We know that most schools and universities have long ceased to be communities devoted to learning; we also understand that the virtual community is a contradiction in terms. But those who wish to learn may still enter, with a little help, into communities of the imagination.
Classics here provides the model. Students of classics are required to learn the languages, history, literature, philosophy, and art of two brilliant civilizations, Greece and Rome, and I have for 40 years approached every other period and culture in exactly the same way. I used to go into a Byzantine phase, rereading Gibbon and Runciman, trotting out texts of Eastern theologians, poets, and historians. Eventually, the fever would pass, and I would find myself, once again, dallying in the fleshpots of the English Restoration or the Antebellum South. One miserable summer, I coaxed my wife into cooking dinners according to the prevailing culture of my imagination.
I created The Rockford Institute Con-vivium as an extension of my own method of self-education. I spend months not only reading Roman republican history and Latin literature but studying topography (the study of terrain and street layout) and art, until the point has come when my imaginary world of republican Rome has fused with the reality of Rome today. Few of our students may take this adventure as seriously as I do, but most of them read something. Many learn a great deal, and, when they go home, they know how to begin learning about the Roman Republic or the French Revolution or the Scottish Enlightenment or ancient Sicily.
For a week or so, we have formed a little community among ourselves, but we have also reached out to another far greater community of long-dead men and women—warriors and statesmen, poets and painters—with whom our minds have become almost familiar as we walked their streets and examined their portraits, stood in their temples and knelt in their churches. For me, these Convivia involve as much labor as pleasure, but they are my way of paying the debt I owe my mentors and friends.