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On Being Educated

A friend of mine recently asked me how he should go about reading Samuel Johnson, the great 18th century English lexicographer, a man of many parts. I replied: “Find a good edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, one you can underline as you read it. Then sit down, begin on page one. Read a couple of pages every day or so until you have finished.” I added that it would probably take a couple of years, but that was all right. Some things cannot be hurried—becoming educated is one of them. Some things need to gel, to settle for a while within our souls before we can appreciate them.

Education means paradoxically learning something even while, or perhaps in spite of, being in school. It is highly doubtful if many who have received high school or college diplomas are “educated.” They probably can read and write. But when they come to recount what they have actually read, they are functionally illiterate.

Many people, rightly, blame the educational “system” for this unfortunate condition. But some of it is our own choice. Johnson said that the best thing that you can do for a boy is “to teach him how to read.” Once the lad can read, he is free to pursue what is there to read. His mind can range over the curious adventure of mankind in its abiding search for an explanation of what it is all about.

Of course, the problem today is that even if he suspects that he ought to read something, no one can agree on what it should be. The authorities on the matter disagree as well. In taking up the adventure of reading, we soon find that the works in the ever available “great books” programs contradict each other. It is not a bad thing to read what is plainly wrong or makes no sense whatsoever. Knowing what does not make sense is often as valuable as knowing what does, and a good list helps orient us with exposure to good and bad books.

We are born with minds, not books. We are not limited to what we read. But we are limited. We are not gods who know everything by knowing their own being. The immediate origin of our knowledge comes from the fact that our minds are directed to the things out there that are not ourselves. Knowledge enables us to be more than ourselves with our own limited experience.

Socrates admonished us to “know ourselves.” This is good advice provided we realize that we can only know ourselves when we first know something that is not ourselves. The irony is that to know ourselves, we have to know something not ourselves. Ironically, our freedom is rooted in this capacity.

Where do books fit into all this knowing and not knowing? I do not speak here as someone devoted to or enthusiastic about on-line matter. Still, nothing can beat a bound book, a printed page. Books are physical objects, yes, but are also a window to other minds.

My copy of the Basic Works of Aristotle is falling apart. It was published in 1944. The back and binding are torn. As I look at it, I see what I have marked up sometime between 1950, when I got the book, till now. Marginalia reminds me that it is impossible to read Aristotle without learning something.

Writing for Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Jessica Hooten Wilson recently proposed a list of 10 books that one should read before leaving college. She includes Dante, Milton, Augustine, Flannery O’Connor, Frederick Douglass, Shakespeare’s Richard III, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dostoyevsky, and Virgil, and observes that:

To read is to become a seraphim, a polyglot, a beneficent hydra. We become more ourselves. We become better selves, better souls. We transcend being merely thinking machines or gluttonous beasts but transform into creative creatures who love, give, and are nourished by beauty.

I am myself addicted to forming book lists. My book Another Sort of Learning is about what is worth reading in the limited time we are here in the daylight, and contains my own recommendations. Other book lists will have none of the above on them. No list can capture all that matters, and this is why, I suppose, the adventure of reading is fundamental.

On March 2, 1737, the young Johnson was in London trying to be economical enough to make ends meet. To Boswell, Johnson described a friend of his who was “a very sensible man, who perfectly understood common affairs: a man of a great deal of knowledge of the world, fresh from life, not strained through books.” In this praise of books, I cite that passage from Johnson to remind us that knowledge in books must ultimately come “fresh from life.” Most of what we know from other times and places is first “strained by books,” otherwise we could not know them. But the book remains indispensable to us.

Education means both awareness of what is “fresh from life” and what is “strained” through books. We should not deceive ourselves into thinking that we can know everything. But to want to know everything worth knowing is no deception. It remains the goal of any education worthy of man.

Reader Discussion

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on September 21, 2018 at 10:21:26 am

Agreed. Also, books being the writers' thought, reading (worthy) books is how we learn to think; and being good writing, it is how we learn to write well. (And reading difficult and often contradictory thoughts is essential to this purpose). But now as in Johnson's time, books are the water to which we can be led but not made to drink. Parents and educators must implant the thirst if it is not naturally there already, and that task is more difficult now than ever, I think.

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QET
on September 21, 2018 at 11:32:19 am

"Find a good edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson" Ok, I'm convinced. But can anyone recommend one? Would be a nice time savings to get started right away, without trying to figure out the best edition first. There are probably dozens. Maybe hundreds. Or maybe the best one is out of print/have to find in a used bookstore. Thank you!

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Karl
on September 21, 2018 at 13:50:06 pm

"Some things cannot be hurried - becoming educated is one of them."

A friend (Mentor) once informed me: "most of us have a lifetime savings plan" as we don't like to go along life's road with nothing in our pockets. Yet he later emphasized, many of us may also opt to go along life's road with nothing in our minds. His observation had been made while commenting "on reading".

Surely, reading is not a passive experience - a good book, like healthy exercise, can give the reader that pleasant sense of fatigue which comes from having stretched the mental muscles: "Learn to be good readers, which is perhaps a more difficult thing than you imagine. Learn to be discriminative in your readings; to read faithfully, and with your best attention, all kinds of things which you have real interest in - a real, not imaginary - and which you find to be really fit for what you are engaged in." He that loves reading has everything within reach.

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Anthony
on September 25, 2018 at 10:12:28 am

I ran across an essay by Borges on reading Cervantes ("A Recovered Lecture of J.L. Borges on Don Quixote" INTI #45 (1997). Borges discusses our relationships we have with the characters in books---that they're not just strings of words but become our friends, which we have for life for they're always waiting for us in the pages.

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David
on September 25, 2018 at 11:05:00 am

“Socrates admonished us to “know ourselves.”

Christ, admonished us come to Know, Love, and Serve God, for only by Knowing, Loving, and Serving God, can we know ourselves.

Thus we can know through both Faith and reason, “If there is a union of a private nature, there is neither a third party, nor is society affected”, is an erroneous statement.

That is a statement from a counterfeit priest from a counterfeit go along to get along counterfeit religion, that denies The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.

“It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion, due to The Unity of The Holy Ghost.”

It is not possible to be an authentic Catholic if one denies The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, for it is Through Christ, In Christ, and With Christ, In The Unity of The Ghost, that Holy Mother Church exists.

“You cannot be My Disciples if you do not abide in My Word.”

Socrates is not The Christ.

There Is only One, Jesus the Christ, thus there can only be One Spirit Of Perfect Love Between The Father And The Son, Who Proceeds From Both The Father And The Son, In The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.

Caritas In Veritate; Veritate in Caritas.

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Nancy D.
on September 25, 2018 at 11:06:34 am

“Socrates admonished us to “know ourselves.”

Christ, admonished us come to Know, Love, and Serve God, for only by Knowing, Loving, and Serving God, can we know ourselves.

Thus we can know through both Faith and reason, “If there is a union of a private nature, there is neither a third party, nor is society affected”, is an erroneous statement.

That is a statement from a counterfeit priest from a counterfeit go along to get along counterfeit religion, that denies The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.

“It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion, due to The Unity of The Holy Ghost.”

It is not possible to be an authentic Catholic if one denies The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, for it is Through Christ, In Christ, and With Christ, In The Unity of The Ghost, that Holy Mother Church exists.

“You cannot be My Disciples if you do not abide in My Word.”

Socrates is not The Christ.

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N.D.
on September 25, 2018 at 11:09:16 am

Thank you, Father, for your witness to The Christ.

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N.D.

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.