Books and Education

University—Payment for an education or money owed to the prejudice of a professor?

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A former art student once spoke to me of a class in which the professor focused on Plato, Kant and Foucault. That Plato and Kant possess both great truths and great errors is certain. That they are both worth mentioning in the same breath has been accepted, even if it remains debatable. But Foucault? What bad taste must one possess, what dissimulation toward one’s own intellect must one commit in order to name him as a third wheel in such a succession? Unless, of course, his philosophy is not to be counted as any kind of intellectual succession for the art student and more as an object of allegory for the way that philosophy, in the case of these three, can mimic certain techniques in art. For example, Plato’s philosophy could be the subject of a painting, Kant, the borders or perhaps the canvas itself. Foucault would be the vanishing point. It is easy for professors to teach a writer who tries to say everything in order that he might arrive at nothing. There are only so many hours in a semester.

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History only reaches as far back as the academic’s coffee keeps him awake.

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Some artists work in the public squares in order to demystify the process. They find the quiet too distracting.

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To hear people speak of children’s education today! One will often hear a complacent parent saying, ‘Oh well, as long as they’re reading something.’ This is not much different from saying, ‘Oh well, as long as they’re watching some television program.’ People who haven’t read enough are often too reverent of books. Since the beginning of the time that books were first being written, there is not a year that goes by where it can be said that less books are being written than the year before. The world is overfull of books.

With this truth in mind, many types have developed. There exists one type of person who never reads and wouldn’t care to. Another type doesn’t read and always regrets he didn’t get started on it, believing that perhaps when he has more time and when circumstances are just right he may pick it up in the future.

Another type reads for the same reason he watches television. The only distinction between his reading and his television watching is that his reading provides him with enviable opportunities to tell his peers that he ‘reads a lot’ or ‘enjoys reading.’

There exists a type who reads what is taught at university and trusts that the university’s professors have access to a line of knowledge that categorizes thinkers and writers by level of importance. The type who makes up the ‘university reader’ may be cleverer than his fellow classmates who merely adopt the opinions of their favorite professors. The university reader intuits much larger prejudices that have greater, historical implications and aligns his agreement with those. Certain literary patriarchal successions will find their home in the university reader’s mind and he’ll be able to tell you what relationship these many writers have with one another and how that leads up to where we are today. The even cleverer amongst this group will be able to recognize opposite strains of thought in a literary succession belonging to a different school of thought. He may even be able to tell you why he thinks it’s wrong. The university reader is, above all, a surrogate for different historical narratives in conflict. At his very best, he realizes this about himself.

There exists another type among autodidacts. This type of reader consumes so much text and so often that his mind is a poster-board for everything that has ever been thought in the world before him. Among the types, this is the one who is in the most danger of thinking someone else’s thoughts rather than his own. Even that which passes for originality is always suspect, for he has collected so many strong impressions, has remembered so many passions, that that which is most interesting or seems like it ought to be true is true to him. This is the only type who can be accused of reading too much. He is the one who would benefit from a book-fast. For his whole psychology to renew itself, he needs time to sort his thoughts, dissimulate certain information or maybe forget a great deal of that which cannot possibly mean anything to what he finds most valuable about his own soul.

This type does not often benefit from a peer who will recognize this and say as much. The peers of this type will all too often admire the dark circles under his eyes, his disorganization and stacks of open books, his many complete and incompleted projects, his canceled appointments and lack of sleep. Though this type might be rare as it is, even among this type it is rare to find one who makes the leap from eccentric autodidact to free-thinker (to use an unfortunate, much over-used phrase).

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To reach a point by which the last book can be closed and life can start being lived. Is this desirable?

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Henry Miller’s insight about books is, I still think, the most correct one. Having compared himself to terrific bookworms, with an upwards of thirty-thousand books under their belts, he realized that he’d hardly read one sixteenth of what they’d read. Nevertheless, his conclusion was that he’d read far too much. He felt that one should learn not to read widely, but how to distinguish between that which should be read and that which shouldn’t. The resulting list will be different for everybody.

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There is only so much knowledge that a man can take with him to the grave. There will come a time when every man searching for knowledge must discover this truth for himself—that most of the books he reads will be repeating things he has either already read or articulating things he has already thought and observed many times in his solitude. Some men will be satisfied enough to take solace in those books which agree with those ideas they came to on their own. But a man actually wishing to learn, not one who wishes to collect a great deal of erudition or appear learned, but a man who actually wishes to learn, will have to understand means of learning. He will have to figure out what his project is, first of all, and then how to search for its necessary materials. He must be a great intuiter of men’s minds, a great untangler of precepts and must constantly cultivate a clear-headed way of taking in even the most abstract concepts, all so he can retrieve it and figure out where to place it in the bigger scheme of his life. Only by doing this will it be possible to take any project further.

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One must learn great patience concerning texts. Some readers chase footnotes and references in books to arrive at the book they mean to find. It is often a book they don’t know they’re looking for until they find it, but when they do, how perfect it is. The patient reader will treat every book leading up to the one with the same importance. But this is not to say that he will complete each one and read every sentence with great care. Some of those books are read with just enough care for the reader to realize that most of it is not worth reading.