The Value of Self-Education: Following in the Footsteps of the Ancient Greeks

alex atkins bookshelf educationOne of the most pervasive myths of modern culture is that in order to succeed you need to attend an exclusive private college where an undergraduate degree can cost up to $350,000 — and in some cases, close to $500,000. The fact is, most families cannot afford that. More than 54% of students in the U.S. take on debt to pay for college education. As of 2019, outstanding student loan debt in America has reached an all-time high of $1.41 trillion dollars!

The truth of the matter, as many education experts have pointed out over the last decade, is that there are many fine, outstanding colleges — public and private — that are not brand-names that can provide students an exceptional education. There are many books on the subject, including Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be by Frank Bruni and Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope — to name just a few. But today’s post focuses on where you can go to get a free college education. That’s right — I said “free.” For inspiration, let us turn to one of the countries greatest statesmen, but moreover, greatest intellectuals: Thomas Jefferson. Over his lifetime, Jefferson built a personal library of close to 6,500 books, which he eventually sold to the Library of Congress. Jefferson was a lifelong learner and greatly enjoyed the company of books and the pursuit of knowledge by reading books on every subject.

“Well, books cost money,” you say. True. But realize that Jefferson was only following in the footsteps of the Ancient Greeks. One of the most learned and famous philosophers was Heraclitus of Ephesus who was self-educated. Heraclitus famously said: “I am what libraries and librarians have made me, with little assistance from a professor of Greek and poets.” Amen. So  if you cannot afford to build your own library, you can always visit your local library or read some of the classics that are available online for free (eg, Gutenberg Project, Digital Book Index, Bartleby, and to name a few).

One of the most passionate advocates of self-education is historian and classics professor Susan Wise Bauer, who wrote The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. In an early chapter she discusses some of her frustrations and the limitations of graduate school. What emerges from her reflections on graduate school is the importance of self-education following Jefferson’s example. She writes:

“Here is the good news: You don’t have to suffer through the graduate school wringer in order to train your mind — unless you plan to get a job in university teaching (not a particularly strong employment prospect anyway). For centuries, women and men undertook this sort of learning-reading, taking notes, discussing books and ideas with friends — without subjecting themselves to graduate-school stipends and university health-insurance policies. 

Indeed, university lectures were seen by Thomas Jefferson as unnecessary for the serious pursuit of historical reading. In 1786, Jefferson wrote to his college-age nephew Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., advising him to pursue the larger part of his education independently. Go ahead and attend a course of lectures in science, Jefferson recommended. But he then added, “While you are attending these courses, you can proceed by yourself in a regular series of historical reading. It would be a waste of time to attend a professor of this. It is to be acquired from books, and if you pursue it by yourself, you can accommodate it to your other reading so as to fill up those chasms of time not otherwise appropriated.”

Professional historians might take umbrage at their apparent superfluity, but Jefferson’s letter reflects a common understanding of the times: Any literate man ( or woman, we would add) can rely on self-education to train and fill the mind. All you need are a shelf full of books, a congenial friend or two who can talk to you about your reading, and a few “chasms of time not otherwise appropriated.” (Contemporary critics of university education might add that a Ph.D. doesn’t necessarily train and fill the mind in any case; this, sniffs Harold Bloom, is a “largely forgotten function of a university education,” since universities now “disdain to fulfill” our yearning for the classics.)

Young Randolph was able to build on the foundation of a privileged education. But his home course in self-improvement was followed by many Americans who were less well schooled-including thousands of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women, who were usually given much less classroom education than their male counterparts. Limited to the learning they could acquire for themselves once a brief period of formal education had ended, American women of the last two centuries kept journals and commonplace books chronicling their reading, met with each other, and took responsibility for developing their own minds. The etiquette author Eliza Farrar advised her young female readers not only on manners and dress, but also on intellectual cultivation: “Self-education begins where school education ends,” she wrote sternly.”

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Read related posts: How Many College Grads Have Jobs Related to Their Major?
Misconceptions About the Modern College Student
What Books Should You Read to Be Well-Read?

How Reading Makes You Smarter
Exploring Carl Sandburg’s Library of 11,000 Books
The Lord of the Books: Creating A Library From Discarded 
I Am What Libraries Have Made Me
If You Love a Book, Set it Free
The Library without Books
The Library is the DNA of Our Civilization

Related posts: William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
A Beautiful, Inspiring Letter to Borges, the Patron of the Great Library

For further reading: The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by Susan Wise Bauer
The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams

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