My formal “college” consists of 26 community college credits, half of them in ceramics. I took two classes in cultural anthropology, fell in love with Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, and decided anthropology was my life’s calling–until I looked through our big city want ads and didn’t find a single job opening for an anthropologist. Not a single call for anthropologists anywhere, and since we were among the almost-poor, and I still had kids at home, I had to think inside the box.
I took a business class taught by a one-handed pianist who should have stuck to his night job. He invited our class to his concert and, even with one hand, his performance was flawless. When it came time to evaluate him, none of us could do the honest thing and point out his flaws as a teacher of business. We gave him high marks for personality.
I took two creative writing classes taught by an old pot-smoking hippie who wore chains and earrings and orange tennis shoes and who told us right off that he didn’t care what we wrote as long as we wrote something. I thought the guy himself was ridiculous, trying as he did to be George Carlin and Jack Kerouac, all in the same skin. So it took me a while to realize how much I had actually learned there. It came to me much later, when I was putting together materials to teach my own adult-ed creative writing classes: What he gave us was a setting where we could write and fail and get a huge kick out of what we were doing. He was a teacher without judgement but with a knack for finding what could be fixed.
I took a modern literature class taught by a woman I don’t remember at all–not her name, not her face, not her teaching technique. But through her I met Eudora Welty, Joseph Conrad, Langston Hughes, and Flannery O’connor–writers I might have overlooked if she hadn’t brought them (and so many others) to my attention.
And that was the end of my formal education. Whatever else I’ve learned, I’ve learned either by happenstance or serendipity. Being in the right place at the right time. Stumbling across something that got me curiouser and curiouser, leading me to something else that then led me to something else. (Unless I got distracted; then it was something else altogether.)
Living near Detroit I had access to some exceptional writers and thinkers and I latched onto them like a parasite on a host. I tried to drain them of everything they had to give–quietly, of course, without drawing blood. I went to readings and workshops and lectures. I joined groups where professional writers gathered. I wrote and wrote and wrote and eventually shared what I wrote. Some of it came out okay, and some of it appeared in print. People actually paid me for what I wrote. I got to put “writer” on my 1040s.
What I learned was a trade, but it’s a haphazard way to get an education. It’s not an education, in fact. Whatever it is, it’s full of holes. Great gaping holes. Great gaping embarrassing holes. (I couldn’t find Iraq on a map if you gave me a hundred bucks to do it. I don’t know what Pi is and I’m afraid I’m missing something meaningful. I only recently found out that Goethe is pronounced “Gurt-uh”. Can’t tell you how thankful I am that his name never came up in conversation.)
Now President Obama is pushing for free two-year community college for everyone. It’ll be an uphill battle, but I’m right there beside him, rooting him on. I don’t want anyone to have to take on the task of educating themselves. It can’t be done. They need teachers. They need campus life. They need to argue and debate, to be challenged, to be opened up to directions they might never have taken and ideas they might never have formed on their own. They need to be pushed and pulled and exposed to a world wholly outside of themselves.
They need to prepare for jobs, and we as a country need to pave the way. We need to build again, creating good-paying jobs for them to fill. We need to smarten up, and the best way to do it is through education.
We know that now.
Pretty sure we do.
But I could be wrong. I don’t know everything.