In The Art of Fiction novelist John Gardner described the value of reading the undergraduate canon: learning the arguments that already existed.
One trouble with having read nothing worth reading is that one never fully understands the other side of one’s argument, never understands that the argument is an old one (all great arguments are)
If a young writer embarks on a broad, allusive novel about large themes, and it involves the hunt for a large, white mammal, if she’s well-read she’ll know that Moby Dick already explored it.
It wasn’t that Gardner thought you could not start writing unless you had acquired a bachelor’s; clearly many great writers never went to college, or did their best to un-learn what they were taught. He just knew that “all great writing is in a sense imitation of great writing.”
I got a reminder of Gardner reading Jon Grinspan’s “D.I.Y. Education Before YouTube”. Grinspan explores the “old-fashioned culture of self-improvement,” when very few young people had access to education. In 1870 America, wealthy young white men could read some Latin and play sport at a place called college; immigrants, women, and African-Americans had fewer opportunities.
The notion that we would generate “educated people” via education came a while later, with the rise of Dewey progressivism. Today’s MOOCs are just the most recent stage of that Progressivist impulse. It’s my impulse too. As a striver, I love thinking that I can actually make a difference by educating myself and being the steward of my own forward momentum.
But I can’t forget Gardner, either. DIY is empowering, but sometimes you need to know if the argument is an old one. It’s better for someone else, someone experienced, to tell you that you have to get better at something, than for you do it yourself. Kicking your own ass is, in the end, not as good as having someone else kick it for you.