Thursday, May 03, 2007

my education. (after Woolf).

I have found myself turning these words over and over in my mind:

...your education was not merely in book-learning; games educated your body; friends taught you more than books or games. Talk with them broadened your outlook and enriched your mind. In the holidays you travelled; acquired a taste for art...

I haven't been able to stop thinking about Virgina Woolf's words since I found a faded copy of Three Guineas in a dusty used bookstore, partly because I have, in packing up one house and organizing the new one, come across various books read and papers written over the course of an academic career (if one could call all those years at school an "academic career"), one that, like the one of Flora Poste, was "expensive, athletic, and prolonged." Her words struck a nerve deep in my mind because that education she describes - the education of the British gentleman she so scornfully addresses in her first chapter - is the kind of education I was fortunate enough to experience. I was lucky; I went to a series of schools with teachers that challenged me, who saw something in me, in my mind and in my writing, that I didn't yet understand. They taught me to care about literature, and to write. That I never gained any skill with calculus or with a lacrosse stick is a pity, perhaps, but one can't have everything.

Travel - thanks to generous and curious parents whose motto seems to be "Never stop learning" - brought art and history and literature alive on a different level from textbooks and lectures. It was entirely due to their encouragement that I found myself standing on Sparrow Hills, where Moscow University watches over the city below with its Stalin-era-Gothic spires, and thought of the scene in The Master and Margarita where they stand on that same place to say their last farewell to Moscow. With them I sat on the steps in the shadow of cypresses below San Miniato and looked down on the hazy colors of Florence, and thought of Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson in A Room With a View (later we would stand in the same piazza where Lucy witnessed a man's death and fainted in George's arms).

But not everyone goes abroad with their parents during school holidays, spends hours in museums wandering through the rooms lined with paintings, walks along dusty paths that wind their way through ancient ruins. This is where literature comes in, as a way to bring the world to life with words. I keep thinking about Umberto Eco's assertion that a library is more than a mere collection of books - it is a working tool, and my own response is that it is even beyond that. I think my library is, as I have said before, an extension of my mind, the filter through which I see the world, the lens through which everything I learn every day is magnified, made sharper, more brilliant. I learned more out there in the world, and in my books, than any classroom could teach, which is not to say I learned nothing in the classroom. I would say that the one gave me structure, a pencilled outline in which outward experience would fill with color, and life.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. Harbinger Books, 1963. pp 4-5.

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