Woolf on his formal education

Leonard Woolf spent seven years as a civil servant in Ceylon (1904-1911), seemingly a period of exile after five years (1899-1904) of intense intellectual life as an undergraduate at Cambridge. His explanation for this odd jag of career path offers a model of Education that’s worth consideration as an alternative to the conventional framework of academic success:

Compared with most scholars I did little work at Cambridge, if work means going to lectures, reading, and stuffing your head with what will give you a high place in an examination. I hate lectures and, as at Trinity the authorities did not insist on scholars attending them punctiliously, I went to few. I read voraciously both in Greek and Latin and in English and French, but it was not the kind of diet which wins you very high marks in an examination. I am quite good at exams, but the truth is that I was a really first-class classical scholar when I came up from St. Paul’s to Trinity, but nothing like as good when I took Part I of the Classical Tripos. When I took the Civil Service examination, I could read Greek and Latin fluently, as I still can, but I had forgotten all the paraphernalia of syntax and writing Greek and Latin compositions. The result was that I got poor marks in the classical papers in which I should have amassed most of my marks and so did extremely badly…

I am glad too that I lived the kind of life at Trinity which was mainly the reason why I did not do well in the examinations. It was, I think, a civilized life both intellectually and emotionally. My intellect was kept at full stretch, which is very good for the young, by books and the way I read them and by friends and their incessant and uncompromising conversation. The emotion came from friendship and friends, but also from the place, the material and spiritual place, Trinity and Cambridge. (Sowing, pp 193-195)

This reminds me of a favorite quotation from John Ciardi:

A university is a reading and discussion club. If students knew how to use the library, they wouldn’t need the rest of the buildings. The faculty’s job, in great part, is to teach students how to use a library in a living way. All a student should really need is access to the library and a place to sleep. (from Ciardi Himself, 1989)

So I find myself wondering if this path of voracious reading and conversation, in a setting that offers ‘material and spiritual’ support to the self-propelled Scholar, is still viable as a personal strategy? In retrospect, it seems a pretty good description of my own Education, in that so much of my path in undergraduate and graduate years was influenced by the riches of the locales (and especially by the bookstores of Cambridge MA and Palo Alto CA) and by the remarkable contemporaries with whom I spent so much time. I certainly remember professors and even a few courses that profoundly influenced my own development, but most of the real learning was anchored in people and places, not in curriculum and “training” as provided by institutions. Is that true for EVERYbody… and if so, doesn’t it suggest that all those committee meetings and strategic plans and disciplinary wranglings are mostly wheelspinning?