The Education of an Autodidact V.3.3
Someone recently asked me who the hell I thought I was. I couldn’t give them an answer right away so I thought about it. I am a sort of autodidact, sometimes an iconoclast and a natural philosopher.
No one is a complete autodidact unless one is feral, we are all creatures of our families and culture and the times of our childhood, formed by the sea of bodies, events and words that surround us. We discount this implicit pedagogy because its effects become unconscious and mysterious. This is mythology, Jung’s collective unconscious, Bakhtin’s dialogism and Daniel Everett’s dark matter of culture.
In my case I am a creature of the mid 20th century white midwestern American middle class. My parents were both raised with the provincial advantages of semi-prominent families in small Nebraska prairie towns. They were born in the shadow of the First World War and formed by the Depression and the Second World War. After the war my father met my mother at the University of Nebraska, they graduated, married and moved to Omaha. I was born in 1951 in the Cold War, the third of four sons. Shortly after I was born we moved to Ralston, a small town outside of the city.
But if an autodidact is someone who is self taught and not the product of a formal pedagogy then almost everybody was an autodidact in most regions of the world before the 17th century. Public education only became compulsory throughout the US in the 19th century. I began attending kindergarten in 1956 and eventually graduated from college but that was not the source of my education.
I was born two years after my older brother and eight years before my younger brother so for my third and fourth year I had my mother to myself. My earliest memories are of bliss, she devoted herself to my entertainment. She played Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Beethoven on the record player and she read to me, her finger tracing the words, her voice in my head. I only remember reading as breathing worlds of imagination.
And then she stopped. In the middle of my fourth year on one day that began like all the rest she told me that she couldn’t play with me any more, I was on my own. Many years later I learned that she periodically endured depression throughout her life. I don’t assume that was the only explanation for her sudden withdrawal, she was an adult with an adult’s usual patience for the enthusiasms of a child. I had benefitted from the fact that she had limited her impatience long enough to teach me to read.
My father had a temper. When he came home from work he would sometimes beat us for being the children that we were. We heard him yell and beat our mother in the night.
And so she took me to our small town public library and my education began. By the time I went to Kindergarten in the my fifth year I was reading books intended for much older children. What captured my attention on my first day of school was the transcendent laughter of a girl named Susan. I studied her and walked with her to her home every day after school for the next three years trying to make her laugh again.
Then I would go home and read. I read books from the library and anything else I could find in the house, cereal boxes, the cartoons in the newspaper and The New Yorker, the captions of the pictures in Life and The National Geographic, the novels on my father’s bedside table. I read the World Book Encyclopedia on the toilet.
When I was 8 years old I discovered the novels of Jack London. The first book of his that I read was White Fang. The first paragraph;
“Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.”White Fang is the tale of a wolfdog born in the wild but captured and domesticated as a sled dog by the gold miners of the Yukon. Then I read The Call of the Wild which reversed that narrative. A dog in Northern California is stolen and taken to the Yukon to be sold as a sled dog. He is beaten and abused by several owners and eventually escapes and joins a pack of wolves. London effectively domesticated me and then set me free.
I went back to the library to see what else he had written. The card catalogue directed me to Before Adam shelved in non-fiction under anthropology. But it is a novel, a story of a man’s childhood dreams as recalled by the adult. His dreams were of a Pleistocene era boy growing up in primal turbulence, a kind of hallucinated recapitulation of human evolution.
“PICTURES! Pictures! Pictures! Often, before I learned, did I wonder whence came the multitudes of pictures that thronged my dreams; for they were pictures the like of which I had never seen in real wake- a-day life. They tormented my childhood, making of my dreams a procession of nightmares and a little later convincing me that I was different from my kind, a creature unnatural and accursed.”This was deeply strange to me, my dreams were not like this but it was consistent with the wilderness that London had cultivated in me. Could my dreams be speaking in tongues of the deep past?
After reading the first chapter I went back to the library to see what I could learn about dreams and human origins. I don’t remember what I read, I have a vague recollection of trying to read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams but that is probably a product of my imagination. I remember trying to understand the idea of evolution. I vividly remember the conclusion of my childish research. Nobody knew. Nobody really knew what our dreams are about. Nobody really knew where we came from.
I stopped reading and I walked into the woods behind our house. Everything was a mystery and I was raptured. I had been living in imaginary worlds but the world inside and outside was now infinitely more interesting. I followed a tiny creek down through town and into the country. I have never finished Before Adam.
In the weeks that followed I made one childish decision; that I would never specialise in any way. I did not want to be a scientist or a philosopher or a priest or a poet, I wanted to understand how science, philosophy, religion and poetry related to each other and more importantly how it all related to the whole of life. I did not want to lose the rapture of living in the world.
Western civilization was only 150 years deep in eastern Nebraska when I was growing up but it had left its mark on the land. Industrialized agriculture tilled the soil from creek to creek. Then suburbia paved it and channeled the creeks. When I was a child Omaha was a distant horizon of church steeples but by the time I graduated from high school Omaha had bulldozed past Ralston making it just another exit on the Interstate. Only blizzards and tornados could briefly interrupt the march of civility.
In the summer we would gather on an acre of concrete surrounded by chain link fence called the swimming pool. We wore surfer shirts, speedos and flip flops and listened to The Beach Boys croon about surfing a distant sea. Offutt Air Force Base and the Strategic Air Command was in a neighboring suburb so B-52s pregnant with atomic bombs constantly roared across our sky in their landing pattern. We read Mad Magazine cover to cover. Young President Kennedy was assassinated and the war in Vietnam haunted our future. A counterculture was forming.
I remember three words of those times that my parents used at the dinner table to discuss matters that were above our pay grade; cholesterol, Fiorinal and Buffett.
Research in the 50s and 60s regarding cholesterol pointed to the presence of saturated fats in the diet as a factor that could lead to heart disease. This was my father critiquing my mother’s role as the family cook. Fiorinal was a combination of aspirin, caffeine and the barbiturate butalbital that was then prescribed for tension headaches. This was my mother’s remedy.
I don’t know when my father met Warren Buffett but their paths often crossed and my father was influenced by him. Both graduated from the University of Nebraska in the late forties with degrees in Business Administration. Both were young stockbrokers in Omaha in the fifties when Buffett asked my father if his clients would be interested in a night course in value investing that Buffett was teaching at the University of Omaha. (My father declined.). Both worked at Kiewit Plaza on Farnham Street in the sixties, Buffett at his investment partnership Berkshire Hathaway and my father as the regional Vice President of G. H. Walker and Company investment firm.
By the time I was in high school my father had bought a summer home in Aspen Colorado and a single engine Mooney to fly there. I spent my adolescent summers in Aspen working as a dishwasher, construction worker and fence builder as it was transforming from a bohemian backwater of Hunter S. Thompson into an enclave for the wealthy. I was not impressed. I hiked the backcountry to get away from my father on the weekends.
In high school I wrote term papers about the engineer George Goethals who built the Panama Canal, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who turned out to be a tyrant like my father, and the San Francisco philosopher/longshoreman Eric Hoffer. My junior year science project was building a thermostat out of a bimetallic strip, a fan and a light bulb. My interest was not in the technology but in the idea of thermoregulation, a system of regulation by feedback.
But those activities were separate from my own education that began with exploring the woods. I would not read anything on my own for a period of a month or so as I tested my beliefs, playing with my older brothers and their friends and exploring new routes for delivering newspapers after school. I often took long walks alone in unexplored areas of the town and countryside until the aching in my legs was the love of earth. Then a period of research and reading would follow, promiscuously following my curiosity for weeks or months at a time until I had to test new ideas again. This developed into a rhythm of undisciplined research and active engagement that I followed for the rest of my life.
When it came time to choose a path after high school I wanted to delay college in order to establish independence from my father but after graduation I entered the draft lottery to go to war in Vietnam. By 1970 the war had been revealed to be a colonial fiasco, I did not want to be a part of it. My number was 167, high enough to be somewhat safe from enlistment but not certain. I applied for a student deferment.
I became interested in an small experimental college that had formed in 1969 within the University of Nebraska called Centennial College. I applied and was accepted probably in part because my parents were friends of the English professor who was the founder and Director of this “interdisciplinary living/learning community”.
On the second day of my college life in the fall of 1970 I was approached by the Resident Assistant of my floor who warned me that I would eventually be encountering many forms of psychoactive substances. He wanted me to know that I could come to him with any concerns of purity, potency or side effects of particular drugs. This was imparted to me in the spirit of a scholar of experience. He recommended psilocybin as an introductory drug and said he could supply a trusted dose and a controlled environment if I chose to try it. I did.
My childish determination not to specialize in any way might have been a passing phase had I not grown up within the counterculture and anti-war movement of the late sixties and early seventies which was characterized by the compulsory questioning of authority of any form whether it be legal, psychological or academic. That charged environment and a year of research and exploration into altered states of mind reinforced and reaffirmed that decision not to specialize. And in turn that determination, as undisciplined in nature as it was, gave me a mission and a loose structure that helped me survive what the counterculture eventually devolved into; a non-stop de(con)structive party with no ambition beyond pleasure.
My father and the expanding economies of the Cold War had provided me with enormous unmerited privilege and opportunity at the cost of alienation, cynicism and a dimming of the excitement of discovery. The counterculture of that time allowed me the opportunity to gain perspective on that privilege while reigniting a rapture of living in the world.
My freshman year of college was my most productive period of formal education and it was the least structured. The curriculum of Centennial College was a collection of interdisciplinary seminars and projects loosely managed by four full time faculty scholars and visiting fellows. Seminars usually lasted for two or three weeks but I participated in one ongoing seminar that somehow lasted through the year led by a young mathematics professor and the visiting fellow Theodore Jorgensen, a physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project.
In the first week of the seminar someone proposed that we study the reports of the Macy conferences, a series of interdisciplinary meetings of scholars in New York in the forties and fifties. Participants in those conferences included Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, Warren McCulloch, Walter Pitts, Claude Shannon, John Von Neumann, Heinz Von Foerster and Norbert Weiner. We soon narrowed our focus to the study of cybernetics and systems theory which is what the conferences had became famous for. This was my introduction to an interdisciplinary methodology and practice that I would study on my own for decades to come. My project for the seminar was an attempt to apply formulations of cybernetics and entropy to psychology and sociology.
My independent reading focused on Asian studies starting with Zen Buddhism and the writings of Alan Watts, through Transcendental Meditation, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Taoist philosophy of Lao Tzu. At first this was motivated by a desire to gain a perspective from outside of the Western canon but it also became motivated by a search for internal peace and balance. The unrequited and immature infatuations of my childhood had endured and intensified in adolescence and I experienced that as unending pain. Zen practice, meditation and marijuana became my remedies.
That first year of college was also the fulcrum of my late adolescent moral development with its characteristic experimental swings between absolutism and relativism. These ideas were hashed out in long late night conversations with the grad student, night custodian and the conscience of Centennial College, Ron Kurtenbach, who later received a Phd. in English and became the voice of socialism in Nebraska politics. Over the course of the year I discovered that for me work could become my primary means of exploring morality. This was enforced by the fact that at the end of the academic year I was expelled from Centennial College (but not from the University) for stashing marijuana in a commuter room.
My father wanted me to spend the summer in Aspen but I refused and rented a room in a cooperative house and got a job on the grounds crew at the University. Work became the means of obtaining independence, self reliance and self respect. But even in the form of menial minimum wage jobs work gradually became much more than that. It became a measure of worth and merit. It expressed the duty of service to others and to something larger than myself and it enforced the humility of Zen practice. It was the structure that enabled social engagement, camaraderie, friendship and relationships. And it became the laboratory for the conscious and subconscious testing of my interdisciplinary theories.
No one job could fulfill all of those requirements so over a period of four years I had over twenty jobs, quitting when I got bored and finding new ones, usually two or three at a time while also taking classes. Construction work, gas station attendant, pizza delivery, selling concessions in the stands at Nebraska football games, cashier at the student union, hotel desk clerk, custodian at the University theater (where I watched plays develop from casting to opening night), kennelman at the Human Society, pickup driver for the Salvation Army, home care worker. Work as spiritual service became an essential habit that structured the rest of my life.
My friends in Centennial College thought I had bottomed out, they could not imagine why I chose to work when my father could finance my way into an academic career. I could not imagine how they could limit their future to the obscure jargon of narrow graduate programs.
In my sophomore year I took entry level survey courses in as many different departments as I could manage from hard science to social science and the arts. I also took an entry level class in journalism and was hired as a reporter for the student paper, The Daily Nebraskan. I had been reading newspapers since I was a child and the style of writing was second nature to me. I was on the counterculture beat, covering anti-war demonstrations and the social issues on campus and had many bylines on the front page. But for me this was another level of work, one that I aspired to but it was not fulfilled by the limitations of journalism even as I experimented with the tropes of New Journalism exemplified by the works of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer. I was seeking broader experience to express a broader perspective.
By the end of my sophomore year I was supporting myself but my father was still paying for my tuition. I quit the University to become completely independent from him and enrolled in the local community college to gain practical skills. I was the first student in the Environmental Technology Program and graduated in three semesters with rudimentary experience in statistical, laboratory and research methodologies. I moved to Iowa City with the idea of studying writing in the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop. I got job as a clerk in the Health Science Library and as an orderly working with developmentally disabled children in the residential school at the University Hospitals. After a year of classes in fiction and nonfiction writing as well as courses in biology, philosophy and anthropology I was accepted into the undergraduate fiction workshop. I found the workshop process engaging but writing fiction did not give me a form to explore all of my ideas.
I was one year away from graduation but only if I applied myself to one discipline. That prospect profoundly depressed me, it was the exact opposite direction I wanted to go to gain experience in the wider world.
I had learned that I was a writer. But I was a writer that was uninterested in using an established idiom like journalism or fiction or in earning a living as a writer. Writing to me was not the means to an end, it was the act of creation, an expression of the cutting edge of evolution. I only wanted to write a few good things and I had not yet found my idiom. I wanted to live and work in spiritual service to the world and write when something needed to be said. I bought a car and headed for California.