Wednesday, October 6, 2021


 What all of them had was, in the first place, reading.

Robert Conquest
Reflections on a Ravaged Century
New York: Norton and Company, 2000; 228-229

For people can be educated, cultured and so forth without having been to university at all—as with dozens from Benjamin Franklin to Winston Churchill, from Shakespeare to Einstein, to say nothing of the great women writers of the nineteenth century. Nor is this only a matter of genius. Even erudition is possible outside academe, a point illustrated perfectly by Gibbon himself, the greatest of historians, who did attend Oxford briefly when fifteen years old, from which, (as he tells us) he got nothing. What all of them had was, in the first place, reading. We all know dozens of people, especially from an older generation, who are as much at home in these worlds—expect in special fields—as their Bachelored, and Mastered, and Doctored acquaintances.

No doubt these were naturally inclined that way, or else brought up in circumstances where it was taken for granted. And, of course, they must have had some sort of preuniversity education that puts them above many university entrants, or exiters, these days. I think of such people (at random) as Julian Symons, or Roy Fuller, or V.S. Pritchett, or Iain Hamilton, the editor of the London Spectator (who left school at sixteen to work in a clothes shop), and of other major figures in literature and journalism.

All this is relevant, too, to the proliferation of business and management studies by which, in principle at least, a new business class emerges trained in all the expertise but deficient in education proper. When Leland Stanford, himself an outstandingly successful businessman, founded the university that bears his son’s name, he commented that the humanities (then) were important “for the enlargement of the mind and  for business capacity. I think I have noticed that technically educated boys do not make the best businessmen. The imagination needs to be cultivated and developed to ensure success in life.”

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