I got a great education, almost entirely for free. Realizing this now, I consider myself very fortunate.
But I want to talk mostly about my parents — Alan W. and Elinor Handy Smith (how I miss them!) — and their influence on me. Again, I was very fortunate. How much so I have grown to appreciate over the years. Posthumously, as it were.
Intuition and critical thinking skills. The ability to do mental work requiring great effort. To pursue an area of study: languages or mathematics, for instance; the principles and rules of composition and rhetoric.
To persist in research. The laborious undertaking (only a practitioner can appreciate this) of translation.
Sculpting a piece of writing. Perfecting it and trying to ensure comprehensiveness and accuracy.
Intellectual colloquy. Listening ability. The ability to assimilate and weigh contrary opinions. (How much I have enjoyed this with cherished friends. Incalculable.)
So called emotional intelligence. And what my former therapist, Dr. Colp, called “rapid insight.” He complimented me, saying I had it.
These are gifts which I was bequeathed. This being the case, I made the best of them. I am proud of this and, like Walt Whitman, feel entitled to be “no more modest than immodest.”
My mother. She had a “preternatural” intuitive faculty. Great insight. Emotional sensitivity like that of Dr. Colp, the practitioner of medicine and man of science who was a deep thinker (and a writer as well as physician) with keen analytical abilities; and, at the same time, like my parents, the opposite of emotionally clueless. He never lost or left at the door his humanity.
I must have gotten my memory from my mother. She recalled emotionally significant situations, people, incidents in novelistic detail–minute detail. Something amusing or significant from her youth or young adulthood. Elementary school teachers. Relatives (aunts). Funny things they said or did. Wisdom from her father. Books she read and loved (from both childhood and later, e.g., Little Women, All the King’s Men), words and incidents. She would quote lines and passages from memory, as can I.
Humorous things she remembered and recounted. The oddities and peculiarities of a person. Related as might a Melville with his Bildad and Peleg and Peter Coffin of the Spouter-Inn.
My father. Blessed with native intelligence. A lover of learning, meaning, as was the case with me, intellectual immersion and challenge. For its own sake. (He would recount the sheer pleasure he took in certain school subjects and areas of study.) He was the first in his nuclear family to attend a four year college. Like me, valuing it mostly for intellectual enrichment, rather than regarding a degree as a steppingstone. (The same very true of my mother.)
Insight combined with intellect (rationality). (Thinking mostly of my father.)
My parents’ keen aesthetic sense. They both had it and transmitted this to me and my siblings, who all have it, in spades. This was perhaps the most important thing of all. My mother majored in Fine Arts in college, my father in Music.
Like Dr. Colp, who had every right to be presumptuous, my parents did not seem to care that much about degrees or credentials. Other than being proud, implicitly, of having graduated from prestigious schools. It was the same with me (insofar as regards how I valued having a degree).
The following is a final point or points which I believe are critical.
The abilities I acquired should not be taken for granted. As I have said, they were inherited. But they had to be developed.
Most people, I would guess, think college is everything. The school one attends, what one majors in. This is not quite true. For me, at least. I think also for my Dad (a Harvard graduate). It was quite interesting to see his high school transcript and to find about the languages he studied and how he excelled in math (as did I). He studied Latin and French! (And German in college.) I never knew it.
College (for me) was greatly enriching and intellectually broadening and stimulating, an intellectual finishing school. But high school–early adolescence– in contrast, was foundational, critical. Made all the difference. (A nod to Robert Frost.)
French. Latin. Le subjonctif. Declensions and conjugations.
Magna cum celeritate. Castra ponere. Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Corneille and Racine.
Algebra I and II. Theorems and proofs. Quadratic and simultaneous equations. Cartesian coordinates. Logarithms.
English class. Writing essays in first period. Like pulling teeth, as they say. Coming up with something to say. Trying not to make a fool of oneself.
Lucubration. Intellectual effort.
Workshops and discussion groups in my church youth group.
I have often thought of Samuel Johnson in this regard. Like me, he got an excellent primary school education. But you know what the most important period was? His adolescence. Not his year at Oxford. The influence of his cousin Cornelius Ford, whom he boarded with for a year or two beginning at age sixteen. See W. Jackson Bate’s magnificent biography of Johnson. With Ford’s example and from conversation with him came the brilliant Johnson– scholar, writer. and conversationalist — whom we meet in Boswell’s Life.
– posted by Roger W. Smith