Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Encyclopedia Britannica Approach to Learning

Some of the recent things you've been saying and thinking about conventional wisdom have captured a brief time in your life involving The Encyclopedia Britannica, your experiences with it, and what may have been yet another shove you were given toward being an iconoclast.

From about the time of your years in junior high school and well into high school, thus the years after the ending of World War II, The Encyclopedia Britannica  was as much the subject of middle class family discussions as pianos.  Middle class families, wishing their children to have all possible advantages, were subject to significant advertising and peer pressures.  Your parents were no exceptions.  There were numerous occasions on which they led up to questioning you.  Each time they began, you were reminded of friends in similar situations, being asked if there were things they wanted to know about sex. 

You'd already had enough experience with using the Encyclopedia Britannica to know that citing it in some of your papers would get comments such as "Good" or even "Good info," and on a few indications even, "Nice source" but if you stopped at that one source, two consequences were immediate.  You'd rarely get a grade on the paper higher than a B and, more important, your own sense of curiosity about the subject would not have been fulfilled.

Even though you'd been skipped ahead a full year, you were entering a time when you didn't think much of what you thought of as your intelligence.  Nor were you satisfied with, as you complained to a counselor, "the way things were going."  Of course the counselor would ask you to expand on what you meant by "things," and some of your answers had to do with not being satisfied with the way your education was fitting together in a way where various subjects seemed to relate the way, for example, elements had affinities for certain other elements, or where there did not seem to be specific things you could study that would help you understand how to be a writer.  

You already had friends who understood they wished to become lawyers or doctors, and one even wished to move on toward the goal of becoming a psychiatrist.  Still another confided to you that he was going to give college a wide berth and go, instead, to live and study with Frank Lloyd Wright in order to become an architect.  One pal even said as soon as he graduated, he was off to join a band, hopeful of becoming a musician.  (You looked him up recently, discovering he'd been with at least two bands you admired, had experienced a change of heart about instruments, and was now, 2014, a cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.)  

You had no such focus.  You had, and still have, a contemporary book showing you how to write adventure stories and how to plot mysteries.  You had, and still have a book called The Favorite Works of Mark Twain, which was a gift for your coming-of-age celebration at age thirteen, and another book, which you bought used for twenty-five cents at a used book store, Volume II of Mark Twain's first memoir, Roughing It.  Beyond those three books, you were pretty much on your own.  

In retrospect, you argue that although you went on to the university, your most cherished university was the used book store near the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, and one other you discovered by accident on Santa Monica Boulevard, but only because it was near Spider's Pool Hall.

The Encyclopedia Britannica was at that time a respected source of information, its advisory panels packed with notable scholars.  Yet another expensive set of books offered a multi-volume, matched set of the so-called Great Books of Western Civilization.  You were asked if you wished this as a parental contribution toward your education.  You were stretching the matter somewhat, but you were able to say you'd read many of those books, going so far as to call parental attention to some of the shelves in your room.  "See.  Aristotle.  And look, over here.  Karl Marx."  And so it went.  You are still thankful to your father for asking, "Read, yes.  But what about understood, eh, wise guy?"

Conventional wisdom was close to hand for most of your life, sometimes too close, too tempting, too likely to be the reason for you going no farther in your quest to identify something you could not articulate, something the then equivalent of The Holy Grail.

Until you began, years after the fact to recognize the problem, Conventional Wisdom had become your stopping point rather than your starting point.  Conventional wisdom did not make you as curious as, say, your ineptness in Spider's Pool Hall or even later, when you were in gainful employ as a published writer and a salaried editor, still baffled by the intricacies of that most challenging table of all at Spider's.  No, not the pool table nor the snooker table.  Rather the table with no pockets.  The billiards table.

Gene was a short, overweight man who covered a growing gut by not tucking in his sports shirt.  He seemed to dance about the billiards table with a weightless grace, a man set on solving problems.  You watched him for hours.  After a time, he confided in you.  "If you'd paid more attention to this,"  he said, chalking his cue, sighting, then executing a three-cushion shot, "you'd not have fucked up geometry."

It was not three-cushion billiards that brought you to geometry, rather it was designing books, fitting blocks of text, arranging for margins and gutters and heads and feet.  Not that you had anything against three-cushion billiards, only that you loved making books look like books and found the way to do so, time after time after time.

Such wisdom of convention as there is needs to be observed, tested, questioned.  As you right this, resources you, as an avid follower of the Dick Tracy comic strip, could not imagine, lurk.  There are some in your pocket, some on your desk, some on your dining room table.  The information to which these devices provide access is often flawed, sometimes downright wrong.  Persons are quoted as having said things, but in fact have not said those things.  Even then, the things they have been quoted as saying are questionable if not downright wrong.  

Other individuals say things not in the sense or spirit of peer review, things of such questionable validity as to expand the meanings of fanciful.

Conventional wisdom is the latest victim of the loss of intrinsic value of information, of logic, of the ability of humanity to connect things of apparent dissimilar nature.

You have your copy of Writing Magazine Fiction, The Favorite Works of Mark Twain, Volume I of Roughing It.  You have a vast world of cynicism, an eye for mischief, an appetite for adventure, and a curiosity to discover how far you can see beyond the horizon of conventional wisdom.

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