The jurist George Lewis Ruffin, a gentleman in his own right, (first black person to graduate from Harvard Law, first black judge in American history) opens Frederick Douglass last autobiography with some thoughts on Douglass' acquisitive intellect:
He has surmounted the disadvantage of not having a university education, by application and well-directed effort. He seems to have realized the fact, that to one who is anxious to become educated and is really in earnest, it is not positively necessary to go to college, and that information may be had outside of college walks; books may be obtained and read elsewhere.
They are not chained to desks in college libraries, as they were in early times at Oxford. Professors' lectures may be bought already printed, learned doctors may be listened to in the lyceum, and the printing-press has made it easy and cheap to get information on every subject and topic that is discussed and taught in the university.
Douglass never made the mistake (a common one) of considering that his education was finished. He has continued to study, he studies now, and is a growing man, and at this present moment he is a stronger man intellectually than ever before.
In the internet era, that message of books unchained and easily available lectures really should be shouted from rafters. I hope my son goes to college. But beyond credentialism, I really hope to inspire in him a deep desire to learn, and an understanding of how relatively easy it is, in this time, to feed that desire.
MORE: There's always the sense when I post about people who are self-educated that I am, by default claiming that formal education is utterly worthless. I'm not sure why that is, but be it known for the record that I consider myself a product of Howard University, even if I don't have a degree, and Baltimore City Public Schools, even if I had a rough go of it. Let us take as a given--from here on out--that the university has produced some our greatest thinkers, and will likely continue to do so.
I don't know why that has to be said. But evidently, it does.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power