The Limits of Learning

OK, I admit it. I haven’t read The Vicar of Wakefield.

Beowulf_Cotton_MS_Vitellius_A_XV_f._132rI’m always suspicious of people who have that air about them of having read everything.  I’m onto them. Here’s why: Years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Indiana, I went to the library to work on a paper on Robert Frost. The Indiana University library was my Internet, in those days before the Internet, and also, to me, a kind of temple. In its seven million or so volumes was to be found, I felt, the collective experience of our species. Sometimes, I would just wander aimlessly in the stacks, like a mushroom hunter in an old-growth forest, pulling off the shelves these weird wonders: a fourteenth-century guide to courtly love, great monographs on the sand flea, grammars of Old Icelandic. I thought it wild and wacky, half mad, and altogether beautiful that someone would devote his or her life to the study of the sand flea.

But on this particular evening, long ago, I had work to do: the paper on Frost. As I stood there in the stacks looking at the library’s hundreds of books about Frost, an unsettling thought occurred to me. I knew that as an American male, I had a life expectancy of about 70 years. There are 52 weeks in a year. If I read a book in my subject area every week for the approximately 52 years left to me, I could read, in my lifetime, about 2,740 of those books. I didn’t even have time enough, in the rest of my life, to read the works of criticism of mid-century American literature in the library’s collection, much less those monographs on the sand flea.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille_Corot_-_Orpheus_Leading_Eurydice_from_the_Underworld_-_Google_Art_ProjectDo you remember when you first learned that you were going to die? Most people learned this so early that they don’t recall having done so, but I must be a slow learner, for I remember vividly when I learned that remarkable fact. I was five or six and watching a Twilight Zone episode on a black-and-white television with rabbit ears. In the episode, a girl in rural Arkansas or Kentucky or someplace like that sold her soul to the devil in exchange for the love of the handsomest young man in town. As part of the bargain, she had to spend some of her evenings running about the countryside in the form of a mountain lion. A few days before the girl’s wedding, of course, the handsome young man joined a posse to hunt down the mountain lion, which had been terrorizing locals, and of course, not being a sensitive, environmentally conscious guy (He would have made a lousy husband anyway), he shot and killed her. So, there I was, at five or six, sitting on the floor in my Dr. Denton’s and bawling my eyes out when my grandmother came in to see why I was fussing. When I told her, she looked at me in her no-nonsense sort of way and said, “Why, child, everybody’s gonna die sometime.” I lay awake for hours that night, aghast. Sometimes I still do.

For me, that later evening in the library was like learning that I was going to die all over again. I had come to Indiana University to become a scholar, and damn it, I was going to do so. I was going to read everything. Everything. I was going to become the kind of scholar whom people speak of in hushed and reverent tones. What that evening taught me, of course, is that whatever  I chose to study professionally, I could barely put a crack in it.

And my professors. My God! I had found them out. I still revered them, some of them, for their learning, but . . . that amazing man E. Talbot Donaldson, the great medievalist, whose lectures I was privileged to attend and whose memory I shall forever honor, didn’t know squat about sand fleas. Freud wrote in his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis about the trauma that kids go through when they figure out that their parents don’t know everything. He was wrong about that, as about much else. Kids get wise to us early on, and that’s a good thing, I think. It’s delightful to watch toddlers pushing the limits, probing, exploring what’s possible, finding out how far things go and when they break. Their elders should do a lot more of that.

But I admit that this recognition floored me. I would have to resign myself, forever, to being mostly ignorant about mostly everything. There is a magnificent literature in Korean, full of beauty and insight that would deepen my understandings beyond measure, but I shall probably never, ever know it. It’s on my list, but art is long, and life is short.

Copyright 2014, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. This little essay may be freely distributed as long as this copyright notice is retained.

For other essays (and cartoons!) by Bob Shepherd on philosophical subjects, go here:

For more essays on teaching literature and writing, go here:

About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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9 Responses to The Limits of Learning

  1. EC says:

    Ha! This post reminds me of a passage in Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary–a character in the novel makes almost exactly the same calculation. I think he sees it in a somewhat more positive light, though…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. robert okaji says:

    The more I learn, the less I know…


  3. Ralph says:

    Apparently you have not read the common core either


  4. Pingback: A Library Down the Road | Take Away the Takeaway

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