An old roommate told me that if one walks late into a conversation, one should listen for 15 minutes before speaking. The principle serves as a good metaphor for education, much as I hate to admit it. Because getting educated means preparing to join a very old, very big conversation. It takes patience.
I met this peculiar thing called “classical education” my senior year of public high school, just about the time I was teaching myself to paint and to love classic rock ’n’ roll. Something about the term “classic” rings trustworthy.
The summer after high school graduation, while I formed endless crab cakes at a local restaurant for rich people, I envisioned the Greeks with their flowing beards and wax tablets. Aristotle, Plato, Socrates. Billy Joel played over the kitchen radio while I chopped parsley, and I fell in love with his piano. The classic guys. I could stand to know them a little better. My ambition had three strands: Listen to rock ’n’ roll for the sake of your senses and soul. It will make you a better writer. Teach yourself to paint for the sake of learning to look at things closely. It will make you a better writer. Get classically educated for the sake of your cerebrum. It will make you a better writer.
More rumors of classical education wafted to me through the internet because I had started peeking into a classical college. Bent strongly toward getting the best education I could, in the way I chose, I picked up a paintbrush in my right hand while I blasted the Beatles. I didn’t want painting lessons. Not even an instruction book. I knew in my deep heart that an instructor or book would make me paint a still life of chunk of fruit, and I didn’t have that kind of time. I didn’t want to start at the beginning. I wanted to paint the human face immediately.
I didn’t know that my haste and independence would in some ways cause me to struggle against the classical education I was on the verge of pursuing. I shelled out $700 of my restaurant money for my very own set of Britannica Great Books of the Western World,and devoted a year to reading the Western epics. I waded through the underworld with Homer and Virgil, and walked with Eve and Adam through Milton’s Paradise Lost. Part of me wanted to get right to writing. But I had to read first. I had to shut up for 15 minutes and figure out what my predecessors in the great conversation of literature had already said. I needed to take time to fill my heart with the stories we already have. I needed time to allow the best thinkers and storytellers to build my brain furniture. I needed a classical education.
Be quick to listen, slow to speak. The lesson came hard. I stayed up all night with books. Later, I survived four semesters of Latin. I had to undergo the rigor of logic class before being allowed to taste Quintilian in rhetoric. Soon I came to realize that the Great Conversation was worth listening to it for its own sake, and not just to find out where I could fit a word in edgewise. I’m about to graduate. Looking back over my time at college—which has been full of paintbrushes, Billy Joel, and Socrates—I find myself a better writer. What’s more: I’m safer from my self-centrism. More and more, I love the stories that came before I showed up, rather than the sound of my own voice.