The books of the 21st century
by Brian Keaney
Ask me about my recent graduation and you are likely to hear me tell you about my favorite part. Of all the pomp and circumstance, splendor and spectacle – of which there was plenty – I enjoyed the conferring of my degree the most. This may seem natural as it was the culmination of years of work, but that’s not the reason why.
After awarding the degree, President Faust welcomed me and my classmates into “the fellowship of educated men.” I’ve boasted more about this fellowship than ever I ever dreamed of bragging about the university that made it possible. I go out of my way to avoid dropping the H-bomb, but anyone who already knows where I went has heard about my new membership in “the fellowship.”
That was a great moment and one I will not soon forget, but lately I’ve had another academic ceremony on my mind. When my sister was pinned as a nurse, a speaker – the dean, I believe – reminded the new RNs that though this occasion marked the end of their formal schooling, it was not the end of their education. There would be conferences to attend and journal articles to read, and it was important that they availed themselves of these and other resources.
For all the ancient traditions, exhortations in Latin, highbrowed discourses, and other reminders of the place we new graduates were expected to take in the world order, I don’t remember similar sentiments being expressed at my own commencement. I suppose that perhaps such an admonition would be considered unnecessary to such a group of academics and overachievers, but the obvious points often are the ones most worthy of repeating. That a commencement is a beginning, not an ending, is every bit as true at an Ivy League institution as it is at a community college.
I know just how fortunate I am to hold one degree, much less two. Many of my friends – and certainly countless people that I hold in great esteem – were never even afforded the opportunity. How many geniuses have been born in the African bush or in a South American rainforest without access to even a rudimentary education? How many perfectly intelligent individuals here in the United States cannot afford higher education?
Here at home, and in other somewhat developed countries, there are plenty of people out there far smarter and better informed than myself who have never seen the inside of a classroom. There’s more than a grain of truth in Will Hunting’s statement that a jackass from Harvard “wasted $150,000 on an education [he] coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.”
The fictional Will Hunting had an extraordinary intellectual aptitude, but the point is well taken. Since the time of Ben Franklin and the Junto’s Library Company, the use of public libraries to self-educate has been apparent. In true ‘teach a man to fish’ fashion, Andrew Carnegie devoted a large portion of his fortune to building public libraries so that every man would have the opportunity to better himself. The poor Scottish immigrant once famously wrote of his charitable endeavors that
I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people, because they give nothing for nothing. They only help those who help themselves. They never pauperize. They reach the aspiring and open to these chief treasures of the world — those stored up in books. A taste for reading drives out lower tastes.
By design, I’m rarely sitting down in one place long enough to read. I try to do so before retiring each night, but it doesn’t always happen. Books on tape are not new inventions, but I’ve never been a big fan of fiction. (Though I am now trying to read some of the books I was supposed to read in high school English classes – I’m currently on A Tale of Two Cities.)
Some day, when I’ve paid off the two degrees I have currently, I’d like to go back to school once again. I have more than passing interests in both business and law, and so a joint MBA-JD is appealing. It is also expensive.
In the meantime, I’ve been downloading a number of free podcasts from iTunes that are both instructive and edifying. The best part is that I can take them with me wherever I go. You can’t read a book while driving, mowing the lawn, or at the gym, but I’ve been playing podcasts from my iPhone while doing all three and more.
For example, during an hour and a half long car ride Sunday night I listened to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke speak at the London School of Economics, and Legal Lad opine on the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. In previous listening sessions I’ve enjoyed Stuff You Should Know‘s discussions of everything from saunas to James Bond, and the Wall Street Journal’s Your Money Matters podcasts on personal finance.
There are podcasts on just about every conceivable topic. I’m even looking into using material I will be creating for a new project of my own in the coming weeks and making it available as a podcast for downloading. I don’t expect that it should become very popular with a broad audience – by definition the subject matter will be rather narrowly focused, as a matter of fact – but if the goal is to disseminate information, and it is, then this is a great way to do it.
If he were alive today, I bet Carnegie would be an avid supporter of these podcasts. Some of the brightest minds from the most reknowned institutions (and some raving, but entertaining, lunatics) are offering their thoughts and insights for all to hear and digest. Their wisdom can be consumed any time, day or night, and absolutely free of charge.
These are the books of the 21st century. While they cannot and will not replace a university degree, they are a terrific way for someone like myself, someone with a desire for knowledge but lacking the resources to pursue formal higher education, to educate and better themselves on the cheap.