What we might learn about education and opportunity from Joe Wright

JosephWright Humphrey Carpenter describes Joseph Wright (October 31, 1855-February 27, 1930), J. R. R. Tolkien’s most influential college professor:

Joe Wright was a Yorkshireman, a truly self-made man who had worked his way up from the humblest origins to become Professor of Comparative Philology. He had been employed in a woollen-mill from the age of six, and at first this gave him no chance to learn to read and write. But by the time he was fifteen he was jealous of his workmates who could understand the newspapers, so he taught himself his letters. This did not take very long and only increased his desire to learn, so he went to night-school and studied French and German. He also taught himself Latin and mathematics, sitting over his books until two in the morning and wirsing again at five to set out for work. By the time he was eighteen he felt that it was his duty to pass on his knowledge to others, so he began a night-school in the bedroom of his widowed mother’s cottage, charging his workmates twopence a week for tuition. When he was twenty-one he decided to use his savings to finance a term’s study at a German university, so he took a boat to Antwerp and walked stage by stage to Heidelberg, where he became interested in philology. So this former mill-hand studied Saskrit, Gothic, Old Bulgarian, Lithuanian, Russian, Old Norse, Old Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and Old English, eventually taking a doctorate. Returning to England he established himself in Oxford where he was soon appointed Deputy Professor of Comparative Philology. He could afford the lease of a small house in Norham Road, where he engaged a housekeeper. He lived with the native economy of a true Yorkshireman: he used to drink beer which he bought in a small barrel, but he thought that it went too quickly, so he arranged with Sarah the housedeeper that she should buy it and he should pay for each glass as he consumed it. He continued to work without ceasing, beginning to write a series of language primers, among which was the Gothic book that proved such a revelation to Tolkien…

Obviously, Wright was a genius (though it is not clear that anyone would have known that before he started teaching himself to read a newspaper at the age of fifteen). It is not possible to use Wright as an example of the success that everyone can have. I have no intention of doing so.

But what about an illiterate learning to read his native language as a teenager if he wants to? I don’t see why that shouldn’t be possible for a normal or even a slightly below-average individual.

Whenever I hear people talking about the importance of “education” (i.e. childhood and teen schooling) I think about Joe Wright. What are we telling people when we pump out government messages about staying in school? Are we pushing success? In some cases undoubtedly we are. But we are also saying something else: If you can’t make it in school or if you graduate without acquiring basic skills you are done for. You have no chance.

I think this is a self-fulfilling deception. The majority of forces that keep a person from succeeding are 1) his belief that what he is told is right, that he has no chance, and 2) the fact that a diploma (at whatever level) functions as a license to get a job. I don’t want to fix #2 by outlawing it. But I don’t want my tax dollars used to perpetuate the idea either. If we would get rid of minimum wage laws and other barbaric regulations that punish people for paying other people to do work, then alternative paths to productivity would not be barred. People without the piece of paper could prove themselves in other way to employers.

The entire idea of schooling and education needs to be rethought. In the nineteenth-century education was valued and people would go to school when they could… and they would stop and work to help support their families as well. Under that regime of freedom, the US as an economy and culture did not stagnate but grew tremendously.

We act like this bureaucratic, tax-fed, legally-constructed road we have created is some kind of universal path to prosperity. It isn’t. We need to kick over the fences.

Applying this idea to just one problem, I constantly hear that some zip codes are ruled by horrifying public schools where graduates are not even literate. I hear from the same sources in the same context that the drop-out rate is a scandal.

No. Willingly attending a useless dead-end skinner box ruled by bell signals for moving into the next room is the scandal. No one should put up with it.

Preaching to those “drop-outs” that their lives are now doomed is crocodile tears. Their lives don’t have to be doomed. Stop trying to doom them. Point out the value of education and encourage them to find both jobs and means of learning to better themselves.

I do worry about one potential pitfall in what I am saying. Telling a person that they can still succeed in the future can lead a people to think they don’t need to work hard “yet.” Obviously, that is a foolish attitude. That kind of attitude is addictive with the “success” always staying in the future. I don’t mean to encourage such sloth in any way.


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