All Commentary
Friday, May 1, 1981

A Reviewers Notebook: Continuing Education

If it weren’t for what Henry Hazlitt calls the autodidacts we’d be in a bad way. Tom Bethell, writing in the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of National Review, lists some academically trained fathers of the supposedly new supply-side economic theory, but if it hadn’t been for two self-taught women, Isabel Paterson of The God of the Machine and Rose Wilder Lane of The Discovery of Freedom, some of us would never have been prepared for the Gospel According to Jack Kemp.

Henry Hazlitt traces his own enlightenment to encountering a book by Philip Wicksteed, whose marginal utility theory as of 1911 coincided with what Menger and the “Austrians” were teaching. Leonard Read went to school, but it was Bill Mullendore of the Southern California Edison Company who first made him conscious that there was a lot of what John T. Flynn called “Chamber of Commerce Fascism” in General “Iron Pants” Johnson’s National Recovery Administration. The point is that we learn when we learn, and formal schooling often has little to do with it.

Ronald Gross has developed this insight in a book which is offered as a self-help “open sesame” to what he calls the “Invisible University.” The title of the book is, appropriately, The Lifelong Learner. The book is spotted with examples of what autodidacts have accomplished merely by making use of odd moments to pursue hobbies.

There is Cornelius Hirschberg, for instance, who put in some 20,000 hours reading on subways, trains, buses and during lunch time over a period of forty years. I find it hard to think Mr. Hirschberg could have worked his way through the first fifty-nine theorems of the Principia Mathematica on the subway, or that he could carry enough dictionaries and critiques at rush hours to master Dante’s Inferno in the Italian. But then, the New York subways were not always the shambles they have become since Mayor La Guardia’s passing, and I myself remember reading the three volumes of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga on trips to the Bronx and outermost Brooklyn when I was a cub on the New York Times.

Mr. Gross’ “invisible university” includes libraries, adult education courses, settlement houses, museums, churches, tape cassettes, correspondence schools, educational TV and learning exchanges as well as subway trains. A man named William Glasser helped him to work out the implications of his self-help theory by writing a book called Positive Addiction. When George “Shotgun” Shuba, the old Brooklyn Dodger outfielder, said his “natural swing” was developed by swinging a weighted bat six hundred times every day of his life, Mr. Gross knew he had something better than marijuana to cultivate both interest and happiness. The “positive addict” has his own way of getting a “high,” and if he learns something substantial in the process so much the better.

Corroborating Evidence

As if to prove everything that Mr. Gross has to say about self-help, Mortimer Smith offers the story of his adolescence, My School the City: A Memoir of New York in the Twenties. I had known Mr. Smith as one of the founders of the Council for Basic Education, and had always assumed that his reasoned opposition to sloppy “look and say” methods of teaching reading derived from his own academic experiences. But now it turns out that Mr. Smith was a school drop-out at the age of fifteen. How he eluded the truant officer constitutes a minor miracle, but from 1921 on through the rest of the ebullient decade of the Twenties Mr. Smith was entirely on his own. He had never heard of any “invisible university.” But New York City—in particular Manhattan Island—did for him what Yale and Harvard often failed to do for many of Mortimer Smith’s contemporaries.

In a way Mortimer Smith lucked into the beginnings of a literary education. Answering an advertisement in the New York Times or the New York World (he can’t remember which), the fifteen-year-old Smith, still wearing short pants, got a job as an office boy for Bob Davis, who ran a literary agency in between writing for himself. (In later years Davis did a column for the New York Sun called “Bob Davis Recalls.”) Part of Smith’s first job was delivering manuscripts to publishers. Often his destination was Street and Smith on Seventh Avenue and Fifteenth Street, where Theodore Dreiser had learned to divide over-long scripts into two. Inventing a new beginning for the second half and a new ending for the first, Dreiser often doubled Street and Smith’s output.

Mr. Smith was negatively impressed with the motto of Dreiser’s employer, Mr. Ormand G. Smith (no relation). The motto was “the worse the swill the better you can sell it.” Mortimer Smith’s own critical awareness was developed by his trips to the lively Smart Set offices at 25 West Forty-fifth Street, where H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan upheld the “point of view of the civilized minority.” The Smart Set, a forerunner of The American Mercury, presented such writers as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Eugene O’Neill, Sherwood Anderson and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Reading The Smart Set, the young Mortimer Smith could see that Mencken and Nathan had some. thing better than Street and Smith’s Nick Carter stories. But the real change in the young Mortimer Smith’s reading tastes came when someone in the offices of Alfred Knopf game him a copy of Floyd Dell’s Moon Calf. This book, about the out-of-school novitiate of Felix Fay, helped to “mark the beginning of literary discrimination” for Bob Davis’ office boy, making him “realize that the true novel is peopled by recognizable human beings.”

Mr. Smith had no “generation gap” at home. His father, a civil engineer with the municipal government, let him make decisions for himself. When he decided to use a lingering stomach complaint as an excuse to quit school entirely after his graduation from grammar school, the elder Smiths let him get away with it. The fifteen-year-old Mortimer did attend a few evening sessions at a Continuation School, but when they tried to force ten-finger typing on him he rebelled. He was already an accomplished hunt-and-peck artist. Technically he remains a fugitive from school, never brought to trial for violating the education laws of the State of New York.

When he took a job with a firm on Union Square that sold expensive linens, velvets and brocades, Mortimer Smith lost his daily contacts with the literati. But he continued to roam Manhattan’s streets in his spare time. He learned to spot the best neo-Renaissance buildings of McKim, Mead and White, and is happy to know that the White designs are still extant in the Villard houses, the General Post Office, and the Century, Harvard, Lambs and Metropolitan clubs.

Mr. Smith remembers with gratitude that Scribner’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue never objected to loitering. He was not a museum goer, but he loved the libraries. He went through War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov on long subway rides. The Op. Ed. page of the New York World, where Franklin P. Adams (The Conning Tower column), Heywood Broun, Alexander Woollcott (drama criticism), Deems Taylor (music) and Laurence Stallings and Harry Hansen (books) held forth, was a continuing education.

When it came to “things spiritual” Mr. Smith, an eclectic, tried all the churches. He didn’t like Ethical Culture, but he found much nourishment (albeit of a secular nature) at the Community Church of the Reverend John Haynes Holmes.

Probably because I spent the latter half of the Nineteen Twenties repeating Mr. Smith’s Manhattan experiences, I loved his book. It has “the feel of the rock,” including the rock on which Manhattan is built, and it certainly backs up everything that Mr. Gross has to say in The Lifelong Learner.

The Lifelong Learner by Ronald Gross. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N. Y. 10020. 190 pages, $8.95 cloth.

My School the City: A Memoir of New York in the Twenties by Mortimer Smith. Published by Regnery-Gateway, Inc., Suite 300, 116 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60603. 190 pages, $9.95 cloth.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.