“You shouldn’t try to be original; this is an undergraduate thesis.” I realized when my thesis advisor said this to me that my Theology thesis was not going to be the fun and exciting project I had anticipated. I had planned to do a research project involving the works of Saints Jerome and Augustine, connecting points and proposing conclusions which I have not, yet, in several years, found the exact equivalent of in any other scholarly work. According to my advisor, however, I am not qualified to write something “creative” or “original.”
To paraphrase him, if several other scholars do not agree with you, then it is not worth saying. (I can’t imagine what one is to do with the likes of Aristotle, Vergil, Seneca, Cicero, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Shakespeare, Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington, Edison, and all the other original thinkers of history if one adheres to that theory.) Apparently, I expended an exorbitant amount of money, time, and effort for four years only to be told that I have merely gained the privilege of. . .reading and repeating what other people have already said. Which is something I could actually have done just as well, if not much better, had I not gone to college. Remember, kids: you need a Ph.D. to be qualified to think.
This is, perhaps, the single most destructive attitude in academia. Now, I am not denying that you should consult and learn from people who know more than you do—that was the idea of the Scholastic method as first conceived in Catholic Europe in the Middle Ages. But, while the organization, precision, and back-and-forth style of Scholasticism is highly useful and laudable in its proper place, I think it can definitely be taken too far—and it has been. Whether you are going to college or not, every time you have a teacher or trainer in your life, the goal of both ought to be your learning all that you can as a student but also your eventually acting and thinking creatively and independently to address new problems and adapt yourself and your opinions to the facts. Truth and skill should be the standards by which we measure an argument, a piece of art, or an action. Frankly, I don’t care much about any qualifications except results. I have better, more real, and more logical conversations with the non-college-degree-holders in my college’s cafeteria than I do with almost any professor or student here. As far as my experience with academics and “experts” inside and outside of college has taught me, a PhD is primarily a certificate saying you have traded your common sense and ability to see reality for a pair of distorted spectacles through which to see the world.
Naturally, the response is that I am generalizing too much. I freely admit that the two best men I have ever known were PhD-holding college professors. I myself am very glad I was able to attend college. My mind has been opened to new worlds through the aegis of both professors and writers. College aside, I am a classical liberal—like America’s Founding Fathers. I believe that it is ideal for every single child to have the opportunity to be educated. But the problem with the latter mentality is that education is not what it once was. Even at good private schools like my own, the standards are far lower (for the most part) than the standards in the average US public school a little over a hundred years ago. The local public school near me assigned a hand turkey as a Thanksgiving project for a senior year AP English class. My brother was told by the head of an elite music school that the school’s top priority was diversity (by which she meant BLM-style racial diversity). My other brother took a test which lauded him for knowing as much as a PhD because he knew basic American history facts. Several of the medical professionals I have gone to over the years are some of the most incompetent human beings I have ever had the misfortune to deal with. Just because you have the tests, and papers, and grades, and certificates, and diplomas, does NOT mean that you are always—or even very often—right. Some of the smartest people I know habitually make astoundingly impractical and irrational decisions. Nietzsche was brilliant, but he was almost entirely wrong. Plato had an imagination such as few men in history, but his system had almost nothing to do with experiential reality. Intelligence, talent, or gold-edged papers do not make a man worth listening to—his actions, his results, and his ability to conform to and live in reality do. And we are at the point in modern America where gold-edged papers mean next to nothing. “Experts,” for the most part, have almost no real skills anymore. We have replaced facts with complicated theories and skills with diplomas.
America’s founding philosophy has the best of both worlds, I believe. While the Founders absolutely believed in working for a society where every child could receive an education, learning from the wisdom of the past (whether the subject was carpentry, history, philosophy, or politics), they also believed that every single man can achieve greatness in his own right. Why did America produce the greatest inventions of the Industrial Revolution and the era of technology? The Ancient Roman Empire was on the cusp of similar inventions, but they didn’t have the motivation, because they had too many slaves to do the work the hard way. In other words, America possessed the individualist philosophy and value for innovation which imperial Rome so totally lacked. Why are so many of America’s great men from humble or poverty-stricken backgrounds, when most of history is the tale of nobles, aristocrats, and the privileged? Because we believe that a man is great because of what he does, and not because of where he went to school or where he was born. Many of the greatest men in history—perhaps not in the history books, but greatest none the less—were from “vulgar” origins. The poet Horace was the son of a freed slave and the poet Vergil was born on an obscure farm. Leonardo da Vinci was the illegitimate child of a peasant woman. Shakespeare never attended university. Jane Austen was educated almost entirely at home and spent most of her life in undistinguished rural retirement. Abe Lincoln was born and raised in a frontier shack. Frederick Douglass was born a slave. Emily Dickinson spent her entire life shut up in her house. George Patton was born in an LA suburb and struggled to learn how to read and write while being homeschooled. Genius needs no diploma. Greatness needs no degree. What experiences, privileges, talents, gifts, or degrees you have doesn’t matter—what matters is what you do with them.
Listen to the wisdom of the past but remember that the past’s wise men were once the present’s innovators. Every man is made in the image and likeness of God and born free and, as the great Seneca said, possesses within him a “spark of the divine.” If you care more about the truth and about excellence than anything else, you are qualified to think. Of course, you will be wrong—perhaps very often. But you will never achieve anything if you do not try. You can be the great man or woman of tomorrow. You have only to begin thinking independently today.