It is best for man to be middle-wise,
Not over cunning and clever:
The learned man whose lore is deep
Is seldom happy at heart.
- The Hávamál
It seems I always come back to this quote from the Hávamál when I consider the possibility of furthering my formal education. As a person with a Master's degree, I feel solidly middle-wise by modern standards; I've made a respectable academic effort, and yet the esoterica offered by a terminal degree program are outside my frame of reference. I've considered this degree or that; a MA in Ethnomusicology, Icelandic Studies or Celtic, a MFA in Writing, a PhD in English, a Bachelor of Science in Physics, and all of these are within my grasp if I want them enough.
Yet there is more to knowing than knowledge, and there are processes to the acquisition of that knowledge that shape the mind in specific ways. For instance, because I was raised a Jehovah's Witness, and because I have been Pagan in a world replete with Christian privilege my entire adult life, I cannot appreciate the Bible as the collection of desert mythology it is. Another example might be the way I was taught to view the work of William Butler Yeats as an undergraduate student of Celtic versus the way I was encouraged to view his work as a graduate student of English. In the first instance, he was an Irishman writing in an Irish context. In the second, he was one in a company of dead white poets who weren’t terribly interesting to scholars anymore.
So when I consider the possibility of furthering my formal education, I have to ask myself what the process will do to the knowledge. How would becoming a student of Ethnomusicology inform my drumming? Would I be better served putting the time and money of a degree program into practice, lessons, workshops and instrument upgrades? Who would I become as a result of formal education? Who would I become as a result of dedicated practice?
Worse, would formal education instil barriers to other kinds of knowing? The biases of a problematic English department might have ruined Yeats for me if it hadn’t been for my association with the Celts beforehand. And even my Celtic Studies degree, by far my favourite of the degrees and certifications I hold, leached much of the enthusiasm I had for the sacred Celtic and replaced it with the hard sort of knowing favoured by the academy. I think about that sometimes when I consider the possibility of a MA in Icelandic Studies. How much of what I want to know about Northern Europe might be stripped of its power to inform my spirit by six semesters and a paper? I would certainly hate to lose my Northern muse. Her footprint is everywhere in my work.
Anyway, I think there might be a thing in me that seeks academic qualifications for their own sakes or as a way to avoid cultivating the discipline of learning a thing on my own. Of course, if I wanted to practice nursing or veterinary medicine, I’d need to pursue certain qualifications, but that’s not what I’m writing about here. I don’t need degrees in Ethnomusicology to become a performance-ready drummer. I don’t need degrees in Icelandic Studies to become a better writer.
Perhaps what I’m offering here, by way of my own life experience, is a cautionary statement about process. Don’t just seek the acquisition of knowledge. Decide also upon the method. Don’t lose your appreciation of desert mythology because you sought to know it by way of a conservative church. Don’t lose Yeats to people who tell you he’s a dead white poet of little significance. Don’t study pedagogy when you could be drumming. Don’t spend six semesters and a paper trying to feed a Northern muse. Do undertake a university program and continuing education when nursing or veterinary medicine are your goals. Protect the thing in you that wants to learn by giving it the proper knowledge and the proper method. Protect the thing in you that wants to learn, period.
Does that make sense to you? It makes sense to me, and it’s what I’ve been on about in my own head this week while I’ve been away from social networking. I’m not decrying formal education, nor am I decrying spiritual education. I love knowing. I love the life of the mind. But I’m beginning to believe the mind and its life need more than formality to learn. They need space to wander, and self-discipline, and time. They need what they need, and we oughtn’t force them to endure what we’re told is most appropriate or respectable for them.