Wednesday, September 17th, 2014
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1644 / London

Misspent Youth

And for the usual method of teaching arts, I deem it to be an old error of universities not yet well recovered from the Scholastic grossness of barbarous ages, that instead of beginning with arts most easy and those be such as are most obvious to the sense, they present their young unmatriculated novices at first coming with the most intellective abstractions of logic and metaphysics. They, having but newly left those grammatic flats and shallows where they stuck unreasonably to learn a few words with lamentable construction, and now on the sudden transported under another climate to be tossed and turmoiled with their unballasted wits in fathomless and unquiet deeps of controversy, do for the most part grow into hatred and contempt of learning, mocked and deluded all this while with ragged notions and babblements while they expected worthy and delightful knowledge; till poverty or youthful years call them importunately their several ways and hasten them with the sway of friends either to an ambitious and mercenary or ignorantly zealous divinity—some allured to the trade of law, grounding their purposes not on the prudent and heavenly contemplation of justice and equity which was never taught them but on the promising and pleasing thoughts of litigious terms, fat contentions, and flowing fees. Others betake them to state affairs, with souls so unprincipled in virtue and true generous breeding that flattery and court shifts and tyrannous aphorisms appear to them the highest points of wisdom, instilling their barren hearts with a conscientious slavery. Others, lastly, of a more delicious and airy spirit retire themselves to the enjoyments of ease and luxury, living out their days in feast and jollity—which indeed is the wisest and the safest course of all these, unless they were with more integrity undertaken. And these are the fruits of misspending our prime youth at the schools and universities as we do, either in learning mere words or such things chiefly as were better unlearnt.

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Ways of Learning
About the Text

John Milton, from "Of Education." Milton was raised to assume a place in the Anglican Church but chose instead to write in every major literary genre of the Renaissance: elegy and epic, ode and sonnet, drama and pastoral. Milton went completely blind in 1651 and, until his death in 1674, he lived with his three daughters who transcribed Paradise Lost while secretly selling off volumes from his library.

If the heavens were all parchment, and the trees of the forest all pens, and every human being were a scribe, it would still be impossible to record all that I have learned from my teachers.
Jochanan ben Zakkai, c. 75
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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