Penman No. 366: A Little Learning

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Penman for Monday, August 12, 2019

 

I KNOW and can appreciate the effort (and maybe even the talent) that it takes to add two or three little letters to your name, which are supposed to suddenly make you look ten times more learned than you were before. For the record, I picked up my PhD in English back in 1991 when I was 37, a few years after I got my MFA (or Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing).

Why am I parading these academic credentials? Because it’s something I hardly ever do, or need to do—except when… but I’ll get to that in a minute. Let me just say, before anyone gets the wrong idea, that among the real, practicing writers I know (even those with PhDs), a PhD is worth about as much as a flyleaf or an empty page in a book. You can get a PhD in English or Literature or Creative Writing after a lot of patient study and writing a ton of intelligent-sounding papers, but the degree won’t guarantee that you can or will write an outstanding novel or book of poems.

Some of us spend an extra five to six years after the master’s anyway to go after the PhD, basically because nearly every university today requires it if you plan on teaching in college as a career besides writing, and because, well, some of us just want to study and write some more under pressure. You could call it the love of learning, which has become strangely irrelevant to many people in this age of tunnel-vision efficiency. At least that’s how I remember my own time in graduate school in Michigan and Wisconsin, when I would madly read two books in one day, exhilarated more by the obscure and bloody excesses of Elizabethan revenge tragedy than by any kind of practical expectation.

I recalled those heady moments when, a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a post in a forum I belong to, one devoted to collecting vintage typewriters, from a fellow we’ll call Dickie. Dickie shared an interesting note about his icon—the famously abrasive science fiction writer Harlan Ellison (1934-2018; that’s him in the pic, c/o Variety)—who used typewriters well into the age of laptops, and who supposedly asserted, as some typewriter folk are wont to do, that using computers to write was BS, because computers produced bad, lazy writing. Dickie presented himself as a writer—a claim I’m happy to accept and respect, until proven otherwise—and took Ellison’s word as proof positive that, well, people like him who used typewriters were therefore better writers than the rest of mankind (I’m using a bit of hyperbole here, but you get the point).

Maybe I should’ve known better, but I submitted a gentle rejoinder to say that, with all due respect to Mr. Ellison, that was BS, too—good writers adjust to the tools at hand, and I was willing to bet the house that 99% of all the best novels of the past 20 years, going by anyone’s list, were written on computers. I myself had gone through the whole gamut from handwritten manuscripts to typescripts to computer printouts, and while each technique had its advantages, nothing allowed revision—so essential to good writing—as easily as the computer. Tut, tut, Dickie messaged back: I had better rethink what I just said, because “I’m better educated about literature than you.”

That was kinder than what he told another forum member who queried him about the precarious quality of his own prose, which he promptly withdrew from public viewing, remarking instead on his critic’s mammaries. Still, it set off a little explosion in my head—not because it couldn’t possibly be true (I’d be the first to say that I know zilch about literary theory, for example, which went in one ear and out the other, and that I’ll take Maugham over Murakami anytime), but because he could make statements like that with absolutely no idea whom he was talking to. I was on the forum using a pseudonym (to avoid having to deal with “friends”), and even if I had used my real name, I doubt that it would have rung a bell in his insular brain. I could’ve been TS Eliot, Chinua Achebe, or Susan Sontag, and he would’ve said the same thing.

Again, I have an extremely modest estimate of my own erudition, and I’m not given to flame wars, but in this case I just had to let fly a salvo of demurrers to put a presumptuous, uhm, Dickie in his place: “If,” I said, “you took your PhD in Literature before 1991, published more than 35 books, and taught literature and creative writing for more than 35 years, then indeed, sir, you are very likely better educated about literature than I am. Back to typewriters, shall we?” After a pregnant pause, he huffed: “English is NOT my second language.” I imagined a worm retreating into its burrow, but before it could vanish completely, I posted: “Ah, yes, it’s only my second language—but there’s a third, and a fourth.”

I was tempted to ask, “Pray tell, and please correct this second-language learner if he’s wrong, but would ‘puerile asininity’ best describe your attitude?” But I let it go at that—the moderators kicked him off the forum shortly afterward, for more egregious misbehavior.

Once, as an exchange professor in an American liberal-arts college, I attended a welcome party where a kind-looking lady walked up to the obvious foreigner to make him feel at home. “So what are you teaching?” she asked sweetly. “The American Short Story,” I said. Her eyes widened in utter disbelief. I smiled and excused myself.

It really doesn’t mean much, but maybe I should trot out that PhD more often.

 

Penman No. 184: Degrees and Diplomas

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Penman for Monday, January 25, 2015

 

 

IT WAS with much interest that my eye strayed last week to a story on the BBC website with the headline ‘Penguin scraps degree requirement.” The article went on to report that publishing giant Penguin Random House—presumably one of the world’s most literate employers—was no longer requiring applicants for any job in the company to show college diplomas.

“The firm wants to have a more varied intake of staff and suggests there is no clear link between holding a degree and performance in a job. This announcement follows a series of financial companies dropping academic requirements for applicants. Neil Morrison, human resources director, says they want talented staff ‘regardless of background’,” the article noted. The report went on to say that leading accounting firms such as Deloitte and Ernst & Young had also relaxed their educational requirements, with Deloitte changing its selection process so recruiters would not know what schools its applicants had attended.

It’s a novel idea that sounds fair and makes sense, but I’m sure it will take some time before Philippine businesses catch on, as obsessed as we Pinoys are with college diplomas, especially those that come from certain schools. Just scan the Sunday classifieds in any local newspaper—for jobs of any real economic and social worth, your typical non-equal-opportunity employer will demand a piece of parchment from a “Class A” university, which will count more than any previous experience you may have acquired.

Arguably, that wasn’t always the case. We baby boomers belong to a generation—probably the last one—for whom gutsiness and scrappiness was still the best way forward, rather than degrees and diplomas. Just ask any taipan how many of them have Wharton MBAs. One of them whom I happen to know, because I’ve written his family’s history—Filinvest founder Andrew Gotianun Sr.—didn’t go beyond two years of college at San Beda, and had to drop out because of his father’s unexpected demise. His wife Mercedes, Filinvest’s other dynamo (Andrew was the visionary, Mercedes the executor), graduated from UP with a BS in Pharmacy, magna cum laude—but what led to her success as a banker wasn’t college but streetsmarts. “I made friends with the owners of banks abroad and convinced them to lend me their operations manuals,” Mercedes told me, “which we then adapted to local conditions. That’s how Family Savings Bank began.”

Indeed it used to be that you could get places without a college degree, as long as you had talent and guts (you needed both—just one wouldn’t have done it). Among writers, in particular, a degree was a bonus, maybe even a demerit, in those pre-MFA (Master of Fine Arts, the writing degree of choice) days. The old conviction was that, to know how to write, you had to know how to read, and the serious would-be writer read a lot outside of school without having to be told. The real test of the writer was, well, in the writing—in the quality and the consistency of one’s craft, rather than in the number of English units one could present.

There was no finer example of this than the late National Artist NVM Gonzalez, who never finished college (he did go to National University), but who went on to a distinguished writing and academic career here and in the US. The late journalist I. P. Soliongco was another such titan in his field. My friends Pete Lacaba and Krip Yuson, both dropouts by choice, deserve honorary PhDs for all their work as far as I’m concerned—not that they would care—but more valuable is the fact that they’ve been asked to teach and to share their expertise with younger Filipinos.

My own dad Jose Sr. also dropped out of college—he was the smartest kid of his time in our province of Romblon and could have gone on to become a de campanilla lawyer, but was too poor and also perhaps too confident in his abilidad to go the full distance, and soon fathered me and my four siblings. Seeing him write as well as he did—he was a keen reader of novels and magazines—I grew up believing that I didn’t need a college degree, either, to get where I wanted, so I dropped out of UP in my freshman year to get a job as a newspaper reporter. My younger brother Jess, also a talented writer, obviously had the same impression and did exactly the same thing, dropping out of UP before landing jobs with San Miguel’s PR department and later becoming editor-in-chief of the Mindanao Cross. I went on to work with the National Economic and Development Authority for ten years, even earning a graduate UP diploma in Development Economics as a special student and working on special detail with the United Nations Development Programme, doing project studies. I began writing plays, stories, and screenplays and winning Palancas, and felt that I could have gone on for life with little more than my 21 undergraduate units in English and 30 grad units in Economics.

But one day in 1981—after attending the Silliman Writers Workshop and falling under the spell of Robert Graves—I decided to go back to school as a returning sophomore, at the age of 27. I found school exhilarating, and later quit my job to study full-time, with my wife Beng taking up the slack. To be honest, it wasn’t the fiction that roped me in, but the poetry of Sidney, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, and James Dickey, among others. Having tasted such ambrosia, I craved more, and so I went on to Michigan for an MFA and to Wisconsin for a PhD, both on fellowships, making up for lost time (BA at age 30, MFA at 34, PhD at 37). I told myself that there was nothing more that I wanted to do for the rest of my life but write, teach, and spend time with family. There was, I must say, a great material and emotional cost to these degrees, which had I known it then I might not have been willing to pay. But with the deed done, I can’t regret the fact that these degrees have allowed me to move up the job ladder and gain the respect of people who haven’t the faintest idea what I do.

I finished college not so I could get a good job, which I already had, or so I could append little letters to my name, which I hardly use outside of work. (No self-respecting writer, as far as I know, has ever flaunted his or her PhD; you’d simply be laughed out of the place.) I did it for love—for the love of knowledge, especially the kind of knowledge for which there exists no practical utility and which is therefore the purest and sweetest, and for the love of my parents, who deserved some payback for all their hard work and sacrifice.

Make no mistake: I do agree with Penguin in broadening their search for good people to those without diplomas from Harvard or Oxbridge to show. You could miss out on a Steve Jobs, a Bill Gates, or a Mark Zuckerberg that way. But you could also always drop out of college, do your thing, and go back when you have the time to finish up—like Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Shaquille O’Neal did. Make that “Dr. O’Neal”—Shaq even went on to pick up a doctorate in Education in 2012.

And what about my brother Jess? He went back to school, too, earning a BA in Journalism at age 49, and a Bachelor of Laws at age 55. A published author, he now practices and teaches law, completing our father’s dream. Sometimes, those degrees and diplomas do count—for all the right reasons.