Monday 29 June 2015

James Michener's "When Does Education Stop?"

"Young man, your sad story is truly heartbreaking.  Excuse me while I fetch a crying towel."

In 1962, a literature student at a prestigious American university requested an interview with the author James Michener.  He immediately launched into his complaint about how his professor had given him an assignment for the summer to write a 3000 word essay about Michener's books.  The author, irritaed by his bellyaching, gave him a card which a chaplain had given him during the Second World War, which read:  "Young man, your sad story is truly heartbreaking.  Excuse me while I fetch a crying towel."

Decades later, nothing has changed.  My husband's university students complain about writing their essays.  And they only complete them for marks, not for the love of learning.

 MIchener pointed out to the young university student that we he sat down to research and write the book Hawaii, it was a five year and 3 million word "term paper".  It is not the small tasks which prepare us for life, but the big ones.

What we need to complete the big tasks in life is a good work ethic.  As Michener explains;  "When I was finally ready to write, I holed up in a bare wall, no telephone Waikiki room and stuck at my typewriter every morning for eighteen months."  Michener's novel was not yet complete.  He said that he rewrote each manuscript six or seven times before submitting it for publication.

Michener pointed out that if a job should be performed, not in a half-hearted manner, but to the best of one's ability.  "Young people...frequently fail to realize that men and women who wish to accomplish anything must apply themselves to tasks of tremendous magnitude.  A new vaccine may take years to perfect.  A Broadway play is never written, cast and presented in a week.  A foreign policy is never evolved in a brief time by diplomats relaxing in London, Washington or Geneva."

In his essay, Michener went on to say that most adults will work at three different careers in their lifetime.  With each career change, comes re-education.  "Adults who are unwilling to re-educate themselves are doomed to mediocrity."  The author pointed out that after the war, when President Truman or President Eisenhower picked a military figure for a particular job, he usually picked one that had re-educated himself.  For example, the head of Michener's outfit, William Calhoun, spent six hours a day learning French.

Michener said that in the closing months of the Second World War, he worked with a group of brilliant doctors studying alcoholism.  One of them asked him what he was studying in his own field, the field of literature.  Michener was embarrassed to think that he was studying nothing.  The very next day, he started the manuscript to the book Tales of the South Pacific.  It was another example of "Go big or go home."

Note:  James Michener held various jobs in his lifetime including teacher, businessman, soldier and author.  He went on to write at least 25 novels.

A map of Michener's novels courtesy

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