Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

The Most Well-Educated Man I Ever Knew

Revilo Pendleton Oliver, 1981

by Revilo P. Oliver (pictured)

THE UNITED STATES HAS BECOME a nation of boobs. This is partly the work of the public boob-hatcheries, which operate to prevent their victims from being educated. After a brain has been soaked and pickled in “One World” pus, it becomes incapable of coherent thought about the real world, and so irremediably credulous that it will believe in the equality of races, the Holohoax, ‘parapsychology,’ astral influences, spooks, and every other kind of claptrap that violates common sense.

We all have to educate ourselves. The function of genuine schools is to impart, at the earliest possible age, the essentials which cannot be easily learned without a teacher: language, mathematics, and scientific method (which requires a fairly good laboratory). A youth thus equipped can then learn whatever he wants to know. Time in school is really wasted by such subjects as English literature, history, “sociology,” etc., which can be mastered by anyone willing to read the requisite books.

I suppose that the most widely learned man I have known, i.e., one who had extensive knowledge of the greatest number of fields of study, was a man who left high school in his second year. His name was Jack Macbeth and he was middle aged when I met him in Chicago around 1930. He had worked out, years before, a satisfactory mode of life for himself. He rented a loft in an old building on Wabash, as I remember, for which he probably paid little, since tenancy reduced the cost of insurance for the owner. The hall was bare: a crude podium for a speaker and rows of folding chairs, doubtless discarded by some business and obtained for almost nothing. At the back was a cot on which Macbeth slept.

He operated what he called on the sign outside the separate stairway (written in Greek letters!) “Hobo College.” On two nights a week, as I recall, an audience, chiefly hobos from the hobo-jungles near the railway yards, would come to hear a lecture on some cultural subject and pay twenty-five cents admission. Macbeth obtained his lecturers from the young faculty members of the University of Chicago, Northwestern, and the lesser universities in the city, who were glad to address an audience on their own subject of study and hear themselves talk. Sometimes Macbeth obtained really distinguished men, e.g. Professor William Edgerton, who succeeded Breasted in Egyptology.

The income from his “college” sufficed to maintain Macbeth, who lived as parsimoniously as anyone I have ever known. I doubt that he ever spent five cents to buy a cup of coffee for a lecturer, who, of course, paid for his own transportation. He obtained lecturers for one or two five-cent telephone calls, since he could flatter them by showing an almost expert knowledge of their field, and would urge the importance of what is now called “continuing education” for the poor.

He ate at the cheapest restaurants, and bought only a minimum of respectable clothing. But he had almost the whole of six days a week free, and these he spent in the Crerar and Newberry Libraries, from opening time to closing time, reading assiduously and storing a phenomenally capacious memory. A decade or two of this will do wonders. It was impossible to mention a subject of which he was ignorant. He was, as I have said, the most widely educated man I have known.

Today, I doubt that you could find a university professor or even instructor who would think of giving a lecture without a suitable fee (‘honorarium’). And such audiences could not be found anywhere. All the hobos have long since been corralled by “democratic” despotism.

It was an experience to face an audience of perhaps a hundred, of whom ninety were obviously bums, some even with straw in their hair or on their shabby garments, see them listen attentively to rational discourse on some intellectual subject, and hear them after the lecture ask questions that were almost invariably intelligent. They were living the life they preferred, however squalid and repulsive it may seem to you and me. And there were doubtless unrecorded tragedies among them. Professor Edgerton told me that after he lectured on Ancient Egypt, he was asked questions by one hobo who must have had some knowledge of hieroglyphics.

Equally significant is the fact that Macbeth needed to do no advertising. Once “Hobo College” became known, word about it evidently spread among the hobos, and he always had an audience of a hundred or more, of whom no more than ten were respectable men who had discovered a pleasant way of spending an evening. The hobos always drifted from place to place by stealing rides on freight trains, and were seldom in one place for more than two or three days, but many in Macbeth’s audiences would return when they next came to Chicago, months or years later.

It would be hard today to assemble a comparable audience, intelligent and willing to learn, anywhere. At the local university, highly paid lecturers are brought in, advertised through the university mail; and an audience is given coffee and cookies after each lecture, for which, of course, there is no charge for admission. But it is rare to find more than forty or fifty men and women at such lectures, and when one deducts the members of the department concerned, who are more or less obliged to be present, that leaves a tiny audience that has come out of interest.

August, 1990

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