In his 1930 memoir A Roving Commission: My Early Life, Winston Churchill offers a vivid description of how a desire for learning washed over him like a tidal wave when he was 22 years old. The passage is vivid and memorable for a number of reasons. One is that it makes someone who has spent most of his life in a higher education environment, like me, ponder what proportion of students–then or now–have a similar desire for learning.
Another is that in this chapter, following the passage quoted below, is the source of a common quotation, when Churchill writes: \”It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations.\”
The passage that follows is quoted from from Chapter IX: Education at Bangalore:
It was not until this winter of 1896, when I had almost completed my twenty-second year, that the desire for learning came upon me. I began to feel myself wanting in even the vaguest knowledge about many large spheres of thought. I had picked up a wide vocabulary and had a liking for words and for the feel of words fitting and falling into their places like pennies in the slot. I caught myself using a good many words the meaning of which I could not define precisely. I admired these words, but was afraid to use them for fear of being absurd. One day, before I left England, a friend of mine had said: \’Christ\’s gospel was the last word in Ethics.\’ This sounded good; but what were Ethics? They had never been mentioned to me at Harrow or Sandhurst. Judging from the context I thought they must mean \’the public school spirit,\’ \’playing the game,\’ \’esprit de corps,\’ \’honourable behaviour,\’ \’patriotism,\’ and the like. Then someone told me that Ethics were concerned not merely with the things you ought to do, but with why you ought to do them, and that there were whole books written on the subject. I would have paid some scholar to at least to give me a lecture of an hour or an hour and a half about Ethics. What was the scope of the subject; what were its main branches; what were the principal questions dealt with, and the chief controversies open; who were the high authorities and which were the standard books? But here in Bangalore there was no one to tell me about Ethics for love or money. Of tactics I had a grip: on politics I had a view: but a concise compendious outline of Ethics was a novelty not to be locally obtained.
This was only typical of a dozen similar mental needs that now began to press insistently upon me. I knew of course that the youths at the universities were stuffed with all this patter at nineteen and twenty, and could pose you entrapping questions or give baffling answers. We never set much store by them or their affected superiority, remembering that they were only at their books, while we were commanding men and guarding the Empire. Nevertheless I had sometimes resented the apt and copious information which some of them seemed to possess, and I now wished I could find a competent teacher whom I could listen to and cross-examine for an hour or so every day.
Then someone had used the phrase \’the Socratic method.\’ What was that? It was apparently a way of giving your friend his head in an argument and progging him into a pit by cunning questions. Who was Socrates, anyhow? A very argumentative Greek who had a nagging wife and was finally compelled to commit suicide because he was a nuisance! Still, he was beyond doubt a considerable person. He counted for a lot in the minds of learned people. I wanted \’the Socrates story.\’ Why had his fame lasted through all the ages? What were the stresses which had led a government to put him to death merely because of the things he said? Dire stresses they must have been: the life of the Athenian Executive or the life of this talkative professor! Such antagonisms do not spring from petty issues. Evidently Socrates had called something into being long ago which was very explosive. Intellectual dynamite! A moral bomb! But there was nothing about in The Queen\’s Regulations.
Then there was history. I had always liked history at school. But there we were given only the dullest, driest pemmicanised forms like The Student\’s Hume. Once I had a hundred pages of The Student\’s Hume as a holiday task. Quite unexpectedly, before I went back to school, my father set out to examine me upon it. The period was Charles I. He asked me about the Grand Remonstrance — what did I know about that? I said that in the end the Parliament beat the King and cut his head off. This seemed to me the grandest remonstrance imaginable. It was no good. \’Here,\’ said my father, \’is a grave parliamentary question affecting the whole structure of our constitutional history, lying near the centre of the task you have been set, and you do not in the slightest degree appreciate the issues involved.\’ I was puzzled by his concern; I could not see at the time why it should matter so much. Now I wanted to know more about it.
So I resolved to read history, philosophy, economics, and things like that; and I wrote to my mother asking for such books as I had heard of on these topics. She responded with alacrity, and every month the mail brought me a substantial package of what I thought were standard works. In history I decided to begin with Gibbon. Someone had told me that my father had read Gibbon with delight; that he knew whole pages of it by heart, and that it had greatly affected his style of speech and writing. So without more ado I set out upon the eight volumes of Dean Milman\’s edition of Gibbon\’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I was immediately dominated both by the story and the style. All through the long glistening middle hours of the Indian day, from when we quitted stables till the evening shadows proclaimed the hour of Polo, I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all. I scribbled all my opinions on the margins of the pages, and very soon found myself a vehement partisan of the author against the disparagements of his pompous-pious editor. I was not even estranged by his naughty footnotes. On the other hand the Dean\’s apologies and disclaimers roused my ire. So pleased was I with The Decline and Fall that I began at once to read Gibbon\’s Autobiography, which luckily was bound up in the same edition. When I read his reference to his old nurse: \’If there be any, as I trust there are some, who rejoice that I live, to that dear and excellent woman their gratitude is due,\’ I thought of Mrs. Everest; and it shall be her epitaph.
From Gibbon I went to Macaulay. I had learnt The Lays of Ancient Rome by heart and loved them — and of course I knew he had written a history ; but I had never read a page of it. I now embarked on that splendid romance, and I voyaged with full sail in a strong wind. I remembered then that Mrs. Everest\’s brother-in-law, the old prison warden, had possessed a copy of Macaulay\’s History, purchased in supplements and bound together, and that he used to speak of it with reverence. I accepted all Macaulay wrote as gospel, and I was grieved to read his harsh judgments upon the Great Duke of Marlborough. There was no one at hand to tell me that this historian with his captivating style and devastating self-confidence was the prince of literary rogues, who always preferred the tale to the truth, and smirched or glorified great men and garbled documents according as they affected his drama. I cannot forgive him for imposing on my confidence and on the simple faith of my old friend the warder. Still I must admit an immense debt upon the other side.
Not less than in his History, I revelled in his Essays: Chatham; Frederick the Great; Lord Nugent\’s Memorials of Hampden; Clive; Warren Hastings; Barere (the dirty dog); Southey\’s Colloquies on Society; and above all that masterpiece of literary ferocity, Mr. Robert Montgomery\’s Poems. From November to May I read for four or five hours every day history and philosophy. Plato\’s Republic it ap peared he was for all practical purposes the same as Soc rates; the Politics of Aristotle, edited by Dr. Welldon him self; Schopenhauer on Pessimism; Malthus on Population; Darwin\’s Origin of Species: all interspersed with other books of lesser standing.
It was a curious education. First be cause I approached it with an empty, hungry mind, and with fairly strong jaws; and what I got I bit; secondly because I had no one to tell me: \’This is discredited.\’ \’You should read the answer to that by so and so; the two together will give you the gist of the argument.\’ \’There is a much better book on that subject/ and so forth. I now began for the first time to envy those young cubs at the university who had fine scholars to tell them what was what — professors who had devoted their lives to mastering and focussing ideas in every branch of learning — who were eager to distribute the treasures they had gathered before they were overtaken by the night. But now I pity undergraduates, when I see what frivolous lives many of them lead in the midst of precious fleeting opportunity. After all, a man\’s Life must be nailed to a cross either of Thought or Action. Without work there is no play. When I am in the Socratic mood and planning my Republic, I make drastic changes in the education of the sons of well-to-do citizens. When they are sixteen or seventeen they begin to learn a craft and to do healthy manual labour, with plenty of poetry, songs, dancing, drill and gymnastics in their spare time. They can thus let off their steam on some thing useful. It is only when they are really thirsty for knowledge, longing to hear about things, that I would let them go to the university. It would be a favour, a coveted privilege, only to be given to those who had either proved their worth in factory or field or whose qualities and zeal were pre-eminent. However, this would upset a lot of things — it would cause commotion and bring me perhaps in the end a hemlock draught.