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The Plastic Age
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English 53 had only a dozen men in it; so Henley conducted the course in a very
informal fashion. The men felt free to bring up for discussion any topic that
Nobody was surprised, therefore, when George Winsor asked Henley to express
his opinion of the value of a college education. He reminded Henley of what he
had said two years before, and rapidly gave a resumé of the discussion that
resulted in the question he was asking. "We'd like to know, too," he concluded,
grinning wickedly, "just whom you consider the cream of the earth. You
remember you said that if we were you felt sorry for the skimmed milk."
Henley leaned back in his chair and laughed. "Yes," he said, "I remember saying
that. I didn't think, though, that you would remember it for two years. You seem to
remember most of what I said. I am truly astonished." He grinned back at Winsor.
"The swine seem to have eaten the pearls."
The class laughed, but Winsor was not one to refuse the gambit. "They were very
indigestible," he said quickly.
"Good!" Henley exclaimed. "I wanted them to give you a belly-ache, and I am
delighted that you still suffer."
"We do," Pudge Jamieson admitted, "but we'd like to have a little mercy shown to
us now. We've spent four years here, and while we've enjoyed them, we've just
about made up our minds that they have been all in all wasted years."
"No." Henley was decisive. His playful manner entirely disappeared. "No, not
wasted. You have enjoyed them, you say. Splendid justification. You will continue
to enjoy them as the years grow between you and your college days. All men are
sentimental about college, and in that sentimentality there is continuous
"Your doubt delights me. Your feeling that you haven't learned anything delights
me, too. It proves that you have learned a great deal. It is only the ignoramus
who thinks he is wise; the wise man knows that he is an ignoramus. That's a
platitude, but it is none the less true. I have cold comfort for you: the more you
learn, the less confident you will be of your own learning, the more utterly
ignorant you will feel. I have never known so much as, the day I graduated from
high school. I held my diploma and the knowledge of the ages in my hand. I had
never heard of Socrates, but I would have challenged him to a debate without the
"Since then I have grown more humble, so humble that there are times when I
am ashamed to come into the class-room. What right have I to teach anybody
anything? I mean that quite sincerely. Then I remember that, ignorant as I am,
the undergraduates are more ignorant. I take heart and mount the rostrum ready
to speak with the authority of a pundit."
He realized that he was sliding off on a tangent and paused to find a new attack.
Pudge Jamieson helped him.