I just finished teaching a poetry class in which nearly every poet had a degree from the Ivy League or Seven Sisters. But plenty of great artists never went to college, or else they dropped out. Walt Whitman and Hart Crane didn't seem to miss college degrees, and in Tin Pan Alley, neither did George and Ira Gershwin.
True, Cole Porter graduated from Yale, where he was the greatest Whiffenpoof ever. The inventor of the modern incarnation of singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, blew off classes at the University of Minnesota for a one-way ticket to New York City, Woody Guthrie, and destiny, but Guthrie's fellow troubadour Pete Seeger attended Harvard (before dropping out), where his father was a musicologist. Suzanne Vega majored in English at Barnard, and Paul Simon did the same at Queens College and even did a little time in law school. (Like a litigator, Simon would sometimes begin his verses with facts: "They've got a wall in China / It's a thousand miles long.")
Leonard Cohen not only has a literature degree from McGill but even went to grad school at Columbia. (He described his year there as "passion without flesh, love without climax.") Lou Reed got a B.A. in English from Syracuse, where I teach. I consider myself lucky to have the desk of Reed's mentor at Syracuse, Delmore Schwartz, to whom Reed dedicated the Velvet Underground song "European Son." Also in my office hangs a framed album cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico—Andy Warhol's famous electric banana print—in quixotic hope that the conversations I have with my students could someday bear such fruit.
I am in a profession where nearly everyone seems to be looking over everyone else's shoulders for credentials. Yet sometimes even people who teach college are too cool for school. I went to Sarah Lawrence, where the most esteemed creative-writing teacher was the great short-story writer Grace Paley, who dropped out of NYU. Cynthia Ozick, after earning a master's degree at Ohio State, felt that "it was important not to go after a Ph.D., ... because it meant you were not in earnest about becoming a writer; it was, in fact, an embarrassment, a cowardly expedient that could shame you." The writers she admired—Hemingway, Faulkner, Cather—"had rushed straight into life."
And of course the world of rock 'n' roll is littered with dropouts: John Lennon, Pete Townshend, and Keith Richards left art school early (Lennon was thrown out); Mick Jagger dropped out of the London School of Economics (he clearly learned well while he was there), and Joni Mitchell dropped out of the Alberta College of Art and Design to give birth in secret and become stardust and golden in public.
In other words, though a mind may be still be a terrible thing to waste, there are plenty who have done just fine without a higher education. A recent example of an artist performing miracles without it is Fiona Apple, who seems to have emerged fully formed at 19 with her own dissonant piano chords, a Sondheimian gift for complicated rhymes and odd rhythms, and an eerily compelling emotional volatility. She grew up with a musical-theater mom on the Upper West Side, where young Fiona took to the keys as soon as she could sit on a piano bench. She was never an apprentice, just an insanely talented brat.
She takes many years between albums: seven between her last one and her just released The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. Every time she goes on television to promote her latest record, Letterman, Conan, and now Fallon always ask her a variation on same question: What have you been doing all these years? Sometimes she would say: I wish I could tell you I went to college, but I just watched a lot of television. She has also described her experiences as a teenager when she would be so caught up in writing—not just songs, but short stories and essays—that she had to be interrupted to come to dinner. She knew that she wouldn't be going to college, which she's not so proud of now.
The Idler Wheel is a reminder of all that is beyond teachable. Sometimes we teachers just have to throw up our hands. We pour everything we have into teaching students how difficult it is to create language and music of lasting value. I sit at Delmore Schwartz's desk, waiting for the next Lou Reed, knowing that the next Fiona Apple could be circumventing the process altogether, stirring a bubbling caldron of language, irony, wit, and fury outside the gates. Apple "rushed into life"—even if only in her head—while her peers were taking intro classes.
Notwithstanding Apple and Ozick, there are now many serious poets and fiction writers among us with Ph.D.'s., and the B.A. is the new high-school diploma. We live in an age of degree inflation in the most college-educated society ever, even as many degree holders are less literate than high-school graduates of yore.
Where does that put someone like Apple? What's so bad about taking literature classes if you were voluntarily giving yourself writing assignments at an age when most students treat such things as corporal punishment? Had she gone to college, Apple might have been a dream student, or else a nightmare, blowing off her assignments to do her own thing. "Be kind to me or treat me mean / I'll make the most of it, I'm an extraordinary machine," she sang on the title track of her last album.
In other words, she's self-possessed, no matter what. She avoids reading her press in the same way that she sidestepped the indignity of getting a grade from one of us. Maybe it's just as well that for Apple, as with Alice Cooper, school's out forever. After all, in one of her new singles, "Anything We Want," she rhymes "UFC rookie" with "playing hooky."
We add entries to our CV's, meet our deadlines, deliver papers, write new syllabi. Then the seven-years-in-the making Idler Wheel hits our local Starbucks, and we are reminded of one for whom playing hooky has been a wise move indeed.
David Yaffe is a professor of English at Syracuse University and a recent winner of the Roger Shattuck Award in Criticism. He is the author, most recently, of Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown (Yale University Press, 2011).