Monday, December 14, 2009

So you want to be an actor?

Does your son, daughter or another young person that you know want to be an actor? Are you worried that they might think that all they have to do is move to Hollywood and acting jobs will just fall into their laps or they’ll be “discovered”? Are they impervious to your advice and cautions? Want to try another approach? I have a homework assignment to suggest. The idea behind this homework assignment is that intentionally embarking on any career requires research beforehand. While this exercise does require some effort and focus, you should know that acting will often require even more effort and focus than this will. I know nobody likes homework, but this one might even be fun. (The celebrated acting teacher Sanford Meisner said, “Acting can be fun—don’t let it get around,” but notice that he said it “can be fun,” not that it’s fun all the time.)

Now, select a sample of actors. A manageable way to make a selection is to go to wikipedia.org and search for “American actors born 1940s”—or “1950s,” “1960s” or whatever you would prefer. (I would recommend not using the 1990s or 2000s because that is too recent to account for the fact that most actors do not become well-known until their 20s or 30s, and no one born during or after 1990 is 20, at least not yet.) Wikipedia lists notable American television and film actors by decade of birth, so you will now have a list of between 100 and 200 American actors. (Substitute your own nationality, of course.) Actually, the list is apt to be closer to 100 than 200. This might give pause at the outset. If there are under 200 names, you might ponder your chances of finding a place on such a short list. And while these are “notable” actors who have made films or television programs, there will be many actors on the list who are not especially well known. So how do you feel about the obscurity of being near-famous? Do you want to be an actor because you want to act or because you want to be famous? Those who only want fame might be disappointed.

Next look up the biographies of the actors on the list. My recommendation is to use wikipedia first; then, for the ones whose biographies you cannot find on wikipedia, use Internet Movie Database (imdb.com). From this process you will have to throw out some names. In my own attempt to use my system, I started with a list of about 125 names, 40 of which I threw out for lack of enough biographical information as well as one because he did not quite fit the “American” definition. (He did not have a showbiz career at all until he went back to his parents’ homeland where his movie career took place.) This is an entirely unscientific survey not least of all because I cannot account for the people I had to throw out: maybe many of them went to Hollywood and acting jobs just fell into their laps. That isn’t likely, but I cannot say that it didn’t happen.

I selected American actors and actresses born in the 1940s. This happens to be the cohort from the decade before I was born, and, by now, its members have not only developed their careers, but some have already died. Some people on the list have even given up acting and long since found other careers.

From the often spare biographies, what can you glean about what these actors did to prepare themselves? To find out, you need to come up with some broad categories and pigeonhole these actors in terms of what they were doing before they became actors. Otherwise you’ll end up with raw information and no clear way to analyze it. I came up with the following categories:

1) Attended college (I didn’t require that they graduate—though many did—just so long as they gave it “the old college try.”)
2) Attended college majoring in drama or theater
3) Studied drama formally outside of a traditional college program
4) Were child actors (Acting jobs really did fall on these people’s laps—or on their heads.)
5) Were offspring of a parent or parents in show business (not always actors)
6) Had another talent they traded on, or had another occupation either before or after their acting career (including but not limited to deliberate backup plans)

I also considered using the category of the rank amateur who is "discovered," but only one actor in my sample appears to have been discovered without having attended college or prepared for any other career. A few other of my actors were “discovered” but were already plying another trade at the time. Most often, they were “discovered” while performing on stage, and not always while acting. Professional singers and standup comics seem to have a better than average chance of being “discovered.”

After whittling my sample down to 85 names, I found that 45 of these had at least attended an undergraduate college. Of them, at least 21 majored in drama or theater. (A few had a dual major such as drama and history.) An additional eleven attended a non-traditional school where they studied acting. Most (though not all) of those eleven attended The Actors Studio, which has two branches in New York and Hollywood. Getting into these schools is nothing to sneeze at. You have to audition in order to prove to them that they wouldn’t be wasting their time training you. Also, ten actors in my sample studied acting after a traditional college education, and some of these earned M.F.A. degrees.

Twelve of the 85 were child actors. In many cases, their parents got them into the business before they were able to decide for themselves, although I did include in this category a few actors who entered the business in their early teens and may have been motivated by their own interests. While there are five actors who were the offspring of actors or other performers (such as musicians), only one was both a child actor and the offspring of performers. Evidently, not all performers will expect or allow their own children to become actors before they are of age.

Thirty-eight of my actors were not strictly dependent on acting. Often they had other show business talents before they became actors, being able to sing or dance, for example. Many are also teachers of the performing arts. Indeed, at least four on my list have traditional teaching credentials. One actress holds a Ph.D. in psychology, and former actor Michael Sacks has an M.A. in computer science. He actually gave up acting to work in financial computing on Wall Street.

Clichés are clichés for a reason: There is truth in them. Most people who become professional actors never become household names, and a surpisingly large number of those who make a living at it turn out to have gone to school, studied and did not rely entirely on their charm and native talent to get by. Indeed, my impression from reading the biographies of actors is that they very often get their breaks in acting through knowing producers, directors, and other actors. A story that I found in Robert Vaughn's memoir, "A Fortunate Life," might illustrate this point. In 1960, a director phoned Vaughn to offer him a part in the movie "The Magnificent Seven." The director was desperate to cast others before a deadline, and yet Vaughn was only the third actor to accept a part. Did he know any other actors who might be available? Vaughn recommended an unknown actor who happened to be a college classmate of Vaughn's. That unknown actor was James Coburn who arguably became a bigger star than Vaughn and never forgot his friend's help.

Here is my list:

Lee Aaker: Child actor from the age of 8, became a ski instructor among other things.
Beverly Adams: Canadian-born but grew up in Los Angeles; became a teenage beauty contestant which led to an acting career.
Patrick Adiarte: Professional dancer who also specialized in playing Asian characters.
Franklyn Ajaye: Began as a musician and became a standup comic before acting.
Christopher Allport: Began acting at age 9 and continued acting while attending Northwestern University.
Beverly Archer: Studied drama at San Francisco State University and UC Santa Barbara.
Carmen Argenziano: Studied at The Actors Studio.
John Ashton: Graduated from the University of Southern California where he majored in theater.
Candice Azzara: Studied acting at The Actors Studio.
Regina Baff: Also holds a Ph.D. in psychology.
Belinda Balaski: Began acting at age 5 and won drama scholarships in college; now teaches acting.
Jonathan Banks: Dropped out of university to become stage manager of a touring company. Worked in theater management for several years before turning to acting.
John Berg: After attending two universities, worked as a manager in various businesses, a disk jockey, and sportswriter before becoming an actor.
Jeannie Berlin: Daughter of a writer-director.
Michael Brandon: Studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and The Actors Studio.
Fran Brill: Holds a degree in fine arts from Boston University.
Roy Brocksmith: Graduated from Quincy University before moving to New York and auditioning for the stage.
Roger Aaron Brown: Shakespearean actor.
Jim Byrnes: Studied acting at two universities and was an accomplished blues guitarist before landing his first job as an actor.
Cindy Carol: Child actress gave up acting to become a school teacher.
Suzanne Charney: Dancing brought her to television and she acted for the next two decades.
Joseph Cortese: Stage experience beginning with the study of method acting.
Jeffrey DeMunn: After graduating from Union College, went to England where he studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He became a member of the National Shakespeare Company.
Mary Jo Deschanel: Studied film and acting at UCLA.
Jeff Doucette: Graduated from Lewis College (Illinois).
Troy Evans: Vietnam War Vet became a character actor in his mid-30s.
Tom Everett: Studied at The Actors Studio and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.
Dennis Fimple: Studied speech and drama at San Jose College. Worked as a school teacher before getting his break on TV.
Robert Foxworth: Began stage career as an apprentice in Houston, Texas in the 1950s. Also attended college.
Carl Franklin: Studied history and drama at UC Berkeley. Later earned an M.A. in directing from the American Film Institute.
James Gammon: Was a television cameraman before stepping in front of the camera.
Louis Giambalvo: Holds an M.F.A. from SUNY Binghamton.
Don Grady: Child actor discovered by Disney. Gave up acting for a musical career.
Gerrit Graham: Attended but did not graduate from Columbia University. Also known as a songwriter.
Joe Grifasi: Studied at Yale Drama School.
Gary Grubbs: As a would-be television writer, he got his start in acting as a fluke.
Larry Hankin: Studied acting at Syracuse University.
Wings Hauser: Born in Hollywood, he is the son of a producer and brother of an actor.
Robert Hays: Educated at Grossmont College in California.
Gayle Hunnicutt: Attended UCLA and was a model.
Peter Jason: Studied drama at Carnegie Mellon University (then Carnegie Institute of Technology).
Herbert Jefferson, Jr.: Graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.
James M. “Jim” Kelly: After dropping out of college, he earned a black belt in karate and became an international middle-weight champion and began teaching karate. After appearing in several martial arts movies he lost interest in acting.
Art LaFleur: Attended University of Kentucky where he played football. Began acting in his mid-30s.
Rod Lauren: Discovered while singing in night clubs; turned a lackluster recording career into a brief acting career in mostly low-budget horror films.
Dan Lauria: Attended Southern Connecticut State University where he acted and played football.
Donna Loren: After winning talent contests as a child, she sang in commercials and later in movies. She gave up her acting career to focus on family and music.
Tim McIntire: The son of two actors, got his first movie role at 20. Born and died (young) in Hollywood.
Murray MacLeod: Son of an actress; formed a ‘60s singing group with his sister and a friend.
Frank McRae: Graduated from Tennessee State University with a double major in drama and history. Was also a professional football player before becoming an actor.
Victoria Mallory: New York stage career began on strength of her singing ability and led to TV and film.
Joanna Miles: After graduating from private school, joined The Actors Studio in New York.
Penelope Milford: Stage acting in high school in Illinois led to Chicago and then New York theater.
Don Mitchell: Studied acting at UCLA.
Jim Moody: Came to film acting after age 30, but was also a high school drama teacher.
Debra Mooney: Broke into television acting after a career on the stage in Chicago.
Anita Morris: Studied with the American Mime Theatre.
Brad Morrow: Child actor (from age 2) who later became a businessman.
Christopher Murney: Degrees include an M.F.A. from Pennsylvania State University.
Lou Myers: Seems to have come to acting relatively late in life.
Ed O'Ross: After attending Carnegie Mellon University, he studied method acting in New York.
Felton Perry: Started out as a mime (school?).
Lauri Peters: Teen actress, singer and dancer on Broadway at 16; also studied method acting which she now teaches.
Richard Poe: Graduated from the University of San Francisco and served in the U.S. Army before becoming a professional actor.
Richard Portnow: Graduated with a degree in speech and theater from Brooklyn College.
Ben Powers: Standup comic, singer and repertory theater actor, was spotted by a Hollywood agent and signed to appear in films.
Gilbert Price: New York City native began singing on stage.
Steve Railsback: Studied at The Actors Studio.
Pamela Reed: Graduated from the University of Washington.
Chelcie Ross: After graduating from Southwest Texas State University and service in the U.S. Air Force, earned an M.F.A. from the Dallas Theatre Center.
Robert Sacchi: Made his career by looking almost exactly like Humphrey Bogart.
Michael Sacks: With degrees from Harvard and Columbia universities, he left acting to become a financial computing executive.
Marc Singer: Son of musical performers, he and his younger sister both act.
Lionel Mark Smith: Attended the Goodman School of Drama, now part of DePaul University.
Tisha Sterling: Daughter of two actors, she began acting when she was young but has acted rarely in recent years.
Marcia Strassman: Was singing, modeling and acting on stage in New York by the time she was 15.
Peter Strauss: Graduated from Northwestern University.
Margaret Teele: Amateur acting in high school led to a brief acting career in the 1960s.
Beverly Todd: Appeared professionally in a stage play when she was 14. At 18 was in a stage musical in London.
Concetta Tomei: Was a certified school teacher before earning a degree in theater.
Michael Tucker: Earned acting degree from Carnegie Mellon University. Stage experience and teaching before film and TV.
Ann Turkel: Childhood education included the Musical Theatre Academy in New York (classes in acting, dancing and singing). Stage work and modeling before film and TV.
Robert Walden: Graduated New York City College; studied acting and later taught at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.
Katherine Walsh: Graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
Debbie Watson: Became a child actress by age 14 after appearing on “The Original Amateur Hour.” Career was over by age 23.
Hattie Mae Winston: Graduate of Howard University and New York’s Group Theatre Workshop.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Unintended Consequences

October 31st marked the 58th anniversary of Egyptian Law 215, which is one of the historic antiquities laws intended to protect the legacies of ancient Egypt from being plundered and sold to foreign nations. Unfortunately for Egypt and the world, the law that was meant to protect antiquities has had the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for legitimate archeologists to get permission to search for buried antiquities while leaving large amounts of treasure of incalculable value buried and vulnerable to careless thieves and irresponsible black market dealers. The law has done exactly the opposite of what was intended.

A case in point is the “Gospel of Judas” that only gradually came into the light of legitimacy within the past ten years after spending several decades in the underground of international antiquities dealing, during which time its physical condition deteriorated due to the carelessness of several of its owners. In addition, the origin of the find has never been precisely determined, which is a shame because information about where it was found would have been as valuable as the book itself. No one came forward to verify that they had found the gospel, though, because any account that would hold up in a court of scientific inquiry would also hold up in a criminal one. This same problem is at the heart of another controversy over the provenance of the Nag Hammadi Library, a cache of fourth century books found about 1945 in Egypt; although a man came forward to admit to finding the books, some scholars have serious doubts about the veracity of his account. In the case of the Judas gospel, there is an even less reliable account of its discovery that is also full of obfuscation and contradiction.

Laws often have unintended consequences. In the Egyptian case, the unintended consequence is not only the impediment but the perversion of the quest for knowledge. In other cases, unintended consequences have more vast and day-to-day implications. Most countries of the world have laws against trafficking, unauthorized use and abuse of certain drugs. An unintended consequence arises because any commodity that is illegal yet desired is going to be more expensive and its commerce therefore more profitable. There have been cases throughout recent history of the criminalizing or extreme rationing of alcohol and cigarettes; these led predictably to career criminals dealing in these commodities, and to people being murdered and law enforcement officials corrupted over beer and cigarettes. The cost to the dealer in terms of the risk of arrest and imprisonment is translated into a large amount of money and added to the price of the drug; this makes dealing drugs very lucrative for anyone willing to take the risk. That means that most of the people who will be attracted to and successful in drug trafficking are career criminals, willing to do anything deemed necessary to ply their trade. Everything that follows from this—homicidal territoriality, corruption of officials, and even aggressive expansion of drug trafficking and drug abuse—paradoxically flows from making these drugs illegal in the first place. In this way, laws against drug trafficking contain the seed of their own failure; they fail to solve the problem of drug trafficking because they actually do a great deal to promote drug trafficking and nothing to take the profit out and thus discourage it.

If the United States Congress ever decided to pass a law entitled The Drug Traffickers Full Employment Act, the great legislative body would undoubtedly produce a Rube Goldberg masterpiece of legislative folderol with provisions for proper hiring and job security practices by drug kingpins. They would never be wise enough to understand that they already have passed laws guaranteeing full employment for drug dealers: the very laws that have made drug possession, use and trafficking illegal.

An objection might be raised that I have not really offered a solution to the problems intended to be addressed by these well-intentioned laws, despite their unintended consequences. That is perfectly true, but it is necessary to articulate and confront any problem before it can be solved. If we agree that antiquities theft and drug abuse are problems, we will not solve them until we acknowledge that our most favored approaches, so far, have been part of the problems and not the solutions.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Partly Resolved Genealogical Problem

Toward a Solution to Problems in Tracing the Descendants of Jabez Whitney’s Second Wife, “Sally” [Not to be confused with Jabez Whitney born 1749 in Medfield, MA]

Jabez6 Whitney (Jacob5, Jonas4, Eleazar3, Thomas2, John1), and his two wives are buried in the Jones Cemetery of Orange, Massachusetts. The inscriptions on the grave markers there identify his wives as Elizabeth and Sally. She is called Sarah in Orange, MA vital records where her children’s births are registered, but, on her grave marker, it says “Sally V” according to the New England Historical and Genealogical Society’s Cemetery Transcriptions project. (Most of the information for this article comes either from my own research or from the “Whitney Research Group” http://wiki.whitneygen.org/wrg/index.php/Family:Whitney%2C_Jabez_%281767-1849%29)

Elizabeth died Nov. 5, 1808; Jabez presumably married Sally thereafter because her first child, Cylenda (or Cylanda and many other variations—see below), was born Mar. 17, 1810.

Elizabeth and Sally’s last names are unknown. According to a handwritten document found in Massachusetts vital records in Boston, the 1822 birth certificate of William Whitney, one of Jabez and Sally’s sons, Sally’s maiden name appears to be Savoy, but this seems somewhat doubtful both because of the handwriting and because there is little record of the Savoy name in western Massachusetts at that time and no other record for a Sally or Sarah.

Here are Jabez’s two families:

(+=spouse, b=born, d=died, m=married, Abt.=about)

1 Jabez Whitney 1767-1849 b in Roxbury, MA d in Phillipston, MA
..+Elizabeth 1762-1808 m Abt. 1789 d in Orange, MA
........2 Abel Whitney 1790- Abt. 1820 b in Orange, MA
............+Sylvia Twitchel m 1810 in Athol, MA
........2 ? Whitney 1793-? b in Orange, MA
........2 Sally Whitney 1794-1815 b in Orange, MA d in Orange, MA
........2 Tina Whitney 1796-? b in Orange, MA
........2 Polly Whitney 1798-? b in Orange, MA
........2 Eliza Whitney 1799-? b in Orange, MA
........2 Lewis J. Whitney 1802-1881 b in Orange, MA d in Athol, MA
............+Ruth Howard 1803-1886 b in Athol, MA m 1824 in Athol, MA
........2 Jacob Whitney 1804-? b in Orange, MA
2nd Wife of Jabez Whitney:
..+Sally (Sarah?) Savoy (V.?) 1787–1846 m Abt. 1809 d in Orange, MA
........2 Cylenda (Cylanda?) Whitney 1810-1891 b in Orange, MA d in Winchendon, MA
............+Mason Baldwin Abt. 1811-? m Abt. 1832 b in Dover, VT
........2 Clancy Whitney 1811-? b in Orange, MA
........2 Abner Whitney 1813-? b in Orange, MA
........2 Moses Whitney 1816-? b in Orange, MA
........2 Sally Whitney 1818-? b in Orange, MA
........2 Philbrook Whitney 1820-? b in Orange, MA
........2 William B. Whitney 1822–1895 b in Orange, MA d in Athol, MA
............+Sarah Angelina Peabody 1825–1919 b in MA d in Athol, MA
........2 Daniel Whitney 1824-? b in Orange, MA
........2 Howard Whitney 1827-?

I am descended from Sally’s son William Whitney, but it was not until August 2005 that I met a descendant of William’s oldest sister, Cylenda, when I visited her great grandson, Raymond Clement (1917-), in Winchendon, MA. (Winchendon is almost five miles from the New Hampshire border and about twenty miles from Vermont.)

Cylenda Whitney Baldwin presents a common problem met when researching an ancestor with an unusual name in that nearly every record keeper she ever met took a crack at misspelling it. The index for the 1870 Federal census has “Crlend.” I suspect that the census taker was trying for “Celenda,” but, on the original enumeration sheet, the first “e” is unclear and the final “a” is faint. In the 1860 census she is called Cyndia (indexed as Cyncha H.), but often she seems to have been called Celinda (1880 census and other records). Cylenda Baldwin shows up in the federal censuses for Massachusetts in 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880, living in Leyden (1850) and Winchendon, MA. In 1880, she was an elderly woman living near her daughter, Rosetta Tenney and her husband Fred.

Cylenda was married in 1832 or 1833 to Mason Baldwin (born about 1811 or 1812) of Dover, VT. Their children were:

Hubbard Hiram (or Hiram Hubbard) Baldwin 1833-1864 b VT d Winchester, VA
Eric G. Baldwin 1835-? *
Mary Jane Baldwin 1836-? b in VT
Cylenda Baldwin 1838-?
Mason W. Baldwin 1840-1884
Henry J.C. Baldwin 1841-? b in Dover, VT
Margana L. Baldwin 1844-?} twin
Mandana L. Baldwin 1844-?} twin
Wesley Brumwell Baldwin 1846-? **
Rosetta Harriet L. Baldwin 1857-1908 b in VT*** d in Winchendon, MA
+Frederick C. Tenney 1852-? b in New Hampshire m 1878 in Winchendon, MA

*Not listed among their children in all censuses. Possibly a nephew or other relative.
** a.k.a., Brumwell W., Bramhall W. or Bramwell W.
*** A.k.a., Harriet L.

[Children of Rosetta and Frederick Tenney:
Charles L. Tenney 1879-? b in MA
Bertha Tenney 1880-? b in MA
Ethel M. Tenney 1882–1977 b & d in MA

Ethel M. Tenney is the mother of Raymond Clement, mentioned above.]

Once we have accounted for various spellings of Cylenda’s name, it should become a little easier to trace the descendants of Cylenda Whitney Baldwin, although their names are not always legible or consistent as attested by the “a.k.a.s” listed above.

Federal census data for the family of Mason and Cylenda Baldwin reveals a curious pattern. They always appear in Massachusetts for the decennial census, but often their children are listed as having been born in Vermont, suggesting that the family moved back and forth across the state line. I have not been able to determine where the Baldwins lived when they were in Vermont, but since Henry and his father were both born in Dover, they might have gone back to that area.

Dover is about sixteen miles south of Londonderry, where the family of Winfield S. Wright lived. In 1879, one of Winfield’s sons, Albert H. Wright (1856-1906) married Cylenda Baldwin’s niece, Flora Almira Whitney (1861-1944), who was a daughter of William Whitney. It is tempting to imagine Cylenda being the matchmaker who introduced her neighbor’s son to her niece. According to a family legend among the Wrights, the Baldwins and Wrights were great friends, but whether this friendship preceded or followed the marriage of Albert Wright to Flora Whitney has been forgotten.

Civil War note:

Hiram Hubbard Baldwin and some other Baldwin sons were of the right age to have served in the Civil War; however, I have only established that Sgt. H. H. Baldwin of the 26th Massachusetts Regiment served and died in that war. He was killed during the pivotal Battle of Opequon near Winchester, VA on September 19, 1864, probably shortly before noon when Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover’s division of the Nineteenth Corps—the first brigade of which included members of the 26th Massachusetts—emerged from some woods and was attacked by Confederate artillery as well as musket fire. The corps suffered its highest casualties of the entire war on that day.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

SELF-DIRECTED STUDY or A HARVARD EDUCATION FOR A FRACTION OF THE COST

More than a quarter century ago, a fellow I knew in the Boston area invited me to have dinner with him and his wife. When I arrived, I found my friend talking in his living room to a man in a jogging outfit—shorts, tank top, and, naturally, running shoes.

Jogging was a relatively new fad, but this man was all over it. He had read the few books then available about it, plus the journal and magazine articles also coming out. Finally, he said that he actually had to do some jogging before it got too late.After the jogging maven left, my friend asked me whether or not I would be surprised to learn that the fellow was a Harvard graduate. I allowed that I did not think it surprising, especially considering that we were sitting no more than a mile from the campus of that world-famous university.

“No,” my friend persisted, “I mean: is there anything in his attitude, his behavior, that would lead you to conclude that he might be a Harvard graduate?”

Being dense as I often am when I’m not really paying attention—or else having just been bored by someone discussing jogging—I didn’t follow his line. Patiently, my friend noted that the earlier guest had become interested in a subject and had made a point of going out and reading everything about it that he could get his hands on.

“That is typical of a Harvard graduate,” my friend concluded. Obviously, anyone could do that without the cost of Harvard’s tuition.

Catches

The catch is that it requires more than an indiscriminate capacity for reading. It requires a mental discipline designed to weed out nonsense from fact, the incredible from the credible. There is no substitute for going back to basics. If you are going to study a topic about which you know nothing, it would be a mistake to jump in over your head, to be too proud to pick up a book or an article aimed at grade-schoolers. You cannot reliably learn anything or evaluate your information sources if you do not understand them.

If you are going to read about science, and you do not understand the scientific method, you had better go back and learn it; the same is true if you are going to study an historical topic: be sure you understand the historical method of inquiry. (Both the scientific and historical method have to do, ultimately, with probable truth; in science, the experiment is repeated until a statistical analysis can determine whether the results are significant. In history, where no experiment is usually possible, the question is whether enough reliable, primary (first-hand) sources corroborate a fact.)

Another graduate of an elite school, Vardis Fisher, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in the 1920s, gave another helpful hint about evaluating what one reads in a course of self-directed study. He said that he would read a book on a topic of interest and, if his trained intuition told him that the author knew what he was talking about, Fisher would make a list of the other authors who were consulted in writing the book and noted what the author thought of these sources. Fisher then asked librarians for these other books, and when, in turn, he saw the bibliographies of those books, he would order them, too.

Of course, Fisher’s method is not foolproof by any means. Perhaps the greatest problem he ran into was that, as he pushed further and further into the authoritative books of earlier generations, he was reading out-dated opinions in many cases. On some topics, he became a twentieth-century man with the best information that the nineteenth century could offer. It helps to consult current journals, then, to find out what those who stand on the shoulders of those earlier sources are thinking. In the end, self-directed study can be as effective as—or even more effective than—traditional other-directed studies, but the key is learning how to think about what you are studying. Without someone to teach you how to think, learning how to do so should be your first objective in self-directed study. Of course, the best way to learn is by doing. Jump into a subject and learn how to think as you go. Also, learning how to think is not something you will one day master; you should continue to learn about it for the rest of your life.