From Sue Jacoby’s Age of American Unreason:
Reverential images of self-education have been deeply embedded in the American psyche from the colonial period and persist today, in an era characterized by a mania for specialized educational credentials that Emerson could not have imagined. Yet these images have cut two ways in shaping American attitudes toward intellect and education: they combine respect for learning itself with the message that there is something especially virtuous about learning acquired in the absence of a formal structure provided by society. After all, Ben Franklin invented the lightning rod and bifocals without government support for his research, and Abe Lincoln grew up to become president without ever attending a university. That Franklin was a genius and that Lincoln bitterly regretted his lack of systematic formal schooling is left out of the self-congratulatory story of American self-education. Tinged with a moralistic romanticism, the American exaltation of the self-educated man is linked to the iconic notion of rugged individualism and has often been used to refute any idea that education is, for government, an obligation of justice. In this version of American history, Lincoln was a better man, a better American, for having struggled to learn against the grain of his immediate environment. The triumph of the extraordinary self-educated man is transformed into a moral and social lesson: If you want to learn badly enough, no one can stop you, and the community has no special obligation to create conditions that provide support for the intellectual development of its members.