Gravitas and Caricatures in Education

Not since the daringly personal and narrative-based entry to serious study in The Anguish of Snails (blogged of here) have I been able to fathom an entryway into an other type of academic writing. But listening to a Practical Backpacking podcast, episode 51 with Kolby "Condor" Kirk, brought me to a slower world, where there is time and space to allow connections and meaning to emerge organically and courageously, returning me to the idea of how to approach academic writing organically and daringly. Kirk is a long-distance, not thru-, hiker, who is known for his journalling which came to light via a Muir project video. I was intrigued that a man journals and was particularly drawn in by the narrative of someone who consciously felt the trials of the race of life around him, but has literally stood still for long enough in the midst of that to find his own peace replete with butterflies landing on him. The culmination of listening to Kirk, and following up on a song he mentioned about not caring about winning anymore and further interviews with him, was catching a glimmer of a space where work gets realised, but in so much of a kinder way, so much more of a humane way. In other words, the question that comes to mind for academe from the context of the interview (and Snails) is: can knowledge be spoken of by someone who sees their own human fallibility? The mouth speaking, after all, is on one such fallible human body. The narrative, therefore, if it is "fitting" (kairos! - here, to the measure of man), begins with uncomfortable caricatures of us, like the cartoonish figures in Plato's dialogues, though we may be striving to learn something more than ourselves. In other words, too, how wont we are to run away with ourselves. How hard it is to remain centered within, say, our adolescent mistakes, our gaffes (even if not in the workplace), wherever we fall short in the race or competition, and yet still be able to deliver something seriously, with gravitas.


Is it maybe the overall historical awareness of human fallibility (in a general sense, I think few individuals can handle it on a more personal level) - the sense of "historic perspectivism" or "reflective historiography" Auerbach says we have "inherited" - that has led to the urge to change pedagogy to be less grave; to also be less certain - so, therefore, devoid of anything to be learned by rote: that 'deserving' of learning being dynamic and always shifting (capricious). And in the mean time, teachers are encouraged to put the focus of class on the student, who is to be given "autonomy" in learning.
I actually subscribe in many instances to such pedagogy - but still think that some subjects need rote, like when learning verb declensions. Or dates! Etc. I think that too much focus on the student can then disable the student, as when, for example, the student learns to pursue only what is within range or likeable to them - where the student does not learn discipline, and the ability to absorb something far beyond their interests: that 'suspension of disbelief' that allows a totally different foundation to be laid, alongside other existing foundations, to create true breadth.


Discipline in the modern world is now mostly learned through illness: when we have to, say for example, laoriously peel and grate beets daily for health reasons. Suddenly, the daily discipline is possible, whereas before, it was not, it was only possible to grab something from the bakery.
So, all this to say that there is a place for the graveness of gravitas, obviously, in life (which the academy should ultimately be a lover and servant of), but also a place for our goofy, affinity-driven caricatures - so that balance between the two is an art.
Going back to modern pedagogy, many celebrate it (again, I subscribe to some of its practices), but perhaps we might want to sober up for a moment and remember Auerbach's warning that just at this time when we are so historically aware, we are also threatened by an "ahistorical system of education". For example, I have a few very smart students who cannot see the past without evaluating it in terms of more present concerns. They write very analytical papers, but papers that cannot extend 'suspension of disbelief' to enter into a time of different values. I see this as intellectual impoverishment, and I see it increasing. Learner autonomy cannot really fix that; it needs correctional intervention, of the kind: what you have written is indeed analytical, but can you extend your analysis further to consider looking at the subject from the vantage point of...? 



I have to admit that I was very excited to read about a course in Berkeley that employed a system of peer evaluation, but thought to myself that I would not be able to employ such a system every year: some years, there are not enough students of the kind who "raise the level of conversation" (to borrow a phrase from the poet O'Donohue). I think peer evaluation could quickly diminish into a pool of mediocrity. That said... there are years when that happens anyway: no matter how much one makes adaptations and modifications to content and delivery to try to engage students, they mostly come away with the bare minimum. And such years, one wastes too much time and energy.
So, it is exciting to read about different pedagogies because many of them might be kinder solutions to the real problems that face us in the classroom today. Kinder to teachers and to students. If one is facing a class of average students, so average that not even one or two more motivated peers spark competition and engagement, then the teaching problem is not top-down (delivernig maximum content and engaging students to meet it) but bottom-up (trying to begin with the students to get them to take a single step from where they are). In the latter case, I find myself trying to figure out, OK, so if there is one thing I want students to take from this course, what is it? I think in my class that has a historical component, that single thing is simply: can the student imagine at least one feature of this time that is not like our own, and understand it as such a distinction? (Of course the 'minimum list' is longer; but the distillation is real.)
More advanced classes are less rigorous in the sense that there is more that can be explored; there is a choice of several combinations that would be adequate. And that is where there is joy: some degree of mastery, some degree of flexibility. Everything before that is the stepping stone to that.
Stepping stones...


I'll try to bring this post to a close by bringing it back to the Kirk interview. He speaks of the importance of being not going somewhere, yet endurance as the means to reach those points of being, as it begins from that point where the journey seems too hard, where people extrapolate how much more the remaining journey will hurt based on pain experienced thus far and want to give up, when instead they should realise that they are getting stronger and better. It is clear why so many pedagogies focus on growth. But tied in with growth are all kinds of other things needing consideration, including even belief. Or even love of the world, and the question of how to love it... Auerbach once quoted Hugo of St. Victor in giving his answer: "...he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land". One loves the world if one is endowed with the love of the traveller, but with the gravitas of being the student of the lands. There is a place for this human love in academic writing - Auerbach has demonstrated this. Some pedagogy also emphasizes this by showing the teacher as not being the sole gatekeeper to knowledge. And a final note to this: isn't it a good thing that this pedagogy has come to popularity at exactly the time when students can see, on the internet, that teachers are not gatekeepers to knowledge? But, and the internet does not teach this, how to instill in average students, bent on easiest routes and minimal engagement, discipline and textual apparatus?

A Better Environment

I have been asked to translate a work from French called Testament of the Ego, a focused, poetic meditation on how the ego would divorce one from the freeflow play of life, communication with what the author calls the Holy Spirit, which resides within us (actually, he writes - the Holy Spirit is also us). It is a short work, as so many of the best works are; short enough to contain something essential, not long enough to lose it. It is a gentle appeal to how our reason, the reason of the ego, can reason us out of the more tender and profound moments of life. The "testament" is written as the author seeks to finally release this ego. I find myself drawn back to the book, though it makes me a little bit afraid, just like Western Buddhism makes me afraid - the book seems somhow Buddhist - in that I think the Western approach to these worldviews take them too literally. And yet. The author does not, as there is a humour that pervades the book, even when it is most serious. I don't know how I will find the time to translate it, but as I said, I feel drawn to return to read it whenever I have time. And tonight, as I was doing the housework, I heard a phrase on a podcast that reminded me of the book, Rebecca Solnit's idea that "people in this century ... seem to love certainty more than hope".


The idea that we love certainty more than hope reminded me of the Testament plea: that we once and for all leave the empty reasoning of the ego for a life that unfolds - in unexpected ways - only in the present (I do the book a disservice by shorthanding in this way).
Not having heard of Solnit before the podcast, so not knowing of the larger context of her writing, I did admire how she spoke in this instance of libelous clichés that emerge from the media, and how they keep some people from witnessing the manifestations of hope and possibly fruitful change that can emerge even out of disaster.
... all the clichés [of] ... how we revert to our savage, social-Darwinist nature, were aired [in New Orleans during Katrina]. And ... all the major news outlets ... were the unindicted co-conspirators ... They start publishing all this garbage about how there’s mass killings in the Superdome. And that was just believed so much that the Federal Emergency Management Agency sends a gigantic tractor-trailer refrigerated truck to get what turns out to be six bodies, not the 200 that are supposed to be there.
There’s all these stories that people are shooting at helicopters, so you can’t have helicopter rescues [but who would shoot at helicopters during a time of need - she asks in the unedited interview]. And so they mount a campaign, not to treat suffering human beings and bring them resources, but to reconquer the city. ... And it’s like, that is not a humanitarian effort. M16s are not how you help that grandmother dying on the roof. And some of those grandmothers died.  And so people were not a victim of a hurricane, they were a victim of vicious stories ... And what’s interesting is that a lot of people believe those stories. And we often treat stories like they’re very trivial, like they’re story hour for kids or — but people live and die by stories.

Stories. The stories that kill us could be stories of our own making, according to the author of Testament. So, like that author, Solnit is making an appeal to another kind of narrative for life, choosing to talk about:
... the unpredictability of our lives and that ground for hope ... — that we don’t know what forces are at work, what — who and what is going to appear, what thing we may not have even noticed or may have discounted that will become a tremendous force in our lives. 
People in this culture love certainty so much, and they seem to love certainty more than hope, which is why they often seize on these really bitter, despondent narratives that are — they know exactly what’s going to happen. And that certainty just seems so tragic to me. I want people to tell more complex stories and to acknowledge that sometimes we win, and that there are these openings.
One example of an opening, of the "seeds we might now be planting whose harvest will come at some unpredictable moment" is the climate movement, which she explains now has energy generation options. I was actually planning on writing about nature in this post, before I heard this interview, which brought associations with Testament. Yet the environment is very much related here; even Solnit describes it at the beginning of the interview as a refuge that both feeds and encourages. I definitely feel that when I go out for a run, and this is why I need to run so far, to see more of the plants and animals that feed and encourage. Today, as I slip-slid on a minor muddy forest trail, I suddenly heard a tap-tappp-tap, looked up, and saw the red breast of a woodpecker, on a bare tree. Whatever my thoughts may have been at that moment, about the uncertain day ahead of me, I was able to pause, and to witness, beautiful other forms, doing other things, finding food where I saw only barrenness.


This nature, this nature that seems ever more infringed upon. That I feel for, every time I see more cement being laid over it.
In Hong Kong recently, a general's son, now retired, asked whether the mainlanders would respect the preserved areas (there is a stretch of coast, for example, that is a UNESCO-protected geopark: in about a kilometre, you can see eight totally different kinds of volcanic rock formations). He noted that those freshly-departed from village life are always in a hurry to literally pave it over. I could not help but think of how it is the same in Europe. I remember in my Angers (France) college, the farm boys who partied their families farms away. But, Testament would say, these are the reasonings of an ego that wants to live, so continues to provide intricate reasonings, involving us. But, Solnit would say, look for the openings.
Solnit may be relatable for one more reason: her pursuit of humour and depersonalised questioning. She notes [in the unedited interview] how in one interview, a host took a reductionist approach to her work, and focused an attack against her on a personal level. Her response to this was that her host had asked her a "closed question" (according to which there is only one right answer), and that she should have responded with a "Rabbinical" question - a question to a question, which would put the focus back on the interlocutor. She notes she was successful at this once, where again her work was reduced (being called her whining about suffering from the injustices of humanity), so she turned to the audience and asked, have you ever felt the injustices of humanity?, which, she says, thanks partly to her American accent delivered to a British audience, got her a laugh.
Testament was written on a deathbed. But I hope that its sentiment, one shared by others like Solnit, will bring some of us and the space around us to life.


Your own people aren't always exactly your own people.

In the past month, in terms of the tough standards I set for myself, I failed at life (out of exhaustion over exponentially-increased teaching duties) in that I allowed myself to be surprised by certain human behaviour.
In one instance, this surprise morphed within me into the enemy of the human being, the feeling of injustice. Intellectually I know that righteous indignation is a dead-end street: called in some languages a "blind corner", which is exactly what I mean here. I don't know that I would be blogging about this quite in this way, had I not come across the sentence I used as the subject here: "Your own people aren't always exactly your own people." It is a fecund sentence for contemplation. One illustration could be of quondam parentals leaving children to choose their own adventure with absolutely no guidance after the first teen year, who later think they have a right to be critical of said children.
But there is another meaning of the quoted sentence that I have been musing over. Another could be related to patriotism. My family has members living all over the world; I have always taken it for granted that one can be both a patriot and a cosmopolite (who can be humble enough to learn from other cultures). To a certain degree (and to be not at all humble for a moment), I also thought that such a generous patriotism was easier for compatriots like myself than for people hailing from other countries (for historical reasons). Compatriots who reach cosmopolite status share a curiosity for esoteric aspects of other cultures and have the intellectual capacity for such appreciation (gaining, for example, expert knowledge of their antiques), and are crowned by a humility, in part stemming from a knowledge of the complexities of the history of their own country...


But today, this approach has come under fire. There is a new kind of patriotism defined in more narrow terms, as if, if one does not comply with these narrow qualifications, one does not love one's country. I can understand that somewhat - it is a kind of reactionism, not unlike my own of righteous indignation mentioned above. But on the other hand, such an approach would warrant if not a fail then a very low grade in not only my class on culture but also my composition class.
To begin with the (advanced) composition class, I set the intellectual exercise that opinions are not academically valid; what is valid is a thesis that has support and is able to articulate and respond to (through rebuttal or concession) viewpoints that challenge one's thesis. In other words, students are welcome to their 'opinions' so long as they can articulate them in terms of viewpoints that might challenge them (yes, this is derived from δόξα). Part of the course is built on cultivating an imagination that can articulate other viewpoints (which I - again not humbly - take to be part of the intellectual legacy of my native land). Similarly, my advanced class on culture demonstrates through examples that a single culture can be paradoxical, and is often comprised of myriad competing world views. This even came up in my intro class: through the example, for instance, of how not all former colonies immediately ratified the Articles of the Confederation. Unity does not necessarily mean unanimity.
How do we respond to scarcity of agreement?
For some, this means that it is no longer a time for the "college games" of dialectics; to them, it means war. Truth can come back another day.


So I ask myself: how do I talk to someone who from the get-go is approaching questions through their agenda? (The new orthodoxy of secularism, or of zealous liberalism, is no more tolerant or different than any religion.) Are you, readers, also wanting to ask me why it's a problem to approach life through an agenda? When I tried, with my interlocutors of late, to explain the complexities of statecraft and the importance of grappling - as contradictory as it may seem - with even abstract ideas like 'truth' in the practical business of statesmanship, if I dared call on Plato, my interlocutors' eyes would glaze over. Which I know from teaching means I need to change my approach. So, in answer to my question of how to talk with agenda-driven interlocutors, reason is not the way. Or, one must learn to package reason differently.
Since yesterday, every time I think about this, I am left with an anecdote from Rumer Godden's autobiography, A House With Four Rooms, with which I shall close this blog post. She writes of how back in the day, authors would often receive requests for an autograph and/or signed photograph. She explains that before she knew better to respond only to those who sent return postage, she would oblige at least the many signature requests though the postage was costly (obliging the photograph requests would have been far too costly). "I had a letter from America with the usual request, sent an autograph and a little later" she writes, "had a second letter; 'Thank you for your autograph. We have had your handwriting analysed. You are mean, petty, selfish and greedy.'"


"Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers"

I recently watched the televised version of J. B. Priestley's Summer Day's Dream, starring John Gielgud, which was thoroughly enjoyable both as a piece and for its performance. It is an example of art that remains timely long after the time of its production. For example, it speaks to the temptations of materialism and the problems of vested interests that attempt to bury the good life:
"It all ends in other people's confusion and  misery in a hopeless muddle of values. If you want to throw your life away for the sake of plastic ash-trays, that's your affair" (1). "You cant go shopping for a good life. You have to live it." (2) This is difficult because, "There is an old tried pattern, a faded map offering some chance of happiness, and still they pay men to rule thick hues across it." (3)


The play reminded me a lot of Wordsworth's "The World Is Too Much With Us" - and even addresses the problem of poetry.
Stephen: There was a time when I  didn't care for [poetry].
Rosalie: What was wrong with you?
Stephen: I think I was ill. Most of us were. But l didn't know it.
Rosalie: But now you're all right.
Stephen: Yes — except that I'm very old.
If we feel that we, too, are too old, we ought to abide by Rosalie's diagnosis, that it is possible for "something lost and innocent" to be about us, "like a sort of old baby puzzled but still hopeful". (4)


But ultimately the point of the film is in the 'poetry'; whether one sees this "late and soon", whether one can see release to the "getting and spending" Wordsworth warned of, whether one has the vision to see through the hopeless vision of the hopeless muddle of values in order to attain the timeless poetry of the good life ("For what can there be above the man who rises above fortune?" asks Seneca, who then cites "the cry of the greatest poets" for us to "live right now ... 'If you don't seize the day, it slips away'" [5]). Lest you think I am reading classical studies into the play, compare what are perhaps the most famous lines of the play with lines by Seneca:
Stephen: Take it easy. I spent more than half my life,  when I ought to have been enjoying myself, arguing and planning and  running round like a maniac, all to sell a lot of things to people I  didn’t know so that I could buy a lot of things I never had time to use.  Sheer lunacy. And it took nothing less than an atom bomb to blow me out of it. (6)
Seneca: "Calculate how much of your time has been taken up by a moneylender,  how much by a mistress, how much by a patron, how much by a client, how much in arguing with your wife, in punishing your slaves, in  running about the city on social duties. Add to your calculations the  illnesses that we've inflicted on ourselves, and also the time that has  lain idle: you'll see that you've fewer years than you count. Look back and recall when you were ever sure of your purpose; how few days turned out as you'd intended; when you were ever at your own disposal; when your face showed its own expression; when your mind was free from disturbance; what accomplishment you can claim in such a long life; how many have plundered your existence without your being aware of what you were losing; how much time has been  lost to groundless anguish, foolish pleasure, greedy desire, the charms  of society; how little is left to you from your own store of time. You'll  come to realize that you're dying before your time." (7)

An Either Scholarly or Artistic Picture

To hold questions open, to be able to remain with the uncomfortable questions in one's various quests, can bring answers, sometimes suddenly, like those waves that hide then reveal trails of jewels of shells on the shore. Questions can be at once typological and personal, so can be answered by gazing at what other people retain from the movement of their lives. What follows is a personal anecdote on this theme.
While I was reading about deserts, still (dryly?!) afflicted by the concerns of my previous post, I came to a blog that set out its modus operandi as "either scholarly or artistic". Those words are answers to an uncomfortable question, elucidating two poles that are at battle within me: pedantic methodology vs. the freedom and freedom of application of craft in the exploration of subjects. In those two simple words, are two different approaches - can we say that one is more valid than the other? Scholasticism can be limited by the shortsightedness of the historical situation or variations on Baconian idols; art, by whim and fantasy. But both have the potential to seek something true and meaningful about the lived experience.


As I continued to reflect on this blog that I found (The Southwest Journal), I marvelled at how much of myself and how many of my own questions that I had been uncomfortably carrying around seemed to be dwelling there - that is, beyond the "scholarly or artistic".
For example, what is the point of the scholarly or artistic, if we do not know what it is for? Pedagogy teaches that where learning is concerned, one of the first problems is determining an end-point to the journey is to be. In other words, teachers must have some idea of what they want students to have acquired along the way of a lecture series: a fair teacher not only knows what will be "wanted of" the student, but will make this explicitly clear, over and over again. So, what is the point of the scholasticism and art?
... The noble life [in the] life of the common, day-to-day struggles that everyone faces, ... [which] is only gained through perseverance, inner strength, and the determination to build the character that comes with playing the long game. It is the life-long devotion and perseverance to unglamorous actions that develop into stewardship for that which lies before us in daily life. As Wendell Berry said, “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife for 50 years.”
... The noble life has been ignored, I think, because it’s not a shiny object; it does not end in a spectacular singular event. It is not a candle burning at both ends. It has the unfortunate commodity of being personal and slow, built on values not easily measurable or even visible. The noble life unfurls behind the man or woman living it where understanding requires knowing the story, seeing with different eyes, and valuing the slow and steady march of time, for that is what it takes to grow into such a life. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. You cannot save the land apart from the people or the people apart from the land (Wendell Berry).
This was written by GSH, here. In another post, she writes, "Survival happens through compromise not through hard lines and competition. Compromise is how you don’t lose it all."


The point to scholasticism and art, in this iteration, is character building and other people. Indeed, it is through other people that the very seeds for this post were spotted.
Just as invisible and uncomfortable questions can inform the outcome of one's daily thoughtful desert wanderings, keeping an eye on character building and the importance of others can inform the effect a life has...
... if one can handle the discomfort. To hold open space for other people is uncomfortable; they are unpredictable and will require ever-newly-invented responses, testing one's resolve and intentions (does one really care about others in practice, or only in theory?) There will be times one will have to face an unfortunate image of oneself, when one fails to choose the right response in the moment to unpredictable interlocutors. But there is a bigger picture - which can be intuited and incorporated into the picture of one's own life, if one has the scholastic or artistic inclination to grasp it.

Brush: misprinted type.