THE PASSIONATE SKEPTIC
Notes to Myself from the Bottom of the World
Echoes // Inner Voices // Knowledge // Failure // Compassion // Permission for Kindness // Betrayal // On Courage // Complexity // Learning the Hidden Complexities // The Third Eye of Beauty - Engineering // Crossing Borders // What-for People and Who-for People // Insouciance // Managing Humanity and Other Chattels // Teaching // Competence // Whose Culture? What Learning? //
They have been fishing since sunrise, tethered to a weathered grey post faintly tipped with white. It is supposed to show the deep water channel. The tide is flowing out, and their old launch bumps her keel on the mud bottom. They hasten to loosen the mooring rope, push off into the tugging current which hurries them away from familiar landmarks. Soon the launch sweeps around a bend, still drifting. Somehow they have to kick over the motor, get some steerage, figure out where the hell they are going. Now, a little later, my parents have passed the mouth of the estuary, bobbing in a tiny silhouette above the long, cold ocean swells. It is time to wonder about my own journey.
Listen first to all living things, and tend their needs.
Knowledge is an accident caught out of the corner of the eye. Knowledge is a pattern of leaves seen suddenly, the collision of two chance remarks, the brush of a hand that plumbs all emotion. Knowledge is a swift observation in a twenty cent novel, a new taste of fruit, a dream that is strangely important, a chance that was never looked for. Knowledge is an insight that you can act upon in body or mind.
If you have never failed, then you have never tested the door locks and bars on your mental cage. You are a simpleton.
I measure men and women by their style in failure. Does she throw a tantrum, retreat to astrology and cupie dolls, or blame her mother? Does he start a fight, get an ulcer or buy a Porsche on time payment to hide the pain? Does she wipe the blood off her knuckles, have a muesli bar, and look for another way to climb the mountain?
Failure is a whiff of mortality, a healthy antidote to hubris. Stalk failure with a curious eye, give it a poke, turn it over and look for its soft underbelly. If the failure is a dynamited bridge, then get off the catwalk fast, and do a cool calculation on the cost of rebuilding. If the failure is a knife in the dark, turn on the light and put up a spirited fight. If the track is mined with booby-traps, cut another path through the bush. If your hand shakes, your bones crack, your brain goes to mush or your heart threatens to stop, then go for a long walk in the fresh air, eat a hearty meal and laugh at an ant's very serious expedition up a tree trunk.
Compassion is finding the strength to give when nobody is applauding. It is kindness without a tax deduction. The compassionate heart holds that giving life is always a braver act than stealing it.
Compassion surprises every base instinct, which having been cheated, conspire to whisper in the giver's ear that he is a wonderful chap, a candidate for sainthood in the very least. The only sure cure for this kind of vanity is to wash a cat, forget your wife's birthday or swear at the tram conductor. Then you can afford to once more spare the boss from a vat of boiling oil in your next technicolour dream.
Not biting the hand of compassion is a tricky business. Are these your callused fingers, or a black velvet glove to strangle the life out of me? To give is glorious, but to receive needs grace that is hard to muster when every other dignity has been neutered. What is this burden of lovingkindness you ask me to carry? Do you want my self-respect in hock? And now to the saints amongst you, here is an advance request. On that fateful sunrise, when by a throw of the dice. I too am a refugee, for pity's sake give me a job before you give me a bed...
To give another permission for kindness is a gift without measure, for the petty extortions of daily living force all but the bravest into betraying their neighbours.
What is betrayal? So often it is innocent: we have some unspoken confidence in a new acquaintance, which they violate. It is the investment of our whole persona, with all its secret hopes, which carries the greatest risk. Trusting some part of this hidden dimension to the understanding of another being may be, for some of us, asking too much of a confidant. At best such secrets are apt to seem quaint to other folk, at worst an enemy is made as small minds find evil intent in ideas beyond their ken. It is not fair to complain about this. Some parts of the human soul must always be trodden by a lone traveller. I suspect that this is what adulthood is often about.
Now and then you see a glimpse of someone else trying to make sense of a hidden world, the part they cannot talk about. I had a sometime boss who would have destroyed a billion people given the power (though she would be shocked to hear herself say so), because she couldn't see any other solution to "the world". Should I have betrayed what her own dreams wouldn't admit, though my inner eye told me it was true? No. What would it win anybody, even amongst the billion (many of whom dream of more violence with less cause)?
I myself speak too openly of many small things, but rarely lower the ramparts of that inner citadel wherein we hold all meaning together. In half a century, every single slip into a carefree confidence has cost me later, sometimes dearly. So the heavy mantle of silence remains a close companion.
Can courage be learned? The answer, my life answer, seems to be that in some degree it can be. From early in life I have suffered from the disjunction of a flighty peripheral nervous system and a gritty certainty about where my values lay. In the beginning it was natural enough to let the body fly from what the mind despised. With passing years I learned the high price of cowardice, the small daily acts of betrayal by ordinary people that bring whole communities undone into the hand of tyranny. I have learned to fear cowardice in myself and in others, and so by a process of hard choice found myself from time to time on the foolhardy end of a brave act.
Not a simple thing, this matter of courage. There are fellows you can trust within the limits of their understanding. Brave, stolid souls who will drag you from a burning bridge at risk of life and limb. These are qualities properly rewarded, yet easily turned to destruction by a general bent on conquest, or a double tongued politician on the make.
The courage that I admire lives with more subtle fears. This is the bravery of a fine mind facing hopeless odds. The spirit whose flame pierces every veil of deception and temptation, who seeing the full awfulness of what awaits the defiant, and the easy rewards of complicity, still chooses to stand alone.
I am not an easy follower, certainly not of the vainglorious and pitiful who strut the world stage in their thousand dollar suits. If there were one woman though, in all the lands, whom I could be drawn to follow and to love, it would surely Aung San Suu Chi. Year by year she dwells, serenely defiant in the heart of the evil that is the Burmese state. Mother Courage herself.
I can think of two slender, clever women I have chosen not to wed, and two chunky, clever, brave women I have hosen not to wed. The first two I desired for their beauty but feared for the betrayal to come from their cowardice. The second two failed to excite my lust but held my admiration. I regret losing those two last companions who could have journeyed with me to the restaurant at the end of the universe.
Finding a congenial level of complexity best describes the quest for contentment. The tolerance for complexity defines us as elements of a certain weight, and mismatched by simplicity or cleverness we quickly become bored.
There is no contempt more vicious than a fundamentalist mob stoning a heretic, or computer illiterates mocking a "nerd". There is no plutocracy more destructive than a council of wise men suffocating free spirits. No hypocrisy more cynical than a clever rascal manipulating the beliefs of simple souls. No institution more pitiful than an army of mediocrities slaving to produce obscurantist research papers as a cover for confusion. The cheerful, non-judgmental matching of individuals to their natural band of complexity might do more for human happiness than all the parliaments of power.
As for friendship, bondings of mismatched complexity may be strong, sometimes catalytic, but must trade on a power differential. There will always be ugly but clever men who prefer to satisfy their sexual needs with the uncomplicated appetites of beautiful dumb bimbos, and some clever women who will use a part-time lover purely as a spunk. Many a bright woman marries a slow but solid fellow, and many a pretty girl trades her fleeting asset to snare an intellectually dominant male for breeding.
In capricious world where the market of emotions turns on chance, there will always be unbalanced partnerships. Yet such arrangements may never have the intricacy, fascination or depth of which derives from the cohabitation of like minds in congenial bodies. On this last matter, my own stubborn quest has bought me undone in the brief widow of time they call a life. Blessed are the simple souls, for they are plentiful in all the lands, and their needs are met in abundance. Yet having breathed keener air, who would settle for a lobotomy and purgatory in a narcotic haze?
All life and each life is a progression of perception from simplicity to complexity. If nature is out there somewhere, rather than inside our heads, then life does not actually get more complex as we become older. The change is one of growing sophistication in personal understanding. An amoeba has a very narrow view of the world, so that amoeba causal philosophy would leave much to god and fairies at the bottom of the garden. Dogs are somewhat better off, but would be mystified by references to colour.
A unique property of sophisticated intelligence is that humans actually decide what shall be treated at the level of extreme caricature for the sake of efficient living and what shall be explored at some greater depth as a challenge to the intellect.
Each non-genius must decide whether to be an all round average yob, or really smart at one thing. We have all heard of the specialist in medieval sonnets or the walking-football-encyclopaedia who can't tie their own shoe laces. Projecting from their own tiny, intense grasp of excellence, such folk will naively think all others similar. They will believe, for example, that that collection of mediocrities, the modern government, must be a model of rationality controlled by those other specialists interested in political organization. And, perhaps more alarmingly, shoals of not-especially-good-at-anything people also tend to believe that somebody else is minding the shop.
Most humans opt for a level of specialized knowledge just sufficient to survive in a job and negotiate the public transport system. On a bell-curve of normality, those who can't or won't follow a train timetable are thought simpletons, while those who develop a theory to predict the range of all possible timetables are socially abandoned as egg-heads and very boring people.
Becoming accepted in a culture is actually the process of managing but not exceeding an approved level of complex behaviour for that host culture. The insider also masters a repertoire of familiar language for transactions at this level. This equilibrium of the mediocre can be threatened by new ideas or new technology. For example, each development in technology brings choices and judgements about an appropriate depth of knowledge. The man who can plug in 2 Meg of RAM chips is ipso facto a "tech head", somewhat held in awe but also in contempt for choosing such specialized sophistication. However the punter who knows the name of every rugby full-back for the last 75 years will attract awe and affection, for this is thought to be a forgivable obsession.
If our personal hells are dark tunnels of the mind, grown too confused for even their owners to know well, public institutions can be equally Kafkaesque. That communal circus, politics, is often hijacked to sloganize problems which have become too hard to think about. The political retreat from complexity, that is, from sophisticated understanding, is driven by fear, confusion and ignorance. Most ignorant is the belief that by simplifying the discourse of social and technological processes, those processes themselves will be simplified. This is perfectly equivalent to a small child covering its eyes so the nasties are not there any more: an absolute invitation for the wolf to eat Little Red Riding Hood.
On the other hand, the siren song of alluring complexities can be perilous too. My own rich collection of social,vocational and intellectual failures is almost directly a product of being lured by the fascination of unproductive interests. That is, in many social encounters I find myself out of whack with cultural norms of complexity. I am forever being driven to explore the infinitely regressing minutiae of variables, rules and patterns behind languages, electronics, engineering, nature in general or whatever catches my eye - while becoming master of none.
We learn to creative depth only that in which we find beauty. There is a whole dimension, which I shall call engineering beauty, to which many folk seem quite blind. Engineering beauty touches much more than the appeal of static form which plays such a large part in fashion and art. Engineering beauty comes from an integration of dynamic components in ways that are elegant, functional, ingenious or versatile. Its expression may by a fine tool, a well-designed engine, some brilliant computer code or an elegant scientific hypothesis.
The appreciation of engineering beauty must be partly inborn. Still, teaching and good experience can sharpen that enjoyment. There is real delight in stumbling upon a superior solution to a complex, dynamic problem. Those who have a feel for engineering beauty, thrown together with individuals of similar interest, find that they soon establish a discourse of discovery which overcomes those barriers of age, race, culture, status and the other social games with which the chattering classes fill their days. Even at a very simple level, as a teacher, I find that I can instantly divide any group of students by placing, say, a stripped down engine in the corner of a classroom. For some, that engine will draw them with ideas of power and elegance and creative possibility. They feel an instant magnetic attraction. We have an unspoken fellowship. There are others, so many, who seem forever outside the magic circle.
It is common, very common, to find an engineer, a soldier, a doctor or a scientist who cultivates informed knowledge of literature, art or music. I can scarcely think of a famous general who wasn't also a poet, or at least a student and writer of history.
It is rare, almost freakish, to find an arts centred person who is literate in engineering, mathematics or science. The worlds of logic, system and mechanical beauty (an oxymoron in their conception) are hostile, cold and incomprehensible.
No wonder that the scientifically literate, whether at the level of garage mechanic or physicist, are tempted to think of the cultivated cleverness of many arts oriented people as a rather pathetic overcompensation in areas where they themselves could excel if they didn't have far more interesting things to do.
A very few people know WHAT they are living, working and creating for. These are people with a controlling ambition, an ideology or talent which absorbs them. They are the powerhouses of human advancement and destruction.
The vast majority of people have no such defining passion. As a matter of convenience, they adopt a career because the culture demands it (men more so than women). They will perform their daily work, start no revolutions, and expect some sort of promotion over time in the prescribed manner. Women, on average, are attracted almost automatically to men who seem to "know what they want", which generally means men who express culturally appropriate ambitions (for the ultimate purpose of nurturing a family) rather than the true what-for person, driven by a fire in his belly.
This majority, however, know quite clearly WHO they are living, working and creating for. In the first instance it is self, but also a bonded circle of gender-partner, children, relatives and friends. The lemming rush of teenagers, this way and that with peer groups, is a transition to bonding in such a manner. Once set, the person is embedded in a life role which will see him or her to the grave, and once the species is reproduced, the passing will carry some sense of fulfilment.
I have always had the outward identity of a what-for person, without being able to put my finger on the golden chalice itself. It has been as if that thing which I was destined to master, to succeed at beyond all others, remained hidden by a veil. The presence has been almost tangible, but forever out of reach. So life has been an endless quest up shallow estuaries of interest whose outlines are barely remembered. The talents which seemed so potent, so promising, dissipate in a hundred directions. Fearing my own indirection, I have clung to causes like linguistics and writing a PhD, which provide the husk of a career outline. Clung far beyond reason, and returned to them with the cunning of the homeless. With willpower and desperation, from time to time I wrest an article from imagination and reluctantly scanned literature. But in my heart of hearts I have known that my own special excellence lay in some other, veiled direction. If only it were plain I could step down that path with power and decision. Ah, the allotted span is so short. A half century has fled.
Just sometimes I say to myself that the true quest would reveal itself if only I also knew whom I was living, working and creating for. At such moments I try to forget the yawning chasm childhood fell into, between a who-for person mother and a what-for person father. No wonder religions were invented; how barren the soul of a skeptic.
But ethereal prayers will not be my nourishment. Subconsciously I manoeuvre from job to job, hoping somewhere, sometime to strike that magical partner or mentor who can give it all meaning and direction. Artfully I flirt with countries and cultures hoping to hit upon a spiritual home. But this is a timeless cycle of self-delusion, visited on hapless beings from Ulysses to the Hamlet, to the self-indulgent day-trippers who visit meditation centres. Most people sensibly settle for something less than an ideal friendship in an ideal world. They get on with the business of living, and express rebellion by smoking or dying their hair orange. My flaw, my power, is a refusal as an anointed ordinary-person to have an ordinary mind, and perhaps my terror of being made ordinary by an ordinary woman. Must that condemn me to tragedy or farce? Probably yes.
I am forever astounded by the blissful self-confidence of inadequate human beings. The most worrying of these creatures (who tend to be office girls, managers and professors of exotica) actually judge you on an index of pig ignorant self-confidence. Like drunken travellers on a mountain track, they sneer at the rider who is cold stone sober enough to look over the precipice and shudder at the prospect of a slip.
Simple minds are reputedly prone to happiness. Yet there is more than simplicity involved in much of this. Any number of individuals are cleverer than I am, given a chess game to play, an atom bomb to make or a city to govern. The critical thing seems to be that they instinctively focus their cleverness on the task defined for them by some other nong, (which is probably what makes them locally clever), never noticing that the chessboard of nights and days is a dice game with death, that the atom bomb is a gift to psychopaths, or that the city is on an earthquake fault-line.
It is definitely a Good Thing that most folk are optimists, confident doers and intolerant of hesitation in their tiny subset of the universe. Apparently up to one in five of them fall off the bicycle for a while at some time in their lives. In the language of the street they go gaga, have a nervous breakdown or take to drink. This is all a dreadful consequence of momentarily looking the world in the eye, and realizing that a meteorite could reduce them and their earnest labour to plasma at any instant. Luckily, not many of these regressors to rational moments stay sane long enough to understand that their own grandchildren will have to be cannibals to get a square meal a day.
So why is it that the sassy, snappy, super confident personnel managers and bar girls are so intolerant of an occasional devastated realist? Could it be that their secret world is fragile, fearful of resonating at a perilous frequency, hollow with the horror of being alone in space? Those of us who ride the cold borderlands of the shire, far from any loud laughter, are more numb to sudden shocking visions. We find wry humour in tweaking the tail of the devil, as our hand shakes, and even when flesh fails us, we somehow find the courage to endure, not going gaga, but hoping to become a little wiser.
Management, as per your self-defined superior class of persons in the pecking order of institutions, is mostly housekeeping with attitude. It is a service job, although good housekeepers are hard to find. Easier to find are managers fighting mean little battles over the turf where they feel licensed to play dominance-submission games. When I'm master of the universe, they'll all cool their heels in a waiting room for the next space shuttle.
After housekeeping, the first task of management is to increase the human capital of an organization. Each employee is a special kind of corporate share. As any investor knows the value of stock rests less in the number of shares than in the growth potential of existing shares. Management which is unable to multiply the growth of invested "human shares", or even contributes to the diminution in value of these shares has failed utterly.
On a scale of management behaviours, there are probably two extremes. One of these extremes is exploiting the weaknesses of employees for short term advantage. The benign extreme is nurturing the personal strengths of employees for the long term benefit of the organization and individual.
Let us not confuse the productivity of machines with the substance of human contributions. An automated machine which reduces the contribution of skilled artisans to dumb dial watching may register an accountant's multiple of increased productivity. A nation which reduces a large skilled workforce to a small core of dial watchers and a large force of unemployed television watchers has disembowelled itself. When the artefacts of a culture (and this includes the industrial artefacts) cease to enhance the life chances of most community members, then those artefacts have become malevolent. A managerial class which has been subverted from these understandings, or never grasped them, is utterly dangerous.
I work in a business - teaching - that claims to merchandise knowledge, but that is a lie. I merchandise data that might become someone's knowledge, yet mostly doesn't.
From the kindergartens to the universities most of us who take the name of "teacher" are d-grade actors mouthing the words of scripts which neither we nor our directors nor our charges understand. Even clever conformists like Plato were more concerned with a canon of old incantations than the awkward, innocent doubts of the open mind. This might be a matter for regret, but several thousand years of educational history suggest that skepticism and invention will remain minority traits.
So can educational institutions be our nurseries of innovation, or merely holding pens to tether and distract clever, foolish minds, while apparatchiks get on with minding the shop? Certainly you meet the odd interesting character in education. But actually the sometime pinnacle, universities, are mostly fashion centres; they deal with fashions of the mind in the way that Hollywood deals with fashions of the silver screen. Alas, the chorus leaders in this burlesque do not all have flair.
Take-away mental diets have been the flavour of the millennium. Like all kinds of fast nourishment, their popularity is instant and universal. People who want to be told what to think are at least as thick on the ground at our great (and not so great) universities as they are on the Ford production line. What sympathy, after all, do the perfectly conditioned, very clever lap-dogs in national institutions have for the hunger and irreverence of a free ranging mind?
So is there a special contribution on offer in these lines, something that all the monks of wisdom, masturbating in their mothballed bat-wings, have somehow overlooked? Sorry folks. These Notes may pose as a mirror to great truths, but God has not introduced herself to the writer yet. In fact, I can claim no more than a certain kind of compulsion to pick clear phrases out of the static of living dreams.
The bookshops and airwaves are awash with millions of similar compulsions, profound, maudlin, sharp and obtuse. Each is a tiny vehicle for public kudos or self-esteem, and altogether more significant for someone somewhere than a library of great thinkers. Perhaps sometime I will bind my vehicle of delusion in glue and paper, to gather dust with all the other Great Ideas. Will that too be knowledge? As Omar Khayyam noticed all those years ago, there seems awhile some talk of thou and I, but then we hear the footsteps hesitate and move on, to the next shelf of remaindered self-improvement bargains.
Well, what do YOU think?
Competence is what you can do, isn't it? How about what you have to do, or would/wouldn't like to do, or might do or should do? Or what you can do today, but probably can't do tomorrow? Or what you could do if you had to, but don't have a good reason to do anyway?
Maybe competence is what you can do, but all those other things are what muck it up in the real world. And so they should. Competence without good judgement is a butcher's knife in the childcare centre.
Australian educational curriculums in the 1990s happen to be dominated by something called competency curriculums. Their practical expression is, in my experience, almost oxymoronic, at least in language education. Why? The problem is in the variety of human experience, and the sheer complexity of what we do in merely speaking.
Competency curriculums fatally confuse performance with process. I can specify a million contexts for using the forty-nine phonemes of English, a nice competency curriculum indeed, and my leaders would say that how the student gets to perform successfully in those contexts is not an administrator's business. Maybe not, but they forgot or never knew that it was a teacher's business. Teaching a language (rather than teaching about it) is a detailed, cunning game, a black art, a sensitive interplay with the qualities of each learner that makes a mockery of curriculums and fixed hours to completion.
The teacher, coaching students to perform to a range of tick-box criteria of life simulated in the classroom, can only make the vaguest guess at those students' life demands. The teacher's own experience is narrow, her world-view delimited, her passions personal, yet this is all she has to breath life into the competency definitions.
The more exact and detailed competency outcomes are, the less likely they are to help any given student. And the more they preclude the development of general skills which learners can adapt to real world problems. Curriculum managers talk wisely about a generalization of skills, but forget to nurture the skills of generalization. Those skills of generalization come from what used to be called a liberal education. The more detailed competency curriculums are, the less space there is for a teacher to infuse a topic with the personal electricity of her own insights, and so inspire students to their own personal process of insight. She becomes a trainer, a word mechanic, not a mentor.
If Christ or the Gautama Buddha were great teachers, it was the passion of their personal experience that carried into the hearts of disciples. Now think of the obnoxious hypocrisy of pasty, cappuccino priests bleating about some poor sod's crucifixion to redeem us, as if they understood the blood and rusty nailed business of running an empire. Think of the innocent cynicism of a twenty-five year old teacher as she "retrains" semi-literate, long term unemployed immigrants, ticks off her competency list. Put her on the bundy clock queue of a Chinese assembly line for a year, then tell her she's industrial scrap. By that stage our teacher could have something to teach about industry. As it is, she might have something to teach from the bones about childbirth and supermarket queues. As it is, her students sign up for the next "skills" course ("client can fill out forms"). Few ever get a real job.
It is a wonderful thing to be competent. Most of us with a grain of self-honesty probably feel incompetent for a good part of our lives. Some individuals though appear to be competent at almost anything they attempt, often, exasperatingly, with a minimum of training or effort. Others present a front of competence sufficient to sell a car or win a job interview, but wilt under sustained fire. And there are others (the majority) who, for all their dogged accumulation of certificates, degrees and on the job experience, seem destined to fumble at every new variation on familiar themes.
So what is competence? Perhaps we should ask, "what is the value of competence?". It may be a measure of past blame. But in truth, its real value is as a predictor of future ability to do this or that. As a tool for promoting future competence, I would rate competency curriculums somewhere below chalk & slate rote learning. We do have subject content to teach in our colleges, and it needs due respect, divorced from ideology. As for acquiring a lifelong ability to become competent, that is a state of mind, not a state of content knowledge. Mass education systems, and "competency curriculums" in particular have an unrivalled ability to neuter that natural tendency of bright minds to synthesize new understanding and abilities from the accidents of life experience. YOU are next. Will you be a competent unemployed person?
Lately I have been teaching EVET (English for vocational education and training) students to plan their careers. Careers? Typical aspirations are working in a supermarket or getting a factory job. I'm not at all confident that a lot of them aspire to paid work at all. They certainly don't have that dogged persistence of my old immigrant evening students who came in for two hours twice a week to learn English after a day packing widgets in some hole of a factory.
Circumstance catches many able individuals in dreadful, repetitive work, or casts them out from employment altogether. Many more have never been nurtured to their potential. Countries at war, or stricken by poverty, or barely touched by the industrial revolution offer scant opportunity for bright minds to find a creative niche. Fishing up these lost souls in the decaying workers' suburbs of an Australian city, giving them oxygen and self-esteem for the first time in their lives is a warming experience. But it has to be said that for every suppressed spirit I find glowing quietly in the flotsam, there are a hundred simple, passive folk who with every advantage in the world would only ever qualify to dig potatoes.
I try to empower retrenched garment workers with the wonders of nature's great questions, and the cybernetic revolution's march into a brave new world. I cajole them to read a page of something, and they think they have done "research". History is a story made on the TV news. They wait helplessly for another dole cheque and notice of the next "skills training course".
It's cruel, the classroom games we play. They and I live in such different worlds, such different mental landscapes. There seems to be no help for that. We react to absolutely different meanings, these potato diggers and I, yet in the end feel the same emotions. It is not reason but its consequences which we share. Culture, perhaps, is not what you feel, but how you arrive at those feelings.
Is all teaching a fraud? If the retrenched garment workers and unemployed tyre fitters can never quite tread my path (for what it is worth), do I at least lead them to vistas they had not suspected? There is no simple answer. It would be nice to assume a new enlightenment from room eight in Gaffney Street on Tuesday morning. In truth most of what I try will be as fleeting as a TV sitcom on their flickering attention spans. Just occasionally something may strike a spark. But why do I pick on these benighted long-term unemployed? Looking back, thinking of my lecturers and my lecturing in a clutch of universities, most of what I said and what they said was probably as ephemeral as the TV sitcom anyway.
It may be an occupational hazard for schoolmasters and priests to take their texts seriously. The education of a cultural group is a never-ending burden, perilously balanced on the cusp of superstition. Sooner or later it always fails. Will you find four thousand years of accumulated wisdom in the ruins of Babylon, or a ragged cigarette seller who has never learned to read and write? I know. I teach these cigarette sellers with their downcast eyes and delusions of past glory.
But now in my culture, for a little while at the end of a tumultuous century, we have something like mass, universal education. This has its own rules. Learning for success in the education industry seems to be a combination of insight, faith and memory. Where one has natural ability in an area, then insights will come thick and fast, so that progress can be very rapid even when the explanations or clues are formally inadequate.
Where learning is a matter of acceptance on faith, then the ability to relate sequences, relationships and consequences is much diminished. A person with good memory may in fact internalize a huge quantity of material on faith without having any grasp of its implications or any organic sense of its possibilities. My feeling is that the larger part of most people's learning is of this kind. How many really talented doctors do you know, or motor mechanics, lawyers, managers, road menders or teachers? We get by from day to day, wave our diplomas in moments of crisis, and play out our small repertoires of accepted wisdom. God help the self-taught genius who tries get a job in our palaces of mediocrity. His only hope is to make a billion bucks and buy the slobs out.
Notes to Myself from the Bottom of the World
Part I : Qualities & Values
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