Beholders of Ocean

The King of the Fairies
Alan Stivell

Beholders of Ocean

A Man with a Quilted Sleeve

There is a story by Lord Dunsany called “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.” It is about an idyllic place, a place of safety and comfort where no one is content, or at least very few are. On the one hand I suppose this is a story of discontent and the harm that it can do, but on the other, the more significant hand perhaps, it is about forsaking comfort and the illusion of contentment for what provides true satisfaction to the soul and spirit. In the story it is the ocean that everyone that leaves is seeking, but it could be anything. This suggests a question that each ought consider. Where is contentment found and what does it look like?

The song, The King of the Fairies, is by Alan Stivell. He is credited by some with re-popularizing the Irish Harp, though he does not play it on this selection. I first heard of him while taking a course on the Irish Renaissance while I was in college in 1975. Stivell is from Brittany, or the Irish province of France. The music of Stivell and others like him fed and cultivated my interest in Celtic myth and folklore, of which Arthur, the Irish story The Tain, and the Welsh stories of The Mabinogion were a part. These stories share a world in common, one in which the natural and the supernatural interact with one another and in which magic and wizardry are somewhat commonplace. In the Arthur stories Merlin is a difficult character to reconcile to the Christianity of the time when they were written down. He is a wizard and wizards are of the devil, but he is also a wise and trusted councilor and everyone in the stories trusts him, even as they are calling him a “son of the devil.” The stories also revolve around heroic characters and the adventures that befall them. They are exciting reading.

The painting is, according to some, of Ariosto (others say it is a self-portrait). Ariosto’s epic Orlando Furioso is also an important story for me because it caters both to my enjoyment of comedy, satire, and farce and the heroic stories mentioned earlier. It has been recently translated anew into English by David Slavitt. The characters in the story have an epic pedigree and they act as would be expected based on that pedigree. But this pedigree and the order of knighthood in general are also mocked and hence the irreverent humor. It too is exciting reading.

Earliest known portrayal of Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral.

The paintings above and below are from medieval illuminated manuscripts. The one above depicts the assassination of Thomas a’ Becket. The one below depicts an episode from one of the King Arthur stories. These images evoke the political intrigue of the Middle Ages and its conflicts between Church and State (some things do not change) as well as the heroic tradition of its story telling. There is a passage in the “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales where Harry Bailey (though he has not yet been identified by name) says to the pilgrims “We are all free men.” The Canterbury Tales is a book written at the end of the 14th century, barely a hundred years since the final version of The Magna Carta was issued, and it is the first instance I am aware of (though I would not be surprised to learn there are earlier instances) where the commons claim equality with the church and aristocracy and in truth I am probably reading this line within a 21st century context and perhaps Harry does not see himself in as free a light as I do.

I wonder, though, at times if the equality that Harry speaks of is the beginning of a new tradition, a more realistic tradition, that is a bit at odds with that of Medieval Romance. There was an article in The Guardian over Christmas about science fiction, “Stranger than science fiction,” that wonders if our present interest in science fiction is not an attempt to escape the limitations of realism, that is “stuck” with things as they are and often offers few suggestions as to how to live harmoniously with things as they are, other than pretending perhaps that things as they are aren’t so bad. Science fiction also offers us a kind of story telling that is not just “lifelike” but often much larger than life and it is this something larger that readers also find attractive, they want to loose themselves in a world that is more heroic than mundane. The article suggests that it is important to identify the kind of story in which we would like to live or ought to live. The world of the 21st century offers many stories that though they may not be in conflict with each other are often more interested in selling us something, from products to points of view, than they are with helping us learn to live with ourselves, with others, or the world around us.

‘King Arthur fighting the Saxons’ – illustration taken from the Rochefoucauld Grail

Leading up to Christmas there were also some articles in The Guardian about favorite Christmas stories. Two caught my interest; they were about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis and The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper (“Season’s Readings: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis” and “Season’s readings: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper”). I read and enjoyed these stories as an adult and their use of myth and folklore (Greek and Roman myth by Lewis and Welsh myth by Cooper) nourished an interest I have always had in myth and folklore and the power of the stories that they tell. The Cooper story especially, with its use of motifs from The Mabinogion fed my interest in things Arthurian. But these were not the stories that provoked my interest initially.

The Nightingal
Edmond Dulac

Above and below are illustrations from children’s stories. Like the illuminated manuscript images above, these help create a world, a magical world, that evoke the stories they illustrate and pique the imagination. Also as was true with some medieval illuminations they help tell the story to those who cannot yet read. When I was in the seventh grade my school gave students the opportunity to purchase books through the Weekly Reader and the Scholastic Book Service. One of the books that I bought was Eleanore Jewett’s book The Hidden Treasure of Glaston. I do not remember much of the book but its opening made a strong impression as well as its use of the Grail legend. The story revolves around a young boy whose father has left him with the monks of Glastonbury (one of the alleged resting places of King Arthur). His father is a knight who has been implicated in the murder of Thomas a’ Becket and must flee the country. The boy, though, is bookish and lame and a disappointment. I empathized with the boy (something we must all do before we can truly enjoy a story) and was fascinated by the Arthurian elements.

The Mermaid and The Prince
Edmond Dulac

But what does this have to do with anything like beholding oceans? I suppose because both my parents were mathematicians I did not think that literature was anyplace I ought to end up. My father was also an aerospace engineer who brought home pictures and articles on space vehicles and rockets. I remember looking at artists’ conceptions of the Apollo spacecraft and the Lunar Excursion Module while watching the Mercury launches on television. Nonetheless I was attracted to a different ocean. If we are to be happy we must find our own ocean and pursue it as best we can and hopefully one day we will behold it. For me the ocean I behold is a sea of stories.

Why Medieval
Dr. Richard Scott Nokes

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes writes a blog, “Unlocked Wordhoard,” that I enjoy. He posted the above video to explain his interest in Medieval Literature and how that interest came about. Sharing a similar interest I found the video attractive but the important point it raises is not about the Middle Ages or even about literature, it is about finding whatever it is in us that motivates us, that gives us joy and satisfaction. We all need to consider what it is we are going to spend our lives doing. On the whole it is a pretty good thing if we can find a way to get someone to pay us for doing what we would do for free. If we must earn a living why not find a way to enjoy ourselves while earning that living.

Elif Batuman in the introduction to her book The Possessed writes, “I stopped believing that ‘theory’ had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it. Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?” This resonates with me as a teacher of stories, but it also resonates at a different level. We all need to find whatever it is for us that we can spend a lifetime loving, and whatever it is, it must be substantial enough to reward a lifetime’s effort.

As a teacher it is important that I communicate to students who have little interest in what I teach the passion that motivates me to teach what I teach. It is not all about emotions, but than there is perhaps more to passion than emotion. Richard Feynman was at least as passionate about physics and the logic that is its foundation as I am about stories and their logic. Poltarnees may be a high and difficult mountain to climb, but it is wonderful thing to behold the ocean.

Christmas Eve
Carl Larsson

The Beginning of Things

High Hopes
Frank Sinatra

The Beginning of Things

Arthur Rackham

The song talks about having “high hopes” and that with those high hopes a great deal can be accomplished that does not, from appearances, seem to be possible. Much of life revolves around confronting the impossible and often what is labeled impossible has as much to do with lack of confidence as it does with lack of ability. Of course there are probably many things we do not have the skills or abilities to accomplish, but why begin by assuming that a beguiling challenge is beyond us; why do we not first try to prove to ourselves we cannot do a thing rather than assume we cannot?

The Norns in the painting above represent fate or destiny. These are familiar figures in the myth and folklore of many parts of the world. In the German myths the Norns were, as were the Fates in the myths of Greece and Rome, weavers who wove the tapestries of individual lives and when a life was done, they cut the thread and the tapestry that was that individual life was finished. But how was the tapestry created. Did the Norns weave into the tapestry what an individual accomplished or did the tapestry come first, preordaining what that individual would accomplish? It probably does not make much difference which came first, the tapestry or the acts that were woven into it, what is important is that the action is done, that the attempt is made. We will find out soon enough if it is our “destiny” or not and if it is not there are other “destinies” to pursue.

The Seven Virtues – “Hope”
Giotto Di Bondone–Hope-1306-large.html

Succeeding at most things involves taking something we hope for or dream of and making it real, bringing it to pass. Often the difference between something hoped for and a goal is planning, figuring out how to get to where we want to go, or at least planning out the first few steps on the journey, perhaps its just figuring out where to start. Hope often has more to do with yearning than with planning, but perhaps often hope is where goal setting begins. It is after all one of the “Seven Virtues.” There was an article in The Boston Globe a few weeks ago, “The bright side of wrong” about the importance of making mistakes, of being willing to get it wrong. The article suggests that a great deal of success is the product of intuition, of insight into a problem or a project that is instantaneous and does not appear to be the product of careful thought. Sometimes decisions have to be made quickly and there is no time to “think things through.” We know many things and our minds can process the many things we know quickly and often what seems the product of intuition is the result of a kind of sorting process our minds can complete with speed and efficiency.

The article gives the following example to demonstrate this:

“To change how we think about wrongness, we must start by understanding how we get things right.

“Try filling in the following blank: “The giraffe had a very long ____.”

“You can answer that question in a flash, and so can my 4-year-old neighbor. Yet a computer — a machine that can calculate pi out to a thousand digits while you sneeze — would be completely stymied by it. Long after you’ve moved on from the giraffe and finished the sports section and gone for a walk, the computer would still be frantically spitting out ideas to fill in that blank. Maybe the giraffe had a very long…tongue? Flight from Kenya? History of drug abuse? Paralyzed by so many potentially right answers, the computer would struggle to generate any answer at all.”

This reasoning process, even when it is applied to much more complicated problems than the neck of a giraffe, is a reliable one more often than not for most of us. The more one has learned the more this is probably true. We have to be willing to live with the embarrassment that comes from getting it wrong from time to time if we are to enjoy the success that comes from getting it right at some crucial moment. It also means running the risk of getting it wrong in one of those crucial moments.

The Garden of EdenThomas Cole

The paintings above and below depict The Garden of Eden, the one above of Adam and Eve enjoying the garden and the one below of them being sent out of the garden, after getting it wrong in what was for them a crucial moment. Cole’s vision of paradise may not be your vision of paradise but most of us know what it is to have attained and lost something beautiful, something secure and life sustaining. There is a sense that every major disappointment is a lose of paradise, something we have hung our hopes on has been denied, maybe it is losing an important game, getting a poor grade on a test we thought we were ready for. Maybe it is losing a job or failing to achieve a goal. Unlike Adam and Eve’s loss, though, most of our disappointments lose a bit of their significance with time and reflection. If we are wise we realize we must reassess if we are to be happy, it is important to feel the disappointment as a part of the healing process, but it is also important to grow beyond it.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was celebrated as Russia’s greatest author upon the publication of his first novel. His second novel was published two weeks later and he was labeled among one of Russia’s worst writers, the praise had turned to scorn. He became insufferably cocky after his first book was published and well received. After his fall from grace fifteen days later he never recovered his confidence, though he did indeed go on to become one of Russia’s greatest novelists. His first book wasn’t as good as everyone said it was and his second book may not have been as bad, but the work of his maturity is recognized by most as truly great and part of what made it great probably lies somewhere in that earlier success and failure.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
Thomas Cole

When Adam and Eve lost paradise it was for them truly lost. For us, though, it is often a bit different. It is not unusual for people to set their sights too low, to settle for something less because it appears to be easily achievable. We, often, must lose an inadequate conception of paradise, through disappointment perhaps, to wake up to a truer more worthy view of paradise. Of course it could as easily happen that the fruit of our disappointment is to give up on paradise altogether. Still, I think there is a place for looking at failure as a kind of gift that puts us on a more rewarding path; a path more in keeping with our gifts and temperament.

Phillips: Hurdy-gurdy for beginners
TED Talks

The video is a TED Talk about the Hurdy-gurdy. As the clip suggests it is an odd instrument. My first exposure to the hurdy-gurdy was in the film Captains Courageous. Manuel, a Portugese fisherman played by Spencer Tracy in the film, plays the hurdy-gurdy to pass the long times of inactivity at sea. When I saw the instrument being played in the film I thought it could only play one tune; that it worked like a music box playing a pre-programmed song. From the video I learned that it is in fact an instrument that can play any tune, though its inner workings are odd and unlike any other instrument I know of. Learning is often like this, it surprises us, it draws us out of preconceptions and introduces us to new ways the world, or those things in it, work. Learning often opens the mind by teaching us something new about those things we believed we already knew, if not all there was to be known, at least all that was worth knowing. This is another way that hope is kept alive and “high hopes” are reawakened. The closer we get to learning all that is worth learning, the less interesting life becomes. It is often the surprises in life that keep it from becoming mundane and when we reach a place where we think we know all that is worth knowing we begin to believe there are no more surprises and this can be disheartening.

The painting below is of Ra setting forth on his nightly cruise of the underworld. This journey takes Ra through night and the land of the dead to the next morning and the world’s recreation. Each day the world is made anew and brings with it new possibilities. There is a sense that the failures of the previous day have been put behind us and we start the new day with not just renewed energy, but perhaps with new abilities or beliefs in existing abilities we did not possess the day before.

Book of Gates Barque of Ra

There was a review recently in The Guardian, “On Evil by Terry Eagleton,” of a book on evil by Terry Eagleton. The book is something of a paradox. Eagleton a Marxist, and one would assume, perhaps incorrectly, an atheist, has written a book on preserving the idea of evil as it is understood from, if not a Christian, at least a religions perspective. But the issue here is not evil, but a reminder that we can never quite know who all of our friends are and that sometimes discovering a friend can come as something of a surprise. Insights of this sort, too, recreate the world for us, because they make it a bit less hostile. Of course these insights can also go in the other direction and expose enemies we once believed were friends.

Still, the knowledge does us good and is probably worth having. It is a good thing to learn stuff, the good stuff and the bad. Learning can renew hope, and it can make us wiser if we use that learning to pursue wisdom. In the drawing below St. Anthony is reading a book. Reading is one of the conventional means by which learning is attained, though it is certainly not the only means. Still, if we are to read well when we open a book, it helps to open our minds first.

St. Anthony
Albrecht Durer–Anthony-large.html

Piracy in the Land of the Free

Raised on Robbery
Joni Mitchell

Piracy in the Land of the Free

Captain Hook
Walt Disney’s Peter Pan

The song and the cartoon evoke two images of piracy. The song suggests what is perhaps closer to the reality of piracy, self-interest and self-enrichment that need not be enlightened. The cartoon depicting Captain Hook from the Disney cartoon Peter Pan, suggests the romance of the pirate. The pirate is not, ultimately, very dangerous and the ideal villain with whom a boy might battle to prove his bravery. This is the pirate of the Pirates of the Caribbean series of films and of many of the pirate films of the early American cinema.

The pirate of cinema romance is not even an anti-hero, a humanized bad man or woman with redeeming qualities. The pirates of the early cinema are often like Captain Blood, the Rafael Sabatini character who is driven to piracy by circumstances beyond his control, even the “bad” pirates are more like Captain Hook’s pirate crew than the real pirates of the high seas. As a boy whenever we played “cops and robbers” or pretended to be swashbuckling seafarers it was always the persona of the robbers and the pirates we most wanted to assume.

The Pirates of Stone County Road
John Stewart

What I always enjoyed about this John Stewart song was the way he played with the image of the child pretending to be the pirate and imagining the back porch to be the deck of a pirate ship. Michael Chabon in an article for The New York Review of Books, “Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood”, writes about the role of adventure in the life and development of a child. I suppose his point is one that has been made many times before, that children need to take some of the risks that children always enjoy taking if they are to develop into confident and successful adults. As a culture, though, we are becoming a bit overprotective and as a result children may not be learning some important lessons about risk taking that help prepare them for adult life.

I remember in the neighborhood where I grew up there was a water pipe that spanned a huge ravine that was hundreds, to a child maybe thousands, of feet deep. It provided water, I suppose to homes on both sides of the canyon. As children my friends and I would climb the fence designed to keep us off the water pipe and would walk the pipe from one side of the canyon to the other. It was great fun, but probably not the wisest thing to do. I know I wouldn’t let my child do anything so foolish. But to what extent has my willingness to take risks as an adult been shaped by my eagerness to take risks as a child. Chabon ends his article, “Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?” To a great extent the stories we shape as adults had their beginnings in the stories we imagined as children and perhaps our willingness to try something new and different, whether it’s writing a story or attempting something that seems to be bit more than our abilities, on the surface anyway, will allow us to achieve were nurtured by the foolish risks, like walking across a canyon on a water pipe, we took as children.

Illustration of William “Captain” Kidd
Howard Pyle

The pictures above and below are both of the notorious pirate Captain Kidd. The one above is a fanciful depiction by Howard Pyle for his book on pirates and the one below of the eighteenth century gentleman who was the real Captain Kidd. The real captain would not have called himself a pirate at all but rather a privateer. A privateer was a pirate who committed piracy in the service of the queen, or the ruling powers of the day. Unfortunately when Captain Kidd was finally caught those for whom he committed piracy in “the service of the queen” disavowed all knowledge of his activities. He was hung and, according to Wikipedia, his body was left hanging for many years in an iron cage as a warning to others considering a career path similar to that of the “good” captain.

William Kidd, Privateer, Pirate
18th century portrait

Of course Kidd was following in a long established tradition. The Spanish conquest of the New World was made a bit less profitable by the work of privateers in the service of Queen Elizabeth. Among the more famous was Sir Francis Drake, who, like Mick Jagger, was knighted for his service to the British Empire. Growing up in California I studied in high school of Drake’s exploits along the California coast. He claimed California for Britain not by planting a flag but by nailing a coin to a post. The coin of course had Queen Elizabeth’s image on it and was intended to show Elizabeth as the ruler of this new land, but I think it is appropriate that money and not the “Union Jack” was used to claim the land because the exploration and colonization of the New World was, at its heart, a mercantile enterprise.

The Battle of Trafalgar
J. M. W. Turner,_The_Battle_of_Trafalgar_(1806).jpg

The painting by Turner captures the reality and the romance of the pirate “adventure.” In every pirate film I saw as a child there was a scene where pirates swung on ropes from one ship to another, the decks of both ships filled with gun smoke from the ships’ cannons and falling debris as sword fights and other forms of hand to hand combat took place on the deck of one or both of the ships. But if we stop to think at all seriously about what is depicted in the painting the reality of what is taking place cannot be avoided. People are dying and they are dying in horrific and painful ways. Death in the movies, especially the movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s has a romance all its own. It is heroic, often over quickly, and rarely strayed far from the world of “let’s pretend.” Besides, the dying hero always returned in a year or two in another film, so whatever death was it certainly was not permanent. But the painting if carefully considered suggests a tangled mess of broken and burning wood and canvas and an awful lot of blood and dying flesh.

But it is one of the jobs of stories and story telling to provide us with the examples we need to help us live meaningful lives that are consistent with a set of values that shape our human experience. When the cause is just all this bloodshed is an act of patriotic self-sacrifice, and what nation can hope to survive if none are willing to take on such a sacrifice. But when the cause is unjust this death and destruction suggests the waste that accompanies human ego and ambition. When is a pirate a privateer and when is the outlaw the true seeker of justice?

Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid is one of America’s legendary outlaws. I think it is interesting that “The Kid” and “The Captain” both had the first name of William, well actually William was an alias and not the kid’s real name, but as far as the legends are concerned both “outlaws” shared the same first name. Billy the Kid became a romanticized figure of the Wild West and is joined by other outlaws, like Pretty Boy Floyd, who had more in common with Robin Hood than Al Capone. But if Billy in fact did all that he was accused of doing perhaps it is Pat Garrett who should receive the lion’s share of the attention. But than the legend of Billy the Kid was largely Garrett’s invention, and served to enhance the lawman’s reputation and “bona fides” as a true western lawman in the mold of Wyatt Earp.

Perhaps the pirate is the bridge between the knight of medieval romance and the cowboy of western romance, who in turn evolved after a fashion into the hard boiled detective. Sam Spade tells us he trades on a reputation for being a little bit crooked, that it is “good for business.” In the ideal western romance the bad guy often has more in common with the outlaw (The Ringo Kidd played by John Wayne) in John Ford’s film Stagecoach than with the actual Wild West bandit. Real bandits and outlaws are not heroic or likable, but there is something in the human psyche that does not like people who are “too” good or “too” virtuous. The true hero of the Grail Quest is Sir Galahad but the readers of the King Arthur stories often find Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain more interesting characters. In fact even Lancelot is a bit “too” good when it comes to too many things and it was Gawain who captured the imaginations of many during the Middle Ages in stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell. But Malory’s Gawain has some very troubling, though also very human, failings.

Captain Blood
Warner Brothers Pictures

Growing up in Los Angeles one of the local television channels ran a program called Million Dollar Movie. This was, for a child, wonderful. They would show the same movie every night for a week. Of course this was no fun if the film was uninteresting to the ten year old imagination, but if it were a film like Captain Blood it could be watched over and over again. As a child I would watch this film and other like it and the next day find an old curtain hanger that could be imagined into a sword and engage in battles like the one shown in the film clip. This was probably not the safest thing to do, I probably wouldn’t let my child do anything so foolish, but it was great fun and it opened up imaginary worlds for me. Of course the plunder and the rewards were all imaginary as well. Though I tried, the ice cream man would not take the “play” money I had accumulated in my high seas adventures.

These thoughts were also provoked by a couple of other articles I read this week. One was a review of a new book by Chris Anderson, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. The main idea of this book is that we are evolving into a culture that finds other ways to generate profits than by charging for the merchandise it produces. There is an irony of sorts here in that the author, Chris Anderson, got into a bit of trouble for making “free” use of copyrighted materials found on Wikipedia. The material may be free to whoever wants to make use of it, but good manners, not mention sound editorial practice, dictate that the sources be identified. This is piracy of a different kind. At the heart of piracy, and all theft I suppose, is the desire to get something for nothing. Of course a lot of hard work goes into being an effective pirate, or thief of any kind and as a result little if anything is gotten for nothing if we include our “efforts” as a cost to be paid. Anderson did, after all, have to write quite a bit of his own material in order to take advantage of the opportunity to steal a page or two from Wikipedia.

The flip side of piracy and the “free culture” was suggested by another article this week published in The Guardian. The article, “Authors in revolt against plans to vet them for school visits”, reports on a group of authors of children’s books, Philip Pullman among them, protesting a piece of legislation recently enacted in Britain. This new law requires authors to pay £64.00 (about $100.00, I think) for the privilege of donating their time to speak to children. The intention of the law is good, it wants to protect children from those that may do them harm. But as is pointed out, these writers are never alone when they visit schools but are always accompanied by other adults, primarily teachers and administrators in the schools. The end result is that many of these writers will no longer make a gift of their time to speak at schools.

It is a tenet of our culture that nothing is free; everything comes with a cost, even if we are not the ones paying the cost, or at least not directly. Most online “freebies” are paid for by advertising that is directed at the kind of people likely to use the “freebie”, which means the cost of what is gotten for free is included in the cost of the merchandise we are being tempted to buy when we use the service. But are there other costs to a culture that grows up believing it does not have to pay for what it consumes, that believes itself to be entitled to whatever it needs or enjoys? What happens to news when it is provided at no cost to the consumer of that news? Who is paying for it and do those subsidizing newspapers have a say over what is contained in that newspaper? In a sense it is in paying for what we use that gives us a say over what goes into the products that we use. On the one hand we will pay large sums of money to buy products, everything from shirts to automobiles, that are advertisements for their manufacturers, piracy of a different ilk.

The only journeys that we take that are truly free are journeys of our imagination, though, as with pirates, we pay for these with a kind of effort; time needs to be taken to dream and to imagine. The stories that I read as a child and read today as an adult stimulate and inspire the imagination; they give me the raw materials my imagination needs to construct stories of its own and to craft a human and humane existence. The depth of my character and the motivations behind what I accomplish are often revealed in the stories I hold sacred, whether they are stories of my own making or stories I have pirated from other authors.

Keeping It Simple

St. Matthew Passion “Choral: Erkenne mich, mein Huter”
J. S. Bach
American Tune
Paul Simon

Keeping It Simple

Cure for Oversleeping
Rube Goldberg

Beauty often lives in simplicity. Bach so appreciated the beauty of this simple melody that he used it again and again. Paul Simon also valued the simplicity and beauty of the tune and put it to work in his song American Tune. Whether it is a simple melody like that from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (and a half dozen others at least) or a simple explication of a poem or story, or the poem or story itself, simplicity lends a degree of elegance to the work. I like Occam’s Razor (“Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”) when it comes to most things, which simply suggests that the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts is probably the truth. What made Rube Goldberg’s cartoons so funny was that they demonstrated excessively complicated ways of solving extremely simple problems, like getting up in the morning. It is human nature, I believe, to prefer simplicity, even though we often live our lives as though our inclinations favored a different direction.

But it is important to remember that there is a difference between being simple and simple minded. The simplest explanation of a poem may be very complex and somewhat opaque. Being simple is not always the same as being easy. I think most of us equate a simple task with an easy one, when in fact it may only be simple because there are not many steps to carry out, though those few steps may place demands on our skill, abilities, and intellects. What simplifying a task often does is make it easier to focus on the work to be done, as there are not a lot of superfluous details that confuse or obfuscate. But that which demands our focus often requires all of our attention.

Double Portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, called The Ambassadors
Hans Holbein the Younger,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger.jpg

The other side of the coin is being as simple as possible even though the work itself is very complicated. The painting above is very ornate. There are the designs in the curtains, the rug, the cloth on shelf, and in the robes of the ambassador in brown. There are many objects on the shelf as well. The detail found in the painting of the textiles is necessary to capture the reality of the scene but the objects placed in the painting have a symbolic value, many being associated with the various components of a liberal arts education of the time. Then there is that funny looking object on the floor between the two ambassadors. It is odd and appears, unlike everything else, very unreal.

It is a puzzle that Holbein placed in the painting and can only be seen for exactly what it is if the painting is viewed at the right angle, which is from the side and definitely not straight on. When viewed from the side, the strange object on the floor is seen to be a human skull. One of the stories told about the painting is that it was intended to be hung in a stairwell and that the skull would suddenly jump out at the person climbing up the stairs. One can imagine the effect this might have on a dark and stormy night. But whatever the intended effect this painting is not one that was done simply, though, it is hard to imagine it being done any more simply and still produce the effect that it does, it is as complicated as it needs to be, but not much more complicated, and that is, perhaps, a definition of simplicity.

Static-Dynamic Gradation, 1923
Paul Klee (German, 1879–1940)
Oil and gouache on paper, bordered with gouache, watercolor, and ink
15 x 10 1/4 in. (38.1 x 26.1 cm)
The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1987 (1987.455.12)

Some have questioned whether the work of modern artists like Paul Klee is really art at all. The painting above is a checkerboard pattern with each of the squares in a different color (in some cases the difference is very slight). But if you look at the photograph below of the Dome of the Rock you see an ancient place that takes a similar delight in geometric shapes in different shades of white, blue and brown. It is the same delight that many of us took as children in playing with a kaleidoscope, which was also play with shades and shapes.

Dome of the Rock

Writing, when it is done well, evokes the simplicity or complexity of its subject but it always attempts to present its subject in as simple a light as possible. The skilled writer looks for the simplest path through the chosen subject. This is not easy and it is important to remember, simple is rarely easy. In fact what often makes poor writing poor is its unnecessary complexity that is usually an indication that the focus has been lost, that words are being used like shotgun pellets to hit everything in the hope that something might stick. I have assignments that I give where I require students to do something in a limited amount of space. They are used to getting assignments where they are told they must write at least a pre-determined number of pages, but they are rarely told they are to write no more than a page or two. I have seen students struggle more writing something that is short and to the point than with something that can be as long as they want to make it.

Simplicity, being concise and to the point, is often the most difficult thing we can be asked to do. When asked to compare writing short stories to writing novels, William Faulkner said, “You can be more careless, you can put more trash in it and be excused for it. In a short story that’s next to the poem, almost every word has got to be almost exactly right, in the novel you can be careless but in the short story you can’t.” This is the struggle that all writers face. If they are to write well they must learn to identify what is necessary and what is not. Even in the novel where much will be forgiven, the reader’s patience and tolerance is not endless and even that which is done badly must be done badly in an artful way.

Shaker Loops
John Adams

The music is called Shaker Loops. It was not initially called this, but after re-working the piece Adams thought the Shaker’s ritual practice of ecstatically jumping about and their dedication to simplicity underscored what he was trying to achieve not just in this composition but in most of his work. He comes from, he helped to establish, the minimalist school of composition. The orchestrations are as bare boned as he can make them, they are very simple, but for those that are captured by the work of Adams, and others like him, there is a delight that the music provokes. For music that is as bare boned as this, melody, the most accessible quality of a musical score, plays a relatively minor role. Adams focuses instead on rhythms and harmony, a much more difficult path to ecstasy than melody.

Shaker Furniture

The music is not unlike these pieces of Shaker furniture. There is not much more to these pieces than a graceful line combined with a skilled and sturdy craftsmanship, there is nothing “ornate” about this furniture. The simplicity of the furniture is meant to reflect the simplicity of the soul that crafted and uses it. It is somewhat ironic that one must be almost independently wealthy to afford a good piece of Shaker furniture.

In the world of school work and work itself, we are often drowning in unnecessary complexity. The philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote a review of an interesting sounding book Shop Class as Soul Craft. The review is titled “Making Things Work” and Fukuyama delights in the idea that in shop class things have to work. He talks about how the author of the book, Matthew B. Crawford, spent his spare time while in college taking old Volkswagen engines apart and putting them back together. I took a bit of delight in this part of the review because I, as a young man in college, bought a book by John Muir (not the gentleman who introduced Teddy Roosevelt to Yosemite) that took you step by step through the dismantling and reassembling of the V. W. engine. I could not master this, having no aptitude for mechanics, myself, but I had friends who did. These friends could also attest to the importance of doing the job right. I had one friend who discovered he had not quite gotten it right when he arrived at college five or six hundred miles away from his tools, which were still at home.

It is easy when our work is done exclusively in the mind to overlook whether or not what we are thinking has any practical merit, if it will in fact work. As a professional I think I have only my instincts and judgment to rely upon. But I know from my classroom experience that often those things that I felt were working well, did not in fact accomplish the goal I had set for the exercise. On the other side of the coin, I have had the experience of feeling as though things are not working at all, that all is a dreadful failure, only to find out later that much, sometimes most, of what I set out to do had been accomplished.

This suggests to me that judgment and instinct are not always enough. My limitations as a mechanic become obvious as soon as the key is put in the ignition. The machine that is improperly assembled reveals everything, there are no secrets, there are no abstract theories, just an engine that will not take the spark and do what it does with gasoline and fire. In the end, in the classroom the educational machine must work and the only evidence that it is working is if the spark that lights the intellect and the imagination ignites and does its thing with fire.

Enjoying the Spring and the Stories That It Tells

The Four Seasons – “Spring”
Nigel Kennedy and the English Chamber Orchestra

Enjoying the Spring and the Stories That It Tells

The Los Angeles Public Library Central Library – Pools

The music is by Vivaldi and is the opening of the “Spring” section of his Four Seasons concertos. It is bright and upbeat, just like the spring after a dark cold winter. Spring is often associated with new beginnings. The world looks new again; the frosts have passed (if you live in a place that has frosts.). Spring is also when the library book sales begin (some go on all year long, but the spring and summer is a popular time for annual book sales). Since first introduced to library book sales I have been a great fan of them and have found some marvelous books. Right now my favorite is an edition of John Gower’s poetry that was published in the early 1800’s and is bound in rather old and fragile leather.

There was an article in an edition eSchool News recently about the struggles school libraries are having meeting the requirements for 21st century technology standards while maintaining their traditional services. Libraries are marvelous places and most cities of any age or reputation take pride in their libraries. It is an essential part of any school. How, after all, can students be taught to do research, especially historical and literary research, if the school does not have an adequate library. Add to this fact that the world is changing radically and the way research will be done in the very near future bears little resemblance to how it was done when I was in school. How will our students survive in the 21st century world of college and of work if they are being trained for the world as it looked and behaved yesterday? It is expensive to prepare students for the world they will encounter and relatively cheap to prepare them for the world that was. We are living in an age, it seems, where cost takes priority over value.

The image at the top is of the Los Angeles Public Library. It often appears in movies, especially television movies, but rarely as a library. The last time I saw it in a movie it was supposed to be a courthouse. A few years before I moved from Los Angeles to Massachusetts the library was seriously damaged by a fire. The city rallied to restore it by donating large sums of money to restore the building and its collections. Even a local pastor known for his ability to raise large sums of money conducted a few fundraisers in support of the cause. The library was successfully rebuilt and though some aspects of its collection that were lost were irreplaceable (if I remember correctly it had copies of every addition of the Los Angeles Times since it first began publication), it has a healthy collection once again.

I think this is a testament to a community’s commitment to learning. Perhaps times were better than. I think that it is interesting that the symbolism employed by the structure, the pyramid on top being the most obvious, is Egyptian (one of the old classic movie houses was also called “The Egyptian Theater” but it may have disappeared in my absences). I like to think this is a nod to the most renowned of classical libraries, the Library at Alexandria, Egypt. But being next door to Hollywood it may have more to do with the silent film version of Cleopatra.

The Library of Congress main reading room, Jefferson Building

The library serves as a kind of symbol of a culture’s literacy and its commitment to literacy and scholarship. This paragraph is sandwiched between two images of famous library reading rooms, that of the Library of Congress and that of the British Museum. Thomas Jefferson sold his book collection to the nation to start the Library of Congress. The British Museum’s reading room has seen many important works assembled beneath its roof and at its reading tables. I am told, for example, that it was here that Karl Marx worked on his Das Capital. On a different side of the coin Mahatma Gandhi also used the Museum’s reading room.

The British Museum Reading Room

There is something inspiring about the thought of so many people doing serious scholarship (and I am sure some not so serious scholarship as well) at these tables jammed on top of each other. If everyone did not work quietly it would be very difficult for anyone to work at all. The Library of Congress, at least in this photograph, has only tables, books and papers, while the British Museum Reading Room is equipped with banks of computers. I have not seen a card catalog in a library in a very long time and I imagine even in the Library of Congress the traditional catalog is being replaced by the computer and the digital card catalog. Maybe not, it is one of those things I will have to check out.

There was an article in the Sunday Guardian on The Free Access World Digital Library. According to the article a number of the world’s major libraries worked together to put their collections online so that they could be accessed anywhere by anyone. The project was the idea of the librarian of the Library of Congress. When the European version was given a test drive it had so many visitors it had to shut down temporarily because it could not handle the traffic. For those interested in seeing a sample of what the library houses there is an online sampler of sorts. The irony of this is that about a month earlier The Guardian published a different article on the disappearing libraries (actually it is series of photographs of library scenes, one of which is the original British Museum reading room). It is odd that at a time the “World Library” suggests the interest in libraries is great, libraries are struggling to survive.

I have an iPod Touch. I also learned this week that through Google Books I can gain access, when I am online, to a huge library of digitized books. This library is available to anyone with a computer, a smart phone, or a device like the iPod Touch. This suggests, among other things, that the library of the future will be a very different place. Copyright laws and such have to be worked out, but that is likely only a matter of time (I suppose until those with the power to say yes recognize a library is a library). My iPod already has about fifty books on it and with the Google app I have access to thousands of books, as long as I also have access to the web and the server is not down.

St Jerome Reading in the Countryside
Giovanni Bellini

If one does not look too intently one could almost imagine that the book in front of St. Jerome is in fact a Kindle. Jerome lived in a time when a book was copied by hand and was probably quite costly. About a thousand years later Gutenberg and moveable type made books available to most anyone who could read one and about two thirds of a millennia later books as we know them are perhaps becoming obsolete. The book itself, though, will probably take on another incarnation and survive in a somewhat different form for another millennia or two.

The City of Dreaming Books Virtual Book Club (suggested by Walter Moers book The City of Dreaming Books)

The film clip shows strange creatures in pursuit of knowledge, learning, and a good story. In the book that inspired the clip a bookstore or a library can be a dangerous place and the championing of a literary text could get a person in very serious trouble. Perhaps a book is a dangerous thing. The ideas found in Jefferson’s library inspired a revolution, as did the ideas developed in the great library of Britain. What is the difference between a good idea and a dangerous one, ideas like Jefferson’s and Ideas like those of Marx? Is it Marx’s ideas that are dangerous or only the way that those ideas were implemented? Like many valuable things in life thought and the ideas that thought produces come with their own special dangers.

The photo of Radcliffe Camera of Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University of Oxford.

The Bodleian Library is affiliated with one of the word’s oldest and most prestigious universities. The Radcliffe Camera originally housed the science library and dates back to the eighteenth century. In the mid-nineteenth century it was made a part of the Bodleian, the Universities principle library. J. R. R. Tolkien, according to Wikipedia, thought this building looked like Sauron’s Temple to Morgoth, which suggests a view of some towards libraries, especially libraries dedicated to science. Perhaps Tolkien’s view of this library has more to do with the time he spent there as an undergraduate than with his view of libraries in general.

I think libraries are exciting places, especially in springtime. Harold Bloom talks about reading his way through libraries. He read the books of various libraries, though I do not know if that means he read everything or only the things that interested him. I have never read my way through a library but the idea is an appealing one, though probably unlikely for one with a reading speed like mine. It was said of Milton that he had read every book that was available in print in his lifetime. He was a very learned man, and knew enough and read enough to make the story plausible. If Google and all the other folks trying to digitize libraries are successful it may not be long before we can carry in our pockets every book that Milton was thought to have read, even if we cannot find the time to read them ourselves.

A Life of the Mind is the Heart of the Matter

“That’s All”
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis

A Life of the Mind is the Heart of the Matter

William Hogarth’s 1736 engraving, “Scholars at a Lecture”

The lyric suggests that wisdom and education do not go together. It is true that the song is talking about a preacher being an educated fool if all she or he has to offer is book learning and nothing in the way of practical wisdom. While it is difficult to argue with practical wisdom, we all want to know what will succeed in making us happy and help us have a productive and contented life, it is not necessarily the case that practical wisdom and book learning share no common ground.

William Hogarth’s engraving captures the common perception of the well educated. There is a group of scholars listening to another scholar giving a lecture. Some are talking while the lecturer is speaking; others are yawning and drifting off to sleep, while the remainder stare somewhat blankly at the speaker. A few are paying real attention, but very few. The implication is that what the lecturer has to say is of little value to anyone and even his colleagues do not take him seriously. As a classroom teacher I recognize this scene, it is frequently acted out in my classroom. I wonder where the problem is in fact, is it with the lecturer or with the audience?

It is probably with both. No two people have identical interests and even those that share many of the scholar’s interests are going to find some less than compelling and as a result there will be times when the minds of like minded colleagues will wander. This is often further complicated in the classrooms by students that lack the life experience necessary to understand fully what is and is not of value in the curriculum they are being encouraged to master.

Add to this that most of the students in any of my classes, even the most advanced classes, are going to pursue careers unrelated to what I teach. This is not because English is less important than math or science but because statistically the academic interests of my students are spread somewhat equally across the academic disciplines of which English is only one of five or six. It is important that those with a scientific bent are exposed to poetry and the arts, not because this will produce better scientists but because there is more to life than science and our lives are richer if they are not confined to a narrow band of interests. Of course it is also important that scientist write clearly and articulately about what they have discovered. I am not sure that Darwin and Freud understood most deeply and completely the sciences they helped to establish but only that they could write more persuasively than others about what they found.

There are two statements that I often come back to when I think of education and the value of educating the mind. The first takes a comic view of education and comes from a book called Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock. The book is a satire on the lives and views of the Romantic poets of his generation. The central character is named Scythrop who is modeled on Peacock’s friend the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He says of Scythrop’s schooling:

“When Scythrop grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head.”

I think this reflects a view of education that is prevalent today, that it is a nice thing to have, but in the end is not that important. We have embraced an egalitarian view of education that values common knowledge or common sense to a richly and deeply trained mind. On the one hand political leaders will talk about the importance of math and science while on the other proposing budgets that do not add up and trying to silence the science with which they disagree.

The other quote is from a book that is appreciated by a very select few (not because it is a book only a few are smart enough to appreciate but because only a few have a taste for this style of writing). It comes from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton thought that educators as a group belonged the to the race of melancholics. He lived at a time where everyone was placed in one of four personality groups based on the ” four humours”, or the four fluids that flow through the human body that shape a person’s temperament. The ideal is to have all four fluids in balance, which in turn puts the mind and emotions in balance. But most have a fluid that dominates. Melancholy was produced by the presence black bile in an unhealthy proportion to the other fluids, blood, phlegm, and yellow bile. Now you all are on your way to becoming medieval physicians.

The Philosopher in MeditationRembrandt

Burton was himself an educator and scholar and was himself of a melancholy temperament. Perhaps the melancholic nature of scholars was aggravated by the fact that to be a scholar and teacher, especially at the university level, you were expected to live the celibate life of the monastic. Too much time spent in our own company can make us all a bit dour. Burton said of educators:

“For first, not one of a many proves to be a scholar, all are not capable and docile; we can make majors and officers every year, but not scholars: kings can invest knights and barons, as Sigismund the emperor confessed; universities can give degrees; but he nor they, nor all the world can give learning, make philosophers, artists, orators, poets; we can soon say, as Seneca well notes, ”point at a rich man, a good, a happy man, a prosperous man, but tis not so easily performed to find out a learned man.”

This captures the essence of what it means to be truly learned with a heart for scholarship. The scholastic temperament comes from within and cannot be given with degrees or diplomas. It is a frame of mind that does not use knowledge to gain advantages over others but delights in the acquiring and the preserving of it.

From Goodbye Mr. Chips – PBS

Mr. Chips is probably everyone from my generation’s favorite teacher. After reading James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizons we we went on to read his other famous novel Goodbye Mr. Chips. He is a good teacher with a heart for developing the potential of all his students. In this scene he is working with a scholarship boy, that is, a boy from a poor family that could not afford to educate their children. Because of the academic potential seen in the boy he was given a scholarship that paid his way through school. But most of the students in the school come from wealthy families that could afford to pay for their children’s education. Because the scholarship boy came from a different social class from the rest of the students he was often ridiculed and his academic road was often brutal. I like Mr. Chips’ argument for getting an education in spite of the difficulties encountered along the way and think this should be a part of the academic make-up of all students (though it goes without saying that all students do not have this passion for learning).

The book review section of The Guardian published a series of articles on the 1,000 Novels Everyone Must Read. This is a very diverse list taking into account most of the genres of popular fiction. The writers range from Danielle Steele and Ian Fleming to Leo Tolstoy and William Faulkner. There is something for everyone. I would like to propose an addendum to the list of books about scholars and scholarship. These are books that put academics at the center of the story and celebrates their quirks, eccentricities, and humanity. This is not an exhaustive list, just my list.

The Book and the Academician

To Serve Them All My Days – R. F. Delderfield
Goodbye Mr. Chips – James Hilton
Gaudy Night – Dorothy Sayers
The Browning Version – Terrence Rattigan
The Moving Toy Shop – Edmund Crispin
Hag’s Nook – John Dickinson Carr
A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
A Separate Peace – John Knowles
Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut

Well this is enough to get you started. The list includes science fiction, detective, and coming of age type novels. But at the heart of each of them is an academic setting and an attitude toward learning that colors the story. The life of the true scholar is characterized by a passion for learning, she or he trains the mind to satisfy the heart.

What D’Ya Know

Swinging on a Star
Dave Van Ronk

What D’Ya Know

The song suggests that it is important to get an education; that going to school is a valuable thing. But what does it mean to go to school, to get an education? When we call a person educated what does that mean? Is there value in learning for the sake of learning or does the material we learn and study have to have a practical application; must it be “good for something”?

When I was young I was curious. I wanted to know about things, to think about things, and that curiosity affected the choices I made. It didn’t help me stay in college when I left high school because I had difficulty with the discipline of studying things that did not particularly interest me at the time. I was madly curious about what interested me but had little interest in learning what did not interest me. In my first years of college this lack of interest often had more to do with presentation than with the content of the discipline. I have always been curious about physics, for example, though not particularly good at it; my father after all worked in the aerospace industry and I looked at speculative NASA drawings of spacecraft from a very young age. Granted this had more to do with science fiction perhaps than with actual physics but the science behind those drawings fascinated me as well. Why was the lunar module shaped the way it was, why did the early space capsules return from space “backwards”?

College physics, though, did not capture my interest, in large part because I had difficulty following it. Still, later in my college career I took a course in physics that used science fiction to teach physics and I had a much easier time, though the course did not have nearly the depth of the more traditional physics course I took earlier. I grew up a bit in the few years I spent away from college. I stayed curious, I found things out on my own, and learned quite a bit, some from travel and some from reading. When I returned to college I was more disciplined and had an easier time managing courses I had to take but did not want to take.

Painting of Averroes

Averroes, detail of the fourteenth-century Florentine artist Andrea Bonaiuto’s Triunfo de Santo Tomás.

So, what is the point of this? Only that there are some that delight in scholarship for its own sake, a perhaps intellectual variation on the “art for art’s sale” movement, though both art and study involve the intellect. The painting above is of Averroes, an Islamic scholar of the 12th century. He is among the Arabic philosophers that are responsible for preserving the work of Aristotle that had largely become lost to European scholars. The work of Averroes and his Jewish contemporary Maimonides were largely responsible for reintroducing Aristotle to Europe. Averroes was, it appears to me because of the depth and breadth of his interests, a man who took a certain delight in scholarship and study. I cannot know this of course, but he wrote on issues of psychology, music, philosophy, law, politics, physics, well you get the idea. If he did not enjoy study he was probably not a happy man.

Title Page to Guide for the Perplexed

Title page The Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides

Averroes’ contemporary Maimonides also was a man greatly devoted to learning, but I find him attractive largely because of the name he gave his most well known book The Guide for the Perplexed. It is not an easy book to read, or at least it wasn’t for me, but because I identify so well the state of perplexity I found the title quite attractive. Like Averroes he wrote mainly as a religious writer, Averroes was an Islamic thinker and Maimonides a Jewish thinker. They lived at a time where philosophers of both faiths influenced each other’s thinking. Scholars can be as competitive as athletes when it comes to ideas and their development so it would not be fair to say that a shared commitment to thought can overcome the violent urges some cultures have to eradicate each other, but I like to think shared pursuits, like study can alleviate cultural hostilities.

Omar Khayyam was a Persian and lived about a century before Averroes and Maimonides and is known mostly as a poet of four line poems called rubaiyats (his book of poetry was translated as The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam). He made significant contributions to the study of Algebra but what I like is his story. He and two of his friends had a teacher who went on to a position of leadership in the government; he became Vizier. Omar and one of his schoolmates wanted their teacher to share his good fortune with them. Omar’s friend was given a position of leadership in the government. This friend’s ambition got him in trouble and he was eventually executed. Omar on the other hand just wanted a stipend so that he could devote his time to study. He received his stipend and free from ambitions to power lived out his days rather peaceably. Though the story is probably not true, I like it because the life Omar chose in the story seems desirable to me.

All of these thoughts about scholars and scholarship were provoked by a blog article I read this week “Oh, and You Have a Degree Too” by Will Richardson. The article debated the importance that today’s culture places on getting a college education. The ideas expressed and the concerns that are at the heart of the article are, I think, legitimate but it also suggests that college is largely a place students go to learn a valuable trade, a skill that will provide a meaningful income, certainly not something to be discouraged in these economic times.

Portrait of Cardinal Newman

John Henry Newman, when he preached his first sermon in Over Worton Church on 23 June 1824

This discussion of what a university should be is an old one. John Henry Cardinal Newman and T. H. Huxley articulated two views of the university and the kind of education it ought to provide; Newman seeing the university as a place where students pursued a wide variety of academic disciplines while Huxley argued for an institution that offered more specialized training. Newman defended the traditional liberal arts education. Newman thought:

In the combination of colours, very different effects are produced by a difference in their selection and juxtaposition; red, green, and white, change their shades, according to the contrast to which they are submitted. And, in like manner, the drift and meaning of a branch of knowledge varies with the company in which it is introduced to the student. If his reading is confined simply to one subject, however such division of labour may favour the advancement of a particular pursuit, a point into which I do not here enter, certainly it has a tendency to contract his mind. If it is incorporated with others, it depends on those others as to the kind of influence which it exerts upon him. (Newman, The Idea of a University)

He thought that our understanding of a subject was shaped to a certain degree by the other things studied alongside that subject. That for him was the value of the liberal arts education, that no discipline was studied in isolation. The scientist was also well schooled in music and poetry and the poet was also well schooled in science. As a result both the scientist and the poet saw the larger world that lived alongside their specialized pursuits. This knowledge enriched, enlarged, and shaped the understanding of each for their chosen discipline.

Caricature of T. H. Huxley

Chromolithograph of Thomas Henry Huxley in Vanity Fair

Huxley on the other hand felt that the general studies were the province of a student’s secondary education; that students entered the university with a basic foundation in the liberal arts and that the university was the place were specialization should take place. Huxley was not bothered much by the university as a technical school and saw that as part of its mission, though his idea of a technical school and ours are very different creatures.

It is obviously impossible that any student should pass through the whole of the series of courses of instruction offered by a university. If a degree is to be conferred as a mark of proficiency in knowledge, it must be given on the ground that the candidate is proficient in a certain fraction of those studies; and then will arise the necessity of insuring an equivalency of degrees, so that the course by which a degree is obtained shall mark approximately an equal amount of labour and of acquirements, in all cases. But this equivalency can hardly be secured in any other way than by prescribing a series of definite lines of study. This is a matter which will require grave consideration. The important points to bear in mind, I think, are that there should not be too many subjects in the curriculum, and that the aim should be the attainment of thorough and sound knowledge of each. (Huxley, “Address on University Education”)

Huxley does not think there is enough time in the day for students master both a discipline that will become the cornerstone of a career and to learn anything significant about the other disciplines that form the program of studies offered by a university. The purpose of a degree is to verify that a discipline has been mastered and that someone holding the degree whether it is in English or Mathematics has mastered that discipline.

I have always been most attracted to Newman’s idea of a university education but, especially in these times where the body of knowledge that can be learned is so large, Huxley’s view is certainly not without merit. It was said of John Milton that he read every book that was available in print at the time he lived. I do not know if this is true, and I imagine if it is that it was probably only true of books available in Europe. Still, the story illustrates how the body of available knowledge has grown. That the story was told and believed suggests that for Milton the story was credible. Could such a story be seen as credible if it were told of some scholar today? Probably not.

Not on the Test
John Forster and Tom Chapin

This video captures what I think is a problem with the focus of much of modern education. Whatever the limits to what we are capable of learning may be, those limits cannot be tested by an educational system that places more emphasis on rote learning than on understanding concepts and developing the minds ability to understand and solve problems. The song suggests that all standardized tests are more concerned with what can be remembered than with what is actually understood. As an English teacher it is more important to me that a student can use an adjective properly than be able to tell me what an adjective is. Obviously, there is value to being able to do both, but it is more important to be able to write a good sentence than define the parts of speech. I am not sure all standardized tests are limited in this way, though I do think many are.

Tests, no matter how well they are constructed, rarely provoke in students any enthusiasm for learning; they are something that must be gotten through. On the other hand a test does measure how much has been learned and mastered, even if what the test measures is not always worth measuring. They can also help students identify where their interests lie in that those tests that test a content area that captures the student’s interests are usually the easier ones to prepare for.

What Matters To Me Scholarship Application Video
Stefan Ramirez Perez

The student that prepared this video obviously has an interest in the subject he is studying. The video is an entrance exam of sorts, in that it was submitted to help him win a scholarship. But as a test it demonstrates by what it shows that the student has mastered the skills he needs to have in order to succeed. What I find interesting about this test is that it is a test the student created and gave to himself. Obviously before a test of this kind can work the student must already have a profound interest in the subject. Is there a way of testing that can provoke this kind of interest in science in students whose main interest is history. This to me is the real challenge of education. Where this succeeds the learning process is exciting for everyone, but this is a very difficult bar to reach and I am not sure it is possible to reach this goal with every student in every discipline. Perhaps this is a reason why some of the more traditional forms of testing will be with us for awhile.

Education Today and Tomorrow
A Byrd MS Production
Tom Woodward

This is the concern that confronts many teachers today. What kind of future are we preparing our students to enter? The rhetoric of the film shapes a view of the world that may be a bit overstated but certainly not entirely. As a teacher I want, on the one hand, for students to get the kind of thrill out of discovering something new that I get and have always gotten for as long as I can remember. But I also realize that not all students share my interest in this. As a teacher I also want my students to be ready for the world that will meet them when they leave my classroom for the last time. Part of the problem of providing this kind of preparation is economic, new technologies are expensive and by the time the costs come down to affordable levels the technology is on the verge of obsolescence, though the mastery of a soon to be obsolete technology may not be a bad place to start.

My heroes remain folks like Averroes, Maimonides, and Omar Khayyam not just because they were smart and well read but because they were curious about a wide variety of things. They also lived in a time when it was possible to master many disciplines; where one could be a musician, a lawyer, an astronomer, mathematician, poet and scientist. This does not seem to be possible any more. But it is possible for a well trained mind to entertain the itch to travel such a road.