It’s a Mystery to Me

“Baker Street”
Gerry Rafferty

It’s a Mystery to Me

Picture of Sherlock Holmes
Illustration by Frank Wiles for The Valley of Fear (Color)

When I first heard the song “Baker Street” the first image that came to my mind was of Sherlock Holmes because of his famous address of 221B Baker Street. The song of course has nothing to do with murder, mystery, or with Sherlock Holmes but Baker Street is Baker Street and the name cannot be mentioned without evoking its most famous resident and that resident’s occupation of consulting detective.

The genre in which this fictional detective worked was the murder mystery, though, as in the genre as a whole, not all of Holmes’ cases involved murder. As a genre it involves the solution of a puzzle that involves a crime. One of the more satisfying aspects of the traditional murder mystery is that a world that has been disrupted by a heinous event is put right again; that good triumphs over evil and that the world is ultimately a safe place. There is the tragedy suffered by those related to the crime and its victims but for the world at large there is comfort and the assurance that those that do wrong will be punished and that potential wrong doers see the punishment and are, perhaps, deterred from pursuing their criminal plans.

For Holmes, though, it is the puzzle and not the quest for justice that motivates him. He refuses simple cases and when he does not have a case he often seeks refuge in narcotics. His is an active mind that needs to be stimulated; that without a difficult problem to wrap itself around gets restless. This is another attribute of the traditional murder mystery detective; she or he has some eccentricity that sets the detective apart from others. This may make them aloof like Holmes or perhaps neurotic like a certain television detective.

Clips from episodes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from PBS

As can be seen from the clips Holmes delights in the intellectual challenge of a difficult problem. He also believes most problems can be solved by careful observation and a study of the people and facts in front of him; that careful observation will reveal the solution to the most enigmatic of mysteries. In Holmes’ view the problem with most people and the reason most people are perplexed is because they do not look. As a teacher I think this is certainly true of the problems most of us face trying to learn something new, that observation and tenacity will usually produce the appropriate form of enlightenment.

Cover of Magazine with Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet

Cover of Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, featuring A. Conan Doyle’s story A Study in Scarlet

The detective story begins many believe with Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Murders of the Rue Morgue, which is why one of the most prestigious awards an American mystery writer can earn is called “The Edgar.” But the mystery story is much older. The plot of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King is at its heart a murder investigation (I think of Oedipus as a quaesitor the a magistrate charged with investigating capital crimes in Ancient Rome). The play is a search for the identity of the murderer of the previous king of Thebes, the king that Oedipus replaced. This king was murdered and his death was never investigated. Oedipus vows to solve the crime and in fact he does, read the play to discover the murderer’s identity. Like with the traditional murder mystery the solution of the crime restores order to Theban society.

The refined and sophisticated detective of the traditional “drawing room” whodunit was replaced in early 20th century America by the hard-boiled detective. This was the Depression Era and things were more rough and tumble and polite society was, in many ways, on the skids. This detective operated on instincts, hunches, and a kind of bare-knuckled tenacity the eventually produced a solution. I say “bare-knuckled” because before arriving at a solution most of these detectives had to either survive or inflict (or both) a few beatings. They are smart guys, but they occupy a seedier part of town than Baker Street and are often perceived to be as crooked as those they pursue (though by the end of the story this perception is often found to be misguided).

What I enjoy about these detectives is their patter and their similes. For example, Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe, probably the most skilled at this, on one occasion says, “His smile was as stiff as a frozen fish.” And on another, “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.” Like a lost letter on a runaway train the story may not get where it needs to go, but the ride is always very exciting.

Cover of the Magazine Black Mask with The Maltese Falcon
Cover of hardboiled magazine Black Mask, September 1929, featuring part 1 of The Maltese Falcon, by hardboiled pioneer Dashiell Hammett

These thoughts on mysteries were provoked by an entry in Will Richardson’s blog, “The Ultimate Disruption for Schools.” The blog is about making schools more modern, a discussion that has been going on for about a hundred years and as yet not much has changed, at least not since right after the discussion started and Horace Mann and his friends created the modern public school. School reform is a mystery that has puzzled many for a very long time.

The basic model of a school has really changed little since the time of Socrates. There is a teacher sharing what she or he knows and a group of students hanging on every word. Perhaps all the modern school movement changed was that last bit about “hanging on every word.” Since Socrates good teachers have been frustrated by students who only want the answers and do not want to reason the conclusions out for themselves. All a good teacher can do is provide a method for finding answers not the answers themselves. Teachers can of course give an answer, even a correct answer, but it is not likely the answer will be remembered because it is the working out of the problem that makes the answer stick. It is also knowing how to work the problem that makes the answer recoverable when it has been forgotten.

Too often the answers are contingent on where one stands. Standing on the beach looking east provides a very different view from standing on that same beach looking west (where you stand, west coast or east coast also determines in which direction the ocean lies). The teacher can help the student make sense of an eastward or westward point of view but the teacher should not dictate the point of view and unless the teacher dictates point of view the teacher cannot provide answers only analytic tools and methods.

Richardson believes that schools should integrate more of the social networking tools now available on the Internet into their academic programs. That students learn best when they form their own social networks and learn from each other. There is certainly truth to this. Curiosity is the best teacher and students organized into networks of shared interests have a common curiosity that unites them. But what about those ideas and disciplines that live outside the social networks in which a student moves? How will the student moving in circles interested in psychology ever be introduced to calculus?

It is possible that someone with an interest in both psychology and calculus will penetrate that network, but that seems to rely a bit too heavily on fate. It is also unlikely students that learn in this way are going to accumulate all the knowledge they need to become good psychologists. I do not think anyone would advocate learning the practice of medicine or most any profession, in this way. Without someone passing judgment on the depth and breadth of the student’s knowledge, not to mention the student’s skill with a scalpel, how can a patient have confidence in this student’s abilities when she or he enters the profession?

Richardson is, of course, talking about training public k-12 students, not doctors and lawyers so the analogy is not entirely fair. But I think the issue does at some level need resolution. My interest in English language and literature was provoked by inspiring teachers of English language and literature. Those that went on to become mathematicians and scientists often had the same experience that I had, only with math and science teachers. One purpose of the public school and of a liberal arts education is to expose students to all the disciplines (university is, after all, a cognate of universal). Unless students are challenged beyond the circle of interests towards which they naturally gravitate they may never discover where their true interests lie.

Schools need to be reformed and the skills students get from working collaboratively in social networks structured within the schools and by the various disciplines taught in those schools will give students skills that will be very valuable later in life, even if the disciplines in which those skills were learned are abandoned. It is not likely that new technologies will awaken an interest in education in all that receive a compulsory education. Plato said that the mind will not retain what it has been forced to learn. It may retain a body of information long enough to pass a test but unless the student’s interest is piqued that body of information will not likely remain with the student after the test is passed or failed as the case may be.

The technology may help to capture the interest of some. But even if the new technology does not succeed in generating student interest in a given discipline students have been provided with tools, and taught how to use those tools, that can help students educate themselves when their interests are eventually aroused. Someone once said that an autodidact was someone educated by a fool. There may be some truth to that but I am not sure. If the student is wise that self-study may provoke an interest in learning from those with more expertise in the subject and the technology that provoked the interest might also put that student in touch with those whose knowledge of the subject is more complete.