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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

13 thoughts on “It’s a Mystery to Me

  1. I found this blog to be particularly interesting to read. I enjoyed reading the part about Sherlock Holme’s ways of thinking and solving puzzles and crimes. The Sherlock Holmes cases are sometimes about murder cases, but they always involve solving a puzzle. In his stories, good triumphs over evil which is satisfying to read in a world where that is not always the case. He solves his cases through an active mind and careful observations, which I feel is key in solving a puzzle. He likes to challenge himself with difficult problems. It’s true that people don’t always look. You can solve something by studying the things right before your eyes. Observations will lead you to learning something new.

  2. The fact that good triumphs over evil isnt always the case realistically. Eventhough, we would all like to be in the mindset of Sherlock Holmes and believe the world is a safe place. If there wasnt any evil in the world he wouldnt have any crimes to solve. I do believe that people are like puzzles. You have to put their pieces together to figure them out. I agree with the statement made about working out a problem. How will an answer stick if u dont have to work for it? If its given to you its too easy to care how it was obtained. I think personally schools should be transformed into a place where everything isn’t so structured. Some structure is important but there doesnt need to be so much structure to the point where teachers dictate our way of thinking. People were made different for a reason. Some of the diverse thinking that wasnt accepted by others in the past got us where we are as a society today.

  3. The piece about Sherlock Holmes reminded me of the T.V. show House. Dr. House is always taking cases that are much more difficult. It seems as if he too is in the field, not just to help the patient feel better, but to figure out a puzzle, and to get to the source of the issue. Dr. House also appears to resolve to narcotics because he often takes pain medication in large quantity and claims to anyone who confronts him that he is a doctor and he is in pain.
    I found the section about schools interesting. From what I got out of the reading, I agree that teachers are in place to equip students and to help train their minds in a sense, to help them gain reasoning and broaden their perspective. I also agree that it is not the teacher’s ability to get the student to work, the student must come to that decision themseves.

  4. I do not agree with Will Richardson. I think his idea of modernising the school systems goes against what i believe is the best learning tool; individualized learning. Moving towards networking and such i believe would take away from the need of the teacher. Already we see the state decicing what must be taught, which is also a major problem. Overall in fact, i believe the education system is on a downward trend. What used to be used was the idea of provide facts at a young age, and show them how to conect them later on. Today they are leaning towards begining with the connections, which i belive does not work. Some evidence is shown every day. If you look back to people in their 50’s, 40’s, and even 30’s, they could name and point out almost every state on a map. To a lesser extent, sometimes even all the countries in europe, or africa, or other continants. This is untrue of our generation. From my personal expirenece, the majority of people my age couldnt point out Wyoming on a map, or show you where Romania is (Me being one of them). To me, learning the facts paves the way for people to make the conections later on. It kind of connects to what you were saying, about you have to show how you got there, rather than just give the answer. Although it may seem as though the facts are the answers, they in fact are the path to understanding why. Just saying why it happens, as education is leaning towards, is doing the student a disservice.

  5. I disagree with Richardson’s idea to modernize school systems because I strongly agree with you that a very big factor for students to find an interest in a subject is the presentation of it by a teacher. A teacher that is absolutely passionate in the subject that they are teaching inspires everyone in the class to try and see what the “big deal” is about. Students cannot rely on each other to try and decipher the process that leads us to find the answer because it is equivalent to handing cave men sticks and grass with the order of producing fire. Even if his method should prove to work, only a few students will be curious enough to pursue the answer if they do not just give up altogether. The students that do care to pursue the answer and find after tedious efforts that they are capable of identifying the solution that satisfies the assignment, they will just act as a teacher to the rest of the group. So how is this system any different than the latter besides added stress on the students part and serious loss of jobs for educators? The real problem with public education is standardized testing like the MCAS that dictates the curriculum and prevents time intellectual thought and curiosity, but that is a whole new argument. And for the record, I have always like the character of Sherlock Holmes because he is a hard character to place, someone who punishes bad guys who jeopardize society, yet contributing to the under belly of society through his addiction to heroine.

  6. I disagree with Raffertys point of view to studies. He says that you can find answers for your problems just with observation and tenacity. Tenacity hears indeed very well and is sure a very important thing in studies and solving problems. But what is for example when solving your problem needs longer as your live is long. People can’t find a answer for everything just with tenacity and observation. Or maybe I should better say people shouldn’t solve Problems just with observation, because it can take a very long time to solve something. For example giving a 9 years old a Calculus puestion, the child would may get the answer just through observation, but that would probably need till he’s old and his life nearly over. Somebody who instead of observing, directly studies would get the answer way faster. So my opinion is, that studying directly the facts (the results of the observations and studies of so many people before you) is better as observe/learn by your own.

  7. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift

    To realise the value of one year, ask a student who failed a grade.
    To realise the value of one month, ask a mother who has given birth to a premature baby.
    To realise the value of one week, ask the editor of a weekly newspaper.
    To realise the value of one hour, ask the lovers who are waiting to meet.
    To realise the value of one minute, ask a person who just missed a train.
    To realise the value of one second, ask someone who just avoided an accident.
    To realise the value of one millisecond, ask the person who won a silver medal at the olympics.

  8. In the reading about Sherlock Holmes, i found it interesting becuause the way he views murder mysterys is similar to the way that i view my education. Holmes talked about how he doesnt want easy cases and it makes him restless. With me i dont like to take easy classes becuase i dont feel that i am being pushed to my full capacity or really learning anything. I like how you said that Sherlock believes most problems can be solved by careful observation; There is an answer to everything. His belief can be used in any area in life especailly in school.

  9. Woops still more……….
    When adressing education to be modren and teachers i thought it was interseting becuase i never really thought about it. Teachers can’t just tell answers they have to do so much more than that. The have to expand views. I just thought it was kinda interseting, especaily the wording that was put forth on the situation that made me intersted in the topic.
    I agree with Richard when he says that students learn best when they form their own social networks and learn from each other. In my perspective i like to be around people and friends who are going to help me learn and understand better. With all of our knowledge together we can all learn something. Sometimes when learning something from a teacher it is harder to understand but when you talk abou it and have everyone together its easier.
    The blog was interesting and i found it interesting that Sherlock and i have some similaritesin life!!

  10. I agree with the reading about Sherlock Holmes. I feel that without the proper observation you will never fully know. We need to take our time and look at the whole picture. It may take a while to understrand but thats part of the deal. Nothing worth while in life is easy. Holmes wants hard cases beacuse he knows the easy ones dont make him any better. He wants cases that will push him to look beneath the surface and that are there to help him grow. Teachers are in school to help their students learn and to direct them. However if the student chooses not to learn and complete their work it is not the teachers responsibility. The teacher must do her job to those who are willing and eager to learn.

  11. I found this blog to be very thought-provoking. I was fond of sherlock Holmes’ traditions in unraveling crimes and deciphering puzzles. I felt that there was something to be learned from Holmes. I believe that his problem solving skills and abilities are a necessity in life. He had the attitude that if at first you don’t succeed you try again and that is a key to becoming prosperous in todays society. In my opinion most of the time nothing worth while comes easy and despite how hard something is it only makes you that much stronger.
    I agreed with the section in the blog that spoke about students retaining information for only a certain period of time because they were forced to do so. I feel that this is completely true, because I myself do this quite frequently. There is nothing learned from this sort of memorization and what is taught is completely lost. Students must be taught in a way which they must obtain the answers so that it will stick.
    Lastly I agreed with the idea that a teacher who is enthusiastic about what they are teaching will arouse their students so that they want to find out more. I believe a good teacher will cause their students to deviate from their regular routines so that they too will be able to explore their own interests.

  12. I do not agree with Richardson. I don’t think that using social networking tools now available on the Internet will encourage students to learn and work harder. Honestly with these tools, directions online and what not, students will not need a teacher. but the computer is not the same as a human teacher. The student and the teacher understand each other. The student and the machine do not. I believe that a student will be willing to learn if the teacher is willing to teach. If the teacher is happy and interested in the subject they teach, students will like this energy and enjoy what they learn.

  13. I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan, and I always find that I can relate to him and his theories. It makes perfect sense that people get restless when their brains aren’t being actively exercised. If you aren’t thinking to your full potential then something is bound to be off-balance in the way you feel, physically and emotionally. Holmes also displays a real dedication to solving the casing he takes on, even risking his own safety on many occasions, which is something to be inspired about.
    I have also seen this kind of dedication in some of my teachers, which leads me to say that I disagree with Richardson. I believe that although some students only want answers from their teachers, many students actually want to learn. These students will find it in themselves to do the work and learn the answers to things they are interested in. It is because of this that I think it is important for teachers to be there for students to connect to, should they want to, because students can’t connect to a computer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *