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 Tom├ís.

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.

Wishing I Knew

“Der Alter Bulgar”
Itzhak Perlman and The Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra
Arranged by Andy Statman

Wishing I Knew

The music is from an album of Klezmer music called In the Fiddler’s House. The song is described in the album notes as one that enables each of the musicians to improvise and go where the music takes them. On the one hand improvisation enables musicians to exercise their creativity, to play a part in the shaping of the song, to help determine what the song will ultimately be. Many of the classical composers left room for improvisation in their work and trusted to the creativity of the musicians interpreting the score. It is the passage of time that has produced a “definitive” score. This suggests the other side of improvisation; it is scary. If the score is not “written” but in the process of being written than each musician is to a degree on her or his own.

As a teacher I find that many students want the answer where what I want to give them is a way of understanding the problem and of working their way through to possible solutions. As an English teacher I am not concerned with telling students what a work of literature means but of helping them find out what it might mean or how it might evade meaning altogether. I think it is more important to understand how interpretations are reached and to understand that many different interpretations have merit than it is find the definitive interpretation, which probably does not exist. The more artfully a text is written the less likely it is to lend itself to a single interpretation, to a simple solution. This is one of the great values of literature; it teaches us that inquiry has value in and of itself even if it does not provide solutions but only more avenues to investigate.

After class one day this week a group of students asked me a question about history. Not being an historian I thought the question a bit odd but I tried to answer. The question concerned the causes of America’s Civil War. I gave the best answer I could but tried to point out that there is not complete agreement among historians. But the group of students that asked the question were not so much in search of a correct answer as demonstrating that a fellow student was wrong in his assessment.

The real problem of the question asked, and of many questions that are asked, is that there is not a simple answer. Different people read the events differently. This has always been the case with literature, that some read thing differently from others and the secret is, if there is in fact a secret, that most things of consequence are complicated and do not lend themselves to simple solutions; there is often not a clear right and a clear wrong answer (though wrong answers are often easier to find than the right ones).

The purpose of education is not to lead students to right answers, though that seems to be what many students want, but to develop curiosity and a mind that questions what is placed before it. There is real pleasure that comes from being able to answer a question, especially a difficult and complicated question, but if we are honest with ourselves we have to admit that the answer we gave was probably inadequate even if it satisfied the questioner. Once an authoritative answer has been given many feel the issue is resolved and they can go on to other things, and no longer trouble themselves with the question that had been nagging them. But it is the nature of a question to nag and of a questioner to go where the nagging leads.

Painting of departed souls entering into credit

Ascent of the Blessed
Hieronymus Bosch

My seniors are looking at bits and pieces from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The character of Satan is probably the most intriguing in the poem. Some believe Satan is the hero. William Blake famously stated “Milton was a true poet and of the devils party, without knowing it”. The key phrase there is “without knowing it” because Milton begins the poem by saying he is justifying the ways of God to man and he asks the Holy Spirit to help him get the story right. Others point to these lines in the poem as the foundation for their interpretation that Satan, though an attractive character in the poem, is in fact the villain.

It is true that Satan has all the best lines and he is certainly heroic. But if Milton was in fact a Puritan and a devout Christian he would have it on Biblical authority that Satan is the Father of Lies and that nothing he says can be trusted. From this point of view Satan’s language is not so much heroic as it is seductive. He is saying what his human listeners want to hear and what sounds attractive to them. There is a bit of the rebel in all of us and the words of Satan resonate, we want to believe it is better to rule than to serve, that the mind can make something good of the most hellish circumstances (Satan says this much better than I but you will have to read the poem if you want to see what he has to say).

As a teacher I present both sides and tell my students that my heart is with Blake but my mind takes Milton at his word. A close reading of the poem does not give the reader an easy choice and that is the real thing for students to understand. We do not read to find answers or to understand necessarily but to learn something about ourselves and the way we think and feel about the world around us. Reading Paradise Lost does not let me rest comfortably on the side of God, the angels, and the archangels nor does it let me rest easily with the devil and his fallen friends. Reading well does not afford solutions to literary problems only the knowledge that how a text is understood depends to a large degree on how it is read and the point of view that is brought to the reading.

Will Richardson in his blog this week discussed how students are approaching knowledge and learning differently than in the past. There is probably truth to this, I know I learned differently from the way my parents learned and that different things interested me than interested them. Quoting from a MacArthur Foundation study he says, “Youth using new media often learn from their peers, not teachers or adults, and notions of expertise and authority have been turned on their heads.” I think on the one hand this is very exciting. Curiosity is the best teacher. But on the other hand many have a limited idea of what it means to understand something. Often we gravitate towards those with ideas similar to our own and as a result the information we get often conforms to the views we brought to the subject. Because there is a single perspective that resembles our own we are not challenged to confront the weaknesses in our views or to see the true depth of the issues before us.

This does not need to be the case but in a culture that has become so dominated by talk radio personalities who present a single side of an argument as if it were the only side to an argument the likelihood of this becoming the case seems very real. Curiosity and the sharing of information ought to be encouraged but there also needs to be a healthy respect for the conclusions of those that have thought deeply and long on a subject, especially when they arrive at conclusions different from our own. I believe in expertise. I think there are rewards for spending time in study and that those who have spent time in study have something to teach us. It is unwise to believe that the mind can function well without training. It is equally unwise to believe that those that train us have all the answers.

Jacques Derrida- Fear of Writing

In the video Derrida I think captures the struggle between a reliance on expertise and a need to explore an independent line of inquiry. Derrida invested a great deal of time with ideas and in the study of ideas. Part of his confidence probably flows from this. But it is the time spent in study that he also had to break away from; to learn to trust his own conclusions and not those of others that were taught to him. This is what an education should provide our students, the willingness to challenge authority and to trust to their own authority. But that education must also give them the tools to think clearly and deeply. If students do not trust their own conclusions and their own ability to reason to those conclusions they will be easily manipulated by others.

If on the other hand they have not been taught rigorously they will arrive at sophistic solutions. Discussions with “experts” often reveal the weaknesses in our thinking and show us where we need to do a bit more work. In my classroom I try to give the most difficult time not to those that disagree with me but to those that cannot articulate clearly their own point of view, whether or not it is my point of view. Real educators train students to clarify their thought; they do not tell students what to think.

As a teacher I try to act as Derrida’s sub-conscious acts in half sleep. It is my hope that my students will respond as Derrida does when he is awake; that they will have learned to trust their conclusions and the thinking that has brought them to those conclusions while recognizing that there is still a certain inadequacy to those conclusions. It is important to understand that the ideas of those we disagree with do have merit but that the merit of those ideas do not necessarily undermine the merit that is to be found in our own thinking.

When musicians improvise they trust the part of the score that is written to lead them safely through that part of the score that is to be composed in performance. Because they have mastered the written score, what the experts have provided, they have the necessary confidence in their own creative abilities to provide the parts that are missing and to go wherever their understanding of the music leads them.