Sam and His New Car, June 2004
Revising 21st Century Education,
|Sam Dalke has just finished his freshman year at Haverford College. During the spring semester, he complained to his mother about how discussion (didn't) work in one of his classes: "There are some students who talk too much." (What do they talk about?) "They talk about what they've read." (That doesn't seem like a bad thing.) "They talk about things they've read that aren't assigned." (That doesn't seem like a bad thing.) "What they say is not relevant...." Sam's mother suggested (mildly) that he might try entering class with the sort of attitude we cultivate for Meeting for Worship, with an openness for what might arise...but he wasn't convinced. Here's her somewhat belated attempt to get him (along with anyone else interested in the form of contemporary education, who might care to listen in...) to listen a little further.|
We've missed you since you left for Nature Camp--and enjoyed seeing the cartoon rendition of what the entomology class you're teaching there looks like. You've missed some pretty good times here, too. Last night, in honor of my 54th birthday, your sisters staged a play in which they portrayed me as wandering the world in search of meaning. I found a centavo, which I used to buy a cake, which was eaten by a chicken, which was killed by a dog, which was killed by a falling fence pole, which I used as a crutch in my travels, until it fell in the river, where I found a baby floating by, which I picked up and nursed (as I have nursed babies in the past) and also declared (as I had declared each object previous) as "rightfully mine." But then child's mother (who happened also, in the 3-person cast of this play, to be the cake baker and chicken-, dog-, fence-owner) entered, retrieved her baby...and lectured me that I'd never find happiness by grasping at objects (even babies...), that it was fruitless to try and find satisfaction in ownership. The play ends with my floating down the Shenandoah River in an inner tube (as we all used to do together) singing "Summertime, and the living is easy..."
It was a great play, and a wonderful birthday gift. But it actually does NOT represent the surprising way this summer has been shaping up for me--so I thought I'd draw on the inspiration of your sisters' work (along with the inspiration of so many of my colleagues, above) to tell you the story of what's really been happening. It takes, of course, the form of yet another play....and I think, since you are so interested in the study of philosophy, you'll also be especially interested to see that it begins with a letter to René Descartes.
The title of this play, and its playbill (which Paul Grobstein designed, as he designed its further elaboration) arose out of a discussion a group of Bryn Mawr students, staff and faculty held early last April about Religious Diversity. That rich conversation concluded with the suggestion that we keep on talking in a forum "akin to a sports bar"--where, instead of sports, we'd share with one another stories about the various ways in which each of us makes meaning of our lives. There were no further developments in that intiative...
until this past month, when--I've just realized--a very different initiative led us straight back to a discussion of our relation to the universe, and more particularly (given your concerns, above, about the appropriate role of individuals speaking in class discussion), straight back to the query of how education might best facilitate that relationship. Subject (you'll soon see why) to much further revision, I'm calling the play
"Welcome to the Relation to the Universe Bar;
or, What Might Happen If You Get Out of Bed"
Act I, Scene I
What surprised me, though, as I worked through writing this letter to you, Sam (you still listening...?) was my discovery of the strong literary history for this sort of educating. You'll know that (as a literary scholar, for whom one thought is always webbily and delightfully connected to a range of others, and for whom directing the association is nearly impossible), I'm particularly pleased to be able to call some of them to your attention (as well, of course, to record them here for my own future reference). The tricky part is to figure out how to order the fireworks going off in my brain, to lay out sequentially what was often simultaneous.
Lessee...yet another play?
Yep, that's the thing.
Symposium on Fairy Tales
College Seminar, 2003
"A Centrifugal Force; or
Communication Between Things That Are Different "
Act I, Scene I: In Which, Invited by a Friend,
I Begin to Read...and Cannot Stop Myself
|In his first essay, on "Lightness," Calvino introduces me to Cyrano de Bergerac (not the one I knew as the long-nosed swordsman Rostand created in his play (oops...now you won't trust plays)...|
...but himself a significant writer who, according to Calvino, was both "the first true forerunner of science fiction" and "the first poet of atomism in modern literature:"
above all he conveys his sense of the precariousness of the processes behind [the variety of living forms]....That is, how nearly man missed being man, and life, life, and the world, the world.
(Oops...now you won't trust satirists, either.)
Whatever: this scene will be a very clever one, in which Rostand's de Bergerac takes off his mask to reveal the "real" de Bergerac, who steps center stage and says,
You marvel that this matter, shuffled pell-mell at the whim of Chance, could have made a man, seeing that so much was needed for the construction of his being....But you must realize that a hundred million times this matter, on the way to human shape, has been stopped to form now a stone, now lead, now coral, now a flower, now a comet; and all because of more or fewer elements that were or were not necessary for designing a man. Little wonder if, within a infinite quantity of matter that ceaselessly changes and stirs, the few animals, vegetables, and minerals we see should happen to be made; no more wonder than getting a royal pair in a hundred casts of the dice. Indeed it is equally impossible for all this stirring not to lead to something; and yet this something will always be wondered at...how small a change would have made it into something else.
Mind and Body: From René
Descartes to William James
Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac
Born a quarter of a century after Descartes, de Bergerac was a satirist--and one of the objects of his satire was Descartes' idea that animals are soulless machines. De Bergerac's most striking literary gambits involved space travel; he used imaginary visits to the moon and sun to satirize both politics and people. Such travel was also a marvelous way for him to express a sense of perspective larger than would be possible if one stayed grounded on earth: tr>
If there is something you men cannot understand, you either imagine that it is spiritual or that it does not exist. Both conclusions are quite false. The proof of this is the fact that there are perhaps a million things in the universe which you would need a million quite different organs to know. Myself, for example, I know from my senses what attracts the lodestone to the pole, how the tides pull the sea, what becomes of an animal after its death.
means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, no matter how far distant in place and time? Of speaking with those who are in India, of speaking with those who are not yet born and will not be born for a thousand or ten thousand years?...the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different.
And the audience realizes that they are back at the heart of the play: the use of language to build bridges across difference.
It all started w/ the moon. If only the earth could have gone round the sun by itself, unperturbed by the complications in its orbit which the moon's gravitational field introduced, Newton's equations of motion would have worked fine. But when the moon entered the picture, the situation became too complex for simple dynamics to handle. The moon attracted the earth, causing perturbations in the earth's orbit which changed the earth's distance from the sun, which in turn altered the moon's orbit around the earth, which meant that the original basis for the calculation had changed and one had to start over from the beginning. The problem was sufficiently complex and interesting to merit a name and a prize of its own. It became known as the three-body problem....
After those fireworks....
Now, it won't be particularly popular, in this particular circle (which is what? and where does it end? nevermind...) Calvino gives the credit for this initiative to the humanities, and argues that their motivation arises from the failure of science to either recognize or realize this aim:
Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various 'codes,' into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world....What tends to emerge from the great novels of the twentieth century is the idea of an open encyclopedia, an adjective that certainly contradicts the noun encyclopedia, which etymologically implies an attempt to exhaust knowledge of the world by enclosing it in a circle. But today we can no longer think in terms of a totality that is not potential, conjectural, and manifold....the modern books that we love most are the outcome of a confluence and a clash of a multiplicity of interpretative methods, modes of thought, and styles of expression....what matters is not the enclosure of the work within a harmonious figure, but the centrifugal force produced by it.
Image from Chaos in the 3-body problem: the final state of a scattering encounter between a binary star system and another star depends on the initial phase (horizontal axis) of the binary and the impact parameter (vertical axis) of the incomer....Note the alternating regions of regular (smooth) and irregular (chaotic, resonant) behavior.
Act IV, Scene II: A Scattering Encounter
the manifold text...replaces the oneness of a thinking 'I'...
René! WAKE UP!
...with a multiplicity of subjects, voices, and views of the world, on the model of what Mikhail Bakhtin has called 'dialogic' or 'polyphonic' or 'carnivalesque'....There is the type of work that, in the attempts to contain everything possible...remains incomplete by its very nature....
Carnival, at Indigo Backgrounds
|Now, this image of "carnival" gets pretty close to what the web enables, the ways in which patterns, indistinguishable from close up, can be identified from further afield.||
Carneval, at Agnes' Free
Cross Stitch Calendary
Hm: see the discussion earlier this summer, in the Information Group forum, about hypernovels, "literature which refuses to make choices," or rather, in this chaotic work/world, "simultaneously chooses them all...and so represents the idea of infinite contemporary universes--refusing to 'lose' any information." See also the proposal offered in this week's Information group discussion, that "relaxing the demand for consistency" might prove useful, "yielding greater completeness" in what we can describe and interpret.
The scheme of the network of possibilities...is confirmed...by long novels, the structure of which is accumulative, modular, and combinatory. These considerations are at the basis of what I call the 'hypernovels'...to sample the potential multiplicity of what may be narrated.
Calvino ends his "apologia for the novel as a vast net" with the question,
...who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable...but think what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego....Was this not perhaps what Ovid was aiming at, when he wrote about the continuity of forms? And what Lucretius was aiming at when he identified himself with that nature common to each and everything?
And what Paul was trying for, when he first wrote to René?
What is strikingly clear to me, from the really rapid evolution of this play, Sam, is that contemporary education can work very well when it involves a three-step process:
There used to be an odd, popular, and erroneous idea that the sun revolved around the earth. This has been replaced by an even odder, equally popular, and equally erroneous idea that the earth goes around the sun. In fact, the moon and the earth revolve around a common center, and this commonly-centered pair revolves w/ the sun around another common center, except that you must figure in all the solar planets here, so things get complicated. Then there is the motion of the solar system w/ regard to a great many other objects, e.g., the galaxy, and if at this point you ask what does the motion of the earth really look like from the center of the entire universe, say (and where are the Glotolog?), the only answer is:
that is doesn't,
Because there isn't.
Act V: The Future |
Yep, this one belongs to you, Sam.
What do you think?
Thanks for listening --
Love you, lots.