Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Zen and the Art of... part two

Alright, onward to the Chautauquas I mentioned in the last post about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And when I’m done here, I had better get to reading and blogging about the history books in my fields. I mean, priorities…

Even though the general tone of the book put me off, I was intrigued by Pirsig’s discussion of Quality. He arrives at this particular Chautauqua while he, Chris, John and Sylvia Sutherland are traveling through Montana. When they stop to visit an artist-friend, DeWeese, Pirsig uncovers more of this mysterious persona which he used to be: Phaedrus. Phaedrus taught at the university years ago, and there’s some rather cryptic discussion of what happened to him then, and why he left the place. Rather than dwell on the mundane reasons for this, Pirsig begins to recall his classes in Quality. Specifically, he remembers trying, and failing, to define Quality in writing, despite the fact that it is the accepted belief that you need a definition in order to teach it—particularly to the students, who clearly expect in Phaedrus an authority figure to imitate.

Phaedrus has a fundamental problem with imitation. Likewise, he sees a certain “squareness” in the attempt to define Quality. And finally, among his students, he notices that the drive to acquire grades, and the drive to imitate are inextricably linked. In order to put an end to this cycle of imitation for grades, he does two things: he asks his students to write about objects or concepts that would be impossible to imitate (such as their own hand), and he eliminates grades, at least until the end of the class. The faculty and the students often react negatively, and the negative response is no doubt due to the fact that all of this is happening before the advent of postmodernism. Even the publication of this book is just on the cusp of it—so these concepts must seem very new indeed.

However, there are pieces of this Quality inquiry which seem still to apply to academia, even in a post-postmodernist age. The first has to do with grades. Really, very little has changed about the student response to grading since Pirsig wrote the book. Children who work for grades become adults who work for grades—and they are aware that imitation provides the best possible chance for an A. Innovation can earn anything from an A to an F. A product of both graded and ungraded education, I feel confident in saying that ungraded education was far superior for me, as Phaedrus hypothesized. Because the drive for learning is internal, and innovation goes unpunished, a true student has an opportunity to push the boundaries of education. Of course, as Phaedrus finds, the unmotivated student simply does not know what to do. However, he speculates, perhaps these folks should not be students.

The second piece of the discussion that still resonates has to do with internal divisions in the faculty, and between the faculty and the administration in the university, or The Church of Reason. Faculty may be guarded about new methods, or unwilling to encourage innovation among students—and this I’ve witnessed again and again myself. I’ve written before about the disconnect between the shockingly innovative writing that we read in class, and the very cautious, careful, and “objective” work we are expected to produce. But some of this professional cautiousness also comes from a guardedness against administrations, who see the university not as a Church of Reason, but as a business venture. And that attitude certainly exists, and is probably more prevalent now than it was when Zen was published.

To keep this post from being absurdly long, I will hold back my final comments on the book for a third post.

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