11 November 2011

Parmenides after Trilling

For the most part I have come to understand, education today has little to do with learning, which is a continual and difficult process that must be boundless. Education today seems rather to have everything to do with achievement, which has a measure and an end. Learning means that there is no answer, but in education the answer is ubiquitous. Evidence for this exists everywhere in the structures of the school. There are finite classes that are bound by beginning and ending dates, at the former one is given a syllabus and at the latter a grade. Every class is structured to arrive at a conclusion that will lead clearly to the next day and follows immediately from the previous one. “What did I do wrong” is the question posed and not “what did I learn?” And at the semester’s end another check mark is made to the credit audit report and another step towards graduation is said to be completed. And it is on to the next class.
I wonder in what class students are taught that learning has no end and that learning ought to engage them in the mire and the muck of life rather than keep them from it. I have known them both, in fact, have appreciated my engagement in the rare air of philosophy and the rank remains of the world. Perhaps it is that I have lived a life of privilege and enjoyed the luxury of endless learning that inclines me to the former. In my life though I have often struggled I have not suffered. And perhaps that has led me to Thoreau more than Melville, though of late it is often to the darker side of Thoreau and Mt. Ktadn that I am attracted. I think Thoreau finally might have understood Moby Dick though he might have hated its implications.
In his lovely essay on George Santayana that seems to have been a review of a publication of his letters, Lionel Trilling expresses an admiration for Santayana’s ability to define himself in this American world. Trilling says that Santayana’s critique of the American poets who retreated to Europe, or of his Harvard friends who ‘petered out’ was “not that they were worn out by American life, not that they were hampered by economic circumstances, or perverted by bad ideals; it was that they did not know how to grasp and possess . . . did not know how to break their hearts on the idea of the hardness of the world, to admit the defeat which is requisite for any victory, to begin their effective life in the world by taking the point of view of the grave.” I think what Trilling refers to here is Santayana’s acknowledgement of the inability of these ‘poets’ to accept how difficult living in this world must be, and how that difficulty led to a certain tragic view of life that was wisdom. Finally, from that acceptance all goodness might come.
Thus it is that Santayana considers the smile of Parmenides, an ironic response to a young Socrates who complains about the “‘ideas’ of filth, rubbish, etc. with which he is surrounded and which he would avoid.” Parmenides and Santayana recognized that to be wise Socrates must accept his engagement in all ideas that stem from the world because that is finally where we must live. It might not be pleasant but it is certainly real. Perhaps my scherzo is a response to this view of the grave, especially as it follows the marche funebre.
And so I think my involvement in education has led me to appreciate that smile of Parmenides as in the classrooms I experience too many who would avoid the world’s hardness to find where they might comfortably rest their heads. 


Blogger Chuck Bille said...

Do you actually believe that there is a course out there where students are taught learning, or is it philosophical optimism on your part? Over the years, I’ve attended 6 different colleges and universities, and have never seen such a course offered. And there certainly isn’t such a class in any elementary or secondary school system in this country. I assume you’ve experienced a similar personal history.
I often wonder if learning isn’t an innate human attribute similar to music, mathematics, or even athletic abilities. Some of us can’t hold a note to save our lives, yet can perform unbelievable mathematical computations in our heads. Einstein couldn’t slam dunk a basketball, but he continues to have a tremendous impact on the study and advancement of science.
As a professor, I assume you have little, if any control over the students who enroll in your classes. Some of them may enjoy learning for the sake of learning, while the vast majority is there for a grade and advancement to the next course. While you live your life as an example of, and proponent for the accumulation of knowledge for knowledge’s sake; you’re surrounded by individuals with totally different value systems. Thank God for people like yourself…I have no interest in learning how to slam dunk a basketball!

13 November, 2011 16:22  

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