“OH, THEY’RE MOVING DADDY’S GRAVE TO BUILD A SEWER …”

[What follows is a guest post from Dyke the Elder, a.k.a. Chuck Dyke, Temple University, who’s been reading the blog and thinking about our conversations here. Links kindly provided by WordPress.]

Big historical doins in the UK. Work crews in a parking lot in Leicester found some old bones. Forensic investigation, including some DNA matching with currently living descendants, convinces them that they’ve found the grave of Richard III, whose bones will now be re-interred in a more regal setting. Well, now. Déjà vu all over again, for the re-interrment of Richard has been carried out in symbolic space any number of times over the centuries.

With time on my hands, and the memory of a terrific read, I couldn’t resist getting Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time for the Kindle. Memory hadn’t misled me. The book is near the top of the list of great classic Brit mystery novels, and remains a great read. It also resonates with thoughts I (actually several of us) have been having about “historical truth.”

We’re introduced to a Scotland Yard detective, lying in bed with a broken leg [close enough], bored and restless. A friend brings him a sheaf of prints with which to while away some time: landscapes, genre scenes, portraits. Among the portraits is one that especially attracts his attention: the subject is evidently late medieval, and well-to-do. Before turning it over to see who it is, the detective reflects a bit about what portraits can tell us: what inferences to character, status, and so on the picture supports. He experiments with nurses and visitors. What does the portrait say to them? What sort of a person was the subject? What was his opposition in life? A mini-consensus develops that he was a nice guy who had known much pain, and might well have been a judge. The portrait is turned over, and the subject turns out to be Richard III: the personification of ruthless tyrannical evil, as Shakespeare and Sir Lawrence have conspired to convince us.

How is the apparent anomaly to be dealt with? What is the truth of the portrait, and what is the truth of Richard. The detective begins with the latter, and cadges a stack of history books. They range from a short illustrated history retrieved from old schooldays through a long standard and well legitimated history of England. The image of the evil tyrant persists among them all, though of course it’s variously nuanced, or not nuanced at all. Central to the image is the wicked uncle who has slain his two innocent young nephews “in the tower.” However, the more serious and nuanced accounts provide material that seems inconsistent with the image of evil. Needless to say, the Scotland Yard detective begins to think of the situation in his accustomed terms. E.g. the death of the young princes is a mystery, and Richard a prime suspect. A police investigation is in order.

We’re obviously at a suitable point to make (at least this) long story short. The investigations of the detective effectively exonerate Richard, and go far to rehabilitate him in an extremely favorable light. Henry Tudor, on the other hand, is re-interred as a shit, as well as the likely culprit. Beyond that, Tey is a very smart lady, and provides a lot of interesting considerations about the responsible reading of historical evidence. Her sense of legitimate vs. illegitimate inference is remarkably reliable. Since this was my second reading, I read the book with an attempted jaundiced eye, looking for flaws in the rehabilitation process. There were only two steps that were a bit fishy, but neither badly damages the rehab project. This isn’t surprising, since, as Tey tells us in a denouement chapter, the case has been re-opened several times, and the verdict has stably remained in Richard’s favor –- on the evidence. Tey says, “A man Buck wrote a vindication in the seventeenth century. And Horace Walpole in the eighteenth. And someone called Markham in the nineteenth.” They pretend to know of no defender in the twentieth century, but, I believe, it was someone named Kendall, who Tey figures, slightly transfigured, as one of the detective’s primary aides. As a matter of fact, I vaguely remember reading the Kendall after having read The Daughter of Time for the first time. So, in a perfectly legitimate sense, “everybody knows,” but the public image of Richard III remains that of evil.

Well, with an attention surplus to deal with, the teacher in me stirred. Why not use The Daughter of Time as a centerpiece in, say, a philosophy of social science course. It really is a little gem on the evaluation of evidence. The approach from the point of view of Scotland Yard might be enough to jumpstart some actual text reading, and a sort of mock trial might do some pedagogical work. So I actually thought some of the details through – long enough to reject the whole idea. Here are some reasons for the rejection, all to be collected in the judgment that the hermeneutic geography is wrong.

My students, given the bizarre exception, have no idea who Richard III was, nor do they care. Except as a disembodied exercise, Richard III simply doesn’t matter. Except as just another instance of the general proposition that all truth matters, the stake in Richard III has to be established, not assumed. So Richard has to be more than a literary artifact, for, if he remains a literary artifact, the situation becomes Pirandellian, and questions of truth default into questions of consistency. To put this in pedagogical place: for the students, Richard III is, and will always remain, just who and what you tell them he is. They’ll have a real stake in his truth only if we supply one.

That caricature of historical indifference is the benchmark, or, better, default starting point for any thoughts on teaching the search for, say, evidence and truth. Defaulting to it is an eternally available alternative that can never be made to go away – just shared out differently. As eternally dysfunctional as it is, philosophical skepticism has eternal life. Religions live off the interest. There isn’t a whole lot of point rehearsing the same old songs once again.

It’s part of the fun of The Daughter of Time that it reminds us of the failure of pragmatism – as a theory of truth in the old rationalist mode. For the image of Richard III as the monster has almost certainly been more useful, for innumerable purposes, some of them wise and noble, than the rehabilitated Richard could ever have been, whatever the truth may be.

Now, there’s really not much point in pursuing the line through yet another slash at rationalism and its evil twin skepticism. That’s a parlor game by now. The serious context, the one not only worth spending time on, but also mandatory for us, is the context we walk into a dozen or more times a week. Hence the essential value of attention surplus. Our classrooms are excruciatingly particular, and the failure of the traditional a priori’s and, for good or ill, the failure of the once-for-all, top down framers and organizers condemns us, whether we like it or not, to building on that particularity. (Fat(uous)ly stated, we can’t pretend to transcend our own history. Romantically stated, our lot is an existential one.)

One of the first consequences is an old familiar one: commonality replaces universality as the ground of intellectual sharing. (1844 was a vintage year for that sort of thought.) On those grounds, the impossibility of using The Daughter of Time as an “historical example” is that it essentially cannot be a part of the very particular commonality of our classrooms. The intellectualization of history dehistoricizes history, and converts it into fiction and fable. Richard III? Why not just rehabilitate the big bad wolf, obviously an ideological construct foisted on us by pig huggers?

This line may seem to be pushing (mindlessly) toward a fundamental anti-intellectualism. It’s not meant to. It’s meant to push toward what I often call the difference between epistemology and learning as two alternative approaches to being intelligent. Epistemology is a major impediment to teaching and learning. It’s our traditionally honored dogmatism as Western intellectuals. In the context of colonialism, and the Arnold/Leavis curriculum that was devised in the service of colonialism, we got away with that dogmatism. We’re not getting away with it these days (as the entries in attention surplus seem, to me, to show). But it sure does make a helluva convenient way to avoid difficult curriculum decisions. So we’ve got to move on to real questions about how to create intelligent commonality: the kind that doesn’t just float off after the final exam.

It seems to me that the work on All Quiet on the Western Front – as frustrating and more or less unsuccessful as it was – nonetheless stands as an excellent first example. It genuinely seeks an existential dialectic (to be fancy): a genuine clash of minds. It recognizes the disruption that has to be caused to happen if (here) the Nazis are to be removed from the realm of Aesopian fable. It wanders close to a point I’d insist on. Something has to be done that threatens to make a difference. You can’t just move the Nazis to another (in this case liberal) mythic space – or, if you do, it has to be the mythic space the students are living in (metaphors we live by) in order to disrupt the comfort of that space. Even in the classroom, learning, but not epistemology, is as much a political process as voting or marching to city hall. To, recapitulate, Richard III could never be the vehicle for the necessary transformations (though, if you were cool) he could be a practice exercise that, in the right context, might prepare the ground for some real pedagogical work (Bourdieu and Passeron).

Interestingly, some very strange beasts can be harnessed up to do that sort of work. Because I’m having fun and have a lot of time to have fun in, at the moment, I’ll spin out a really arcane example. It’s road tested over about a decade by now:

Sometimes when I’m asked why I enjoy teaching at Temple so much, I say “Where else can you find the challenge of trying to teach modern scientific cosmology to Wiccans?” As esoteric as the big bang, dark energy, and the Higgs field may seem, they generate genuine imperatives for truth in an almost perfect way. For example, they stand outside the lock-step rituals that the “debate” about biological evolution has defaulted to. Furthermore, they stand at the ragged edge of the most sophisticated science there is, where scientists squabble at the boarders of doubt. Every new time I teach the course, something has become obsolete in the readings from the last time I taught it (every two years, in my rotation). In addition, they are all, in important ways, outside my scope of authority and expertise. I’m constrained, as students usually are, to “take the book’s word for it.” (Agreed. Lots of things we do are in the same boat; but, in this case it isn’t just a matter of not having done the homework, it’s a matter of not being able to do the homework.) I, as they, submit to authority, and show them how to do it humbly, appreciatively, and responsibly.

On the other side of the coin, I choose to have the science delimit the course. Sure there are cosmologies of all sorts, from all sorts of points of view and from all over the planet. They’re irrelevant. I do have the authority to impose that limit. [Almost always, I offer a way out. If a student is willing to accept C+ as a maximum grade, he or she can do their term paper on, for example, the four corners of the Navajo world, the yin and the yang, or – witches.]

Metaphor, mathematics, and measurement: that’s one way to gloss what the course (and the tradition from Timaeus to Einstein and beyond) is about. Each of the three is a teacher in the project defined here:

“I opened the door and looked into the room. It was empty.” EMPTY? Were you sucked in? That would be empty. ‘Tis but a short step from that to the ancients’ worries about – nothing; and from that to “space,” and then along to the quantum vacuum: the fullest nothing you could ever imagine. (The current main text is Frank Close’s Nothing, in the Oxford Very Short Introduction series. A wonderful book.) “Empty” is a metaphor, in the first instance. The optimist and the pessimist: is the glass half full or half empty? Yes, certainly; and so’s your heart, turkey. You get serious when you have think your way through kinds of emptiness. Metaphysics is getting your metaphorical shit together.

Math and measurement go together. How many Tweets will fit on the head of a pin? Well, the answer is “All of them at the same time.” You don’t believe me? How good is your WIFI connection? What does “tuning” mean? The craziness of electromagnetic fields is a day by day experience. Whatever the cosmos is like, it has to support the quotidian, however bizarre. So if space has to do with there being room or not being room for that, it has to make room for the twitters. (This is actually the present day form of the question Einstein asked himself about Maxwell’s equations: the question that led to special relativity.)

The math in the course begins with the ancients’ math of shape and ratio. Very quickly (depending on who’s taking the class, and what they want to talk about (within reason – what a phrase)), we’re into the bigger and smaller, the scaling up and the scaling down. Do things stay the same as they get bigger or smaller? (Aristotle worried about how big or small a good polis could be.) Does size matter? When do things add up; and when to they organize and elaborate? (The issue of “emergence” is so ubiquitous in the course (and the cosmos) that it unravels into a lot of questions about how and why things outrun mere additivity. Modern cosmology, like modern biology, is ruthlessly unkind to Descartes and Russell.)

The issue is: how much of this can you get how many to understand. My claim is that it’s a lot more than you might have thought. Part of my confidence in that answer goes back to where we started. The question I’m interested in is not how many students can be got to be able to pass this or that exam. Let the sciences worry about that one. My question is how much of it can be gotten connected well enough to be a conscious part of lived reality: that is, be moved out of the realm of just another story. What threads do my students’ lives give me to connect to; and how do I make the connections – in terms of active images and metaphors? How do I make it impossible for the craziness of a world with googles of tweets perched on the head of a pin to move out of the realm of “just another pretty story” into the realm of “evidently, or even obviously, the way things are”? Well, now’s the time for the always disappointing “You gotta be there.” For the same sorts of reasons why you can’t reproduce your classroom on paper, the instruction booklet for producing existential engagement is pathetically inadequate. When you think of it, to be adequate it would have to be such a classroom, cleverly reconstructed in another medium, since its teaching is just the sort of thing it aims to teach. People ask me how I can teach the same thing over and over (sometimes for decades). I don’t. The students are always different (if they’ve had a course with you before, they aren’t the same as before); and so am I.

So, to wrap up these reflections on the attention surplus for the moment, cosmology, of all things, even and especially because of its esoteric craziness even within the scientific landscape, turns out to be an amazingly fertile route to lived reality learning.

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1 Comment

  1. I’ll comment more substantively in a bit, but for the moment I’ll just note that I decided you must have meant the wonderful apparent typo ‘boarders of doubt’ on purpose, and that’s going to be the name of my next band.

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