To See and to Know

While thinking about the upcoming semester (the cycles of the year go on and on, and I sit here today repeating the cycle once more as a new crop of students is about to break forth on the Luther College campus) I happened upon this little anecdote recorded by Ezra Pound in his  ABC of Reading:

“No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish:

A post-graduate student equipped with honours and dip­lomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.

Post-Graduate Student: ‘That’s only a sunfish.’

Agassiz: ‘I know that. Write a description of it.’

After a few minutes the student returned with the des­cription of the lchthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heliichtherinkus, etc., as found in textbooks of the subject.

Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish. The student produced a four-page essay.

Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it.”

This story — concerning what it is to see and to know — reminds me a great deal of something from Walker Percy that I’ve blogged on before.  As much as one might be able to give a Latin name of a biological specimen, and even give precise expression to scientific measurements of various quantities that characterize its physical form, this is but part of the picture.  My family and I were driving home this past weekend from some time away, and en route Heather and I at one point were talking about the beauty of the southeastern Minnesota landscape and the many shades of green we saw in the hills and forests around us.  One could obtain a spectrograph, and point it at the landscape, and create a plot of the intensities of the green light observed as a function of wavelength or frequency.  Would that capture the beauty of the range of color?   It would give us partial information, sufficient for some things, to be certain – perhaps even important information for some applications.  What such precise measurement lacks, however, is a human quality that, for example, the words of the poet or the musical theme that the composer can supply, each giving voice to their perception of that glimpse of nature.  As human beings we need this beauty — and we need to express our reaction to it every bit as much as to express the results of our scientific explorations.  We need the humane as well as the scientific — the poetic as well as the precise.

On the Reading of Old Books

cslewiswritingatdeskC. S. Lewis has a wonderful piece written as an introduction to a translation of Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation” that is often referred to as “On the Reading of Old Books”.  In it, he argues for the importance of listening to the voices of the past that have made their way to us via the medium of print if we are to have anything approaching a sound perspective on the present.  His point of view needs to be trumpeted again to today’s young (and old) adults, for it seems to me that we are living in an era in which the voices of the past are almost drowned out beyond hope of hearing by the cacophony of the voices of the present (many of which have a particular distaste for the same voices of the past).

When we fail to seek a solid acquaintance with these voices of the past, Lewis argues, we stand the risk of being unable to understand ourselves well – and to see weaknesses in our thinking or in our society.  I think he’s exactly right… and the trend I see today regarding the willingness to consider points of view that are separated from us by distances measured in time rather than space is not a positive one for our society.  If we live insulated from those voices, we are prone to greater and greater degrees of blindness about our ways of thinking about each other, about God and about the world.  We become more and more easily convinced that we have risen to the pinnacle of understanding, and that our worldview lacks any shortcomings or flaws. We think so highly of ourselves that we are liable to regard anything coming down to us from prior generations as useless or irrelevant – because we have progressed so far, and because “life just looks different today”.  We become completely unable to hear anything that doesn’t fit our own preconceived notions of what is right, just and important.

Every year I have students in class who struggle with the idea of reading anything older than they are.  This is by no means the NORM among my students, but every year a couple of them have a readily observable ambivalence about reading works that are very old at all, and argue that, because those books are old, the authors really can’t have much to say to them and certainly have no good ideas that can practically be applied to their lives.    These same students often raise the concern in the other direction – that they “just can’t relate to the author’s point of view”.   This latter concept is intimately connected to the former, but I find myself much more sympathetic to it – because I do believe it’s probably quite true, given the literary diet that the students have likely consumed for most of their lives, and at least some of the responsibility for that lies in people other than the students themselves.

That said, it can be a struggle to open the eyes of those who are (in varying degrees) willingly keeping them shut.  But, as Lewis writes in his essay, this is the job of the teacher… if only most teachers today understood this to be their job, and weren’t hampered by ridiculous ‘outcome-based’ educational standards that scuttle every effort to truly educate the student.