Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Deschooling Society – Walker Percy, Ivan Illich and others on Learning and Seeing by an Awakened “I”

The thesis that is trying to work its way out of me is the excitement that overtook me when I entered (at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto)a regime of freedom from exams (not papers and finals) and obligatory class attendance save for personal interest. I had been exercised in “skills” by repetition such as Latin verbs, nouns and adjectives, (Greek, less) and rigorous self-mastery in commuting an hour a day by subway to a Jesuit high school in the heart of New York City. Four to five hours of study every night, quizzes every day, oral repetition disciplined by a stop watch, blue book exams perhaps twice a month to the cadence of five or six subjects, relentless drive to succeed by the vanity of competition in a military school where grade average was made notorious by blue or maroon chords on the uniform, and over four years, rank in the military regiment. The discipline was excellent for the development of the man, and the pride and vanity for the downfall of the person.
                Remove the competition and the external discipline without losing the habits, enter the possibility of truth for itself and not for regurgitation on exams – and the prospect is exciting. Rather, something deep starts to happen. The “I” awakens. Training in skills is overtaken by self-education (there is no other education). And if the professors carry a love for the truth within them, it becomes contagious.
                Receiving Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling Society” a few days ago brought me back to Walker Percy’s basic life work: the recovery of the “I” that has been lost and continues to be so. I copy some of his “The Loss of the Creature” below in his Message in the Bottle[1] to give a feel for our present incapacity to see reality. And I can’t help but immediately add that that loss is the direct result of the loss of the Christian faith as the experience of the self transcending self. And I mean this in the sense that John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger would say it; that is, in the sense that faith is not the words of the creed, or the contents of the book of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but as the personal experience of the encounter and knowledge of Jesus Christ Himself. (And this by knowing the self as “other Christ” by transcending the self). Concretely, I am thinking of Ratzinger’s so-called “theological epistemology”[2] where he explains in the simplest terms how Simon was able to say ab intus (from within): “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16, 16). He explained using Lk 9, 18 that Christ was praying alone when the apostles joined Him and began to pray with Him to the Father. In that context of prayer as going out of self, Christ asked them, who do men say that I am? And Simon answered the above: “You are the Christ, the Son…”
                The point that was made, it seems to me, is the point of the entire understanding of epistemology[3]. That is, since Christ as enfleshed Son is the perfect image of God, Creator of the world with the Father, firstborn of all creatures, and goal of all creation, then the only way to know creation, is to know the Person of Christ. And this takes place only by becoming Christ, i.e., ab intus – from within. If you pray such as to live outside of yourself, then you will experience yourself as the being who you are, made in the image and likeness of the Trinity, and baptized into Christ. Christ is the prototype of man – every man. Become that Man Who is prayer, and Who is the center and source of the entire created universe, then you will begin to understand reality. And the deep reason is that you are made in the image and likeness or reality. And unless you experience yourself as reality, you will not understand anything else in its context for what it really is.
                Let me say it differently. It may not take the form of prayer. But you do have to go out of yourself, because Christ is out of Himself as Son of the Father. All the divine Persons are out of Themselves as One God. They are One, because Each is Relation to the Other. Made in the image and likeness, we must be out.
If we get out, we will have the experience, and therefore the knowledge – consciousness – of what is really real. And it is in the context of that experience that all knowledge of things must be embedded to take on “meaning.” Ratzinger as Benedict called this the “broadening of reason” in the years 2006-2008. Francis is bent on leading the Church to that experience by mercy and therefore to a change of consciousness that will come over us, and therefore the world.
                I say all this in an esoteric and, for me, easy way to get at the whole enterprise of education. Percy is doing the same thing but without the religion – and it is genius. His point always is: the “I” is what has to be known and named, but all names are about objects, and the “I” is subject. So we can name everything in the world – as object, but we – subjects – are always left over, unnamed, and unknown. And so education is coming to know the self by dispossessing the self. You see things better at night when you look away from them and let the rods and cones take over. I dead blind at the very center of my retina. Once you encounter the Other Who – in whatever way - can draw you out of yourself such that you have an experience of yourself, your “I” awakens. Then, the “I” thirsts to know everything else and name all of it. That, to me, is what education should be about. Percy saw this in Helen Keller. Helen was  nasty and in self (how else when you can neither see, hear or speak?), until she suddenly emerged from herself in naming the water at the pump in Tuscumbia Alabama in 1887. The naming was not knowing, but an act of her “I” symbolizing (sym [likeness] ballein [throw])the water with the Braille that Anne Sullivan was writing in her hand at the pump. Helen described the insatiable thirst to know that invaded her after naming the water.
Walker Percy on “The Loss of the Creature”
“A young Falkland Islander walking alone a beach and spying a dead dogfish and going to work on it with his jackknife has, in a fashion wholly unprovided in modern educational theory, a great advantage over the Scarsdale high-school pupil who finds the dogfish on his laboratory desk. Similarly the citizen of Huxley’s “Brave New World” who stumbles across a volume of Shakespeare in some vine-grown ruins and squats on a potsherd to read it is in a fairer way of getting at a sonnet than the Harvard sophomore taking English Poetry II.
                “The educator whose business it is to reach students biology or poetry is unaware of a whole ensemble of relations which exist between the student and the dogfish and between the student and the Shakespeare sonnet. To put it bluntly: A student who has the desire to get at a dogfish or a Shakespeare sonnet may have the greatest difficulty in salvaging the creature itself from the educational package in which it is presented. The great difficulty is that he is not aware that there is a difficulty; surely, he thinks, in such a fine classroom, with such a fine textbook, the sonnet must come across! What’s wrong with me?
                “The sonnet and the dogfish are obscured by two different processes. The sonnet is obscured by the symbolic package which is formulated not by the sonnet itself but by the media through which the sonnet is transmitted, the media which the educators believe for some reason to be transparent. The new textbook, the type, the small of the page, the classroom, the aluminum windows and the winter sky, the personality of Miss Hawkens – these media which are supposed to transmit the sonnet may only succeed in transmitting themselves. It is only the hardiest and cleverest of students who can salvage the sonnet from the many-tissued package! It is only the rarest student who knows that the sonnet must be salvaged from the package. (The educator is well aware that something is wrong, that there is a fatal gap between the student’s learning and the student’s life:  The student reads the poem, appears to understand it, and gives all the answers. But what does he recall if he should happen to read a Shakespeare sonnet twenty years later? Does he recall the poem or does he recall the smell of the page and the smell of Miss Hawkens?
                One might object, pointing out that Huxley’s citizen reading his sonnet int heruins and the Falkland Islander looking at his dogfish on the beach also receive them in a certain package. Yes, but the difference lies in the fundamental placement of the student in the world, a placement which makes it possible to extract the thing from the package. The pupil at Scarsdale High sees himself place as a consumer receiving an experience-package; but the Falkland Islander exploring his dogfish is a person exercising the sovereign right of a person in his lordship and mastery of creastion. He too could use an instructor and a book and a techniguq, but he would use them as his subordinates, just as he uses his jackniefe. The biology student does nto use his scalpel as an instrument; he uses it as a magic wand! Since it is a “scientific instrument,’ it should do “scientific things.”
                The dogfish is concealed in the same symbolic package as the sonnet. But the dogfish suffers and additional loss. As a consequence for his double derivation, the Sarah Lawrence student who scores A in zoology is apt to know very little about a dogfish. She is twice removed from the dogfish, once by the symbolic complex by which the dogfish is concealed, once again by the spoliation of the dogfish by theory which renders it invisible. Through no fault of zoology instructors, it is nevertheless a fact that the zoology laboratory at Sarah Lawrence College is one of the few places in the world where it is all but impossible to see a dogfish.
                The dogfish, the tree, the seashell, the American Negro, the dream, are rendered invisible by a shift of reality from concrete thing to theory which Whitehead has called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. It is the mistaking of an idea, a principle, an abstraction, for the real. As a consequence of the shift, the ‘specimen’ is seen as less real than the theory of the specimen. As Kierkegaard said, once a person is seen as specimen of a race or a species, at that very moment he ceases to be an individual. Then there are no more individuals but only specimens…[4]

[1] Walker Percy, “The Loss of the Creature,” The Message in the Bottle, Noonday Press (1995) 56-65.
[2] See his “Behold the Pierced One,” Ignaitus (1986) 25-27.
[3] That is, you don’t know reality unless you become conscious of yourself transcending yourself. Translate: serving the other. The thesis is the relation of faith and reason: Reason cannot be reason unless it experiences the reality of being. But the reality of being is “I” in motion out of itself. This is faith. So faith gives being to reason so that reason can become itself. Take that transcendence that is faith and everything that faith informs, and reason dwindles to mere judgment of facts, i.e. positivism; - and then skepticism; - and then nihilism.
[4] Cfr. Message in the Bottle….

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