Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Deschooling Society – Walker Percy[1], Ivan Illich and others on Learning and Seeing by an Awakened “I”

Let me proclaim Walker Percy's devastating insight for us today, U.S.A.: 

We have signs for everything in the cosmos but for the self. We have signs for 7-Up, Canada and apple. But I/you/we have no sign for me/you/us. The "I" is a subject that is experienced in the free act of going out of self. This gives me a consciousness of real being because I have an experience of it. It is not an abstraction from something sensible. It is not a concept. It is an awareness of being, but as a subject without a sign or name - which would make it an object. This consciousness is the back drop for all the names (signs) which I use for things. It is "meaning." Without that experience of consciousness of the "I," I would not know what "mean" means. "This" means "that" comes from the background consciousness that it is "I" naming "this" "that."

   The point: when we reduce all knowing to "this" and "that," without taking into account the reality of the "I" that is the namer, we have reduced reality to meaninglessness. [I experience this in driving (and which I don't think is reducible to infinite empirical computability). I see everything empirically taking place in front and around me, but I am preconceptually evaluating what those lights, the speed and direction of that car, the sound to my right rear, etc. mean. I tire by the constant spiritual evaluation of meaning.]

   Percy makes much of Helen Keller's discovery of "I" as sign giver in naming the water at the well with Anne Sullivan. I immediately connected it with John Paul II's remark that Adam's "original solitude" after the work of subduing the earth and naming the animals was due to the experience of crossing the threshold to subjectivity: the "I."

   So also with education: Thus Percy:

“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? (to be continued).

[1] Walker Percy, “The Loss of the Creature,” The Message in the Bottle, Noonday Press (1995) 56-65.

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