Planetwork Seattle: Proactive Displays, Interra and the Identity Commons
The Source of my Breathing Dragon

Zen, Motorcycle Maintenance and the Church of Reason

danah recently wrote an interesting and provocative blog post about "why i'm in academia", which reminded me of some interesting and provocative statements made by Robert Pirsig about what he calls the Church of Reason in his book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (not that I want to imply that they share the same views on academia, or anything else, for that matter).  danah writes about her love of knowledge, learning, teaching, "a philosophical direction to grapple with a core issue of humanness" and the benefits and costs to maintaining connections with people and organizations outside of academia.  One of the costs she mentions is being perpetually backblogged ... which, in turn, motivates me to post a few items that jumped out at me during my fourth re-reading of this book (and the first rereading in many years).  It's late, and I'm tired, so I'm just going to copy and paste a few items from an online version of the book below.

The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It's a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.

Schools teach you to imitate. If you don't imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own. That got you A's. Originality on the other hand could get you anything...from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.

What was Phædrus trying to do, anyway? This question became more and more imperative as he went on. The answer that had seemed right when he started now made less and less sense. He had wanted his students to become creative by deciding for themselves what was good writing instead of asking him all the time. The real purpose of withholding the grades was to force them to look within themselves, the only place they would ever get a really right answer.

But now this made no sense. If they already knew what was good and bad, there was no reason for them to take the course in the first place. The fact that they were there as students presumed they did not know what was good or bad. That was his job as tell them what was good or bad. The whole idea of individual creativity and expression in the classroom was really basically opposed to the whole idea of the University.

The Church of Reason, like all institutions of the System, is based not on individual strength but upon individual weakness. What's really demanded in the Church of Reason is not ability, but inability. Then you are considered teachable. A truly able person is always a threat. Phædrus sees that he has thrown away a chance to integrate himself into the organization by submitting to whatever Aristotelian thing he is supposed to submit to. But that kind of opportunity seems hardly worth the bowing and scraping and intellectual prostration necessary to maintain it. It is a low-quality form of life.

For him Quality is better seen up at the timberline than here obscured by smoky windows and oceans of words, and he sees that what he is talking about can never really be accepted here because to see it one has to be free from social authority and this is an institution of social authority. Quality for sheep is what the shepherd says. And if you take a sheep and put it up at the timberline at night when the wind is roaring, that sheep will be panicked half to death and will call and call until the shepherd comes, or comes the wolf.

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