“I ate it, knowing the rabbit had sacrificed itself for me. It had made me a gift of meat.” Maxine Hong Kingston.
In an ironic turn of events in the film Iris – about the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (who has, consequently has had a few things to say about education) – stares at a television screen of Tony Blair repeating, “education, education, education,” unable, in her final stage of dementia, to put coherent thoughts together (not that Blair was coherent in this scene, but that is another matter). Murdoch's life long career of dazzling prose diminished, in the end, to a babbling baby. I recently saw the film, and read excerpts from her husband John Bayley's memoir. Murdoch was a philosopher and a poet. She eloquently wrote about education, as not making a person happy, but allowing a person to see how they are happy. I liked the film, because it depicted the life of a person dedicated to learning, who tragically loses her deposit of learning due to Alzheimer's. Iris lived in her mind; She lost her treasure. John Bayley believed even though the disease had ravaged his wife of her memory, there was still something "clear" and "pure" insider of her mind. He supplies her with a pen and notebook paper, in case she gets and inspiration to write.
Education – you might not know – literally means “to lead out,” like guiding a child by the hand as she learns to walk. “To lead out,” then, is a fair starting off point to explore education. For isn’t this what education really is – in both the formal sense of the word – the institution of education – and also in the less formal, the organic sense, the leading that comes from within, not necessarily from without. Just as learning to walk is an education in the literal sense of the word – from guiding your legs across the coffee table for support or swimming out into the deep end without a warm adult body at your side is education – so is the formal discipline of reading, writing and arithmetic a leading out as well – the problem (if you want to call it that) is to think these two concepts together. Education as both something lived and something learned. The art is to put them together. To live and to learn.
Thinking of two spheres of education – the education, as someone once put it – of life – and the education from books, “book learnin” are convenient ways to think about education. Education is for the elite? Or can you learn everything you need to know from “life”. I work with a man who claims he doesn’t need an education. He told me, “I wouldn’t tell a kid this, but I wouldn’t go back and get an education. I have no regrets about having no education. Books – I don’t remember books – but life, I remember life.” He was resentful that he didn’t pass the CDL exam to drive a truck. He had been grandfathered in – as he put it – forty years ago when he first drove a truck for Camel Express (“Humpin’ to please” was their motto). Now for him to get a job he’d have to pass that test. “Now you tellin’ me that I can drive a truck better than anybody’s business but because I can’t pass the paper test I can’t do it? Put a man with degrees in that truck and let me see him do it. That don’t make no sense.” The things we do to prove that we are competent. That we fit in and can be considered productive members of society are tightly constructed by power and the roles we have been assigned.
I am surrounded by this language. This is the language of people who do not see real value in education. People I know and live with put value in what you can do, not what you can say. “I want to see what you can do,” a boss may say. Words are good for human development and public relations – but work – that don’t got nothing to do with work. The most popular question after what is your name is what do you do? What goes in the inner life of the mind is considered not so important. Down here in the south we are interested in the trajectories of hurricanes, the date of deer hunting season and mardi gras. Which is interesting considering the South has produced some of the best writers the world has ever known.
I have been described by people as a “dreamer,” “having an eidetic imagination,” “space cadet”, “lost in the clouds,” “self-absorbed,” “head in the clouds,” and “not in touch with the obvious,” People – when they catch me thinking have remarked, “What are you doing?” or mimicking a space alien spacecraft have sing-songed, “Do Do Do Do Do – Earth to Greig”. The one about having an eidetic imagination was said by my shrink. The education of the mind – at least in my provincial experience – is not encouraged – instead, we much rather people who can do stuff. Sure – we love a writer – just not when he’s writing. We don’t mind philosophy. We just don’t want to hear it. Give it to me straight. Not complicated. I don’t want to hurt my head.
But what is so terribly wrong about being lost in one’s head? I mean, what bad stuff can possibly happen from thinking too much? Reading too much? Don’t read into it. But why not? What is reading into it going to do? Make you think? God forbid. Just enjoy the movie. Well, I am enjoying it. I do think too much, as my mother pointed out once - and mothers always know.
My mother gave me a beautiful paper weight for Christmas one year. It is in the shape of a bird with a long glass tapered tail and heavy opaque body with pocket of air trapped inside like bubbles. Without counting the cost I immediately began to wonder out loud what this present could possibly mean. I had the suspicion that this gift had to be symbolic of something and as I began to theorize to my mother a possible interpretation of the gift. I looked up and saw the expression on my mom’s face. I had hurt her feelings. I immediately stopped talking and changed the subject; thanked her for the gift. But, I knew her feelings were still hurt. I don’t blame her. It was just a gift. That was her only rejoinder after my long analysis, “Greig, it’s only a gift. I thought it would look good in your room”.
Now I realize that I was not wrong in analyzing the gift. I had no intention of hurting her feelings or undermining the generosity she bestowed on me in the object of the glass bird paper weight. But my mind could not put down the image of the bird suggesting that I impose meaning on it. For isn’t this what we do? Impose meaning? We are really good at it. We itch to find meaning in everything we see and do. We are not satisfied that a cup is just a cup. It has to be something, an implication of something else. But, alas, I guess a cup is sometimes a cup. (In the back of my mind I am resisting that notion)
Later on I called Mom on the phone to apologize about the bird paperweight incident. Once I asked for forgiveness it freed her up to voice her feelings about the subject in a way that was beneficial for the both of us. She realized that I had some sensitivity and was not really trying to hurt her feelings. I realized that sometimes it is just best to say you’re sorry and move on. Just the other day I was visiting her at her house. She has twelve oak trees in her yard that she is very proud of, as if she planted them herself. When we came back to her house after hurricane Katrina to survey damage, the one thing she was worried about were her trees. Her trees were safe. Actually she sustained minimal damage on her property and recently installed an above ground swimming pool on her property – mainly for my niece to paddle around when my brother and his wife come to visit. She was cleaning the pool when I saw her and I brought up the paperweight again. This time in the sense of shared interests. As Mom waded in the pool, removing a bottom layer of collected grime, I opened myself up to her. I brought up the paper weight because I wanted her to know that this is how I think. This is how I perceive the world and I resented – even though I did not verbalize it – this lack of understanding from her, because she is very similar. The only difference is education. I am more educated. I’ve got more sheep skins. Mom is a surgical technician; she works for a neurosurgeon. She preps patients for surgery, makes sure everything is copasetic before the surgeon comes in to perform. She hands him the surgical tools necessary to cut into the skull and makes sure the folds of skin stay where they are, ready with a suction tube in case too much blood gushes.
I can’t do any of that. I can barely change the tire on a bicycle. If you would put me in that operating room I would most certainly cause death – or even worse, cause a mal practice suit that would have me to the neck in legal fees. I admire my mom and her ability to perform professionally in the operating room. She has been working for the same neurosurgeon for twenty years, as well as on and off with other doctors through the years, but she has proved herself to be reliable and focused and very good at what she does. She prides herself in how well she has done – although she is modest – I know for a fact she makes more money than my father did in the electrical engineering business. In fact I don’t know much about what my father did growing up. I do know that it was a small source of bitterness between the two of them because I remember my father saying once – after my parents had split – that he should get to claim me as a dependent because mom made more money. Maybe he felt a little bit less successful than her. My parents split up and my father retired. But mom still works.
I realized talking to mom at the pool that mom is analytical just like me. She loves to interpret what’s going on and has a very shrewd mind. She’s just been insecure for most of her life, so that part of her personality does not come out at first. It surprises me that she got involved in fundamentalism when she was younger but I think the movement fueled into her need to be accepted. Richard Rodriguez talks about not being accepted by family once you are “educated.” But then again, Henry Adams wrote about being educated at Harvard but not learning anything. I am okay with being like Iris Murdoch. I can learn all kinds of stuff, and in the end, act like a baby.