Academic journal article Humanitas

Schooling for "Deep-Knowing": On the Education of a Pithecanthropus Erectus

Academic journal article Humanitas

Schooling for "Deep-Knowing": On the Education of a Pithecanthropus Erectus

Article excerpt

We busted out of class, had to get away from those fools. We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school. Tonight I hear the neighbourhood drummer sound, I can feel my heart begin to pound. You say you're tired and you just want to close your eyes, And follow your dreams down.

--from "No Surrender" (Born in the USA) Bruce Springsteen

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Plato commented that the downfall of a city (polis) would result from the corruption of its tragedies. Tragedy, originally a "goat song" (tragodia) or sacred hymn performed at the festivals of Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy, was the highest form of art in the ancient world. In tragedy, the poet (poietes) or "maker" was the teacher of grown-up men in the same way that the schoolteacher (didaskalos) was with regard to boys. Here, the case of the ancient, tragic poet-teacher is instructive in our modern context, for where a modern-day schoolteacher might be said to be an historian (historikos), or one concerned with understanding "the real facts" of the world and of human society, in his Poetics, Aristotle points out that the poet's art is something "more philosophical and serious" than history (2001, IX.1-4). In the words of Eric Voegelin, poetry "does not relate mere facts, but it conveys what is 'general'; we may say, perhaps, what is 'essential'" (Voegelin, 1957, 246). In this regard, the "much-knowing" of the historian is opposed to the "deep-knowing" of the poet and the philosopher. The poet, unlike the historian, conveys a "general" insight by participating in the great search for truth. Education in schools today is a lopsided form of "much-knowing" bereft of the poet's "deep-knowing"; fixated on the phenomenal, the immediate and the "particular," with its emphasis on competitiveness and innovation, responding to fast-paced technological changes in the flux of what is new or most "up-to-date," it tends to overlook what is "general"; in our schools, ever pressured to embrace what is most current, we (along with our students) easily lose sight of what is unchanging, eternal, or what underlies all change. In the midst of all this hustle and bustle for success, we fail to cultivate any awareness of what the ancients would understand as the tragic dimension of existence. And yet it is in this deep, tragic dimension that genuine education must have its roots.

At this point, it is important to clarify that tragedy is neither information about particular events, nor is it merely heart-wrenching fiction. As an art form, tragedy may be properly defined as the study of the human soul (psyche) in the process of making decisions. Tragic thought is "deep" thought or "deep" knowing insofar as it is fundamentally concerned with justice (dike)--not the lawyer's justice of adjudication according to the law (themis), but a search for that ground of justice, that dike beyond themis into which the soul, suffering its tensions, must descend. Voegelin remarks that tragedy only arises when themis is no longer viewed as an adequate guide for decisions in a concrete situation. It only exists where the Dionysiac soul descends into its own depths acting in favour of Dike (Voegelin, 1957, 243-266).

In order for this truest form of tragedy to be socially possible, there must exist a citizenry that willingly opens its soul to tragic conflict. However, as an art form so sublime, tragedy appears to have died with the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon. Modern day "tragedies" such as highway accidents or genocidal wars are not tragedies per se. Their ugliness and suffering are tremendous; our hearts bleed with the emotions they evoke, while our minds stretch out with questions of theodicy--of why such evils are permitted to exist in the world. And apart from the ample "opportunities" for terrible suffering that our own personal lives present, any adolescent, parent, or teacher can experience such things vicariously at the movie theatre, through story, drama, music, art, or literature. …

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