Zen and the 17th chapter

There’s a large fragment concerning Phaedrus’ first class after he gave that assignment on

“What is quality in thought and statement?”

The atmosphere was explosive. Almost everyone seemed as frustrated and angered as he had been by the question. “How are we supposed to know what quality is?” they said. “You’re supposed to tell us!”

Then he told them he couldn’t figure it out either and really wanted to know. He had assigned it in the hope that somebody would come up with a good answer. That ignited it. A roar of indignation shook the room. Before the commotion had settled down another teacher had stuck his head in the door to see what the trouble was.

“It’s all right,” Phaedrus said. “We just accidentally stumbled over a genuine question, and the shock is hard to recover from.” Some students looked curious at this, and the noise simmered down. He then used the occasion for a short return to his theme of ‘Corruption and Decay in the Church of Reason’. It was a measure of this corruption, he said, that students should be outraged by someone trying to use them to seek the truth. You were supposed to fake this search for the truth, to imitate it. To actually search for it was a damned imposition. The truth was, he said, that he genuinely did want to know what they thought, not so that he could put a grade on it, but because he really wanted to know.

They looked puzzled.

“I sat there all night long” one said.

“I was ready to cry, I was so mad” a girl next to the window said.

“You should warn us” a third said.

“How could I warn you,” he said, “when I had no idea how you’d react?”

Some of the puzzled ones looked at him with a first dawning. He wasn’t playing games. He really wanted to know. A most peculiar person.

Then someone said, “What do you think?”

“I don’t know” he answered.

“But what do you think?”

He paused for a long time.

“I think there is such a thing as Quality, but that as soon as you try to define it, something goes haywire. You can’t do it.”

Murmurs of agreement. He continued, “Why this is, I don’t know. I thought maybe I’d get some ideas from your papers. I just don’t know.” This time the class was silent. In subsequent classes that day there was some of the same commotion, but a number of students in each class volunteered friendly answers that told him the first class had been discussed during lunch. A few days later he worked up a definition of his own and put it on the blackboard to be copied for posterity. The definition was:

“Quality is a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognized by a non-thinking process. Because definitions are a product of rigid, formal thinking, quality cannot be defined.”

The fact that this “definition” was actually a refusal to define did not draw comment. The students had no formal training that would have told them his statement was, in a formal sense, completely irrational. If you can’t define something you have no formal rational way of knowing that it exists. Neither can you really tell anyone else what it is. There is, in fact, no formal difference between inability to define and stupidity. When I say, “Quality cannot be defined,” I’m really saying formally, “I’m stupid about Quality.”

Fortunately the students didn’t know this. If they’d come up with these objections he wouldn’t have been able to answer them at the time. But then, below the definition on the blackboard, he wrote, “But even though Quality cannot be defined, you know what Quality is!” and the storm started all over again.

Oh, no, we don’t!”

“Oh, yes, you do.”

“Oh, no, we don’t!”

“Oh, yes, you do!” he said and he had some material ready to demonstrate it to them. He had selected two examples of student composition.  The first was a rambling, disconnected thing with interesting ideas that never built into anything. The second was a magnificent piece by a student who was mystified himself about why it had come out so well. Phaedrus read both, then asked for a show of hands on who thought the first was best. Two hands went up. He asked how many liked the second better. Twenty-eight hands went up.

“Whatever it is,” he said, “that caused the overwhelming majority to raise their hands for the second one is what I mean by Quality. So you know what it is.”

There was a long reflective silence after this, and he just let it last. This was just intellectually outrageous, and he knew it. He wasn’t teaching any more  he was indoctrinating. He had erected an imaginary entity, defined it as incapable of definition, told the students over their own protests that they knew what it was, and demonstrated this by a technique that was as confusing logically as the term itself. He was able to get away with this because logical refutation required more talent than any of the students had. In subsequent days he continually invited their refutations, but none came. He improvised further.

To reinforce the idea that they already knew what Quality was he developed a routine in which he read four student papers in class and had everyone rank them in estimated order of Quality on a slip of paper. He did the same himself. He collected the slips, tallied them on the blackboard and averaged the rankings for he would reveal his rankings, and this would almost always be close to, if riot identical with the class average. Where there were differences it was usually because two papers were close in quality.

At first the classes were excited by this exercise, but ‘as time went on they became bored. What he meant by Quality was obvious. They obviously knew what it was too, and so they lost interest in listening. Their question now was

“All right, we know what Quality is. How do we get it?”

Now, at last, the standard rhetoric texts came into their own. The principles expounded in them were no longer rules to rebel against, not ultimate in themselves but just techniques, gimmicks, for producing what really counted and stood independently of the techniques— Quality. What had started out as a heresy from traditional rhetoric turned into a  beautiful introduction to it.

He singled out aspects of Quality such as unity, vividness, authority, economy, sensitivity, clarity, emphasis  flow, suspense, brilliance, precision, proportion, depth and so on; kept each of these as poorly defined as Quality itself, but demonstrated them by the same class reading techniques. He showed how the aspect of Quality called unity, the hanging-togetherness of a story, could be improved with a technique called an outline. The authority of an argument could be jacked up with a technique called footnotes, which gives authoritative reference. Outlines and footnotes are standard things taught in all freshman composition classes, but now as devices for improving Quality they had a purpose. And if a student turned in a bunch of dumb references or a sloppy outline that showed he was just fulfilling an assignment by rote, he could be told that while his paper may have fulfilled the letter of the assignment it obviously didn’t fulfill the goal of Quality, and was therefore worthless.

Now, in answer to that eternal student question, How do I do this? that had frustrated him to the point of resignation, he could reply, “It doesn’t make a bit of difference how you do it! Just so it’s good.” The reluctant student might ask in class, “But how do we know what’s good?” but almost before the question was out of his mouth he would realize the answer had already been supplied. Some other student would usually tell him, “You just see it.” If he said, “No,, I don’t,” he’d be told, “Yes, you do. He proved it.” The student was finally and completely trapped into making quality judgements for himself. And it was just exactly this and nothing else that taught him to write.

One response to “Zen and the 17th chapter

  1. Pingback: Aasof on Essays | Aasof’s Reflections

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Martin Widlake's Yet Another Oracle Blog

Oracle performance, Oracle statistics and VLDBs

The Land Is Ours

a Landrights campaign for Britain

The Bulletin

This site was created for members and friends of My Telegraph blog site, but anyone is welcome to comment, and thereafter apply to become an author.

TCWG Short Stories

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Public Law for Everyone

Professor Mark Elliott

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