Wednesday, August 1, 2018

"The Oxford Experience - Going To Class"

You meet people at mealtimes – eating porridge in “The Great Hall” – they ask you, “What class are you taking?”  I say, “Political Thinking in the Twentieth Century.” And they go, “That sounds sohard.”  

“Look at me”, I inwardly strut.  “Takin’ the ‘hard class’.” 

Otherclasses offered during that week included “The Arts and Crafts Garden.”  “Rachmaninoff: His Life and Music” and “The Beatles, Popular Music and Sixties Britain.” So yeah.  Maybe I wastaking the “hard class.”  But it’s what I was there for.  Not taking the hard class.  But taking the right class.

It was this provocative offering that had enticed me to sign up.  “Medieval Manuscripts” may be scintillating.  But six thousand miles and jet lag for old books?  No, thank you.

Although, mystifyingly, people I met taking that class thought it was wonderful.  Turns out, it really does take all kinds.  Who knew what I’d been saying for years was actually correct?

I had come to have my beliefs professionally challenged, and possibly shredded before my eyes.  My actual secretgoal was to be told I was right about everything.  By a teacher from Oxford.  Who would say I was the smartest person he had ever encountered.

That hope lasted about five minutes.   

Our class convened – Monday to Friday, from 9:15 to 12;45 a half-hour coffee break in the middle – in a converted, wood-paneled bedroom, with an overhanging chandelier and comfortable seating.  

Our assigned tutor, a fortyish Scotsman who said, “Call me Jim”, kicked things off by asking ten enrolled strangers to pair off, questioning our partners concerning their backgrounds, while steering clear of all political probing.  When we were done, we were asked to report, based on collected evidence, what political leaning we believed our fellow classmate adhered to. 

Jack, sitting to my immediate right, revealed he was a retired submarine commander in the United States Navy, who now resided in San Francisco.  (Five of my classmates were from the States.  The others’ homelands ranged from Belgium, New Zealand, Myanmar, Toronto {in a nearby townlet called Markham}, and Holland.  (I separated Belgium and Holland.  They prefer it that way.)    

When it was my turn to speak, I say, “Jack spent his career in the military.  Since the military is a meritocracy, I figure – “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps” being a conservative precept – he is most likely a conservative.”  And then, hedging my bets as is my weasily proclivity, I add, “Though he now lives in San Francisco so that may possibly have changed.”

As it turned out, my definitive indicators – Jack’s military background and current residence in San Francisco – were stereotypically off the mark.  I had him pegged as a conservative.  But in subsequent conversations, I discover Jack is less consistently predictable than I had hastily imagined.  

“Knee-jerk evaluations”? 

Not in this class.  (And remember that when you go home.)

Then, almost immediately, I fall into exactly the same trap, leaping when I should more judiciously have first looked. 

The initial segment of our syllabus examined “democracy”, starting with the sensible question, “What do we mean by ‘democracy’?”

I was ready.  I had studied the prescribed reading.  

“In this book” I volunteer, producing the appropriate textbook, “Aristotle is quoted, saying…”

Jim immediately cuts in.

“Aristotle has nothing useful to say about democracy.”

To which I, hopefully salvagingly, reply,

“Well he seems to on Page 11.”

Jim reluctantly relents, allowing me to read Aristotle’s preserved definition of democracy to the class. Democracy, Plato proclaims, is

“The rule by the few with the consent of the many.”

That seemed like a good definition to me.  And besides, it was Aristotle.  The guy’s big!  You don’t stick around thousands of years without earning some serious cred.  You gotta go with the “name brand”, don’t you?

Dutifully, Jim “Sharpies” my Aristotle-derived definition of democracy on the top page of a large drawing pad of paper perched on an elevating easel.

He then proceeds to trash the great philosopher definition, explaining that it could apply to virtually any system of government, reminding us of dictators rising to power after duly authorized elections (e.g., Hitler), and self-proclaimed dictators with whom the consenting “many” seemed contentedly okay. (e.g., Julius Caesar.)  (Those examples are mine.  Jim assumed, belatedly using our brains, that we would eventually find some.)  (Like “oligarchy” – rule by the “elites” with the non-elites not complaining about it. You see how that works?  hadn’t considered any of that.)

Proving Aristotle’s descriptive of democracy to be hopelessly inadequate, Jim – somewhat dramatically for my liking – rips the top sheet of paper from the suspended drawing pad, crumpling the rejected “ugliness” in his fist.

There is a momentary lull.

I chastenedly reach out my hand.  

Jim entrusts the discarded “misstep” to my possession.  (A crumpled reminder of misguided mistakenness.)

I had boo-booed twice more. (After the original “stereotyping” faux pas.)  I had respected a "Name-Brand" venerated philosopher because he was a "Name Brand" venerated philosopher.  And I had applied insufficient critical thinking, to decide if his ancient pronouncement of democracy was correct.

When it was, in fact, a definitional stink bomb.

I present this example at (hopefully not too tedious) length to describe the standard procedure of an “Oxford Experience” tutorial.

I was there for a reason.

And in Jim’s class, day after day, my expectation was deliriously fulfilled.   


JED said...

I've always felt that if you don't have to be corrected, you're not learning anything. Learning is both humbling and exhilarating. I remember taking Philosophy 101 for a humanities requirement and being shocked that my ideas weren't interesting to the professor. Our job in that class was to learn and understand what the old philosophers had taught and see how their ideas were built upon by later philosophers. They weren't necessarily wrong. They were taking the first steps in a long journey that we continue.

I'm really enjoying your trip, Earl.

YEKIMI said...

Over 30+ years ago I was visiting a friend while he was in university. I went with him one day to basically just sit in ["audit", I'd guess you'd say] a couple of his classes. One was philosophy and after a while I got into a "point/counterpoint" type of argument with the professor. I must have been hitting some nerves because I could tell he was starting to get bent out of shape, mainly because most of the class was starting to look at me and you could see in their faces "Hey, he knows MORE about philosophy than the professor!" After a few more go-rounds, he stopped and says "Who the hell are YOU?". Told him I was auditing his class and at that point he told me to get the hell out. My friend told me he was fuming the rest of the class and said he was glad to see that "tired, old turd being challenged".