David Solway on Education as “Transformative Rite”

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David Solway on Education as “Transformative Rite”

  • November 15, 2018
  • By Admin: mrbauld
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Whether we consult the archives of the classical drama, the procedures of the mystery religions, or the abundant anthropological lore, the structure of the transformative rite remains the same beneath its local or topical embellishments. The catechumen is removed, by persuasion or force, from his customary milieu and conveyed to a kind of locus extremus where he is subjected to unexpected pressures of great intensity. The forces which converge on him have a didactic purpose. They are intended to disrupt the routine flux of thought and feeling, to disorient, estrange, deprive, and expose; and when the habits and assumptions by which the candidate has lived to this moment have been pulverized or dissolved, the new teaching is inculcated. After a period of recuperation the postulant is returned to his original situation but as a significantly changed person, with a new name, or privileged access to tribal secrets that explain his place in the cosmos, or the awareness of a mystical identity which enables him to see the commonplace world in which he lives and works as a colorful but deceptive masquerade. Ideally speaking, his essential and innermost being, his entelechy, is immune to both fear and desire, is spiritually transfigured or linked to the inscrutable powers of the universe or raised above the depravities and seductions, the enormous trivialities of everyday existence. Such is the abstract pattern of the rite, the general motif from which the innumerable variations ramify and proliferate.

In the classical drama the ritual transformation is condensed. The milieu from which the hero is spirited away is a state of mind in which too much has been taken for granted. His education culminates in a recognition of his ignorance and presumption, which corresponds to the noetic moment in the education of the Philosopher-King or the blinding light of conversion in the Christian scriptures. But since the forces of retribution which have been unleashed are irreversible – the sternest and most inflexible of schoolmasters – a happy ending in the conventional sense is impossible. The hero dies or is banished but without sorrow or repining, as he has been taught to perceive the human spectacle and his suffering under the aspect of eternity. He had been living a clandestine existence or rather a fractional, pseudonymous life, at the midpoint between the original, suppressed identity which he must discover and the new, larger identity into which he must submerge and incorporate it.(6) We find the same basic structure underlying the mythologem of the Great Adventure (whether in legend, folk-tale, fairy story, science fiction, or even in life itself). The pattern or structure at its fullest contains six intrinsic and logically isolable moments(7) and may be mapped out as follows. The first phase or Inception: the place, time, or condition from which the protagonist departs, the beginning of the journey.’ We may call the second step by which the protagonist moves towards his significant encounter and metamorphosis the Transition Phase, which may be instantaneous, as in the case of Alice climbing through the looking glass, a mere surface integument that offers no resistance, or more or less differentiated, comprising a number of short independent episodes (trials, detours), such as those negotiated by Gilgamesh on his expedition to the abode of Utnapishtim.(9) Where the displacement is prolonged and tortuous, we are usually justified in regarding the last of these digressions as an Elision, an episode that participates in both the Transition Phase and in the crux or raison detre of the entire ritual excurses, the Exotic Venue. This is where the momentous event takes place, the meeting with the Other, the revelation of truth and wisdom, the discovery of identity and meaning:’O Conrad’s Inner Station at the heart of darkness; Peniel where Jacob wrestles all night with the Angel; the ring of stones marking off the sacred territory in which the novice will be initiated into the Cosmogonic mysteries. Or in a lighter vein, it is the year 802,701, in which the Time Traveller finds himself engaged in the struggle between the Eloi and the Morlocks; or the boundless sea at the centre of the earth beneath the crater of Sneffies in which Professor Liddenbrock and his nephew Axel are nearly swamped; or Neverland itself, always an island, whose geotemporal coordinates can only be expressed i n the language of metaphor – second star to the right and straight on till morning.

Finally, if the journey is not terminal or purposeless, there must be a destination which the hero after his probation may be immediately transported to or, as is more often the case, approaches via another short episode we may refer to as the Emergence. He then finds himself back in his original locale, as starting-point and end-point coalesce, experiencing his Return as both a resumption of prior duties and relationships and a renovation of the personality which distinguishes him from both his former self and the society around him. This is often seen to involve the hazardous and metanoic act, corresponding to the earlier “boundarytransgression,” referred to now as the “threshold crossing,” as in astronautical re-entry from space or in the depressurizing operations carried out by deep sea divers. Thus, the structure of the “mythic journey” or the “Great Adventure” may be diagrammed tentatively as follows.

1. Inception

2.Transition Phase



iii) 2A. Elision


3.Exotic Venue



iii)3A. Emergence

(threshold crossing)

4. Return (Destination)

Now it is the argument which underlies this collection of essays, or the point of view from which they are written, that the mental or spiritual process we call education, in the truest sense of the word, duplicates the initiatory schematism. (We have considered this schematism in a previous chapter from the slightly different perspective of the dramatic rite which permutes or inflects but does not categorically change the paradigm of the Great Adventure.) The Inception or starting point is the condition of ignorance, both of the material to be assimilated and of the self which accepts, contains, and digests the new content. The Transition Phase corresponds to the preliminary stages, often of many years duration, in which the student grapples with his subject, skirmishing on the perimeters memorizing, reviewing, accumulating. At some point in time, if all goes well, there comes the moment of insight, fraught with excitement and the sense of prodigality, that is, of directions and possibilities which as a cognitive panorama are inspiring and grand but as an actual journey to be made involve considerable hardship and the threat of failure. This moment is analogous to the Elision or mythic checkpoint, the breaking of the “reality”- barrier. The Exotic Venue is the inner recess of the discipline itself, the new world to be explored, by definition unlimited both in the resources which it yields and the extent which it encompasses – an expanding universe, since no amount of knowledge can be coterminous with its potential volume. It is in this region that all the great discoveries are made in the modalities of approach (procedures, apparatus) and in the nature of what was once terra incognita, its structure and composition, its topographical remunerations.

But the Exotic Venue must also be regarded as a state of mind, the internal contours of a changing and expanding self, which is altered according to the demands of the subject in a kind of rational and appropriate configuration. The scientist begins to think like a scientist, not like an apprentice or an amateur. The art historian subsumes the habits, viewpoints, responses, and vernacular native to his discipline, so that his implicit perspective on the world, his angle of vision, is readjusted and qualitatively transmuted. The texture, the consistency, and the emotional gradients of the personality have changed.

Many who have climbed, hiked, forded, and portaged as far as this find they are prone to the powerful and sinister temptation to stay put where they are, expatriates from the “real world.” The attractions of the ivory tower existence are often very strong. The laboratory walls out the anarchy and triviality of daily life. The book-lined office on the top floor of the Arts Building appears as a sanctum sanctorum or transcendental redoubt from which domestic perplexity is resolutely banished. Thus, the mythic hero refuses to return, enamoured of his new surroundings or bound to them by gravitational compulsions. The Time Traveller stays in the future, the ivory hunter continues to explore the near-unnavigable reaches of the Congo, the Baker is vaporized by the Snark, the mariner leaves his bones to bleach on the melodious shores of Siren Land, Peter Pan chooses to remain a child pursuing his Tiger Lily in the lacustrine splendor of Neverland. The work, the vocation, swallows the man.

Those who press forward in order to complete the process, the mission on which they have embarked, will then experience the trial of reintegration, the leaving behind of the security and serenity offered by the closed parenthesis of the discipline, the encapsulation of effort, and undergo the re-entering of the world of relationship, both personal and professional. This phase is the correlative of the Emergence or threshold crossing and requires a tolerable amount of courage and determination on the part of our probationer. To “matriculate” means literally to be born; to “graduate” means to step or stride forward and perhaps upward as well. But in order to walk there must be solid ground under the feet. Matriculation and graduation have to do with being in thisworld, but in a developed, capable, and accomplished manner. (The sick and repetitious nightmare of history finds its origin precisely here, in the failure to achieve the emergence from the land of Elysian imaginings.)

Finally, the Return. The “hero” takes up his residence in the commonplace world outside the incunabulum. He may or may not hang up his degrees, like pressed flowers which prove he has been to that fabulous and exotic Yonder. He may live on Pleasant Street obeying municipal regulations about garbage disposal and parking. His concerns will be largely domestic, economic, political – human preoccupations regardless of whether their context is tame and predictable or on the edge of messianic extremities, because they presuppose obligations and reciprocities. But the

student who has become a genuine adult will be a qualitatively different person from the person he was before he submitted to the exactions of a thoroughgoing education. He will manifestly not be the same person who differs from his previous, younger self by the mere acquisition of a shiny new intellectual tool-kit or wardrobe of skills and faculties so that, if adroitness or expertise could somehow be taken from him, he would stand there beneath the encrustations of experience as shorn, unfurnished and rough-hewn as he was before. Otherwise, the process we call education would be nothing but a vast tautology, an exercise in systematic futility, which is what it very often, perhaps most often, is. If the kindling does not catch, if the complex and laborious journey does not take place, if the personality is not transfigured, then what we are observing may be many things – training, instruction, drill, guidance, indoctrination – but it is not education.

2. A big polyp is just a bigger little polyp

There is a sense in which the act of learning means taking up the classroom schematism and internalizing it. If thinking is really a form of silent, interior dialogue in which the mind is functionally bifurcated, one side posing questions and the other assaying responses, but in so rapid and subliminal a manner that we are rarely conscious of the process, then “educated thinking” retains the same dialectical structure as thinking in general but strengthens and refines it, making it grammatical, coherent, lucid, and allowing for the unpredictable leaps and diagonals that come with proficiency. The Socratic dialogue may be the model for all thinking, but the Socratic dialogue is also a prime example of educated thinking.

The student who has learned his lessons well has done more than merely assimilate the content of his studies. He has also, by a kind of intellectual mitosis, while remaining the student become the teacher. He has assumed the invisible mantle of authority, posing himself serious and intelligible questions, evaluating his answers objectively, invigilating and revising his performance according to the criteria of competence he has adopted. He has domesticated the classroom scenario and made it habitual, almost instinctual, the signal and explanatory gesture of his mind. It is partially in this way that education may be said to have “taken,” to have changed the student’s very relation to his experience. This is what makes him critical and attentive, curious and dissatisfied. It is also what makes him original, since he has learned not only to answer on request but to formulate the apposite questions, to set the topic, check his results, and reformulate when necessary. Thinking has become simultaneously dramatic and pedagogical.

This is the fundamental meaning of education from the intellectual standpoint, and also indicates why education is most conspicuous by its absenceor mutilation. School is something most students fervently wish to leave behind. It is felt, variously, as a waste of time, an artificial restriction, a necessary evil, the difficult challenge of maturity, or the price of independence. In later life we turn it into a series of anecdotes for entertainment purposes at class reunions. There are very few graduates who actually regret its passing, except when the world proves too disillusioning and inhospitable. There are even fewer who understand that graduation is simply going to school by other means, a way of making the classroom portable. The true graduate is the one who remains the student – not in the sanctimonious way in which we like to preen ourselves, as “students of life” or some equally platitudinous generalization – but who remains the student because he has certified and validated the teacher within the sphere of his own conscience and has taken over the habits of scrutiny and assessment, the intellectual deportment, which he has learned from his mentors.

The mystery of teaching (and learning), then, is plainly not the same thing as the problem of pedagogy. The latter has to do with “classroom efficiency,” with “maximizing learning potential,” with aids and devices for “increasing retention abilities” in the student, and with “time management procedures” to help the teacher “establish realistic priorities and timetables” or “define instructional objectives.” The teacher addresses himself to problems of “climate setting, i.e., identifying the needs of the participants”; of developing “psycho-social strategies” and “normreferenced tests”; and of preparing “microteach adjustables” and “classroom motivation factors.” One gets the impression that the teacher has reached the very solstice of his profession the moment he succeeds in “designing and producing a transparency to illustrate a unit of instruction” or appropriated “techniques which optimize classroom dynamics.” (11)

The mystery of teaching is something altogether different. It requires both the teacher who possesses the mysterious and largely indefinable gift of personality and the student who is at least potentially receptive. And it presumes an almost mystical procedure whereby the structure or configuration of the educated personality is reproduced in the neutral and still malleable psyche of the student himself. No amount of technical expertise can accomplish this secular, communicable miracle. It requires talent and discipline, vigil and temptation, an inward disposition on the part of the teacher. It demands respect and intelligence on the part of the student. When these conditions are met, the mysterious transaction from time to time occurs and then we are permitted to speak of education in the authentic sense of the term, as involving a permutation of the sensibility. And this is very different from treating students by implication as higher coelenterates whose mental cavities we must fill with “matter” – facts and skills – before sending them out to hunt and feed.

Since the world is what it is, utopia by definition unlocalizable, benevolent despotism risky and unworkable – except perhaps in the classroom — , and an enlightened majority subject like all majorities to the operation of the lowest common denominator, true education will always remain precarious and intermittent. There is no way around this depressing fact, except by the road of delusion and ignorance, pretty much a six-lane highway these days. But the massive and insistent emphasis which is currently being placed on technique, on problems of pedagogy, on the science of instruction, will render education even more dubious and implausible than before. Caveat magister. (pp 95-101)


6. The stage of life we call adolescence – or addled essence – is as we all know an extended rite of passage and a transformation as well – only it is the brute antithesis of the classical drama. It is not condensed but thinned out and grotesquely stretched, like toffee candy – a seven-year ordeal leading to no particular conclusion or issue. The peripety is acted out daily in whatever the popular dance happens to be, twist or shake or frug or disco or break – whose only result is giddiness. The recognition scene occurs every morning in the bathroom mirror with the help of which the visible signs of identity crisis are squeezed and treated. The eventual confirmation into the adult world, the tragic exaltation of the hero, the reception of sacred wisdom – is nothing more than the triumphant entry into the marketplace and the marriage lottery. Colonus is a middle-class suburb.

7. The schematism developed here is obviously an elaboration, for our present purposes, of the “Jungian” initiation paradigm recently popularized in the work of R. D. Laing and Joseph Campbell. The spiritual itinerary which is charted is referred to as the “mythic journey” and consists of three components’ separation, initiation proper, and return. It is as readily applicable to the schizophrenic recursus as to the mystic quest for unity and integration. In Campbell’s formulation, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive vistory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow men.” (Campbell also stresses the pattern of salvation, and the conferring of salvation on others, behind the saintly figure of the Bodhisattva who rejects the temptation of personal nirvana in order to share his illumination with the rest of mankind.) Regardless of the manner in which this spiritual itinerary is interpreted, whether it is applied to the schizophrenic reversion, the mythic encounter or epic resolution, the tragic askesis, the rite of passage, or the experience of religious salvation, the basic structure remains the same throughout and is eminently appropriate to our consideration of what I have called “the educational transaction.” We are clearly dealing with a monomyth. Cf. Joseph Campbell, Myths To Live By.

8. What L. Frank Baum dismissed as Kansas, “the grey land,” and James Barrie called “the Mainland.”

9. It is an act which anthropologists designate as “boundary transgression” and

is always perceived as a source of danger to the established order.

10. It is the magical realm or fabulous region in which the adventure is consum-

mated, survival assured, knowledge won from resistance, the personality altered.

11. All these phrases are taken from the education pamphlets with which teachers are inundated.