Saturday, December 1, 2012

Mystery and Mastery

 “What is mastery?” The doctor asked me. I hadn’t exactly prepared for the philosophical turn the interview had taken.

I had been running late all day: for one thing, this was Monday—‘nuff said. For another, we had just moved that weekend (a fiasco of tragicomic proportions which included, but as not limited to, the power company accidentally shutting off the juice for 24 hours). What with a new and unfamiliar city-location, I was getting lost and therefore late every time I left the house. Leaving extremely early for everything didn’t seem to mitigate the problem, to my frustration. And then, what between moving, job-training, and crisis-management (bananas for the baby and eggnog for us), I had somehow forgot to print out a copy of my resume. Little-known fact: I’m prone to panic attacks. Needless to say, I was pretty ragged and haggard—in short, not office manager material by the time I made it to Dr. Bekker’s office for the interview. At that point, I wouldn’t have hired me to be a short-order fry cook, much less an office manager at a homeopathic practice.

“Education,” Dr. Baker leaned back in his chair as I tried to settle down, “is about mastery,” and instead of the bullet-point job-description low-down I expected, he gave me a quick lesson in pedagogy. The problem with modern schooling, he remarked, is that it aims at accumulation, not mastery. Of course, he smiled, mastery depends on the scope of the subject: “I’ve studied homeopathy 25 years, and I haven’t begun to master it.”
But what is mastery?

I’d like to think that college humbled me on this subject of education. I graduated from high school much more confident about what I knew than when I walked across the stage six months ago and shook Dr. Whalen’s hand. As an 18-year-old, I had wanted to be a liberal arts major, to study everything. Of course, you can’t do that at Hillsdale, weirdly enough, so I settled on English: it’s cohesive, unifying, blah, blah, blah.

I’m glad I did.

I found that nothing reveals your ignorance like burrowing deeply into a subject. It’s like an intellectual Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and it’s depressing. The world shies away from discursion.

I’ve studied all four poems of the Medieval Pearl-Poet (you may know “Gawain and the Green Knight”). They’re some of the most stunning works in English, perhaps in any language, and I know them probably better than any other comparable body of work. I know them well enough to know I don’t know them. I, of course, only spent 3 months with them, which is an absurd space of time in which to expect mastery, but stil.

If the danger of specialization is myopia, as the liberal-artsy types argue, the generalist’s boogie might very well be hubris: thinking that political theory can be summed up by the Magna Carta and U.S. Constitution or that knowing one’s case endings constitutes knowledge of Latin. The specialist, if he’s honest, knows how unknowable the world is, how it recedes at every point. Knowledge kisses reality through a bridal veil.

So you’re going to college? About to start an apprenticeship or technical school? Welcome, to use another metaphor, to the greatest hide-and-go-seek game of all times. Tag. You’re it.

Like riding an exponential function, you ain’t never gonna touch x, baby.

Don’t mistake me for a mystic or a pessimist—though I do err in both directions. An exponential function gets close enough to the axis to nearly skin its nose. Being a specialist is not like Moses ascending to see the Promised Land, with a noble mournfulness, as from afar. Sometimes I feel that way, but that’s mostly laziness. Nonetheless, mastery does, I think, reveal mystery.

Consider, by way of analogy, friendship. Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it much easier to describe people I don’t know well. I would shudder to describe quipily my best friends.  Sometimes my dad (the “anonymous” who often comments here) ask me why I’m friends with so-and-so; I don’t know what to say. Who could contain the scope of a soul in 140 characters? Those I thought I knew best surprise me most. The friendships I discovered particularly during college taught me that trust and predictability are not mutually contingent. They may even be mutually incompatible. I don’t know. I could write you a zinger of a personality analysis for the diner waitress this morning--mustard-stains and blowsy hair included--but for, say, my dear blog co-writer Betsy? No, I really couldn’t even start. But I do know, all the same.

Perhaps that mystery is what dear old St. John was getting at in his Revelation, about God giving a secret name to each.
I was listening to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” (yeah, I confess; I make up excuses to drive around just to listen to NPR) the other day, and they had astrophysicist Adam Reiss who won a Nobel Prize this year. He said that he got into astrophysics because of how much we didn’t know—and then, by gum, he discovered we knew even less than we thought—dark energy, etc. I don’t think the old pagans would have been surprised, personally. But we do have names for everything, he said. So we’re still Adam, slapping names onto things we’ve only just seen--but, perhaps, half the knowing is in that name?

We domesticate the world through words. That’s our job, from the beginning. A master names. And yet we know that our names only approximate, circle around, that true name, true knowledge, of a thing. It’s all stuttering—but stuttering is speech, too, and our words are true. Just as we approach, asymptotically,* that divinely given name, the more find ourselves speechless, I think—like Thomas Aquinas or Gregory the Great who Dante has laughing at himself re his speculation about the angels.

What’s mastery? It’s sweating to find the right word; it’s near-god-like gaze of seeing the whole and all its parts; it’s eating the crop you raise from and raze back to soil, in reverence. If your hackles are still prickling that I dared put down that intellectually-obese character, the well-rounded generalist—padded with Plato, rolling in Shakespeare, with a spot of Cezanne on his chin—forgive me. Mastery means the happy marriage of generalist and specialist.

*Note for math nerds: I know that in contemporary mathematics, an asymptote can actually intersect the line. Don’t get mad at me. I learned, like, Euclidean geometry ‘n’ stuff, so I’m still living in a mathematic world a couple millennia out of date. Forgive me.


1 comment:

  1. I have a student who often asks me (when learning, for example, how to form the present active participle), "WHY -ns? WHY -nt? Teachers always say 'It's just the way it developed,' but isn't there a better reason?" I am grateful for someone to push back on my easy answers and embarrass me when I was going to say, "It's just the way it developed."