Sunday, June 27, 2010

How to Educate a King

“I will come. But in the future you will have to go by yourself. Education is experience and the essence of experience is self-reliance.”
--Merlyn to Arthur

The tutor-student dynamic interests me greatly b/c it varies slightly from the teacher-student relationship. Either way, Book 1 of T.H. White's The Once and Future King chronicles how Merlyn the magicians teaches the future King Arthur how to think differently in order to change the inequities of feudalism. Merlyn does this in part by turning Arthur into a various animals and having him experience different worlds or, rather, the same world from different points of view. Merlyn's methods are the essence of a humanities education: give the pupil new experiences so that the world becomes larger, too large to contain their prejudices and misconceptions.

To use an historical example, after dining with President Taft, Fredrick Douglass talked about how he didn’t believe he could possess skin prejudice because the man had “read too many good books, traveled too widely.” Whether Douglass’ reasoning was sound, the point is that the more expansive the world is to you, the more willing you are to view a situation from multiple viewpoints, the more likely you are to see life as a prism rather than a mirror. This is hugely important for Arthur who will one day become king. A ruler must consider the seen as well as the unseen, the obvious and the clandestine.

And ruling a kingdom is vastly different from ruling a business or a household. But the same principles apply. You must be able to evaluate people and situations and then think through several different outcomes. The humanities are about understanding and responding to a given course of events. One must invoke their intellect without dismissing their emotions. The humanities are about simply understanding how to be a better human.

And since Merlyn has lived his life backwards, having seen the future he is able to teach Arthur as someone whose knowledge supersedes the confines of feudal Europe. As a teacher, knowing more than your students is not enough; you must occupy a different world than them and be able to draw them into your world. To do so requires more than mere intelligence; you must able to anticipate one’s expectations and then circumvent them so that what you teach them outflanks the walls of resistance people naturally build to situations and concepts that will challenge and make them think.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Benjamin Franklin and the Basketball Playing Linguist

Neologism (nee-ol-uh-jiz-uhm): n. 1. a new word or phrase. 2. the introduction of new words or meanings of words

Benjamin Franklin once said of neologisms that “I cannot but wish the usage of our tongue permitted making new words.” The interesting thing about living languages, is the manner in which they get updated-sometimes purposely, other times accidentally, often times incidentally. One addition English has enjoyed is the slang phrase, “my bad,” a small, two word apology for a slight mistake.

That phrase was coined by former NBA defensive player of the year Manut Bol who died this past Saturday of acute kidney failure. The wording originated from his broken English and, like many trends in history, caught on unexpectedly-even inexplicably. The 7'7” Sudanese center was famous for a myriad of things: a distinguished if not peculiar basketball career, killing a lion with a spear while working as a cowherder, and perhaps most importantly, his selfless charity work towards the end of his life. But his diminutive contribution to our language, a two word phrase, assures him a special place in the hall of fame for sports-loving philologists like myself. I can't help but think that perhaps somewhere in heaven Dr. Franklin, the original American polymath, is meeting a new Scrabble partner.