Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Art of Learning

I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when it first came out nearly 35 years ago, and it wasn't until I re-read it in the in the mid-90s, after have been a classroom teacher for nearly thirty years, that I discovered just how powerful an influence the book had been on my thinking and teaching. I wound up going into the book and excerpting from the narrative some of the sections that have to do with his ideas about thinking and learning and put them together into a sort of short essay that I ask my sophomores to read each year. The essay has to do with the concept of Quality and the condition Pirsig calls "stuckness." In one of the key passages, he argues that the commonsense view, that stuckness is a bad thing, is mistaken:
Let's consider a reevaluation of the situation in which we assume that the stuckness now occurring, the zero of consciousness, isn't the worst of all possible situations, but the best possible situation you could be in. After all, it's exactly this stuckness that Zen Buddhists go to so much trouble to induce; through koans, deep breathing, sitting still and the like. Your mind is empty, you have a "hollow-flexible'' attitude of "beginner's mind.'' ...Consider, for a change, that this is a moment to be not feared but cultivated. If your mind is truly, profoundly stuck, then you may be much better off than when it was loaded with ideas... Stuckness shouldn't be avoided. It's the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors. It's this understanding of Quality as revealed by stuckness which so often makes self-taught mechanics so superior to institute-trained men who have learned how to handle everything except a new situation.

Yesterday a student, an avid and very capable chess player, showed up at my office with a copy of a book he'd just read that he thought I'd like called The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. If the author's name seems vaguely familiar, perhaps you are a fan, as I am, of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, which was the dramatization of the book of the same name written by Fred Waitzkin about Josh's experiences as a child chess prodigy. Josh went on to become an eight-time National Chess Champion in his age groups. Later he took up Tai Chai and became a national and world champion in that discipline as well. The Art of Learning is his extended reflective essay on his experiences and what they have taught him about dynamics of learning. "What I have realized," he says in the introduction, "is that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess—what I am best at is the art of learning" I'm two chapters now into his and finding it pretty fascinating, especially since I am now nearing the end (I hope) of about three months of intensive re-engagement with the game of chess myself. It's been a lot of fun, and I've sharpened up my game considerably, but the fact that I've been playing all that chess, at least an hour or two a day on average, is one of the reasons why I haven't been writing as much, and that's starting to bother me, so I'm going to have to cut back some and find more of a balance.

1 comment:

Lindsea said...

Ahh I love Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I read it in fall of 9th grade and understood about half of it. Or maybe a little bit more. I recently re-read it last spring and the same thing happened to me, I realized how influential it is on my perception of reality, and the idea of "quality", especially in my writing and art.