Frank Breslin: Teaching the Greeks, part 2


This is the second part of Frank Breslin’s essay on teaching the humanities. Click here for part 1.

But to return to our story –

Okay, now that we’ve solved those questions [muffled laughter], let’s move on to some difficult ones. What happens when one group is absolutely certain that it possesses the truth and encounters another which dismisses that view as nonsense?” Students give a range of opinions, while neither agreeing nor disagreeing with them. I summarize the gist of what has been said: that the one group might pity and feel sorry for the other, think it stubborn or the victims of brainwashing, and try to show why it was wrong to help free its members from error, while the other group thinks the same about them. “Would one group ever convince the other?” A long silence ensues, and students give a range of thoughtful replies.

I want to reframe the question. We have two persons, each of whom is sure that he has the truth. One of them actually does have the truth, while the other one doesn’t, although he thinks he does. Now, if both think they’re right, but only one of them is, what would be the difference in the subjective states of mind between these two persons? ” A few answers are given, although it becomes clear that a few students don’t understand the question, so I repeat it.

Then someone says, “There would be no difference! They’d both have the same state of mind. They’d both think they were right, but only one of them would be.” A brief pause ensues. I ask students to think about what’s just been said and then ask, “That being the case, if both states of mind are identical, what would that say about the state of being certain?” Long pause, with no student response. I continue, “Let’s now take these same two persons, and tell them that only one of them is actually right, and the other one wrong. How would they know which one was which, without being told?” Students are unsure.

What if they were told, and the person who was wrong was told he was wrong. Would he believe it?” One student says, “It would all depend on what it was. If they could prove it by showing him the facts, he probably would accept it.” Many agree. Then someone says, “But what if there’s no concrete evidence you couldn’t point to, but has to do with what he believes, something you can’t

really prove one way or the other, but just feel it so deeply that you know that you’re right? I don’t think he would accept it. He’d probably even think that the people who told him were wrong.” Some students agree, while others aren’t sure.

What’s the difference between being absolutely certain and being closed-minded?” Students are silent and then give various answers, but, again, no conclusion is reached. “What’s the difference between a person with rock-bottom principles and someone else who is closed-minded?” Students again offer different opinions. A third question. “What the difference between principles and prejudices?” No responses. I then say, “Several years ago, one student said that there wasn’t anything difference, that they’re one and the same thing, that principles are prejudices, and prejudices are principles, and that the only difference is the word which is used. What I’d like you to do is to argue this both ways – they are and they aren’t the same thing.” Students then attempt to make a case for both sides with varying degrees of success.

Is it morally wrong to question things? Or are there things that should never be questioned, off-the-table, non-negotiable items that, in questioning them, some might feel that they’d come undone as persons?” A long pause. “Or should everything be questioned?” Various answers come trickling in and, again, some students are asked to repeat what they’ve said to underscore an unusual point.

Are some people hard-wired to question? It’s simply their nature? They can’t help themselves? Not to question would make them depressed?” Silence. I continue: “Are there others who are hard-wired not to question, but simply accept? It’s better for them if others just tell them what to believe? That they’d come undone if they questioned? That they should even be protected from questions for their own good and self-preservation?” Many opinions are offered.

All the answers you’ve thought were true to the many questions we’ve been considering so far, how do you know that they’re the answers you really believe in and not simply what you want to believe, or what you were raised to believe arethe true answers, and these may be the real reasons why you believe as you do?” Long pause, with no one responding.

A somewhat larger question. Every culture has its own unique way of looking at the world, its system of beliefs and values, the things it considers true and false, right and wrong, important and unimportant. Let’s call this its ‘reality,’ its conceptual and emotional prism or grid through which each culture views human existence, and every culture has its own ‘reality,’ which differs from the ‘realities’ of other cultures.” I pause to let the idea slowly sink in. I then repeat this again, and students become intensely focused.

Now let’s flesh this out a bit. Let’s say we have six different cultures, with six different ‘realities,’ and that each of these ‘realities’ seems true to everyone within each culture because that’s all the people in that particular culture know and grow up with. No one in each of these cultures has ever left their culture, their ‘reality,’ or has ever met anyone from another culture.” Another long pause.

Now, what if one of these cultures began to send out ships to establish colonies and farm fertile land in various places around the entire Mediterranean basin because there wasn’t enough land to sustain its ever-growing population. Over the centuries, hundreds of these colonies trade with the native populations, and get to know these peoples, their religions, beliefs, general outlook, their ‘realities.’ They also send back word to their homeland the news about all these strange cultures with their different beliefs and customs. Question: how would these colonists react to all these different peoples with their different ‘realities’?”

Student reactions range from the colonists being surprised or shocked that these other cultures differ so markedly from that of their own, wondering about how they could possibly believe in such preposterous notions, feeling sorry for them because they hadn’t had the good fortune to be born in the colonists’ culture. A few students say that people of the other cultures might also be thinking the same thing about the colonists.

This experience of being taken aback and disoriented in the face of a strange world is called ‘culture shock’ and is a feeling that is intensified if one must cope with this new culture on a daily basis. What do you think would be some of the positives of having to deal with ‘culture shock’?” One student responds, “Well, life would certainly never be boring. [general laughter] It would also be interesting and exciting in having to rethink all one’s beliefs and entire outlook on life, which would keep one from becoming intolerant and closed-minded toward other people and ideas.”

It could also be very threatening ,” says another student, “because one would now have to rethink everything one had ever been brought up to believe, and it would take a very strong person to be able and willing to do this, since most people would be terrified at having their world turned upside down.”

So how do you think our colonists would react when coming upon these different cultures and ‘realities’?” “I think they’d be in denial,” says a student. “They’d simply say that these people didn’t know any better, were superstitious, brainwashed, or crazy. They probably would also want to change the minds of these peoples so they wouldn’t feel threatened.” Another student says, “Well, it wouldn’t have to be because they felt threatened, but because they sincerely wanted to help these people, enlighten them, because they felt they were wrong.”

But that’s just it, isn’t it,” interjects another. “While saying they wanted to help these people, they might at the same time feel so threatened that they’d convince themselves that they simply wanted to help these people out of the goodness of their heart, whereas what they might really be doing is wanting to silence their own doubts by convincing them they were wrong.” A long, thoughtful silence descends on the class. “It could be either one,” says another, “although I really don’t see how you could know, since there’s no way you could actually prove it one way or another.” Another student adds, “I suppose you could even hate this other group because they would threaten you by their very existence, especially if they seem to be decent people. So you might be tempted to disparage them in some way by looking down on them, calling them names, making up all manner of things about them just so you wouldn’t have to take them seriously.”

But aren’t we forgetting something?” says somebody else. “There’s another kind of reaction to all of this. Isn’t it possible to think that all of these different ‘realities’ could be right?” “But how’s that possible,” asks another, “since you’d then have several contradictory ways of viewing the world, so how could they all be correct? I’m not saying that all these peoples couldn’t have different beliefs and think that only theirs was right and all the others were wrong, but that they all couldn’t be objectively right! This desk I’m sitting in either exists or it doesn’t. It’s either here or it’s not. So if you have two cultures, and they both look at the world differently, only one of them can be right and the other one wrong, since they can’t both be right. And if you’re talking about more than two cultures, then it’s even more impossible that they could all be correct, when only one of them can?”

Well, let me put it another way,” the other replies. “Say there’s 20 of us here in this room, and we all come from different parts of the world, from different cultures, with different religions and ways of viewing the world. Everybody would have a different outlook on life, a different ‘reality,’ which we’d all think was right. Why? Because all of these outlooks have worked for us and the cultures we come from. All these different ‘realities’ make sense within each of our cultures. So that, getting back to the colonists and the cultures they encounter, we’d have the same situation – everything makes sense within each of those cultures, but not within the other cultures. Of course, those other worldviews would seem wrong to foreigners, but only because they hadn’t been raised in those cultures, but if they had, those other ‘realities’ would begin to make sense.”

I see what you’re talking about,” says the other student, “but that still doesn’t address the question of which culture is objectively right . . . .” at which point, the bell rings for the end of class, and the students turn to me. I hold up the text of The Greek Way and say, “Welcome to the Greeks! We’ll continue tomorrow where we left off today,” and the class files out.

A few thoughts about teaching College-Prep and Advanced Placement British Literature to American high-school seniors in the 21st century: Students today grow up in such a fragmented and aimless world that, unless schools provide them with some idea of where the modern world has come from as a tradition, schools themselves become part of the problem of modern meaninglessness. Not that students necessarily should accept that tradition, but that they should at least understand what it is and its wellsprings, which for over 25 centuries have shaped and nourished the Western mind.

It’s always unwise to accept or reject what one doesn’t understand – especially to accept the past simply because it is old, or to reject it for the same reason. The past could very well have been a confining dungeon of bigoted darkness, or a vast treasure trove of radiant wisdom, or even, perhaps, a little of both, but students will never know if they just blindly accept or reject it, but only if they look for themselves.

This concern about modern meaninglessness caused me to create a senior English humanities course that would give students an overall sense of cultural context within which they could better understand the world of today. The course would introduce 17-year-olds to what the past has to offer, beginning with what the Greeks had to say about the human condition and where one could find the strength to endure it; the meaning of life, if it had any; the limits of the possible and the beauty of struggle; the wondrous achievements of our common humanity and its marvelously empowering collective delusions.

In essence, this humanities course tried to suggest the Big Picture, which would give students a way of telling truth from falsehood, right from wrong, the valuable from the cheap and the tawdry in ways that would help them make sense of a world that might otherwise strike them as having little meaning at all.

It has been said that the best education consists of three books or visions of life – the Greeks, the Bible, and Shakespeare, not for the answers they give, but for the questions they raise. There is also a fourth, Modernism. Not that it is true or false, but that it exists in the modern world as a significant presence and a powerful force, and students must learn what it is, for it suffuses everything.

These four ways of viewing the world, each in its own way, provide not only a partial perspective through which students can reflect upon life, but also cultural continuity with the past, whose larger historical framework cannot help but contribute a more coherent and meaningful understanding of the modern world in which students will have to live for decades to come.

Frank Breslin: Teaching the Greeks, part 2

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