Saturday, May 21, 2011

Excess baggage

When I told a writer friend of mine Wednesday that the Aboriginal Australia course had turned all my ideas about teaching and liberal arts on their heads, or at least their sides, he suggested I try to write a "personal narrative" about my experience with the course. An interesting idea, though I'm not sure what it entails... an essay, I'm thinking.

In a first attempt, I found I hardly dwelt on Australia at all! Rather it exposed and explored the prior commitments and ideals I brought to this material - none of them remotely related. Birrinbirrin's "This is where we stop," one of the mantras of the course, looked like an echo of Wittgenstein's "Justification comes to an end"; the gerontocratic social order looked like an instance of Aristotle's emphasis on the phronimos; elders' drip-feeding of important knowledge to the young and wrapping esoteric within exoteric rituals looked like inflections of the Mahayana idea of upaya; the distribution of knowledge among sections and subsections of a society looked like an iteration of the structured difference I sensed in ancient western theories of the temperaments; the acceptance that there are Dreamings you can and need never know looked weirdly like Isaiah Berlin's pluralism or Lee Yearley's "existential regret."

I suppose I should be very embarrassed by this. The fact that all this baggage is among the things I find most impressive in human thought and culture hardly changes that - just confirms that I was projecting. On the other hand, explaining what impressed me in the Aboriginal materials in terms comprehensible to people who've never studied or are likely to study them makes a kind of sense. Maybe what really happened is that this was how I explained it to myself...

It is definitely true that these commitments have all been in the background of my teaching vision and practice, something it's taken this exercise and the experience it seeks to understand to make clear.

My next effort at the personal narrative will focus on things in our course materials which I found harder to digest or even to understand.

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