Knowledge

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Knowledge
Thursday Thoughts
9 August 2018

In response to yesterday’s post, The Curse of Cursive, I received this comment.

“I have always blamed my own illegible (except – well sometimes – to me) scribble on the hours sitting in college lectures attempting to make a record of what was being said. Consequently, I could only ever record about every 3rd sentence. Something which I claim accounts for all those gaps in my learning.”

This comment merits a Thursday Thought.

First thought: the whole process of note-taking. One of my professors in Bristol University, where I did my undergraduate degree, was in the habit of sipping Harvey’s Bristol Cream while munching his sandwiches, consequently his post-lunch thoughts were always most enlightening. Here is his post-lunch declaration on knowledge: “Knowledge is that which passes from my notes to your notes without passing through anyone’s head.” This statement was followed by a closing of the drowsy eyes and an enormous hiccup.

For me, the art of note-taking goes way beyond the copying down of another’s ideas. As  note-takers, we must sift the incoming information, break it into salient and important features, and get the main drift of the argument down on the page. And not just the argument, but our own questions and challenges as well. Much of what I was taught at the various schools I attended was, frankly, nonsense. However, I learned a great deal about teaching from those who taught me that nonsense. A dictated note from an early geography class, preserved for ever in the young student’s mind: “The earth is geoidal, ie, earth-shaped.” Good one, teacher. “Please sir, if the earth is earth-shaped, what shape is the moon?” “Don’t be cheeky, boy, I’ll see you afterwards.”

When I received my first important teaching award I realized that it came to me on account of what I had avoided (all those inadequate lectures and lessons) and that what I was doing was engaging students and challenging them to challenge me by developing their own questions and ideas, by doing their own background checks, and by establishing their own thought processes, rather than trying to imitate somebody else’s dictated and regurgitated notes with their partial pictures of (in)complete and often antiquated knowledge, and all this often dredged up and recycled in the form of ancient, dusty scrawlings from pre-historic graduate courses.

I realize that this is unfair to several lecturers I encountered over the years who were able to deliver riveting and thought-provoking adresses. However, these were few, very scarce, and much appreciated. Their names and ideas are engraved on my mind. They and their methods are not forgotten, even now, but, as I say, there weren’t many of them.

As for knowledge, it is so personal and becomes an integral part of who we are and what we do. I know people who received everything they knew about life with their first degrees. They thought they possessed everything, the complete tree of knowledge in one rolled up certificate. Alas, many of them spent their lives never progressing, standing still and contemplating their known world, neither learning nor needing to learn anything else.

Our knowledge is incomplete. If we are at all ‘thinking people’, we know this. We also know we can never get enough knowledge. A PhD is great: knowledge Piled higher and Deeper. But often it is Reinforced Ignorance, the false knowledge that this knowledge is the only knowledge, well, the only knowledge that matters to the individual who, at a substantial living wage, ekes it out with great care and tests other people on their ability to reproduce it in its exactitude. “And I never-ever thought for myself at all” (I am the Monarch of the Sea, the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy, HMS Pinafore).

And here we enter the world of clichés: life-long learning, an everlasting thirst for enlightenment, for more light, more knowledge. The only real knowledge that we simply must transfer to our students, our followers, is how they can gain knowledge and even more knowledge for themselves. A love of and a desire for life-long-learning is the teacher’s greatest gift. If the teacher can pass that on, then the world of ideas will not fail, knowledge will not become carved in stone, set in concrete, entrenched in notes ‘that pass from my notes to your notes without going through anyone’s head’.

Here ends my Thursday Thought. A rant, really, and a very satisfying one. Thank you, Roland of Roland’s Ragbag, for turning on the tap and allowing these refreshing waters to once again flow.

Comment: Opening photo, knowledge set in stone. One of the Bulls of Guisando (Province of Avila, Spain), with graffiti carved by a Roman legion.

Dead Day

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Dead Day
A Thursday Thought
12 July 2018

Funny how a day without soccer suddenly seems a dead day. Yesterday was filled with world cup fever. Anticipation, build-up, cheering, Croatia (champions), defeat (England), football (fantastic) … today the world cup has a rest and people start to breathe more easily. As a result, all -over, boredom, cleaning up, defeat (deja vu), emptiness, future (hopes on hold) … all the alphabet soup of life packed into a few short hours.

Where do we look for meaning? Is there even any meaning to look for? I watched 120 minutes of soccer, yesterday … that’s two hours. Well spent or wasted? Meaningful or not? The world heats up. A hurricane moves up the coast, turns into a tropical storm, then back into a hurricane. Hit or miss? I still don’t know, but I hope it misses. The last big one hit in 2014. We went ten or twelve days without power, and that in the Province’s capital city. Five trees were downed in our yard. More than a dozen were tugged up in my neighbor’s place. Why? Why us? Why here? Why now? Is this personal? What did we do wrong? Values? Meaning? Yet, for 120 minutes yesterday, I could forget my immediate woes and concentrate on football’s joys and sorrows. I guess that holds meaning in itself. I thought so yesterday. Today, I’m not so sure.

Out driving yesterday, I pulled into the roadside twice to allow ambulances to pass. An ambulance, a mysterious closed vehicles, lights flashing like a mad Christmas tree manned by a crew of Dr. Who Daleks. Yes, it was warm. Yes, people were excited. I guess someone, somewhere, was overcome by something and the telephone rang and the call went out to the ambulance. Values? Meaning? “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stop and stare” … at the ambulance, lights flashing, sirens sounding, as it rushes by and we pull over into the side of the road to allow it to pass. Values? Meaning? A sense of an ending? A sense of a beginning?

Today, more than anything, a sense of being suspended, of waiting in a bubble, in a certain silence, for something to happen, don’t know what, or when, or why, or where, or to whom. The world, instead of moving on, seems to stand still. Even the leaves on the trees have stopped shaking. The silence before the storm, perhaps? What storm? And who will it strike? And where? And how? And when?

How will it begin? How will it all end?

 

 

Thursday Thoughts: Fear

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Thursday Thoughts
10 May 2018
Fear

Tomorrow I drive to Quispamsis to give a writers’ workshop on Fear. How do I tell the participants that I am afraid? I am afraid of the journey there by road. I am afraid of stray moose and deer, fleeing from the flooding, and standing, frightened, by the roadside, ready to panic and run at the car. I am afraid of getting lost, of losing my way, of being stranded in unknown streets with no outlet, no exit, no easy way home.

How do I tell them I am afraid of them. I am afraid of their knowledge. Many of them will know more than me. They are all unknown quantities, blank faces at present, with tumble dryer minds full of churning ideas, ideas that I have never had nor met. I am frightened. I have it in my head to call in sick, to say I am no longer available, to say I cannot come to orchestrate the music that I myself composed.

Stage fright, I suppose, these pre-conference  nerves that battered me all last night with their owls’ wings, leaving me sleepless, turning and tossing, cringing at my own lack of everything that I will tell them they should have.

Fear: a black monster that hides beneath the bed. I dare not leave arm or hand above the blankets in case the monster emerges and bites off the hand that feeds it with more fears. Fear: the shadow in the corner, looming over the bed, shaking me by the shoulder as I lie there, tormented. Fear: the jaws that bite, the claws that snatch, the hand that holds me by the ear or the scruff of the neck and drags me back into a shadowy past where monsters dwell and flicker in the candlelight, growing larger as I walk down white-washed halls.

Enough, no more: I am just as afraid now as I was before. Sleepless tonight, too tired tomorrow to care, I will leave early, hope for the best, wind my way carefully through deer strewn roads and perilous paths. When I get lost, and I probably will, I will ask the way. And all the time I’ll sing my favorite travel song: ‘I know where I’m going’ … even if I don’t.

Thursday Thoughts: On Water

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Thursday Thoughts
03 May 2018
On Water

In the seventy-fourth year of my life,
sitting on the car in Mactaquac Park,
waiting for my wife to walk down the slope
to where I’m writing, a warm wind today,
sunshine, the river still rising, more rain
called for tonight, another inch or more,
that’s twenty to thirty millimeters,
you can hear from here the restless waters
powering the dam’s dynamos, creating
great creamy waves to wash over coffee
colored waters fathered upriver with
their splintered debris wafted from waters
still gathering strength in the north where snow
melts steadily while the stormy sky builds
clouds, and weathermen forecast thunderstorms
yet to descend and overflow our streams:
sitting safely I fear for those downstream
who deal with flooded basements, water pumps,
animals in distress, destruction come,
no sanctuary save in flight, wood, mortar,
brick promising no safety, no respite
from rising waters and eternal rain.

Commentary:

In the great flood of 1973, we lived on the Woodstock Road in Fredericton. We watched the river waters rising. Luckily they stopped on the other side of the road from where we were living and didn’t cross the road. This year we live out of town on the other side of the hill away from the river. Each time we drive into town we see the river waters and measure how they rise. Our hearts go out to those folk who are forced to evacuate their homes. We find it hard to believe that the waters are now at the levels they reached in 1973 and may, in some places, exceed those levels by a meter or more.

Next weekend, Word Spring, the spring meeting of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick, is scheduled to take place in Quispamsis. Yesterday, the people of Quispamsis found themselves on flood alert and were told to prepare for instant evacuation. It rained last night and more rain is expected. While it may not rain here in Island View, the catchment area of the St. John River, the Rhine of North America, is enormous. Any rain falling in the north of the province may affect the river. The snow is still melting from the deep woods and clear cutting along the river banks has, according to some, affected the ground’s ability to retain water.

All in all, a difficult situation and one that is forecast to last for another week or ten days. More details can be found here:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/homes-cottages-flooded-1.4645225?cmp=news-digests-new-brunswick

Thursday Thoughts: M. T. Head

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Thursday Thoughts
26 April, 2018
M. T. Head
 

I sat in the class, head in hands, avoiding eye contact. I hoped the teacher wouldn’t point me out, call on me, nominate me with a finger … to no avail … he called my name … “You have sixty seconds to speak about …” he paused, then produced the rabbit from the hat, “matches. Come along, stand up, you have sixty seconds, starting …” he watched the second hand go round on the classroom clock, then counted down: “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …” waved his hand, and shouted: “Now!”

Matches: cricket matches, boxing matches, rugby matches, soccer matches, chess matches, matches to light the burners on the gas stove, the oven, to light the fire in the fire place … matches, matchsticks, Match Box toys, Dinky toys, toys for little boys, toys for big boys …

“Ten seconds have gone … you have fifty remaining.”

“When I think about matches, I think about …”

The first spring day in the bungalow, our summer home. The rooms are cold and damp after the winter and nobody has been here since last year. We lay a fire in the grate, but the wood is damp, as is the old newspaper we gather from our last visit. We search for sugar to aid the blaze that we hope to start, but the sugar bowl is empty. We go to the stove. Cold, winter ashes crowd the fire bowl. We scrape them together in a desperate search for charcoal remains …  but we find nothing. We move to the oil-fired lamps and oil stoves. Matches dragged across soggy sandpaper fail to spark.

“Come along, boy. Have you nothing to say? You have thirty seconds left.”

Silence fills the room. It is broken by the childhood sniggers and chuckles of long-forgotten friends. The unmentionable shuffles its outsize feet to shatter the silence. My cheeks grow red. I start, stammer, and stop.

We leave the bungalow. Go next door to where our neighbours winter over. We knock on the door. “Can you lend us a match?” we ask, holding out our hands. Mrs. Williams beams at us. “A match,” she says. “First time in after the winter?” We nod. “I thought so. Saw you arriving. Wondered why you hadn’t come earlier. The weather’s been nice. Here: I can do much better than a match.”  She moves over to the fireplace, picks up the little coal shovel, shovels up a generous portion of her fire, heaps on another lump, then two, of fresh coal, and “Here you are,” she says. “Just put it in the fireplace and add some wood and coal. You can start your first fire with this.” “Thank you, Mrs. Williams,” we say. “No problem,” she replies. “It’s good to see you back. It’s been lonely here this winter without you.”

“Time’s up,” the teacher says. “That’s sixty seconds of silence and you can hardly find a word to say on a simple subject. Are you stupid or what? You should be ashamed of yourself.”

My face turns red. I hang my head.

I feel ashamed.

I am seven years old.

Thursday Thoughts: Cricket

 

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Thursday Thoughts
19 April 2018
Cricket

            Street cricket. Played on cracked tarmac. The wicket: three sticks whitewashed on to the high stone wall of our cul-de-sac street that backed on the railway yards. The wall the boundary. And the neighbor’s front yards. Six and out if you hooked and hit behind the wicket and over the railway wall. You also had to retrieve the ball yourself. Game stopped until you climbed the wall, looked down at the rail yards thirty feet below, and shouted until someone emerged from a workman’s hut to find the ball or throw it back.

            No worker … no ball … no game. Then you had to run out of your street, down the main road, up the hill for two streets, beg permission at the locked rail yard iron gates: “Please, mister, can I go get my ball?” Then run all the way back down the railway lines to where the waiting players hung over your own street wall, shouting and cheering. Search for the ball among shiny rails, shunting rails, rusty rails, dandelions, thistles, and nettles, avoiding rolling stock and the occasional shunting engine. Find the ball. Try unsuccessfully to throw it back over the wall to the waiting hands. Try again. No good. Wall too high. Carry ball back to iron gates. Thank gate man politely so you can come back next time. Return ball to game. Game continues, rain or shine. Unless it’s real rain. The Lissingdowne / Pissingdown type. If so, run for nearest house and shelter by fire in kitchen.

            Basic rules. Six and out if you hit it over the railway wall. Two runs and fetch the ball yourself if you hit it into the to bomb buildings at square leg, next to the railway wall. No fielders there. Banned territory. Still piled with grass-overgrown bombed bricks and debris. Fragile, crumbling walls still still liable to tumble. Cellars that might open up. Low walls that might collapse. Four and out in a neighbor’s front yard. Some were nice and didn’t mind. Watch out for the old witch with the garden gate. If you hit her window, even with a tennis ball, she’d be out quick as a flash, steal your ball, and wouldn’t give it back. Otherwise, it was single-batsmen. Run the runs and walk back from singles. One hand, one bounce. Tip and run once you’d scored twenty. One hand off the wall if you didn’t clear it for a six and out. Out if your fox terrier got the ball and ran round and round in circles with it in his mouth. Damn difficult to catch. Also his sharp, terrier teeth might puncture the ball. Damned dog. Lost ball and stopped match if the dog ran into the house and gave the ball to your gran who was saving it for tennis.

            Cricket, in those days, was civilization. It had survived the bombing raids that missed the railway yards and bombed the bomb buildings. It had survived the machine-gun fire from the fighter-bombers that had strafed the street leaving bullet-holes, still un-repaired, in walls and shattering the glass of now-mended windows. It gave us a sense of rule and law, for the rules were strict and nobody broke them and stealing runs in tip and run was legal and not a crime.

            Cricket: a small, bright window on the back-street where I lived, a window filled with happiness and light, even when it’s over the wall and six and out, or the dog runs away with the tennis ball, or the ball vanishes down a mysterious rabbit-hole in the bomb buildings and slides down to someone’s ruined cellar.

            Game’s over. The Tests Match is on. The one primitive, tiny black-and-white screen in the street lights up with flickering figures and we sit around on the floor watching real men playing the real game on a grassy field in a fairy-book world, a world that most of us back-street boys and girls will never know or see, but that comes over to us as a dream of reality on this old black-and-white tv.