The Fisher King: Achievement as Journey, rather than Objective

(There are spoilers for the 1991 movie “The Fisher King” contained within, so proceed forewarned.)

It is sometimes hard for students to understand why undertaking a particular piece of work, in a certain way and at a certain time, is so important to us. For us, as educators, knowledge is developed and constructed through awareness, practice, understanding and application, as well as the further aspects of higher-level intellectual development. When we teach something, doing the assigned homework or assignment is an important reinforcing step. We can regard these assignments in two ways: formative (where we provide feedback and use it to guide improvement) and summative (where we measure the degree to which the students have achieved the standard required, compared to some benchmarks that are important to the course). Summative activities tend to be at the end of instructional units and formative tend to be throughout, for the obvious reasons, but, more pertinently to the discussion at hand, summative activities are often seen as “high-stakes”, where formative are seen as “low”.

The problem with a high-stakes activity is that we can inadvertently encourage behaviour, such as copying, plagiarism or cheating, because students feel so much pressure to achieve and they don’t feel that there is sufficient possibility of redemption in the face of not achieving the required standard. (And, yes, from a previous post, some people start out with the intention to cheat but I shall ignore them for all of the reasons that I have previously stated.)

Ultimately, all of our assignments contribute to the development of knowledge – or they should. The formative ones, as we know, should be placed to encourage the exchange of views between student and teacher, allowing us to guide and shape in an ongoing way, where the summative ones allow us to draw a line and say “Knowledge attained, now we can move on.” Realistically, however, despite the presence of so many summative assessments during and at the end of each course, the journey through University is just that – a journey – and I sometimes present it in this light to those students who have difficulty understanding the “why” of the assignments. I try never to resort to “because I say so”, as this really exchanges no knowledge, but I’m too honest to tell that I’m not at least tempted to say this sometimes!

One of my favourite movies is the 1991 Terry Gilliam film “The Fisher King“, with Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer. This is loosely based on legend of The Fisher King, from the often contradictory and complicated stories that have arisen around the Holy Grail over the last few hundred years, and I don’t have the time to go into detail on that one here! But the core is quite simple. One man, through a thoughtless and cruel act, causes a chain of events that leads to the almost total destruction of another’s world. Meeting each other, when both are sorely wounded by their troubles, they embark upon a journey that offers redemption to the first and healing to the second. (This is perhaps the most vague way to tell a fantastic story. I strongly recommend this movie!)

The final aspect of the movie is Jack’s quest to retrieve a simple cup that Parry has identified as the Holy Grail, and that Parry has been seeking since his descent into madness. After a beating that leaves Parry comatose in hospital, Jack dons Parry’s anachronistic garb and breaks into the house of a famous architect to retrieve the simple cup. When there, he also manages to save the architect’s life, redeeming himself through both his desire to challenge his own boundaries to seek the cup for Parry and by counter-balancing his previous cruelty with an act of life-saving kindness. The cup is, of course, still a cup but it is the journey that has brought Jack back to humanity and, as he hands the simple cup to Parry who lies unseeing in a hospital bed, it is the journey that transforms the cup into the grail for long enough that Parry wakes up.

We are all on a journey, one that we set out on when we were born and one that will finish when we breathe our last, but I think our reactions to the high-stakes events in our lives are so often a reflection of those who taught us, seen through the lens of our own personality. That’s why I like to talk to students about the requirements for the constant challenges, the quests, the moments that are high-stakes, in the context of their wider journey – in the quest for knowledge, rather than the meeting of requirements for a degree.

Are you just after the piece of paper for your degree? Need the credits? Then cheating is, in some ways of thinking, a completely valid option if you can rationalise it.

Are you on a journey to develop knowledge? Need to understand everything? Then cheating is no longer an option.

Knowledge is transforming. There is no doubt about this. We learn something new and it changes the world, or us, or both! When we learn something well enough, we can create new knowledge or share our knowledge with new people. There is no doubt that the journey transforms the mundane around us into something magical, occasionally something mystical, but it is important to see it as a journey that will help us to build our achievements, rather than a set of objectives that we tick off to achieve something that is used as a placeholder for the achievement.

As I always say to my students, “If you have the knowledge, then you’re really likely to pass the course and do well. If you just try and study for the exam, then you’re not guaranteed to have the knowledge.” Formative or summative, if you regard everything we’re doing as steps to increase your knowledge, and we construct our teaching in order to do that, the low stakes and the high stakes have similar benefit, even if one isn’t so much constructed for direct feedback. If we also make sure that we are not dismissive in our systems and can even offer redemption in cases of genuine need, then our high stakes become less frightening and there is no Red Knight stalking our moments of peace and happiness, forcing us into dark and isolated pathways.

One Comment on “The Fisher King: Achievement as Journey, rather than Objective”

  1. […] previously about classifying plagiarists into three groups (accidental, panicked and systematic), trying to get the student to focus on the journey rather than the objective, and how overwork can produce situations in which human beings do very strange things. Recently, I […]


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