Thomas Pynchon on Education, as Quoted in Playboy Magazine

I greatly enjoy reading and I read fairly widely. There are books that I enjoy more than others, certainly, but it’s rare that I find a book that doesn’t have something to teach me: in terms of conveyed knowledge, shared experience or the importance of editing. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) I was thinking about the works of Thomas Pynchon recently and some of the quotes that we have from the author himself, as well as those contained within the books, and one that sticks out for me was:

Why should things be easy to understand?

(Pynchon to Jules Siegel regarding the complexity of “V”, from a Playboy interview, 1977)

“Run away with me.” said Roseman when the coffee came.
“Where?” she asked. That shut him up.
(The Crying of Lot 49, 1966)

It’s a very good question and one I think about a lot. “Too clever by half” and “too difficult to understand” are very easy ways to dismiss people or things that you don’t like. From an educator’s viewpoint, this is a constant hurdle that we have to leap across, especially if the students in our care have only been exposed to the easily digestible up until now. I’ve talked before about dependence on a single point of authority, which will give you all the answers in due time, and it’s not a great way to train critical thinkers – of course, it’s the antithesis.

Most things are not easy to understand, which is why teachers exist. If we could have solved the transfer of knowledge problem the moment we set stylus to clay on the banks of the Tigris, then we would have done so. Our history is full of easy discoveries of things that just happen, as well as the more complex that required diligence and sacrifice of effort. Grapes turn into wine in the presence of oxygen – the wine industry was going to happen the moment the first time a goatherd noticed her goats falling over. Knowledge does not flow from person to person as easily. There are internal barriers to deal with in transmission from you to the world, then the mutagenic ether of knowledge transmission from person to person, and finally the barriers inside the head of the receiver.

If it was going to happen, then perhaps it would have happened when we developed libraries. You could go in and browse the collected thoughts of generations. Yet, we still needed teachers and educational institutions and, while it is easy to say that this is a requirement for certification and the associated authorities, the successful person has not needed an armful of qualifications and parchments until relatively recently, so while we are suffering from a deluge of over-dependence on certification, I don’t see this as the leading justification for the role of the teacher in knowledge transfer.

One of the critical roles of the educator is to take things that are complicated and hard to understand and, with a knowledge of what the students need and their developmental stage, present the information in a way that it is comprehensible. Now, I realise that this puts me at odds, again, with people who believe that students have to struggle to attain knowledge, to demonstrate their effort and to maintain the worth of the discipline. I don’t believe that’s the role of an educator – I think that life will throw up quite enough barriers to achieving success without me force-failing someone because he or she slightly under-performs relative to other students. It’s not as if you send a child to primary school expecting that 25% of them will validly fail. (If you do, I’m both stunned and I’d love to see your reasoning!) I’ve talked with educators who are required to fail students, as part of curve grading, because their entry requirements allow anyone to come in, with any level of preparation. Those same educators are, for the most part, demoralised and unconvinced of the path that they are required to take – but they have families, and mortgages, and would like to eat tomorrow. When we walk about making things hard to understand, or not making them easier to understand, we are not only robbing the students of the joy of discovery and the thrill of legitimate achievement, we are robbing ourselves of the joy of the student who actually gets it. Yes, education is more than a linked set of “A-ha” moments but they are the sweetest fruit in a vast, ancient and ever-growing orchard.

No, I’m not (and am never) saying that anyone should automatically pass. But if someone has done what we’ve asked them to do and we have not demanded some supplication to a towering monument of obscurity in order to make them fight their way through to the facts, then I would expect a reasonably prepared student to ‘pass’ – and by that I mean take in the knowledge, incorporate it and be able to make use of it, building upon it in the future.

I, like most academics in Australia, get a lot of sample textbooks to assess for use in courses and my assessment criteria are very simple. How far can I read through the book before I get confused? How useful is the index in dealing with that confusion? Can I find the answer to a straightforward and relevant question within a couple of minutes? Can I find my way through the book?

I have four degrees, including a PhD. I am well-read and pretty literate. I have knowledge built around industry, Army, manual labour and academia. If a textbook is confusing me then it is utterly useless for my students. There is no need for things to be easy to understand but, if I am going to educate people, then I have to make sure that I put things together in a way that a reasonably prepared student can learn the knowledge that I need her or him to learn. We don’t need to require that everything be simple, we just have to remember that there is already an army of knowledge transformers, teachers, who are there in order to turn the complex into the simple for the purposes of learning.

We can retain our complexity, as long as we retain sight of our requirement to educate fairly and honestly. Pynchon’s question is ageless and still, very, valid.

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