To follow knowledge like a sinking star

When I first heard of ‘Odyssean Education’ I immediately thought of Tennyson: “It little profits that an idle king…”, but realisation of why I, of strict scientific upbringing, should turn at once to great literature, that brings the essence of the Odyssean ideal, and it has little to do with Odysseus as he was, or at least as Homer portrays him.

Tennyson’s Odysseus is restless in his craving for self-education:

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

The name though is from Murray Gell-Man, in his “The Quark and the Jaguar”, suggesting the combination of education in the sciences, social sciences and the arts, which come from very differ approaches and priorities. He looked at the ancient dichotomy of the Apollonian and Dionysian – those who follow an analytical, evidence-based approach to matters, and those guided by emotion and instinct; but Gell-Man (a scientist to his boots), adds a third – ‘Odyssean’ which combines them and connects ideas through an overall approach.

….. strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I question whether there is a genuine dichotomy between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. If there is, it need not be inherent and unchanging but cultivated by life experience and the individual’s career discipline. The latter is very important amongst professionals as it defines the norms by which one interacts with strangers, perhaps as an architect or an accountant or a lawyer or journalist or as an administrator, for example, forcing one to analyse the world through the requirements of the job and the common understandings of the profession. It should be no wonder that lawyers lose their imagination or journalists become cynical of everyone’s motives, or actors believe the world can be transformed by a simple rewrite. Perhaps the complexity of interpersonal and commercial relations forces each person to simplify that which they take in by squeezing all experience and reaction into an overgeneralised worldview. It is a way to stay sane, and a way to become narrow.

The Apollonian and the Dionysian are types in Greek tragedy, according to Nietzsche’s analysis of that subject. The Apollonian represents order and logic; his lines are prose monologue and dialogue. The Dionysian represents the chaotic, unbound by respectability or logic; his lines are in verse. The Apollonian suffers and the Dionysian celebrates, perhaps over the same things. The drama is in the interplay between these two. That is all very well in the pretty formulaic world of Greek tragedy, and even works a sort of straight man / funny man routine in Aristophanes, but we face the real world, not the Greek amphitheatre.

Even so, many of us wear masks, like those on the Greek stage. In professional life, the mask is expected: I spend much of my time when dealing with other people trying to get them to drop the mask. (If only they knew how tightly held and deceptive my own is.) Eventually the mask becomes part of you.

The split of personality is genuine, even off-stage. It has been much studied by psychologists, and might even have a hereditary element (something examined in an earlier article here). Like calls to like, and if the civil service, for example, attracts the Apollonian, or conservative, type, then it will recruit only from that type, set tests for entry which can only be passed by that type, and become more and more entrenched in a monoculture.

In education, both types and the many in the middle may thrive and forge their own disciplines. The deeper the education though, the more it will press to one side or the other and produce graduates unable to function otherwise. The boring science student or the louche arts student are not just stereotypes but the necessary outcome of their disciplines.

Those needed for any enterprise truly to thrive are those who fill both sides of the stage: the Odysseans. The Gell-Mann approach, recently championed by Dominic Cummings, seeks to break the dichotomy, to teach pupils to use both sides of the clay of humanity. Systems fail when there is no discipline, and systems fail when there is no imagination: success requires both, but our ideas of education and profession exclude this.

The ideal education should cultivate imagination, originality, bound-breaking, and logic, discipline and respect for order. Personality will choose how far in either direction the individual will wander, but he or she should have an understanding of all sides. If it is impossible to cultivate everyone in this way, it is still necessary that some have that rounded education, ready to follow knowledge like a sinking star. ‘I cannot rest from travel: I will drink life to the lees’. Those who have seen and known; ‘cities of men and manners, climates, councils, governments’, are required in many disciplines. One with such a rounded education must can do better than those who clutch the reins in our day.

It is not to create a knot, an elite caste of Odysseans. They could be infuriating and worse then the rest. It is instead a remodelling of education for all, from which some will benefit more, and we in turn may benefit from their work.

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short