(By the way, I firmly believe we need to include “poignance” as an essential analytical and expressive skill, particularly for scholars.)
And so back to education. Are our students not universes within a universe? Are our faculty and staff not likewise? Are we not a university? If so, why all the talk of management? Why not more talk of exploration, of representation, of communal mental activity, of the exciting and taxing co-labors of symbol-making and symbol-sharing? That’s the test of life, as Michael Wesch has poignantly observed. (By the way, I firmly believe we need to include “poignance” as an essential analytical and expressive skill, particularly for scholars.)
The Oxford English Dictionary offers many definitions for “poignant” over the years, with an etymology tracing the word back to an Anglo-Norman word meaning “sharp, pointed, prickly, biting, stinging, jagged.” The meanings take some interesting turns, sometimes to the point of making “poignant” one of Freud’s primal words–a word that contains opposite meanings, like “cleave.”
But the meaning I had in mind when I wrote that passage a year ago was closest to the OED‘s last senses in definition 2a: “tenderly sorrowful, bitter-sweet.” Something like what I think my father must have meant when he said some words could go “clear through” him. Or perhaps it’s the feeling Dr. Ralph Stanley has when he hears some old mountain music and feels deeply touched, moved to his soul.
In the context of education, especially as one gains more sophisticated skills of analysis and expression, it seems to me vitally important that we maintain a sense of humility and shared tenderness in the midst of our uncertain journeys through the strange days we experience together. Working in academia for the last quarter-century, I’ve seen the ugliness and winced at the clanging cymbals of intellectual triumphalism. No doubt there have been times when I’ve contributed to the ugliness myself. It’s a great temptation, once one has a store of knowledge and a set of sophisticated argumentative strategies, to try to be the one to stop the conversation, instead of being the one to further it. We learn it in graduate school, or perhaps earlier, first as a survival skill, then as a set of career moves, and finally as a shield. And what do our students see? That learning is largely a matter of being overruled, of memorizing the lesson that beginners don’t know enough to ask intelligent questions (when in fact some of the best questions come from beginners). And that teaching is an exercise in providing answers and furnishing conclusions, not in guiding inquiries or (heaven forfend) asking real questions.
Yet the subject always becomes more interesting in the context of leading a committed learner through what Bruner calls the “conjectures and dilemmas” that shape our own ongoing inquiries.
No, one doesn’t get the triumphalism or the sounding gong of ideological precision. One doesn’t get to play “first rank, second rank.” If that’s what one wants, that’s disappointing, of course.
But there are other things to want, especially in the context of the tender sorrow of our brief lives and maddening partings, those things we may enjoy and those things we must endure.
What will be on the test? Brevity, uncertainty, absence. Not only these, of course–but here Robert Frost, as so often, had it right: one of the most poignant questions we must frame in all but words is “what to make of a diminished thing.” That’s where the poignance lies, out of which we may learn, perhaps, love.
Not victory, scolding, surveillance, management, or proctoring.