A PENCIL IS THE BEST OF EYES

Andreas Teuber
Department of Philosophy
Brandeis University




I MUST confess I am made anxious by teaching awards.1 They suggest that teaching is an identifiable skill rather than a by-product of something else.

Good teaching is difficult to pursue directly. Like sleep, it comes -if it comes at all - as a result of focusing elsewhere. Think "sleep" and sleep never comes. Much the same must be said of good teaching. Good teaching is not "a separate thing," separate from the subject of one's teaching. When it works, if it works, it usually works only as a by-product of something else, a love of one's subject.

Teaching, too, as well as its intended consequence, learning, are far more mysterious than many of us are willing to acknowledge. Some of that mystery is illuminated in the following story told by a former student of the great nineteenth century naturalist, Louis Agassiz. It dramatically illustrates the strangeness of the relation between teacher and student:



"The tale runs that a new student presented himself to Agassiz one day, asking to be set to work. The naturalist took a fish from a jar in which it had been preserved, and laying it before the young student, bade him observe it carefully, and be ready to report on what he had noticed about the fish. There was nothing especially interesting about that fish - it was like many other fish he had seen before. He noticed that it had fins and scales and a mouth and eyes, yes, and a tail. In a half-hour he felt certain that he had observed all about the fish that there was to be perceived. But the naturalist remained away.

"Time passed and the young man having nothing else to do began to grow restless and weary. He started out to hunt up the teacher, but he failed to find him, and so he had to return and gaze again at that wearisome fish. Another hour passed and he knew little more about the fish than he did in the first place. He went out to lunch, and when he returned it was still a case of watching the fish. He felt disgusted and wished he had never come to Agassiz, who, it seemed, was a stupid old man after all. Then, in order to kill time, he began to count the scales. This completed, he counted the spines of the fins. Then he began to draw a picture of the fish. In drawing the picture he noticed that the fish had no eyelids. He thus made the discovery as his teacher had expressed it often in lectures, "a pencil is the best of eyes."

"Shortly after Agassiz returned, and after ascertaining what the young man had observed, he left rather disappointed, telling him to keep on looking and maybe he would see something. This put the boy on his mettle, and he began to work with his pencil, putting down little details that had escaped him before, but which now seemed very plain to him. He began to catch the secret of observation. Little by little he brought to light objects of interest about the fish. But this did not satisfy Agassiz, who kept him at work on the same fish for three whole days. At the end of that time the student really knew something about the fish, and better than all, had acquired the "knack" and habit of careful observation . . . .

"Years later, the student then attained to eminence, wrote, "That was the best zoological lesson I ever had - a lesson whose influence has extended to the details of every subsequent study; a legacy that the teacher left to me, as he left to many others, of inestimable value, which we could not buy, and with which we cannot part."



Here is a fish story of some dimension.2 I would like to think that what most of us teach is not so different from what Agassiz taught and his student learned on that day he spent with that fish, although it may be a bit presumptuous of me to think that Agassiz's lesson might apply in my own case. After all, his student claims to have learned "the 'knack' of careful observation," whereas philosophers have a reputation, perhaps not totally ill-deserved, of being exceptionally unobservant and for going about with their "heads in the clouds."

I. Philosophy

The image of the philosopher as someone with his "head in the clouds" can be traced to the earliest moments in the history of Western thought. The Greek playwright, Aristophanes, helped to solidify the image of the absent-minded philosopher already in the Fifth Century, B.C. when he depicted Socrates descend from the clouds in a basket, deus ex machina, to the great delight of Athenian audiences. And Thales, a pre-Socratic, was noted for regularly falling into wells.

But philosophers are a wily lot. Indeed, Thales, who is often identified as the first Western philosopher, surprised quite a few of his fellow citizens one year by making a killing on the olive oil market. How did this fellow, who went about with his "head in the clouds," manage to succeed over others whose business it was to buy and sell things in the marketplace?

Well, Thales thought a lot about one thing. He thought a lot about water. He believed that of the four elements water was the most fundamental. He would walk through Meletus where he lived on the Ionian Coast and demonstrate to anyone who cared to stop long enough his belief that water was the most essential of all things. For example, he might pick up a lime and squeeze it until water came out. If his interlocutor were clever, he might pick up a stone, squeeze it, and wonder where the water was to be found in that? But Thales was extremely clever and he might reply that his "friend" had perhaps not squeezed hard enough. He might then point to the ships bobbing on the sea to clinch his hypothesis that water was the foundation of all things. Notice that we already have the ingredients of modern science here: experiment (with a lime) and observation (of boats on the water). In the very beginning it was difficult to distinguish philosophy from physics.

Now because Thales thought a lot about water, he observed that it had rained a great deal throughout the year and from this he concluded that there would be a bumper crop in olives. But everybody laughed at Thales. After all he was always falling into wells - what did he know? Well, he may not have known where he was going, but he did know a lot about water. He snapped up all the available olive presses and made a killing on the olive oil market. So you have to watch those philosophers.



II. Thinking

A striking feature of the Thales story is a practical result came from an apparently pointless activity. I don't want to defend pointless activities, but basic research in the sciences is frequently the close observation of processes the immediate consequences of which are not known in advance. Government organizations rarely understand this and demand of scientists who apply for grants that they anticipate the uses to which their work will be put. Undergraduates are under a similar pressure from the marketplace to acquire knowledge that has immediate practical application. But a real value of a university such as ours is it can afford some relief from these pressures. For the next four years of your life you can afford to devote some of your energy to the pursuit of a subject for the sheer love of it - without, hopefully, falling into too many wells - and who knows, as in Thales' case, unexpected benefits may come.

Agassiz taught his students more than a set of facts about fish just as Thales, surely, had more to teach than a set of facts about water. Indeed, facts, valuable as they may be, are easily forgotten. You will forget many, if not most, of the facts you learn in the following years, although you have less to worry about memory-loss than your ancestors, given the increasingly sophisticated computers at your disposal. But in spite of all the facts that Agassiz's student gathered about fish, he learned something more than that the fish had so many fins and scales. He learned to "think" about what he was seeing.

It is perhaps odd to suppose that being able to think might be a greater asset than knowing this or that fact. Facts are, after all, the sorts of things you can sink your teeth into. Thinking is believed to be the special domain of the philosopher, but philosophy has by no means a monopoly on this mysterious activity as the Agassiz story clearly indicates. Indeed, it is very likely the very thing that we all teach, in our various fashions and when we are at our best. But what is this thing called "thinking?"

When Agassiz's student first looked - should I say stared? - at that fish, he had not yet begun to think. He did not begin to think until he began to draw and in the process "saw" that there was more to the fish than met his eye, i.e., that it had no eyelids. Whatever changed from the first moment to the second was that, pencil in hand, the student came to stand in an active relation to what he was seeing. At first he looked at the fish and saw what he already knew. He saw it had a tail and fins. Then he began to draw the fish and something changed. He began to think about what he was seeing. Whatever else thinking is, it is the ability to stand in an active relation to the object of one's thought, granting the thinker a certain degree of independence from what he has heretofore thought and believed. Freed from what he previously knew, Agassiz's student goes beyond himself. He makes a discovery. At its best, thinking is a kind of loving attention, in the most compelling sense of the word "love": the recognition that someone or something other than yourself exists.


III. On Having An Idea

When I was an undergraduate, I worried too much about whether I could think at all. I wondered if I had ever had an idea of my own, an original idea. At the time I was encouraged to think of ideas as a form of property. If I mentioned an idea to one of my teachers and was met with the response that so-and-so had already said or thought that very idea, I quickly became disappointed, saddened by the realization that someone had beaten me to it, as it were. I did not yet have the courage to say, "Well, now I am having that idea, too."

This obsession with originality lasted for some time until my father took me to an Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The meeting was held on a large estate in Brookline, Massachusetts. Clifford Geertz was to receive the Talcott Parsons Award for outstanding work in the Social Sciences, and was going to speak on "The Balinese, Javanese, and Moroccan Conception of 'Self'." After dinner members of the Academy filed into the East Wing. French windows lined one side of the room through which it was still possible, in the remaining light, to see the freshly mowed lawns that surrounded the main buildings. The Secretary to the Academy read the minutes from the last meeting and asked us to rise to observe the deaths of all those members who had passed away in the previous year. Members and their guests dutifully rose and the Secretary proceeded to read the names of the deceased one after the other.

In public speaking classes students are taught to read items on a list with an upward inflection until they come to the last item on the list which is then supposed to be read with a downward inflection. So, for example: "apples (upward inflection), peaches (upward inflection), bananas (upward inflection), and grapefruit (downward inflection)." Since each name on the list from which the Secretary was reading, however, was the name of a someone who had passed away, the Secretary read that person's name with a downward inflection, as if the name was the last item on the list. As we stood in observance of the deaths of those members who had passed away, it struck me that the Secretary - by means of the inflection of his voice - was respectfully laying each dead member to rest all over again." And as this thought struck me, I wondered whether anyone else in the room was also making this observation. "After all," I thought to myself, "here we all are, 'observing' the deaths of the members of the Academy, I wonder if any of the "living" members notice that the Secretary is quietly, discreetly, laying each dead member to rest one by one. But when I looked around the room, all I encountered was a sea of somber and somewhat expressionlee faces. The "irony" of the moment seemed to have been lost on this august body. When I turned back to attend once again, it suddenly occurred to me. "Oh my," I said to myself, "I believe I am having what is called 'an idea'."

Now I should tell you that the experience did not turn out to be at all I imagined "having an idea" would to be like. For one thing, I seemed to be the occasion rather than the cause of the idea and, for another, I did not seem to be having it in quite the same way one has a car or a house or, say, Samsonite luggage. Nor did it seem like a piece of property or, for that matter, the sort of thing to which I might stake a claim. It seemed less to be "in my head" than "in the air" or "in the circumstances." It just happened to be there "for the thinking," as it were, and I had not so much "come to it" as it had "come to me" and I just happened to be in a place where it hit.

This experience and the reflections to which it gave rise led me to conclude that thinking was largely a matter of attitude. Strike the right attitude and thoughts will come. In Agassiz's zoological lesson, the teacher does little more than place his student in relation to a fish in such a way that a discovery gets made. Like the very best teachers, Agassiz knew that students require attunement not taxidermy.


IV. Can Thinking Be Taught?

But what about that pencil? If there is more to the fish than meets the student's eye, the pencil certainly helped him to see it more clearly. Writing can play a similar role in relation to thinking.

Too often we understand writing - much of which you will be asked to do in the next four years - as a way of putting down thoughts that we have already had. For many years I thought of writing in just this way and every time I came to write, I quickly became bored because I already knew what I wanted to say. But in writing, as in drawing a fish with a pencil, there can be discovery. Writing can be a way to find out what you think. As the critic John Bayley has noted Jane Austen would set her characters going in order to find out what they might do and Pushkin, in the midst of composing his long poem, Eugene Onegin, was able to confess to a friend: "My Tatania has gone off and got married; I never would have expected it of her."

Thinking may be the most precious, albeit the most elusive, quality the University has to teach. It may be a bit outrageous to contemplate having to spend large sums of money for such an intangible result, and the expense may seem even less justified when one recalls that thinking is an activity that one does best by oneself. No doubt you noticed how little Agassiz was around in the tale of his teaching.

But although it is true that one thinks best when one is alone, if one is truly thinking, one is never lonely. When one is lonely, one is missing someone else. When one is thinking one need not be lonely because one is in the company of oneself, one is with oneself. Thinking is a solitary, not a lonely business.

Nonetheless, however this mysterious activity called "thinking" is characterized, if any of us takes even a small step towards imparting it, the University cannot be altogether such a bad place to spend the next four years of your life.



ENDNOTES:

1. Address delivered to the Freshman Class in acceptance of The Kermit H. Perlmutter Fellowship Award for Teaching Excellence, Spingold Theater, Brandeis University..

2. Roberto Assagioli, The Act of Will, New York: Viking, 1973, pp. 25-26.