EDUCATION BY THE MUSES
by Dennis Quinn
“At first I did adore a twinkling star” – Shakespeare
The Integrated Humanities Program of the University of Kansas is the subject of a rich mythology. The most grandiose myth identifies the Program as an international conspiracy. More picturesque is the story once circulated and actually believed, it seems, that the original program was started by three perfectly respectable professors named Nelick, Senior, and Quinn. Later, however, by some ingenious scheme, these three were replaced by three completely different men all scoundrels but still called by the same names.
Indeed, the faculty of the Program often have the strange feeling that they are the victims of mistaken identity like Cinna, the poet in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. This Cinna is on his way to the funeral of his friend Caesar when he is accosted in the street by the Roman mob. When Cinna identifies himself, the crowd thinks that he is that Cinna who was one of the murderers of Caesar. As they attack him, he cries: “I am Cinna the poet! I am Cinna the poet! I am not Cinna the conspirator!”
I do not intend to deal with the mythology of IHP, however, but rather with the mystery of it, for despite copious publicity, it remains inscrutable. During the seven years of its life, IHP has been evaluated, studied, analyzed, observed, examined, discussed, debated, criticized, denounced, challenged, vilified, satirized, condemned, and cursed; it has been described, defended, commended, vindicated, pitied, praised, celebrated, honored, advocated, adulated, and blessed. And yet the IHP is strangely unknown; it is secret as the sun: obvious but obscure.
Of the many reasons why IHP remains mysterious, I shall treat but one; namely, that it is taught in the poetical mode. Before I begin my exposition of this mystery, however, I shall digress briefly on the role of IHP in the present crisis of the humanities.
Everyone recognizes that in higher education the liberal arts in general and the humanities in particular are suffering a serious decline. Vocationalism is driving more and more students toward professional schools or training programs where a marketable skill can be learned quickly. In this competition the humanities are bound to finish a poor third to the social sciences and the so-called “hard sciences”. No doubt the causes for this decline are numerous and complex. I wish to propose a cause that has been overlooked, one that lies inside the university itself.
The humanities have lost their allure because they have thrown away that which constitutes their distinctive appeal. I mean the love of knowledge for its own sake. To put it still more emphatically, the humanities have sole their heritage for a mess of methodology. The humanities have been professionalized and scientized to the point where the ordinary undergraduate with a budding love for poetry or history or art or philosophy finds his affection returned in the form of footnotes, research projects, bibliographies, and scholarly jargon all the poisonous paraphernalia that murders to dissect.
What I am asserting is that humanities students and teachers have by and large ceased to love the things they study because science is dispassionate and so is the “professional” attitude of the modern research scholar. One of the most memorable moments of my graduate career occurred on the day that a very distinguished Milton scholar wept in class while quoting Virgil from memory. A tough, bristling, severe, witty man, he never before or after betrayed emotion before a poem; I admired this man and still do, but when I saw him weep for Virgil, I realized how far scholarly education may carry us from our original motive for study.
I do not intend here to attack science or scholarship or basic scientific research, but I do wish to challenge the idea that a university is primarily a research institute. It is devotion to the liberal arts knowledge for its own sake that is heart of the university and, indeed, the very motive for basic research. It is the passing on of that devotion to undergraduate students that will revitalize the university, not increased federal grants.
Now by all of the usual and obvious standards of measurement, the IHP has been a highly successful enterprise. It has attracted a significant number of students who have demonstrated high qualitative achievement and who continue to support the Program. Why should this humanities program thrive while general interest in the liberal arts wanes? My answer is that IHP has presented the humanities as the humanities. This sort of education I call education by the Musses, and in this, the main part of my discourse, I shall attempt not only to describe but also to practice what we in the IHP teach.
In The Laws, Plato’s spokesman says, “Shall we begin then, with the acknowledgement that education is first given through Apollo and the Muses?” The Muses are the deities of poetry, music, dance, history, and astronomy. They introduce the young to reality through delight. It is a total education including the heart the memory and passions and imagination as well as the body and intelligence. The nursery rhyme and fairy tale first present the phenomena of nature to the child. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” is a Musical (with a capital “M”) introduction to astronomy that includes some primary observations of the heavenly phenomena and stirs the appropriate human emotion wonder. Now it is precisely this emotion that provides the motivating energy of education. “Motivation” has become the bete noire of modern educators. How can the young be moved to learn? By rewards and promises of rewards? By such inducements the young will go through the motions of education, but they will remain unmoved. But how then? Why, by exposing them to the Muses, where no phenomenon is seen except under the aspect of wonder. Mistake me not: wonder is no sugary sentimentality but, rather, a mighty passion, a species of fear, an awe-full confrontation of the mystery of things. Through the Muses the fearful abyss of reality first calls out to that other abyss that is the human heart; and the wonder of its response is, as the philosophers have said, the beginning of philosophy not merely the first step; but the arche, the principle, as one is the principle of arithmetic and the fear of God the beginning of Wisdom. Thus wonder both starts education and sustains it.
Apollo and the Muses educate beginners, amateurs, those we call at the university “freshmen.” Ezra Pound’s definition, “Poetry is news that goes on being new” is inadequate but true as far as it goes. The Muses present life fresh as if seen and experienced for the first time. In philosophy Socrates is the great beginner, the great freshman, who never lost his amateur status, who insisted that philosophy is nothing more than what the word means literally, the love of wisdom. At this point there is some danger of misunderstanding. What I am calling education by the Muses may be confused with education by gimmicks the kind of anti-intellectual Sesame Street fun-and-games frivolity that has steadily eroded competence in reading, writing, and arithmetic. It is futile to try to make numbers interesting by giving them cute faces; and a certain amount of drudgery is inevitable in all education. What I am saying, however, is that unless a child is first brought to the love of learning itself through Apollo and the Muses, nothing will induce him or her to understand the hard work of learning basic skills. But to return to my exposition.
Education by the Muses is pre-scientific; it does not engage in measurement or analysis or inquiry into causes. “How I wonder what you are!” is not a question; it ends with an exclamation mark, or as Shakespeare called it, a point of admiration. Before studying scientific astronomy one must admire and delight in the splendor of the heavens; before anatomizing the frog, one must make acquaintance with him in the celebrated and amusing frog who went a-wooing.
As there is a tendency in modern manners to dispense with the introductions to get on a first name basis immediately and begin to ask personal questions at once, so in modern education there is a tendency to skip “”Twinkle, twinkle, little star” in order to plunge into astro-physics. This leads to that passionless pursuit of knowledge and that remoteness from observable reality that many students find so repulsive in their teachers. Finally, this skipping of poetic introductions leads to the contempt of familiarity and the smug reduction of all things to prose: “After all, is not love just a matter of glands and are the stars not just globes of burning gas, etc.” (D. H. Lawrence once said, to the scandal of physicists, “Whatever the sun is, it is not a ball of flaming gas.”) The true scientist, however, retains his awe before nature and never loses his sense of the mystery of things: he never forgets his humanity and never ceases to hear the Muses.
Education by the Muses is participatory. To sing a love song is not identical with being in love, but it is to participate somehow in that experience. When a child sees the twinkle of the star he knows it directly; when he chants the rhyme he knows the twinkling indirectly by participating in it. Poetry and music and even astronomy at this level are not to be studied but to be done. Later, perhaps, one may learn the physical causes of this phenomenon of stars: this kind of knowledge is not participatory, however, it is a higher, more intellectual, and more abstract kind of knowledge, but it does not eclipse that original, participated experience, and, indeed, it sees something that eludes the highest science. There is something merry about a twinkle, and all of the formulae of science should not and need not extinguish and cannot exceed this first experience. Those for whom the heavens are merry will keep the twinkle in their eyes, a most important form of illumination. At this point it might be well to anticipate a certain exasperation with all of this emphasis upon a childish nursery rhyme. Is it not frivolous, this talk of twinkling? A fully developed reply would take too much time, but it may help to remember that the simple melody that we sing with “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” was one in which the great Mozart found almost endless inspiration.
In addition to being pre-scientific, musical education is also prevocational, because intellectual play precedes intellectual work, and the liberal arts precede the practical arts. Although the human condition consists mainly of work, and work is of the greatest importance to a satisfying and useful life, human existence is not for work (as it is in Marxist philosophy) but rather for consideration and contemplation leisurely, free activities. Man is a musing creature, whose conversation is in heaven; he toils six days with his face toward the earth so that on the seventh day he may turn his countenance sunward, toward Apollo. Education by the Muses makes possible genuine amusement as contrasted to the empty and frantic pursuit of distraction and diversion that characterizes what we call, with terrible contradiction, the entertainment industry. Work, no matter how profitable or satisfying or skilled or beneficial, is a means, not an end; and a life of means turns out to be mean indeed. It is the end that exalts work and gives it meaning, and it is the kingdom of meaning that Apollo rules.
It is a realm so bright as to dazzle our sight, for the Muses are goddesses of mystery. Some think in fact that their name begins with the same root as the work mystery and that mute and myth also begin with that same root. Mu: it means silence, what is not or cannot be uttered plainly and directly, or perhaps not at all. Before the mysteries man falls silent so that he may hear the voice of the Muses. The song they sing, the stories they tell do not explain; they initiate or re-present their subject; they render it present again, call it to mind again but surround now with mystery, enveloped in protected and holy silence.
The Muses dwell on high and all their arts exalt. History directs our attention to the great deeds of men, our very voices rise up in song, our feet in dance, our hearts in delight. Education by the Muses is vertical not more and more of the same thing, not the accumulation or extension of knowledge out toward the horizon.
The very model of a horizontal educator is Thomas Gradgrind, Dickens’ prosaic schoolmaster, “With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to.” Gradgrind’s prize pupil is Bitzer, the inevitable honors student, always ready to spit out the “answer” in bits and pieces. To the question, What is a horse? Bitzer gives the perfect horizontal reply: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth. Thus,” concludes Dickens. “(and much more) Bitzer.” And so it is with Gradgrind’s own wretched children:
No little Gradgrind had ever learned the silly jingle, Twinkle, twinkle, little star; how I wonder what you are!
No little Gradgrind had ever known wonder on the subject, each little Gradgrind having at five years old dissected the Great Bear like a Professor Owen, and driven Charles’s Wain like a locomotive engine-driver. No little Gradgrind had ever associated a cow in a field with that famous cow with the crumpled horn who tossed the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the malt, or with that yet more famous cow who swallowed Tom Thumb; it had never heard of those celebrities, and had only been quadruped with several stomachs.
The human creature is anthropos, the up-turning animal, standing upright, able to turn his eyes to the vertical heavens. There are educators that tell us that it is human to look outward or downward or inward, but the humanities as they speak through the Muses say, with Robert Frost,
Choose something like a star;
Or, with Gerard Manley Hopkins,
Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
There, upward, may be found a horse quite different from that poor disintegrated creature of Bitzer, for the winged Pegasus may be glimpsed hovering over Helicon, or one may possibly hear God speaking to Job from out of the whirlwind:
Hast thou given the horse strength?
Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?
Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper?
The glory of his nostrils is terrible.
He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength:
He goeth on to meet the armed men.
He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted;
Neither turneth he back from the sword.
The quiver rattleth against him,
The glittering spear and the shield.
He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage:
Neither believeth he that is the sound of the trumpet.
He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha!
And he smelleth the battle afar off,
The thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
Perhaps the mythology about IHP is true after all. Perhaps we are conspirators. And our conspiracy may extend beyond the international to the celestial sphere; we are conspiring with the stars; we are conspiring with those spirits who inhabit the air not only in their books but in the living truths they caught less as doctrine and dogma than as a gleam of light. One could have far worse company. O co-conspirators of all ages: Odysseus, great provisor! Socrates, fellow corrupter of youth! Caesar and Aeneas you Latin-lovers! Moses and St. Paul, God-struck! Roland, you chevalier! Chaucer, debonaire, and all our fellow pilgrims! Knight of woeful countenance! O sweet prince! May all of you be with us yet.
When Cinna cried out that he was a poet, the mob replied, “Tear him for his bad verses.” Perhaps they hated the poet as much as they did the conspirator, for we are told by Plutarch the historian that the mob tore Cinna limb from limb, a fate strangely identical to that of the mythical poet Orpheus from which form of disintegration may the Muses preserve all poetical educators.
Dennis B. Quinn
(Presented as a lecture at the University of Kansas
September 13, 1977)