“I wish to propose the following educational technique which should prove equally effective for Harvard and Shreveport High School. I propose that English poetry and biology should be taught as usual, but that at irregular intervals, poetry students should find dogfishes on their desks and biology students should find Shakespeare sonnets on their dissecting boards…” -Walker Percy, The Loss of the Creature, 1954
The other morning, I woke in the predawn hours, brewed coffee, readied myself for the commute to the city. My allegiance was still to night: half dreaming, unsure of my physical presence. I opened the back door to let the cats out so they could find a good spot to watch the sun rise over the hills, take in the glint of dew on the bluegrass, listen to the judgment of the birds. I poured my first cup of coffee. There was a frog where my feet were about to be.
His body was six inches long. Electric red dots surrounded him. The tabby with the small features leapt at the frog, biting him again and again in some ancient predatorial dance. I nearly spat my coffee, grabbed the cat to put away while taking care of the frog. He was still alive, though pretending to be another drab, inconsequential piece of the landscape. He flinched as I put him in a box, carried him into the morning night and placed him in the water garden.
After I returned from work and opened the door to let the cats play in the day lily stalks, the frog came back into the house. Belly up on the carpet. His wounds showing in his bloated state. The tabby purred and rubbed against my legs. He was like a kid who has gotten a stamp from the county fair on his hand and decided to never wash again, because he wanted to keep this memento forever. Again I put the cat away while dealing with the frog. I put the frog in the box and secured the top by tucking the flaps in a woven layer. But I did not know what to do with the box. If I put it in the trash, the feral dogs would sniff it out and strew garbage all over my yard. I decided to have a beer and consider my options.
The frog again, in a state expected of continued decay. Legs stretched out on the carpet. The box was still closed. I cleaned him up again, put him in the box again, put the box in the trashcan and hoped that the dogs didn’t come this week.
As my life is governed by Jungian synchronicity, it just so happened that I had just read some internet-archived Walker Percy. In “The Loss of the Creature” he talks about the problem of education being the intent to leave an impression, but failing because the delivery of the content is too tightly wrapped up in a symbolic package.
Tourists do not appreciate the Grand Canyon in the same way that García López de Cárdenas did when he discovered it, because tourists visit it and think of the great mythology surrounding it, think of how impressive it is supposed to be, think that they are supposed to look over the rim and have Big Thoughts. And instead of experiencing it, they buy a postcard and go back to the hotel for a margarita.
Students of English do the same thing when they read Shakespeare–they are overcome by the preexisting literature and know that there is supposed to be greatness in one of his sonnets. But they cannot access it because it is delivered in a package, and they are told to think great things and understand it on the level of experts without being able to understand it first as an object of surprising beauty. Perhaps if it were not delivered as an object displaying iambic pentameter, a rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg, etc, etc, they could appreciate it without first dissecting it.
The biology student encounters the same problem with the dogfish, and Percy recommends:
One can think of two sorts of circumstances through which the thing may be restored to the person. (There is always the direct recovery: A student may simply be strong enough, brave enough, clever enough to take the dogfish and the sonnet by storm, to wrest control of it from the educators and the educational package.) First by ordeal: The Bomb falls; when the young man recovers consciousness in the shambles of the biology laboratory, there not ten inches from his nose lies the dogfish. now all at once he can see it, directly and without let, just as the exile or the prisoner or the sick man sees the sparrow at his window in all its inexhaustibility; just as the commuter who has had a heart attack sees his own hand for the first time. In these cases, the simulacrum of everydayness and of consumption has been destroyed by disaster; in the case of the bomb, literally destroyed. Secondly, by apprenticeship to a great man: One day a great biologist walks into the laboratory; he stops in front of our student’s desk; he leans over, picks up the dogfish, and ignoring instruments and procedure, probes with a broken fingernail into the little carcass. “Now here is a curious business,” he says, ignoring also the proper jargon of the specialty. “Look here how this little duct reverses its direction and drops into the pelvis. Now if you would look into a coelancanth, you would see that it—” And all at once the student can see.
I keep expecting to see the frog again. I know not where he will appear next, perhaps the driveway. He is outside of any approachable context. Perhaps if I find him again, I will take him to your poetry class.