The Saxifrage School: Part II

No Ideas / but in Things: the name of saxifrage

(Consider supporting the Saxifrage School’s open-work team on Gittip)

For me, a care for education began with poetry. My difficult relationship with the art form was rooted in a conflict between ideas and things. The fault lies on both sides. As Wendell Berry notes, the problem is

“names and ideas becoming separate from the things they denote, so that ‘the language stutters’ … Concern for ideas in the absence of a concern for things, or at the expense of things, is capricious and dangerous both to things and ideas.”

In poetry, in education, and in my life, I saw the disastrous consequences of this division. For poetry, it meant a loss of meaning and relevance. In education, it meant the false dichotomizing of theory and practice. In my own life, I saw the divide inflict serious bodily harm: my obsessive study of ideas and a solely academic lifestyle resulted in a weakened physical state which, when tested, broke under the pressure. Even more, I realized that, after 20 years of education, I could not make anything. Moreover, after years of attempting to reconcile this divide in my personal development I have realized that—now that I can make things—the ideas I studied for so long were lacking an essential vision for the physical world. A vision that I am just now earning.

At the very beginning, the Saxifrage School was very much a school of one: myself. I longed not only for a school that reconciled theory with practice (let me think and make, “Compose.” and then “Invent!”), but one that moved beyond a culture of minimum obligations. When a recent college graduate exclaims “I don’t have to read a book ever again if I don’t want to!” they are simultaneously expressing the idea that school is something to “pass” and be done with, as well a frustration with the scale being tipped too far on the side of ideas. So many students talk about “fasting” from reading books after college, giving up the intellectual life for a while. They are exhausted with ideas.

Berry talks about these two sides as a “mass of detail” that needs to be understood and a “rampage of big ideas” divorced from things from which we need rescued. In Williams’ poem, “A Sort of a Song” he describes the reconciliation of these sides in a metaphor: “Saxifrage is my flower that splits / the rocks.” The metaphor, he rightly implies, is necessary to depict the inextricability of ideas and things. Without the rock, the flower is not grounded and has no place in which to grow. Without the flower, the rock is never split open, broken into manageable pieces and, eventually, into soil.

The importance of this reconciliation comes into play at all levels of education. Just as the curriculum itself must move beyond specialization and the theory/practice divide, our motivations for learning require a clarified sense of purpose. The University has passed its identity crisis on to students: is college for career training or personal formation? Too often this dichotomy is presented as a harsh choice between doing what “has good career prospects” and “following your passion”. After all, what is a Liberal Arts graduate supposed to do with themselves?

The discussion of the Liberal Arts and the Humanities is of extraordinary importance in light of this ideas/things dichotomy. The University’s identity crisis has played out in practice as a cultural divide between the Sciences and the Humanities, the ivory tower and the trade school, blue and white collar, the academic and the pragmatic, the arts and the careers. The “soft skills” of the arts and letters have been losing a fight that should not have started. Lately, to the detriment of both sides, the Humanities have tried to argue for their relevance in terms of this unremarkable idea called “21st Century Skills”, the idea that communication, creativity, and critical thinking are especially well-suited attributes in the so-called “new economy” enabled by our technological prowess. In this instance, and many others, they have often tried to argue for their relevance in the same career-focused economic terms as the opposition. This reductionist approach is destined to fail.

The choice so many students face is a despairing one that can only resolve incompletely. Instead of resigning ourselves to a one-sided specialization, we must approach our learning as “One Great Subject” (to use Sir Albert Howard’s phrase), educating ourselves towards holistic mastery and the solving (and posing) of complex problems. Any significant problem in the world involves details and contexts that span countless disciplines. It is one thing to know how to make something, it is another entirely to question the value of the made thing and the layers of systems—economic and socio-political—surrounding its creation.

Approaching our work and study with the limit and expectation of “No ideas but in things” allows us to work with a technical proficiency that is inspired by, and in service of, an affectionate and thoughtful purpose. Instead of the laborer being subject to toilsome work (or the technician being engulfed by detail), the work can, if they have the freedom, become the subject of a more complete craft. Farming, for instance, as an isolated physical act is back-breaking, never-ending work. Many have described it in the harshest and dullest terms. Yet, others, given the right approach, treasure their ability to take part in the act of creation. Rather than seeing their work as a set of minimum obligations, they inspiringly take up the work of stewarding the land and feeding their community.

Before I delve any further into the ideas behind the Saxifrage School, I must reference the poem where I began. It is the longer name of the Saxifrage School. The idea of balance and reconciliation it contains not only echoes Sir Albert Howard’s “One Great Subject”, but also helps us approach the need for a complete idea of Health in our life’s work. To sit all day considering ideas is physically destructive. So is working all day pushing things around. Our fully capable bodies and minds—our embodied intellect—requires complete exercise to maintain health. Our wellness requires us to recognize the need for physical and intellectual balance in our work. Likewise, our education is best served when we recognize the embodied intellect and approach a education as praxis, not as pedagogy or content—learning not as theory or practice. It is best served too when our learning experiences take into account the requirements of bodies and the nuances of context.

We learn and remember—or fail to learn and remember—from fear, from pain, from rarity, from comfort, and from relationship as much as we do from the quality or medium of content. The atmospheric conditions (the things) have as much to bear on our education as the pedagogy (the ideas) and should be treated as content as much as the texts or lectures. For William Carlos Williams the work of poetry—the work of reconciling ideas and things—was one of necessity. He could not be a physician if he were not a poet and he could not be a poet if he were not a physician.

A Sort of a Song

“Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
— through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.”

— William Carlos Williams