First published in Dutch on the 23rd of november 2015
Man and Priest
A middle-aged man goes to a priest. He says, “priest, I only have a few years left to live so I decided I want to go to heaven. I have done some research and Catholicism is my best chance. I already started, I have been baptized and took the Holy Communion. I confess every month and developed a convenient app to track my sins to remind me to go to confession again. I am coming to you for some additional tips.” Astounded, the priest looks at him, and says, “but sir, you do have to believe.” The man takes out his notebook and mutters, “I must believe.” The Priest: “no, you don’t understand me. You REALLY have to believe.”. “I REALLY have to believe” he repeats, underlining “believe” in his notebook. “Thank you, Priest, please continue!”.
I recently told this “joke” during a lecture on the annual Education Day of the Radboud University Nijmegen. I wanted to point out that the willingness to behave “well” and sometimes even actually behaving in this way, is not necessarily sufficient. Most of us can probably identify with the priest. The motives of the man contradict – in one way or another – the actual belief, despite his willingness. It will be extraordinarily hard for the priest to explain this to the man. Chances are that he will ultimately give up and say, “you will probably never understand it!”, while the man would say to the priest, “why are you overcomplicating this?”.
In education, we sometimes have similar conversations with students. They want to finish the assignment and we want them to learn something from it. They are strongly focused on the end result and we are focused on (having learned) a certain state that refers back to the entire process rather than the end result. As is the case in the dialogue between the man and the priest, this difference in focus can lead to extremely frustrating conversations.
Poiesis and Praxis
I have dealt with this difference in attitude in my essays more often (i.a. Let’s Play and Homo Praxis). I referred to Aristotle who points to this difference as the difference between Poiesis and Praxis. The Poiesis is the umbrella term for result-oriented actions. All activities have a function to reach a result. The result is exterior to the process of actions in the same way that sawing and polishing wooden planks is not part of the finished table. This is opposite to Praxis. These are process-oriented actions that are fully focused on the actions themselves. The most obvious example is playing a game. The playing of the game is the pleasure, not the possible victory.
For Aristotle the Praxis was superior to the Poiesis, because poietic actions are subordinate to the result. Only if the result is attained, will the actions be good, otherwise they won’t be. For practical actions this is not the case. The actions are good by definition. This may seem like an abstract and philosophical opposition, but this difference is clearly visible in practice.
Doubt and Frustration
Throughout the years, I have counselled many students that stall with their thesis. A large number of them don’t manage to proceed because they are entangled in the dilemma of “what is good?”. What are good actions? What is the right theory, research plan or question? What is good reasoning? For them, the terms of “good” and “right” are connected to the desired result (a positive evaluation, a high grade or a degree). However, they are unable to find the answers to their questions because the result is exterior to the process and therefore beyond their line of vision. It is, in most of the projects in our lives, simply impossible to foresee actions that guarantee a positive end result.
For thesis students, this insecurity leads them to struggle with even taking one step on a daily basis. Because they don’t know which way to go, their doubt and frustration increases every day. They cling to their supervisors, hoping they will lead them in the right direction. They are willing to do everything the supervisor says. But this is a waste of time. The supervisor cannot determine if a certain decision will guarantee a positive end result. For the supervisor, this result is also beyond the line of sight. The Poiesis falls short!
The Priest and the Teacher
The story of the man and the priest is not only a joke. The consequences can be quite severe. When the man takes his goals seriously and the deadline approaches, he will grow increasingly insecure and anxious. “What is a good catholic action?” and “will this be sufficient to go to heaven?”. As the answers remain wanting, the man will become more and more frustrated with the lack of clarity from the priest, just as the student will start to be annoyed by his supervisor. The priest and the teacher agree on one thing: the willingness of the student/man to do whatever the teacher/priest says in order to attain the result (degree/heaven), will not lead to that desired result.
Learning as Praxis
We teachers and supervisors realize very well that the learning process is often undermined when people act in a purely functional attitude. This is not really visible when everything goes smoothly, but it becomes clear when it goes wrong. The student with a poietic attitude that receives the news that his work is substandard will want clarity and does not accept vague responses. He wants to know which actions are needed to reach the goal. It is irrelevant what these actions are. They are, to him, subject to the desired result. However, we are especially concerned with the process of the actions! We want to see their judgment, and this requires direction and responsibility. But the student, in his willingness, makes clear that he wants to change everything except taking responsibility.
Every request for clarity brings the student further away from taking the responsibility he ought to take. The capability to decide on the course of your project through an uncertain situation is precisely the right model for “having learned something”; just like being able to act charitably without knowing whether it will take you to heaven, is the model for belief.
In the classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the writer, Robert Pirsig, gives a beautiful example of the vulnerability of Poiesis. The screw that keeps the hood of engine of the motorcycle in place is a trivial little thing until we wear out its head in a hurry. All of a sudden, the screw has become essential because without being able to unscrew it, we cannot take the hood off and repair the engine underneath. That little screw has become the difference between freedom and fun on the road, and a heap of scrap in the garage.
In order to solve this problem, one should let go of the Poiesis and practice Praxis. One shall have to focus on the context of the screw and attune a certain process of actions according to this. What is the shape of the screw? How deep does it go? From which material is it made? How is it inserted into the hood? What is actually its function? The answers to these questions are essential but not only because something went wrong. Whereas the poietic question of “how to get my motorcycle back on the road as quickly as possible?”, is almost impossible to answer with a lot of unclarity, the practical questions about the screw are easily answered and can be logically traced from the context.
Logics of the Context
The lack of clarity that frustrates most students is often caused by their own focus. A fully poietic focus automatically causes a lack of clarity because the desired result can never be guaranteed. People ignore that which does provide clarity, that is, the present context with valuable practical actions and its contents. These are often directly visible or easily deducible. I explain this to the students through an analogy between studying and building. Studying for a test or being given the assignment to write a thesis are comparable to this. For example, once it is clear that you are going to build a bathroom that has to meet certain requirements, its realization largely follows from that logically. Among other things, it ought to have a well-working shower. We all roughly know what is meant by that. It has to have a decent waterflow, an easily operational warm/cold regulator, and it shouldn’t drip once the faucet is turned off. It would be a bit strange if we would continually ask the client what he means PRECISELY. When is the waterflow decent? When is the faucet easily operational? Is one drop a day drip-free enough? The client does not have to explain this into its finer details. He should be able to trust that you as “builder” know what you are supposed to do.
Freedom and Responsibility
The same goes for students. As soon as the assignment is clear, they have to focus on the connections and logic within the subject instead of focusing solely on the end result. The same goes for teachers, by the way. The Education Day’s title was: “balance between freedom and responsibility” as though these are opposite concepts and hard to reconcile. Apparently it is a dilemma whether you give students freedom or point out their responsibilities. But this dilemma only exists from the perspective of the Poiesis. The balance between freedom and the responsibility to be academically successful, is indeed a difficult question because this success can never be guaranteed. One has to focus on the courses and assignments within academic education. Every project has its own connections and logic from which the balance between freedom and responsibility can be logically deduced. We must therefore all be willing to play the game without focusing solely on the marbles. As Shakespeare once said:
“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.”