Essay 76: Education and the Question of a “Scheme of Things”

The French classic The Thibaults (Les Thibault) from 1922 has a dialog about the presence or absence of “a scheme of things” behind everything. This Roger Martin du Gard (died 1958, Nobel 1937) classic gives us an insight into the relationship between education and this “scheme of things.”


The Thibaults is a multi-volume roman-fleuve (saga novel) by Roger Martin du Gard, which follows the fortunes of two brothers, Antoine and Jacques Thibault, from their upbringing in a prosperous Catholic bourgeois family to the end of the First World War.

Antione, one of the Thibault brothers, has a conversation with a priest at the very end of the novel:

“I talked just now about a Universal Order and a Scheme of Things…actually we’ve as many reasons to question the existence of a Scheme of Things as to take it for granted. From his actual viewpoint, the human animal I am observes an immense tangle of conflicting forces. But do these forces obey a universal law outside themselves, distinct from them? Or do they, rather, obey—so to speak—internal laws, each atom being a law unto itself, that compels it to work out a ‘personal destiny’? I see these forces obeying laws which do not control them from outside but join up with them, but do nothing more than in some way stimulate them…And anyhow, what a jumble it is, the course of natural phenomena! I’d just as soon believe that causes spring from each other ad infinitum, each cause being the effect of another cause, and each effect the cause of other effects.

“Why should one want to assume at all costs a Scheme of Things?

“It’s only another bait form our logic-ridden minds. Why try to find a common ‘purpose’ in the movements of atoms endlessly clashing and glancing off each other? Personally, I’ve often told myself that everything happens just as if nothing led to anything, as if nothing had a meaning.”

Antione shook his head. “that blind appeal—to what? To that problematic Scheme of Things! To a deaf and dumb abstraction, that takes no heed of us.”

(Roger Martin du Gard, The Thibaults, Bantam Modern Classic, 1968, pages 768-770)

All bodies of knowledge like religion, philosophy, science posit a scheme of things which is perhaps subtle or occluded (“The Occluded Imam” or “mystery of the Holy Trinity”) or “the mind of God” (Steven Hawking’s way of getting at this) or “the Method of Absolute Doubt” leading to final certainty (Descartes).

String theory talks this way too.

In our own educational remediation effort, we are agnostic about any Scheme of Things and do not try to link books, lectures, courses to some pre-existing schema or “final layer underlying everything” at all.

Students create an evolving overview by “circum-spective” “walking around” or meta-intelligence and there is no ultimate “Eureka moment” where “everything is illuminated” (to use the title of the contemporary novel by that name.) We also do not deny the possibility of the existence of a Scheme of Things. Education thought of this way is an exploration and quest that does not end and there does not have to be a final “knowledge map“ or “truth atlas” other than home-made student “composite sketches” which are tentative and not final or “apodictic.”