Line from Tennyson Poem: Thinking about Education

Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson FRS (6 August, 1809 – 6 October, 1892) was the Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria’s reign and remains one of the most popular British poets.

One of his most famous poems is Locksley Hall (1835-1842).

In the poem, Tennyson predicts the rise of both civil aviation and military aviation with the following words:

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

A key line in this poem is: “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.”

This Tennyson line is not identical with what we are attempting here but it is helpful in terms of its basic intuition as to what “evaporates” from the mind and what might remain.

Our quest is more: develop through all these examples a sense of “omnidirectional zooming out” from any one field, lecture, book, movie, topic, question, quiz, discussion in schools and universities and create your own inner “map room.”

One “strange” characteristic of this particular map room is that it does not “banish the intensely personal” but considers that the basis and not some kind of illegitimate distraction. But that’s not all: it proposes that you hold in your mind the truth the education is itself found between the intensely personal and the global surround of techno-commerce, and that means that “the omnidirectional quest to understand” must always be aware of these levels and dimensions at the same time and in the same mind and person. Everything else is specialized training or platitudinous “motivational speaking.”

What we are introducing here is “equidistant” from all that and insists on an “all at once” evolving overview as odd as that may appear when you start.

You can neither “major in everything and all fields” and you also cannot neglect the deepest dimensions, taken together. This is the “razor’s edge” one must walk on.

“Pre-Understanding” as a Pillar of Better Education

One pillar of our education enhancement effort is the concept of “pre-understanding” which argues that there usually is a step that has been skipped in education and that is the overview or guidance or “lay of the land” step that comes before courses become efficacious. To tackle a 900-page text-book seems soul-crushing in the absence of “pre-understanding” (i.e., where are we and why are we doing this) other than the coercive power of schools (grades, scholarships, recommendations, grad school admissions, etc.)?

A person senses (not incorrectly) that economics as a field of study seems tedious and solipsistic (i.e., “talking to itself” and not to the student).

Can we give students a “pre-understanding” that opens a backdoor or side window into the field, where such doors and windows were never seen or noticed?

A person is trying to decide what airline they should use in flying from Boston to Nepal.

Immediate concerns are of course price, flexibility of ticket, safety reputation of different airlines, schedules, weather forecasts, routes, etc.

A person might argue: Flight A stops in Tokyo and I can make use of that because my friend who lives in the area will put me up for a weekend, whereby we can do the town and sights, talk about old times, re-connect, etc. There’s also some other task or chore there I could do and so the Tokyo interruption is to my liking. There’s some risks associated with this (i.e., my fiancée who’s traveling with me might find it boring). I’m not sure (uncertainty).

Now suppose somebody tells you that such “decision theory” is at the heart of economics and involves four dimensions:

  1. Costs.
  2. Benefits.
  3. Risks.
  4. Uncertainties.

Whether you know it or not, you are optimizing some things (usefulness and pleasure of travel) and minimizing other things (time in the air, costs, safety risks, comfort, etc.).

You don’t realize that you’re making subtle decisional calculations where risks and uncertainties that cannot be quantified, are somehow being weighted and weighed and quantified by you, implicitly and the decision calculus is quite complicated.

Suppose you were now given to understand that economics is about economizing (i.e., budgeting your costs, benefits, risks and uncertainties, some of which are qualitative and subjective) but you find a way to assign some kind of numbers and weighting factors (i.e., importance to you) in your actual but more likely, intuitive calculations.

Goaded and prompted by this “pre-understanding” you might then pick up a standard guide to actual cost-benefit analysis (such as Mishan’s classic book) and go through this previously unseen “door” into the field without being crushed by the feeling that it’s all so tiresome in its appearance.

Similarly, if you take a math concept like the square root of minus one, think of it as an imaginary “unicorn” of the mind, then how is it that it appears constantly in all science and math such as Euler’s equation, Schrödinger’s equation, electrical engineering textbooks, etc.

How can something so elusive be so useful?

This “pre-understanding” quest or detour or episode could give you, the student, a deep nudge through a hidden window or door into “math world.”
Without this “trampoline of pre-understanding,” an “ocean of math intricacy” seems to loom before you.

There Is No Fixed Entry Road into a Field

We keep emphasizing that the student must find a personal “driving question,” fortified by a sense of enchantment, to really “parachute” into a body of knowledge. Sitting in front of a nine-hundred page textbook, à la school and college, doesn’t do it.

Schools are mostly enervating at best and one has to productively rebel and “go underground” to “enter” a field as opposed to the effort one makes to survive quizzes and exams.

The sense or intuition that there is no set pathway or on-ramp or entry-road into fields or dimensions or aspects of knowledge but that it is always a self-created process of self-education is best expressed by a famous poem by the great Spanish poet, Antonio Machado (died in 1939):


“Traveler, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.

Traveller, the path is your tracks
And nothing more.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again
Traveller, there is no road
Only wakes in the sea.”

(Border of a Dream: Selected Poems of Antonio Marchado, Antonio Machado, Willis Barnstone (translator), Copper Canyon Press, 2003)