Response Crafting

Questions + Comments: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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Q | Does Pirsig ever free himself from the institutional-think?

It would certainly appear that Pirsig has taken a stance against the institution of higher education. The concepts of education, learning, intelligence and knowledge are major elements of the overall dialogue, and Pirsig cites many criticisms of the institution of higher education, saying:

  • “Schools, churches, governments and political organizations of every sort all tended to direct thought for ends other than truth, for the perpetuation of their own functions, and for the control of individuals in the service of these functions.” (119)
  • “Schools teach you to imitate.” (193)
  • Universities “smugly and callously killed the creative spirit of their students with this dumb ritual of analysis, this blind, rote, eternal naming of things.” 
  • “The student’s biggest problem was a slave mentality which had been built into him by years of carrot-and-whip grading, a mule mentality.” (196)
  • “Hundreds of itsy-bitsy rules for itsy-bitsy people… It was all table manners, not derived from any sense of kindness or decency or humanity, but originally from an egotist desire to look like gentlemen and ladies.” (183)

And yet, despite all of his criticism, throughout the entire book Pirsig continues to subscribe and submit himself to the higher education model, enrolling in universities as a student and working for universities as a professor (taking leave from these roles twice.)

He cites his brief leave from his first professor position as an “escape” from the “trap:”

  • “He came to see his early failure as a lucky break, an accidental escape from a trap that had been set for him, and he was very trap-wary about institutional truths for the remainder of his time. He didn’t see these things and think this way at first, however, only later on.”

But, following this claim, he takes up a semester or quarter-long debate with a Chairman / professor a the University of Chicago (Chairman of the Committee on Analysis of Ideas and Study of Methods.) He ultimately “won” this debate over the course of several rhetoric classes, but watching this unfold, the reader feels almost… embarrassed for Pirsig. After all, if he are to believe that he is taking his material seriously, has a Serious Philosophical Agenda on how individuals might live their lives, and already knows that the institution of higher education is garbage, then the institution’s Chairman is not a worthy opponent. Why does he care so much what the Chairman thinks? Isn’t his own agenda larger than the limitations of the institution? By even engaging in this debate, he is legitimizing the very customs he earlier argued were nothing more than “table manners.”

And while he again, walking home after his “victory” over the Chairman (during which he celebrates his upperhand with an internal cheer of “Score!”) thinks to himself that:

  • “He has thrown away the chance to integrate himself into the organization by submitting to whatever Aristotelain thing he is supposed to submit to. But that kind of opportunity seems hardly worth the bowing and scraping and intellectual prostration necessary to maintain it. It is a low-quality form of life.”

I am led to believe that even at the end of it all, he had not yet escaped the grip the institution held. Because following this realization, he suffers a mental collapse, sitting down cross-legged on a floor in his home and staying there for so long that his wife divorces him. This is the behavior of someone defeated, not a victor.

And I don’t think he really recovered and removed himself from the system even by the time he finished this book. Because as it was sent to publication, story done and told, Pirsig spells “professor” capitalized as a proper noun: Professor. 

Q | How much authority did citing his own IQ offer his argument, either in his own eyes or the eyes of his readers? 

Pirsig openly tells us (in yet another nod to the institution – a belief to which he apparently subscribes) that “the authority of an argument could be jacked up with a technique called footnotes, which gives authoritative reference.” (209)

One might argue that when he cites his own IQ (170) as well as the measurement (Stanford-Binet), he is doing just that – citing a footnote to add authority to his own argument. Or, from another angle: telling rather than showing. (“You should believe me. I’m very smart. Likely much smarter than you.”) Did he fear that readers would doubt him if left to their own devices? Did he feel uncertain that his argument could stand on its own? I’m not sure. (And if that’s the case, for goodness sake, how are we even meant to measure the arguments of Socrates or Aristotle, whose IQs we don’t know for sure??)

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