Sterne: "Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation. As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all; -- so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding, is to halve the matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself."

Jean Giono: "Conversations. Tout se passe en conversations: allusions, finesses d'un mot à l'autre, finasseries; contresens soigneusement placés, subtilités des rapports de timbres; un mot pris pour l'autre; silences bien employés; bégaiements plus aigus que paroles directes; points de suspension; le mot qu'on ne trouve pas, qu'on cherche, tu sais bien, je ne sais que ça, tu te rappelles, c'était à la foire de B. le type qui marchandait les brebis, qu'est-ce qu'il a dit, il parlait des ... (on montre d'un clin d'oeil la famille du gendre -- qui sont attablés, boivent, mangent, rotent, s'essuient la gueule -- ou bien on désigne la tante Marie -- qui est attablée, boit, mange, rote, s'essuie la gueule). Des gens qui sont saouls ne le paraissent pas; c'est toute la science de savoir dire des mots énormes avec des visages de poker (au fond d'eux-mêmes, la grande jouissance de jouer le jeu qu'ils savent être le jeu des grands et de le jouer à tombeau ouvert). Des gens qui paraissent saouls ne le sont pas; ils ont l'air de parler au hasard, mais c'est pour sonder, savoir jusqu'où ils peuvent aller. Ils boiront après; ils ne boiront pas; ils iront prendre l'air. Entre un nom et son adjectif, ils lèvent le verre et boivent; entre un verbe et son sujet, ils sortent pour pisser; la chose est dite; cochon qui s'en fâcherait mais cochon qui s'en dédit. Et tout le monde est orfèvre. Tout se comprend. Quelquefois, un type qui se contient mal donne du poing dans la gueule à quelqu'un qui a dit simplement merci, ou qui n'a rien dit du tout. Parce que merci contenait amplement de quoi recevoir le poing sur la gueule; ou que le silence était éloquent."

Sir Walter Scott: "A Conversation man must not only wind the thread of his argument gracefully but also know when to let go."

De Quincey: "A feeling dawned on me of a secret magic lurking in the peculiar life, velocities, and contagious ardour of conversation, quite separate from any which belonged to books. In the electric kindling of life between two minds, -- and far less from the kindling natural to conflict (though that also is something) than from the kindling through sympathy with the object discussed in its momentary coruscation of shifting phases, -- there sometimes arise glimpses and shy revelations of affinity, suggestion, relation, analogy that could not have been approached through any avenues of methodical study. The reader must be well aware that many philosophic instances exist where a change in the degree makes a change in the kind. Some illustration of this truth occurs in conversation, where a velocity in the movement of thought is made possible (and often natural) greater than ever can arise in methodical books, and where, 2dly, approximations are more obvious and easily effected between things too remote for a steadier contemplation."

Bernard Groethuysen: "Ce qu'on aime au XVIIIe siècle, c'est l'esprit. C'est l'art de n'exprimer une pensée qu'à moitié et de la laisser deviner. L'esprit est ce qui fait tout le charme de la conversation. Dans les entretiens, tout semble en quelque sorte se suivre, comme les pensées dans notre cerveau. Mais on ne saurait dire comment les idées nous sont venues. L'un croit posséder la vérité, mais elle lui échappe aussitôt. L'autre reprend la pensée du premier, et sans s'en douter en fait tout autre chose. Et tout à coup une comparaison semble tout éclairer. Mais ce n'est qu'un feu follet. De nouvelles pensées se présentent en relief. Il faut rompre alors, avant que tout ne devienne trop claire pour éviter la banalité peu courtoise d'assertions trop évidentes. Tout affirmation doit contenir assez d'inexactitude pour que les autres puissent toujours dire: `Mais...'. Il faut qu'il reste des obscurités qui excitent l'esprit. Le va-et-vient des pensées ne doit pas être contrarié. Il faut une légère nuance de fausseté pour donner de la délicatesse à une pensée, la bella falsitas de l'épigramme. L'homme raisonnable ne déraisonne jamais. Il en est autrement de l'homme d'esprit. Il vaut mieux dire: `Ce n'est pas si fou que cela n'en a l'air', que de dire: `Faites attention, vous allez entendre des paroles de sagesse!'"

Michael Oakeshott: "In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an enquiry or a debate; there is no `truth' to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterance does not depend upon their all speaking the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing. Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument. Thoughts of different species take wing and play around one another, responding to each other's movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions. Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present; nobody cares what will become of them when they have played their part.

It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilised man from the barbarian. Indeed, it seems not improbable that it was the engagement in this conversation (where talk is without a conclusion) that gave us our present appearance, man being descended from a race of apes who sat in talk so long and so late that they wore out their tails."


`Courses' deserve the name because they are carefully designed, from units and components. These terms themselves are also components, in this case designed to produce a sort of onomatopoeic hum, as of activity at once purposeful and mantric.

What they also produce is excuses. For it's inevitable that somewhere along the line I missed one of the bits, every one of which is by definition componential, essential. Why look further for an explanation of my lack of success? Indeed, it would be positively subversive to succeed nevertheless. Years after you'll find me striking the same melancholy attitude: "If only I hadn't missed that class, or course, I wouldn't have my present difficulties with meaning & referent, or semi-colons, or the subjunctive."

The length of a Course is the sum of two factors: the time it takes for the teacher to lecture it, & the time it takes for the student to absorb it. The former has been laid down over evolutionary time, and would be reducible (if at all) only by radical genetic engineering.

However, if the units can be made simple enough, absorption-time can be reduced to zero, or (as they say) `neglected.' This would have other advantages. The time it all takes, so calculated, would be the same for everybody. Better yet, unplanned inputs -- always an obstacle to good administration -- would have nowhen to happen.


Proust: "I was beginning to learn the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority in those persons towards whom it is directed, though not to the point of dispelling that sense, for in that case it would no longer have any reason to exist. 'But you are our equal, if not our superior', the Guermantes seemed, in all their actions, to be saying; and they said it in the most courteous fashion imaginable, to be loved, admired, but not to be believed; that one should discern the fictitious character of this affability was what they called being well-bred; to suppose it to be genuine, a sign of ill-breeding.

Covering the ground

Students think they have a right to expect that Teacher will `cover' the curriculum -- i. e. provide (a) the official set of possible Questions and (b) their right Answers (or where to find them); and that the exam will consist of some of (a), lightly camouflaged, and require a facsimile of the corresponding (b).

The reality falls some way short of this expectation. For example, sometimes some of (a) isn't covered, though (b) is -- i.e. the lectures or handouts contain at least one motherless Answer snatched from the Question to which it owes its existence. If this was deliberate, you may expect in the exam a Question you havn't been told about (and consequently have never thought about before) which will turn out to go, as in Happy Families, with one of those surplus Answers -- it doesn't really matter which. Even if you pick the wrong one, you may get enough credit to pass, for being a dutiful memoriser, and also because you can't, in the nature of the case, have been taught how to reunite orphan Answers with their long-lost Questions.


At the crux on some early page we were directed to, and innocently took, the high road; not realizing the treasures of less innocent meaning the crux would acquire from its unexpected consequences, some of which are mentioned in the next fifty or a hundred pages, and slowly absorbed over the next five or ten years. Yet the conventional expositor goes to some pains to present the crux in `rigorous' lapidary terms, as if salvation lay in the scrupulous disinfection of anything resembling an overtone, or expectation of nuances ahead.

Accepting that we must try the lapidary formulation, in order to focus on it the maximum fire-power; it by no means follows that we should present that formulation in the same style. Definitions are dangerous, encouraging the suckers within us all to look at the world through definition-coloured spectacles, unless presented in a setting as informal as the taste of the time will tolerate. Definitions require to be exhibited at arm's length, and to be given a special kind of reading, and are more likely to get it if they stand out against a contrasting background. `Let's see how far can we get on the formal tack' is OK, if said in a tone which conveys that you can only measure progress by coming on the opposite tack. (Yet it is true that a sacred text can be shown, with the never-absent aid of a sufficiently orthodox and adequately rewarded interpreter, to contain the answer to any conceivable difficulty.)


The works of Teufelsdröckh are very long (no-one here has read them all), and his thought notoriously subtle (and no-one here has made any substantial contribution to its clarification). Question: is his presence, nevertheless, on the first-year curriculum to be explained in spite of the above (e. g. on grounds of his importance), or because of it ?

The Proposition enshrined in the Syllabus is true of some domain, but which? Learners earn the right to use it in further argument only by testing some part of its application by themselves. Teacher can do no more than illustrate that exercise, while trying to make it clear that what he is providing is only an illustration.

This last part is so difficult that it may be better to settle for staying out of the way.

In some lights the curriculum looks like a collection of discrete propositions -- `facts', theorems, formulæ, rules; in others, as elusive relations loosely linking propositions of varying status and unspecified number, whose discreteness is no more than provisional -- relations ranging from simple qualifications like "except for" to confessions like "at the same time (in apparent defiance of logic) as". Such relations resist enumeration, being hard to find even by those who enjoy looking for them, and harder still within an atomic tradition. Yet they far outnumber the discrete propositions of any traditional curriculum.

The Syllabus is a highly stylized art-form. Like the haiku or the pantoum, it accepts linguistic constraints of astonishing rigour: one syntax-pattern; a small number of Name-Types (period-names, genre-names, theory-names); and, within each Name-Type, a small number of permissible exponents.

Items like these well deserve their name: components. Smooth, interchangeable, they bring customization within the reach of all. They symbolize acceleration before they even leave the shelf.

One begins to see the advantages of a grammar without verbs. A list of nouns has it both ways, claiming credit for its hospitality to an indefinite number of guest-propositions, while always disclaiming responsibility for the actual choice. It can accommodate anything; while allowing the naive reader to suppose that he now knew, or was at least supposed to know, what in fact it will accommodate. The reader unfortunate enough to combine the belief that he was now supposed to know with the inarticulate conviction that he doesn't in fact yet know will be confirmed in his own deepest anxieties.

But (come to think of it) what reader? Whose head is supposed to nod gratefully at words like Component 5: The Seventeenth Century? The intending applicant (`Just what I've always wanted to do, with just the kind of teacher that delicately individual style suggests!')? The Big-Brother curriculum-expert, who appreciates the true significance of Component 5 and the splendid academic values hinted at by its juxtaposition to Components 1 to 4? The rate-payer (`A hundred years'll keep 'em busy')? Our professional colleagues, so that they can tell we are with it, or above it? The pragmatic student, who now knows what preparatory reading not to do? The bureaucrat, or the barrack-room lawyer, who don't care what you do provided they can be employed in checking it against what you said you'd do (Main ploy, the Still Earlier Deadline. Main counter-ploy, the Commitment of Zero Specificity)? The examiners, each trying to keep discussion at the level where his inability to understand his colleagues' questions can still be laughed off? Oneself, who would otherwise not know what to do? and prefers even the simulacrum of approval to no communication at all?

Such is the Syllabus in its type-species, i. e. in Board minutes. It is also found in a different environment, bound up in batches in a Prospectus. In this context a few curriculum-authors allow themselves a richer syntax and a little more room, tacking a light logico-narrative structure round the theme-names or book-titles of the official version. Whether it is possible to do this convincingly is still an open question. In the standard case, as observed long ago by Ms J. Austen, the Prospectus `professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems.'

How can there be a helpful relationship between one paragraph and a year's work? How does one distinguish the helpful generalization from the domineering or exhibitionistic one? How does one separate the statement of problems from the indoctrination of answers? How does one convey any sense of what it will really be like?

What are curriculum-writers afraid of? Why do they stop with such complacency, or relief, when they have written down a few names, a pregnant sentence, rarely as much as an earnest paragraph? What satisfaction can it possibly give them to have such pinterisms given the Approval of the Board? And when their own Approval is sought in fair return, how can they bring themselves to call up the awful fire-power of Academic Respectability against such a loosely-stuffed dummy? Oddest of all: How do they contrive to interpret such behaviour as a victory for rationality?

Spirit may hang in chains Of verbs, & articles, & names; Letter `was only obeying orders'. However high we go, the tablets seem to come down, and always in stone, from higher still. Even at the very summit of Creation, the Universities contrive to adore the syllabuses they wrote themselves.

Nothing quite so tragicomic as the syllabuses of our grandparents' schooling.

We are in the all-too-familiar position of a teacher who sees some simple truth but seriously underestimates what its hearers stand to lose, in their various ways, by giving up their resistance to it; and who may therefore be tempted to suppose that one clear formulation meets the requirements of the curriculum; or, if not, that reiteration will eventually do the trick.

J. S. Mill: "When I said that our educational system needs other modifications still more than it needs the due introduction of modern languages and physical sciences, what I had chiefly in mind was improvements in the mode of teaching. It is disgraceful to human nature and society that the whole of boyhood should be spent in pretending to learn certain things without learning them. If science were taught as badly as Greek and Latin are taught, it would not do their minds more good."

Worse than the shortfall is the refusal to acknowledge it.

William Allington's syllabus, c. 1680: Arithmetic, Geometry, Trigonometry, Navigation, Surveying, Measuring, Fortification, Throwing of Bombs.

Kierkegaard: "`What is education? I should suppose that education was the curriculum one had to run through in order to catch up with oneself, and he who will not pass through this curriculum is helped very little by the fact that he was born in the most enlightened age."

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