Monday, February 13, 2012

What if students can' t show that they understand?


I am a science fiction tragic but this semester I missed out on teaching our senior speculative fiction elective. So I was talking with Mrs L about which books should be in the speculative fiction course and what it should cover.

The classic way to teach a course like this is to load it up with dystopias (and may be a utopia or two). Serious political works like 1984 and Brave New World tend to make the grade in this version of the course and genre science fiction tends to miss out. But I’m not a big fan of some of the dystopian science fiction classics. Basically, I think Brave New World is a terrible novel so we decided to mix it up and include some genre stuff.
I really hesitated, however, when fantasy was suggested.

Understand, this isn’t because I don’t like reading fantasy. I do really. I got a little obsessive recently about George R.R. Martin and I’ve got fond memories of slogging through Tolkien as a little kid. But I find it more difficult to justify fantasy as an object of study. I knew I loved it, but I couldn’t understand why. Anyway I didn’t convince L and, amongst other things, their students are going to read Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Because we were talking about it L lent me The Other Wind. Lovely to find a series you thought was finished has another book in it.

I’ve been obsessive since I cracked it (leaving me a little unprepared for some classes). Le Guin’s world is beautiful and I can’t get enough. If you missed A Wizard of Earthsea let me say first – go read it!

Go on, I’ll wait. It’s only short.

Done? The central idea of the novel is that there is a language in which men can only speak the truth (A similar premise gets a science fiction treatment in the excellent Embassytown by China MiĆ©ville). The language the world was made in. Everyone in this world has a true name known only to them and perhaps a few of their closest confidantes. If you know someone’s true name, you have power over them. Le Guin makes this such a convincing and organic part of her world that when I’m speaking aloud I can only refer to her main character as Sparrowhawk – the nickname he uses in public instead of his true name.

Something about the series seems fundamentally true to me. It is deeply metaphorical and I think it says something fundamental about the nature of human beings and of language and of the world that I can’t really explain. The fact that I can’t explain it is why I hesitate to use it as a teaching text. May be that is the mark of a really great novel, that it can’t be summarised in any satisfactory way. I think it is Ken Robinson who tells a story about a choreographer asked to explain what her dance meant. The answer was something like: “If I could say it in words I wouldn’t have gone to the enormous trouble of dancing it.” The Earthsea saga has that same quality, I feel like I am glimpsing some great truth through it that I can only feel, not explain.

I love the novel, clearly, and I’ve taught it before. But I don’t know how to assess student understanding of something when I can’t even demonstrate that understanding myself. Perhaps there are some things in this discipline of English that you can’t teach. Not because they can’t be known, or because students need some innate gift to be able to understand them, but because the understanding of another person can never really be grasped from the outside. 

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