Monday, April 27, 2009

the undiscovered country

prologue note: the following is a speech that i give to students in every class i teach. it's a life-lessons talk meant to help them see just how education (theirs, and humanity's in general) fits in with the nature of life and living. while ostensibly meant more to deal with school and the process of school, i think the principles extend to include other aspects of life, like art or athletics. because whether student or artist or athlete or human being, the process and principle and purpose is the same: education, and the more universal implications that arise from the expansion and development of who we are--in our minds as well as our bodies and ultimately our souls.

fundamentally, we are creatures of curiousity. we cannot be content to just simply live. confronted by the eternity that is the universe, we find ourselves before the enormity of all existence, and are driven to an existentialist state calling for us to find our place within it. in the face of the enigma so mysterious, so profound, so sacred, so supreme, we are moved, because we realize all of that which lies without us also lies within us, and that it and we and all of this is really just the same...and so that to look upon the unknown is to look upon ourselves, our world, this cosmos, and even the reaches of creation that lie beyond, and come to know its face and see its nature and understand it to be its our this one soul.

except there's one slight problem: the universe is infinite. the phenomena within it are infinite. in number and in complexity. and we, unfortunately, are not. we are finite, with limited bodies, limited senses, and limited minds constrained within limited life spans. as a result, there's only so much we can take in, only so much we can ingest, only so much we can understand, and only so much time for us to do so.

the best we can do--and the only thing that has ever been done--is that each of us endeavors to understand as much as we can as well as we can as fast as we can, and pass on our understanding as knowledge to those who come after us, so that the gradual passage of the generations of our species accumulates a store of collective wisdom about that which we call existence. like a painting of the pointilist movement, we individually each bring our own spot of color and lay it upon the canvas of our comprehension, and over time the spots gather and grow and manifest a larger picture that in total comes to form the image of our understanding of the universe.

such an analogy, however, is a disservice to the divine. it lacks the scale of the sacred. and hence profanes that which is most assuredly profound.

rather, the better picture--the greater image--is perhaps this:

the universe can be seen as a vast unknown, unexplored, untouched, undiscovered country, lying in the halo of dawn's horizon, reaching forth to the frontiers of eternity, unfolding great and gleaming and glorious and glittering in the glow that is god's creation...and it beckons us to learn its mysteries.

but we don't know this country. there are no trails. nor markers. nor guides. nor even any maps. at best, all we have are the barest scraps of outlines on paper marking trails traced by explorers who have traveled ever so bravely before us. and the records of their journeys have been compiled slowly, carefully, painstakingly, one by one, as each of them sought to venture a little farther than those who came before and dared to expand the confines of our known world before they took their final journeys past. so that their stories became our stories, and our stories grew to become the scriptures of our souls.

and the stories continue with you.

you see, the early years of personal development--first preschool, then primary school, then secondary school--are largely about learning how to read the map. to see just what the symbols mean, and just how they relate to what we know, and just what direction corresponds to what location how and why and when and where.

the next phase of growth builds upon this, with undergraduate years serving to fill content of the map, so that it identifies certain schools of thought laid out in certain locations, and certain scholars clustered in certain communities, and certain lines of reasoning that lead along certain paths to certain destinations.

for most people, education can end with this. for the majority, it does. people graduate from college with the tools to live within the known world. it is entirely possible for them to live their entire lives within the confines of the map and be entirely happy. and it is entirely possible to live a complete and fulfilling life by remaining entirely within the borders of our understanding.


have you ever wondered what lay beyond the borders of the map?

have you ever wondered what lay beyond the reaches of that which is already known?

have you ever wondered what lay out there--far out there--in the vast, great, undiscovered country?

that's where the next stage of development comes in. it's in graduate school where you learn the borders of the map, where you learn what is known (in some ways, a fair amount) versus what is not known (in all ways, absolutely everything). more importantly, however, it's where you are taught the ways in which we venture forth into the unknown, the tools and methods and instincts and reasoning we use to navigate our way through the uncharted lands. it's where you are taught how to explore the unexplored.

this means that professors, researchers, scholars, all those engaged in the great endeavor of education--theirs ours everyone's--are really all explorers. each one. setting out to explore the unexplored, so that they can learn what lies beyond. out there, far out there, in the undiscovered country.

you may wonder as to that term.

this is yet one more example of how a whole lot more can be learned about life from art than it ever could be learned from science. the words are from Shakespeare's Hamlet. it's found in Act III, Scene I, in the famous soliloquoy of Hamlet, where he muses over "to be, or not to be, that is the question..." the passage itself reads "...the undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveler has ever returned..."

for most readers, "the undiscovered country" is typically interpreted as death. but in a way, it's really about mystery, about anything that is unknown, and so the analogy still holds as to it representing the enigma that is this existence, and the epicenter of all our efforts to understand its truths.

the difference, however, is that we hold the hope that all travelers to the undiscovered country shall return, and bring back to us what they have found and record for us what they have learned and add with us what they have seen to the borders of our map, so that even as we are confronted by the eternity that is the universe and the enormity that is existence and the enigma that is so mysterious, so profound, so sacred, so supreme, we can look upon the unknown and see that we look upon ourselves, our world, this cosmos, and even the reaches of creation that lie beyond, and can come to know its face and see its nature and understand it to be its our this one soul.

and in so doing, come a little closer to divine majesty. a little closer to holy sanctity. a little closer to the presence of an almighty god.

epilogue note: you get it, don't you? the distinction between high school, bachelor's degree, graduate degree or amateur, elite, professional artist or athlete doesn't matter. it doesn't even matter if it's student, artist, athlete, or anything else at all. ultimately, the distinction is really about becoming the best human being you can be...about acquiring the skills and having the motivation to become an explorer, to pursue the adventure, to venture forth into the vast, great, undiscovered country that lies before us and beckons us to learn its mysteries. all of them.

1 comment:

Bob Almighty said...

Education as an undiscovered country..interesting concept...I wish the rest of the system would adapt that type of mentality because it might actually allow the students to prosper.