Sunday, May 25, 2008

I'll learn you some lessons

Wherein a previous quote from the same book

Two posts on education:

Reminds me of a section from one of my favorite books. Mark Helprin, Memoir from Antproof Case. At fourteen, after murdering a man in self-defense, our narrator is sentenced to an asylum in the German mountains. Run by Jesuits, they can't afford to train the children under their care; but they've worked out something:
"We have designed our own educational system, and it works. I though of it myself after I visited the United States in 1910 and watched a game of baseball.

"What you call the pitchers were practicing along the sidelines. Well, being a man of science, I leaned over the rail and asked, 'Do you always practice with the same-sized ball?' In fact, they did, or at least they said they did. 'Why?' I inquired. 'Why not?' they inquired back.

"I then told them that it was obvious in regard to physics and physiology that they would enormously improve their performance if they practiced with balls of radically different sizes -- a pea-sized pebble on the one hand, and a soccer ball on the other . The difficulties and exertions of doing so would make them champions with a ball tailored for the fist and of the proper weight and density for throwing.

"I don't know if they followed my system, but we do, as you shall see."

The lessons begin:

My first task, dictated by Father Bromeus for reasons that he would not disclose but that later appeared quite obvious, was to memorize the telephone directory of Zurich. To this day I can recall names and numbers that are no longer associated and that are forever lost, but that once made the hearts of boys and girls race as they saw on the page a code that would bring them, by voice and ear, to the houses of their overlords.

The object of Father Bromeus was to train my mind to take in information. This was the French half of the education I received at Chateau Parfilage. I can still tell you that the atomic weight of cobalt is 58.93, that the altitude of the railroad station at Neuchatel is 482 meters, that Shakespeare used the word glory 94 times, that the Italian word for dipthong is dittongo, that (though I cannot tell you who invented the pickle) Johann Georg Pickel invented the gas lamp in 1786, and that Roberts captured Bloemfontein on March 13, 1900, though Bloemfontein was never able to capture Roberts.

Father Bromeus presented me with so many tables, lists, texts, photographs, paintings, and musical compositions to memorize that I spent hours and hours a day on it. Soon I had mastered rapid apprehension and assimilation of virtually any material, never to be forgotten unless I deliberately banished it. Only later would the next test come, which was just as shocking as suddenly being presented with the Zurich telephone book. This was the task of analysis, which, with Jesuitical discipline, Father Bromeus divided up into interpolation, extrapolation, induction, reduction, and deduction.

When I had started upon these things, I was examined. "I have learned from Father Bromeus," the rector said, "that you have at your command the information necessary to tell me how you would, from this location, kill all the grasshoppers in Paris."

"I beg your pardon, sir"? I asked, never having been forced to this kind of thought.

Because I was not allowed to employ anyone in Paris or use the railroads to ship tens of thousands of birds and bats to the City of Light, I had to design and manufacture a huge cannon. This involved everything I had learned about physics, metallurgy, chemistry, geometry, and geology (I had to mine my own metals, make my own tools, build my own buildings). Unfortunately, to get the grasshoppers, I had to destroy the whole city. My answer was only hypothetical. How was I to know that it would be the underlying logic of the rest of the twentieth century?

Every day, the rector would present such a problem -- sometimes purely scientific, sometimes technological, poetic, historical, political, or aesthetic, and often a combination of several of these. His queries were always interesting and often ingenious. Even when they were fruitless, the many frustrating approaches that we followed toward their unobtainable solution made such problems immensely entertaining. He might say, "You are to write a sonnet after Shakespeare, in French, using the rules of Italian prosody," or he might drop me into the forests of northern Canada and instruct me (all in theory, of course) to survive the winter and construct a coliseum of snow and walrus bones.

Where I erred, he corrected; when I was lost, he showed me the beginning of the way. My favorite problems were the short imperatives: "Solve the problems of Revolutionary France." (First I had to figure out what they were.) "Design an electrical machine for the flawless generation of music." This I did, in theory, and many years later in Brazil I encountered what are called synthesizers, and I smiled. "Develop the economy of Egypt." I had a good plan: they didn;t follow it. "Tell me what this is," he would say, handing me a flask of goo. Having committed to memory many of the techniques of qualitative and quantitative analysis, I would return in a few days with a list of components in their absolute and proportionate quantities.

All this while doing hard labor in fields, rising at five, climbing ice-clad peaks, and cutting and hauling firewood. As if to confirm that life is the academy of fate, the only question he asked more than once was, as usual, in the form of a command. In fact, he presented me with the same challenge four or five times, and each time I took a few days to make an intricate plan. His exhortation was, "Rob the Bank of England."


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