Tending the Garden

Tending the Garden

Thelwall thought it very unfair to influence a child’s mind by inculcating any opinions before it should have come years of discretion, and was able to choose for itself. I showed him my garden, and told him it was my botanical garden. “How so?” said he, “it is covered with weeds.”—“Oh,” I replied, “that is only because it has not yet come to its age of discretion and choice. The weeds, you see, have taken liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries.”

from Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Plato’s Euthydemus, Socrates asks an interesting question: “Which of mankind are the learners, the wise or the ignorant?” (275d). In pursuing the question, it is resolved that in some situations the wise teach the ignorant. However, the wise also teach the wise. Learning, thus, has two senses—the first is when you learn something that allows you do something you were not able to do before, and the second when you use knowledge to examine that same thing, done or spoken. The second sense is often called understanding, but, it is indeed learning too (278).

In a classroom, particularly a freshmen class, it is easy to condescend. I read something a long time ago that made me think—whenever possible, one should imagine that there is at least one person in the room with the potential to be much smarter than you. To condescend is to descend to the same level as the ignorant—the affix “con” does, after all, mean “with.” In this situation, understanding can never happen. I think the most common mode of condescension for teachers is pedantry. Coleridge has an excellent definition that I wanted to note for future reference so that I might attempt to avoid it.

PEDANTRY consists in the use of words unsuitable to the time, place, and company. The language of the market would be pedantic in the schools as that of the schools in the market. The mere man of the world, who insists that in a philosophic investigation of principles and general laws, no other terms should be used, than occur in common conversation, and with no greater definiteness, is at least as much of a pedant as the man of learning, who, perhaps overrating the acquirements of his auditors, or deceived by his own familiarity with technical phrases, talks at the wine table with his eye fixed on his study or laboratory; even though, instead of desiring his wife to make the tea, he should bid her to add the usual quantum sufficit of Thea Sinensis of the Oxyd of Hydrogen, saturated with Calorique. [the right amount of tea with hot water]

from On the General Principles of Genial Criticism

Blog discourse is problematic in this respect. People are so used to soapboxes, they don’t recognize a footstool when they see it. I do not agree with Blake or Nietzsche in thinking that what is great is necessarily obscure. I do think that understanding can only happen when neither party condescends. It is hard to achieve when writing for a potentially wide audience. You never know who is going to be sitting at the table. You can only try to be a genial host. This blog is a place where I like to work things out for myself, not a pulpit from which I preach to the world.

1 thought on “Tending the Garden”

  1. What if you don’t know your audience? How do you know how to talk (or write) to them so they won’t think you are being condescending? How do you find that middle ground between “talking down” to a person and talking over their heads?

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