Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Ophelia Syndrome

The Fair Ophelia
I take this as a good sign. A sign that maybe I am still learning a thing or two.

Yesterday in the mail came a copy of “I Think,” the BYU-Idaho-prepared text for the foundations English class I’ll begin teaching in September. I brought it to work with me today, anxious to read the bits of wisdom I’m supposed to impart to my students.

Forty-two pages into it, I come out chagrined and ashamed. But hopeful, because though I see signs that, during my undergraduate work at the University of Idaho, I was, for the most part, the Ophelia that Thomas G. Plummer warns in his essay – and required reading for the course – “Diagnosing and Treating the Ophelia Syndrome,” I also see signs that maybe I’m getting past the point where I want everything spoon-fed to me, where I want to know the hoops to jump through rather than finding the hoops for myself.

Not too long ago, I lamented that the journalism professors at the University of Idaho didn’t teach me what I’d need to know in the real world, and that the journalism professionals I worked with figured I was on my own in finding things out. I see now that I was an Ophelia, someone who wants to be treated in ignorance by someone who is going to give me everything I need to succeed, with the only effort on my part being the ability to absorb information.

I’ve had a growing realization that this approach is why I washed out of journalism: laziness. It’s an ugly word when applied to oneself, but in this case it appears apt.

But I am moving on. I’m no smarter, but I believe I’m learning to think. As Plummer says:
To put it differently, surrender the need for absolute truth. The English poet John Keats wrote a landmark letter to his brothers, George and Thomas Keats, on December 22, 1817. It has become known as the letter on "Negative Capability." In part it reads, struck me what quality went to form a Man [or Woman] of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

I do not want to do Keats an injustice by oversimplifying a magnificent statement, but I believe he is saying essentially this: The world is a complex place, and absolute truth is elusive, indeed; the greatness in Shakespeare may be attributed to the fact that he didn't feel inclined to explain what he could not, but only to portray the human condition as he saw it.

This concept drives a stake into the heart of the notion that Polonius has the answers. Overcoming the Ophelia Syndrome, becoming an independent thinker, includes giving up romantic notions of the world as a place where everything can be explained. It includes giving up the need to be fooled into thinking that Polonius does indeed have the answers when he does not. I wish he did. I wish I did. I wish any or all of my colleagues did. We do not. We can only join with students and others in the pursuit of answers, and even then we must remain ultimately in some degree of uncertainty.
The corollary to this is that to treat the Ophelia Syndrome, one must develop a healthy distrust of authorities and experts. Experts disagree more often than they agree. Those who pose as authorities are as likely to be a Polonius trying to turn Ophelia into a baby as they are to have a real handle on what they are talking about. Is there a solution? I can think of two: First, for every important opinion you hear, get a second opinion. Second, in the words of the Lord in the 9th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, study it out in your own heart.
I wondered why, just after I signed the contract to teach this course, why I was doing it. I went over the reasons once again: A good resume-builder. A way to see if teaching is my thing as I contemplate pursuing a doctorate. A diversion from boredom.

No. I see a bit more clearly that the reason I’m doing this is to keep stimulating that intellectual curiosity, the desire for learning. I saw that a little bit earlier this year when I wrote “Through A Glass Darkly” as a series of blog posts. Now I’m starting on the second book in that series. Maybe it’ll go somewhere. Maybe it won’t. But at least I’m taking some creative risks to use my brain, to get me to thinking.

This is what the teachers in my graduate program were cultivating – they didn’t want to show us the hoops and have us jump through them; they wanted us to think. For the most part, I did that. Maybe that’s why taking these courses was exciting. They were hard work. They set me to thinking.

I think that’s what doing this “teaching thing” is going to do once again: Help me to become a better thinker, a better reasoner. The only way is up from here.

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