K, a friend of mine, emailed me with some thoughts about my last post, and I thought some of my answers were interesting, so (with permission) I decided to post them here:
Do you feel that just because someone else has trod the path ahead of you, you must “steal back” sovereignty of the experience? Is it your knowing that the trail is blazed that makes it less precious?
No. It’s the difference between being the driver and being a passenger. While you can be completely engaged in something in a classroom context, it’s way too easy to relax, turn off your brain, and absorb what the instructor tells you. In fact it’s virtually impossible not to do so unless you are being individually tutored; you pretty much have to collect info at the rate and in the direction that the instructor is parceling it out.
That’s part of it. The other half of it is your preconceived notion of what the thing will be. I once took off driving down a random freeway (don’t remember which one) in a random direction, took a random turnoff, and found myself at a county fairgrounds. Wandering aimlessly around the fairgrounds took me to two gatherings that were going on that day: a Native American crafts show and a fancy fowl show. I really enjoyed exploring both shows (because they were interesting), but largely because I had no expectation of what they would be. (I would, I might add, never have decided to go to either on my own.)
Conversely, I’ve been to fiber festivals where I’ve been quite disappointed because it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. If I hadn’t turned up there with a specific agenda, I might have enjoyed it a lot more.
I think the concept is more along the lines of “beginner’s mind” than anything else. Preconceptions close the beginner’s mind.
It’s very different from “the road not taken” which has always struck me as missing the point. Just because no one’s ever been down that way before doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better; “the road not taken” is usually cited by someone musing/gloating over their “individualism” (which I don’t think is intrinsically valuable either). If you read the actual Robert Frost poem from which the cliche springs, it’s interesting, because it goes like this:
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
So in the poem it’s not entirely clear whether the poet is actually taking the road less traveled, or merely saying that, later in life, he would say that he had (even though both paths seemed about equally worn). I think that’s intriguing. The commentary Frost is actually making is considerably more subtle and nuanced than the way he is typically quoted.
What of all those people who never “get it”? Is it not better to give them the beaten trail, and have them enjoy some of the benefits of education (i.e. knowing something useful at the right moment) even if they never own it?
I’m very wary of telling other people what they should do. (I casually dispensed a huge amount of advice in my twenties and early thirties that I shudder at now.) Other people seem to get plenty of value out of the beaten path, and one can perfectly well live one’s life happy and in an unawakened state. In fact, as I get older, I’m less and less inclined to say what is good for people in general and more and more inclined to say, “This is what works for me. If it inspires you, great. If it doesn’t, well, do whatever works for you.”
I got an email once, about ten years back, from a woman who said, “I live a comfortable, quiet life…you would curl up and die in a second if you had to live it, but I’m happy with it.” That pretty much says it all.
I don’t think Percy was suggesting that we abolish tours and stop teaching classes. They have an obvious use, they impart a lot of information and enable people to see a lot of things quickly. But he was talking about depth of experience, not of information and skills…and it is for certain that if you learn F=ma from a book you will be having a very different experience, qualitatively, than if you had painstakingly figured out the basic laws of physics from your own measurements and experimentation.