Pirsig’s Shadow


Friday, January 18, 2013

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Illustration by Micah Rauch.

There is no shortage of poetic irony in MSU’s decision to award an honorary doctorate to Robert Pirsig — a counter-cultural philosopher best known as the writer of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” — at December’s winter commencement ceremony.

Pirsig, after all, in recalling his brief stint as a faculty member on our campus in the semi-autobiographical “Zen,” delivered a critique that still bears a great deal of truth. There can’t be too many institutions in the country, after all, that have honored figures who accuse them of “running a college on the cheap” in a now-classic book.

It is less clear whether the symbolic gesture holds practical value for a school that remains, the dreams of our humanities professors aside, firmly lodged in its identity as vocationally focused university in a famously down-to-earth state. An identity, it seems, that is less concerned with poetic irony than folksier humor of the sort employed by then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer last April when he told David Letterman that Montana is for engineers in the same way Virginia is for lovers.

Given the timing, the gesture’s value is not merely an academic question. As the 2013 Montana Legislature gears up to allocate funding for the state’s higher education budget, politically-minded symbolism takes on a fresh importance even as debates about government efficiency take center stage.

Pirsig’s work is, after all, ultimately about reconciling the poetic with the practical.

At the same time, MSU’s recently-released strategic plan, with its emphasis on engagement inspired by the success of MSU’s nationally recognized Engineers Without Borders chapter, casts questions about the university’s future into the spotlight.

Which is fitting, in a sense. Pirsig’s work is, after all, ultimately about reconciling the poetic with the practical — or, in the words of long-time MSU literature professor Michael Sexson, who accepted the degree on Pirsig’s behalf, making peace “between what is good and what is useful.”

A Full-Circle Journey

Photo courtesy of Michael Sexson. (Archive photo)

“Zen,” a literary bastard that somehow manages to combine the accessibility of a travel novel with the depth of a philosophical treatise, is one of those books that seems to have left its mark one way or another on everyone who’s taken the time to read it. It’s at once both countercultural and, in Pirsig’s own description, “culture-bearing.”

The work follows a pair of intertwined narratives, one loosely based on cross-country motorcycle trip with his son in the late ‘60s, and the other a description of his younger self’s search to find a satisfying response to a colleague’s passing comment at what was then Montana State College: “I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.”

The latter journey, Pirsig wrote, eventually drove him to a mental breakdown in the midst of a University of Chicago PhD program, resulting in his institutionalization and treatment with electroconvulsive shock therapy.

“Zen” is at once both countercultural and, in Pirsig’s own description, “culture-bearing.”

While he initially struggled to find a publisher for “Zen” — having it rejected 121 times — it became an immediate bestseller on its release in 1974. It is only recently, however, that the ideas Pirsig articulates in “Zen” and his 1991 sequel “Lila” have found a toehold in academic circles as they are taken up by younger philosophers like David Buchanan and Anthony McWatt, the first recipient of a PhD in Pirsig’s “Metaphysics of Quality.”

A half-century after leaving Bozeman as a misunderstood instructor of rhetoric, MSU’s honorary doctorate is a potent symbol for how far Pirsig’s fortunes have shifted — and, beneath the pomp and circumstance, an implicit recognition of how difficult his ideas have become to ignore.

“[I]t offers such sweet redemption for Pirsig both personally and philosophically,” wrote Buchanan, who spoke at a December event in honor of the author’s accomplishments. “Now, fifty years later, Pirsig’s work has been officially established within academic philosophy and he is finally getting his degree after all. It’s like one of those happy endings in Hollywood, almost too good to be true.”

Even though Pirsig, in ill health at 84 and famously reclusive, wasn’t able to travel to Bozeman to accept his degree in person, he still casts a long shadow over the campus where he once taught.

A ‘Teaching College’

Photo courtesy of Michael Sexson.

Writing about Montana State College in “Zen” with little affection, Pirsig describes the school as “what could euphemistically be called a ‘teaching college’” — a place where “you teach and you teach and you teach with no time for research, no time for contemplation, no time for participation in outside affairs.”

The result, he writes, is that “your mind grows dull and your creativity vanishes and you become an automation saying the same dull things over and over to endless waves of innocent students who cannot understand why you are so dull.”

The rationale for this sad state of affairs, Pirsig writes? “[T]his is a very clever way of running a college on the cheap while giving a false appearance of genuine education.” It is a familiar critique, often echoed by MSU’s present-day faculty as they lament how the “powers that be” fail to appreciate a true University’s role in providing educational value by bringing young minds into contact with educators sharpened by participation in cutting edge research.

Ultimately, Pirsig quits in disgust.

Montana Is For Engineers

The reality is that many of MSU’s students couldn’t care less whether we’re at a “teaching college.” We’re here, most of us, for vocational training, to acquire some practical skills and pick up credentials that give us a shot at competing in an increasingly demanding job market. Working part-time jobs to stave off student debt or — God-forbid — focusing our energies on pursuits outside of academics, many of us tend to think we have better ways to use our time than digging all that deeply into touchy-feely stuff.

Many of us tend to think we have better ways to use our time than digging all that deeply into touchy-feely stuff.

Pirsig isn’t too happy about this, of course — he complains that, “The idea that the majority of students attend a university for an education independent of the degree is a little hypocrisy everyone is happier not to expose,” but that doesn’t change a status quo that was largely as true in his time as it is in ours.

Listening to our representatives in state government go back and forth, the same is true. Depending on their political values, folks in Helena tend to see MSU and the rest of the state’s higher education system as somewhere between a frivolous luxury and a set of institutions that are valuable primarily for the utility they provide to the state economy. Efficiency is a far greater concern than the time available to professors for contemplation.

As such, when university spokespeople address legislative committees in Helena, the stories they tell are anything but a celebration of a University in reason’s liberal tradition. Instead, they’re about small-town Montana kids who win prestigious awards, veterans transitioning back into civilian careers, young parents taking classes at satellite campuses to give their children a better life. Sons and daughters of the working class lifting themselves up by their bootstraps with the opportunities available on Montana University System campuses.

Did you know? According to a 2010 report, MSU’s economic impact creates $2.60 in tax revenue for every public dollar put into it. What a fantastic investment.

Maybe Montana is for engineers, after all.

A Church of Reason

But Pirsig, the idealist (or realist) that he is, sees a true University as something else — quite distinct from a “university” with a lower-case “U” — a sanctified place where students obtain a moral education through introspective thought. He makes as much clear in “Zen,” as his character presents a lecture in a Montana Hall classroom not too far from President Waded Cruzado’s modern-day office:

“It began with reference to a newspaper article about a country church building with an electric beer sign hanging right over the front of the entrance. The building had been sold and was being used as a bar. … The article said a number of people had complained to the church officials about it. It had been a Catholic church, and the priest who had been delegated to respond to the criticism had sounded quite irritated about the whole thing. To him it had revealed an incredible ignorance of what a church really was. Did they think that bricks and boards and glass constituted a church? Or the shape of the roof? Here, posing as piety was an example of the very materialism the church opposed. … The beer sign resided over a bar, not a church, and those who couldn’t tell the difference were simply revealing something about themselves.”

A real University, Pirsig writes, is a “church of reason” — “a state of mind … regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor.” The physical institution with its buildings, administrators and dependence on state funding is merely the shell for what really matters, and the genuine education and creation of knowledge that takes place within it.

Insulated from the slings and arrows of the outside (or “real”) world’s market forces, students and professors in a University learn from the careful study of pure reason and its applications in humanities and science. In pursuing such an education, we ponder our place in the world and find our moral bearings, coming to know ourselves for who we really are. Material concerns like efficiency are a secondary concern to this educational process, with its messy asides and slow, exploratory nature.

In pursuing such an education, we ponder our place in the world and find our moral bearings, coming to know ourselves for who we really are.

This, in essence, is what freshman seminar professors mean when they talk about a “liberal education” — “liberal” not in the sense it is normally used in American politics, but in its older one, sharing a Latin root with “liberty,” about the providing skills necessary to pursue a good life as a free-thinking human being. Or, if you want to be practical about it, an effective Montana citizen.

It is also is the primary reason MSU has its core course requirements — and why most of MSU’s first-year students have the dubious pleasure of struggling through works like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “American Scholar” whether we like it or not.

Unconcerned with blasphemy, however, most of us students are looking less to worship in a Church of Reason than get in, get out, and get on with our lives — ideally with some skiing squeezed in between classes. I’d hazard a guess that this educator-student disconnect is much of the reason a quarter of MSU’s freshman students drop out within their first year.

MSU’s Challenge

Unsurprisingly, President Cruzado doesn’t often put things in Pirsig’s terms, though with her academic background in comparative literature she could be an ordained minister in the Church of Reason. Instead, she spends her time talking about how MSU is a “Land-Grant University,” dedicated to “educating the sons and daughters of the working class.”

For an educator with a humanities PhD and presumed reason-worshipping tendencies, that sounds surprisingly practical. But Cruzado’s leadership, from her day-to-day emphasis on the land-grant mission to the grand symbolism of Pirsig’s honorary doctorate, is fundamentally about the philosophical reconciliation between MSU’s vocational and liberal missions — not so far off the integration of the good and the useful that Pirsig ultimately embodies.

As we look toward the future’s brave new world, that reconciliation is MSU’s essential educational challenge. Montana needs engineers, yes, but it also needs its engineers to be citizens, capable of making ethical decisions amidst shifting industries and morally ambiguous innovation. It is no longer adequate, if it ever was, to train technicians in silos.

Montana needs engineers, yes, but it also needs its engineers to be citizens, capable of making ethical decisions amidst shifting industries and morally ambiguous innovation.

But how, when so many of us students could care less for the rigorous soul-searching at the heart of ethical professionalism, can an unwieldy 20,000-person institution pivot to meet this need? Judging by the new strategic plan, MSU’s answer boils down to a single word: Engagement.

The plan, which sets goals and funding priorities for the university in the coming years, calls for “scholarship that bridges teaching, research and service, [and] brings the university’s intellectual resources to bear on societal needs.” It charges campus leaders with boosting participation in student organizations and service activities, and hopes that every student and faculty member will have an “engagement experience” in their time at MSU.

What an “engagement experience” actually means in less lofty terms is somewhat unclear, beyond administrators’ oft-repeated references about the efforts like MSU’s Engineers Without Borders chapter, which brought the university national recognition last year for its work with water and sanitation infrastructure at primary schools in rural Kenya (Disclosure: I’m a long-term member of the group myself — but I’ll get to that in a bit).

Drilling down beyond the plan’s grand vision, what do its buzzwords have to say about where our institution really hopes to go? “Zen,” I think, hints at the answer.

Capital-Q Quality

For all the noise Pirsig makes about teaching colleges and churches of reason, his fundamental point is deceptively simple: We should order our lives around the pursuit of capital-Q Quality — simply put, pursuing the experiences and opportunities that we intuitively find to be worthwhile and richly rewarding.

Too often, the good things in our lives aren’t all that useful, and the useful things aren’t that good.

The problem with modern life, he argues, is that so much of what we end up doing is divorced from real Quality. Things like filling out government paperwork, watching slick television advertisements pitch male enhancement products and snoozing through boring classes so we can spend 40 hours a week typing emails in front of a computer screen for the rest of our life.

Too often, the good things in our lives aren’t all that useful, and the useful things aren’t that good. We divide our lives between 9-to-5 drudgery and vacuous evening television. Our possessions are ugly tools or beautiful trinkets. The engineer slogs through calculations by day and drowns his sorrows in cheap beer by night.

But, Pirsig says, that’s not the way we have to be if we pursue those things and experiences marked by more genuine Quality: Well-made, useful possessions (Apple products, for instance). Work that engages our creativity and passions. Local microbrews — or light beer in good company if that’s what happens to float our boat.

It is perhaps a sign of Pirsig’s impact that this sounds like common sense to the point where it’s hardly worth saying. The sort of platitude that wouldn’t be out of place as an uninspired applause line in a commencement speech — especially in a place like ski-town Bozeman.

A Quality-Driven University

But what does all of this have to do with our university? To start with, the frustration felt by so many of our university’s students — particularly the half who choose to give up on their education before graduation — is best understood as stemming from the low-Quality experiences harbored by our campus. Everything from uninspired ResLife community-building efforts to 100-level courses with worn-down professors to buzzword-filled administrative memos patently out of touch with the concerns of the student perspective.

I would imagine that those sorts of complaints are thought of by MSU’s administrators and staff as mere nuisances, the mildly irritating consequences of a large institution’s inevitable disorganization. However, the truth is that they do real harm to our campus culture when they come to dominate the student experience, adding straw after straw to the metaphorical camel’s back.

What would a Quality-driven university look like?

But what would a Quality-driven university look like?

For starters, fewer top-down programs directed at administrative concerns and more resources focused on creating space for the messy, vibrant student-driven efforts that add real richness to campus life. An acknowledgment, perhaps, that we students are remarkably good at sniffing out low-value demands on our time and voting with our feet for more meaningful endeavors — and that things like workshops on test-taking strategies suffer from poor attendance less because of poor marketing than because they so often fail to offer something truly worthwhile to their participants.

As for Engagement — understood through this lense, it is really about setting up MSU’s programs to maximize the number of high-Quality moments packed into the student experience: Those instants when a flash of insight draws a connection between coursework and a life experience, or reveals a solution to a real-world problem. Time spent amidst a student organization’s camaraderie, or burrowing into the complexity of an academic passion alone.  Looking up for a moment to reflect on the satisfaction that stems — to borrow the words of the strategic plan — from bringing one’s intellect to bear on a pressing societal need.

But again, drilling down — as uncontroversially nice as all this is, how exactly do we create these high-Quality experiences?

The truth, I think — quite likely controversial within Montana Hall’s corridors of power — is that there isn’t a neat, tidy answer. In a complex human system like a university, diversity of people and passions simply precludes one-size-fits-all approaches.

Educating Montana’s sons and daughters is less about factory-like efficiency than giving us space for our individual journeys.

Take the banality of so many introductory classes as a case in point — so few of their enrollees have any real interest in their particular subject that they tend to be lost causes in the absence of extraordinary teaching. In an academic setting, the easiest way to make something meaningless is to make it mandatory.

It follows, then, that promoting Engagement means administrative leadership that focuses less on top-down mandates than making space for organic initiatives. Many of us, like Pirsig, need to wander before we can find our place in the world. Educating Montana’s sons and daughters is less about factory-like efficiency than giving us space for our individual journeys.

A Practical Wisdom

I’ll end, then, with an observation from my own journey — specifically my first encounter with Pirsig some years back. I had borrowed a somewhat travel-worn copy of “Zen” from a friend toward the end of a stint in rural Kenya with the MSU Engineers Without Borders chapter, my first trip abroad. After a month struggling to apply my engineering skills across all manner of practical and cultural barriers, it was a relief to escape into the novel’s narrative.

I remember first catching on to Pirsig’s fundamental meaning on a cross-country bus trip, pressed in my seat between an suit-clad African stranger and a dust-stained window, looking from my reading to a backdrop of tea fields stretched to the horizon. A high-Quality moment, there.

“A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares,” Pirsig writes. I realized that I had spent the last few weeks caring far more deeply than I had ever had a chance to before. About people — from schoolchildren to my American team members to the community leaders we had worked alongside — and about our common cause in trying to make education at least a little easier to obtain in that worthy corner of the world.

Re-reading “Zen” on a Greyhound over winter break this year, I realized again that I still find myself looking back at my time in Africa and pondering some of the difficult decisions I was part of, unable to forget that they ultimately impacted the health and happiness of those real people in a way that truly matters. I felt — and feel — responsible for something bigger than myself there, in a way that has come to define the education I have drawn out of my time at MSU.

Engagement, for me, is that Quality of caring that stems from opportunity to take on things that truly matter, to risk mistakes and failure. To step beyond the safety nets and grade tokenism that embody the meaning of “academic” as a retreat from the world. And, in so doing, to be forced to develop both useful skills and a steady moral compass, the sort of practical wisdom that embodies the best product of our university’s educational mission.

Here amidst mountains and minds, we have no higher calling.

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  • Eamon

    Great article! A lot of legislators down in Helena should give it, and Zen, a read. Our MUS would be a lot better off and its role in society better understood with it.