The Perils of the Plotted Path: a fable

an Icelandic crag

photo courtesy of Kate Ward – copyright 2013 – all rights reserved.

Let suppose a man or woman who, out walking, comes on a formidable crag and has the impulse to climb – not to get anywhere, but just for the joy of the thing. Without even a brief survey of a likely route – since as yet there is no intention beyond just climbing – the climber sets off, finding a handhold there, a foothold here, and mounts steadily, though with the occasional reversal where a route peters out in a sheer face and a new one must be tried.

At length the climber has gone such a way in this improvised fashion that the idea of pushing on to the top occurs – could it really be done? It seems unlikely, but worth the attempt – so up and up the climber goes, climbing with more definite purpose now, yet still chiefly for the joy of the thing, the pleasure of finding a way from here to the next point; till, from being a remote possibility, reaching the top becomes an imminent likelihood, and at last the climber scrambles over the topmost edge and is rewarded with a glorious view. Profoundly moved by this experience, the climber thinks ‘if only everyone could share this!’

Being a person of some enterprise, the climber has the crag surveyed to ascertain the most accessible route to the summit – a path, rather than a climbing route, to put it within reach of as many as possible. In due course, the path is built, and much skill goes into its design and making. It does not tackle the crag as the climber did, but goes by quite another way, zig-zagging up the slope of the hill behind it. It makes for rather a dull ascent and takes a long time – real perseverance is needed to reach the summit.

The climber waits at the top to greet those who make the first ascent and share their joy on seeing the magnificent view. They arrive, red-faced and sweating, weary from the long upwards slog. Once they have recovered their breath, they look as the climber directs them, but do not seem to experience the same intensity of joy; most make polite noises of mild appreciation but some grumble in Johnsonian fashion that it is ‘worth seeing, but not worth going to see.’

(this fable is an attempt to pin down some thoughts that have been troubling me about education and the relation of intuition and reason – in particular, that we use the former to arrive at our insights, the latter to explain them to others. It connects with an earlier post here.)

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