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Imagine walking through the woods and you come across a path that has been untouched for a while. Your curiosity provokes you to want to go down the unknown path. However, you hesitate for a second deciding whether or not to go down the forgotten path, not knowing where it will lead you, or continue on a path that has been traveled on by many other people that you know is safe and secure. This “fork in the road” is what students face every day during their education, many not even realizing it.
The known path is like the secure classroom setting where students learn what they are told to from their instructors. The forgotten path is not a typical classroom setting. It is any place where a student or even a non-student discovers and learns something new on his/her own without being told to do so. Should students figure things out for themselves rather than doing what you are told to do by a teacher? In “The Loss of the Creature”, the author Walker Percy believes that the student who takes the forgotten path has the greater advantage because they discover the truth for themselves.
The more control a student has over his/her own education can deepen the acceptance of the truth within a student and form an independence from the control the teacher possesses over the student’s way of learning.
Percy’s key issue with education is the amount of control a student has over his work should be substantially more than what it is already in the classroom.
He also believes that students should have more questions asked about their reasoning behind what they say by their teachers. His ultimate point is that people should take control of their own destinies, which is why he strongly believes that students should have more sovereignty in the classroom. In “The Loss of the Creature,” Percy talks about a tourist who carves his initials in a public place. By carving his initials into a public place, he is stating that, “I am not a ghost after all; I am a sovereign person” (8). Sovereignty allows people to be seen and heard as seen in the carver’s situation. Sovereignty can be applied by students in the school system as well. Throughout my years in school, all of my classes were controlled by my teachers and as a student I would do exactly as my teachers told me to do. I was taught from a young age to do what the teacher tells you to do. I grew up believing that teachers were always right and I accepted that. However, when I reached college, my world flipped upside down. I was allowed to do whatever I pleased and think in any which way I wanted to. One class that had changed my outlook on my education was my composition class. My professor said the first day of class, “You guys have the control.” I was taken aback by this statement because I had never heard these words spoken in a classroom. It was not until I sat down to write my first essay that I fully understood what he meant. When I read the question and went to go write my essay, it was an overwhelming feeling because my whole essay was completely my interpretation of the text we read. I have in high school written essays that interpret passages of what I have read, but it was nothing like writing this essay. I found adjusting to this new freedom that I was given was quite difficult. After completing this essay, I found that I truly believed in what I said because I had to keep analyzing and question every thought I came across until I found a truth that was what I saw to be worthy of putting in my essay. By having the control of being able to interpret and question the reading we did in class in any way I wanted, allowed for me to find the truth in the paper I wrote about it.
Percy’s first theory is a student who has authority over his/her own education will have a substantial advantage over a student in who is under complete control and instruction in a classroom by a teacher. In a classroom, students are forced to learn by their instructor. They accept what their teacher says and move on to the next subject. This way of learning can force a student to not be curious about the evidence in their own terms. Instead of searching for the way something came to be, they will just comprehend what they need to know and simply will not care for what is being taught. In “The Loss of the Creature,” Walker Percy describes a story where a young boy discovers a dead dogfish while walking along on the beach. He then takes out his jackknife and dissects it. Percy states that this young boy has “a great advantage over the high school pupil who finds the dogfish on his laboratory desk” (5). The young boy has the authority over his dogfish and the student from high-school has no authority over his dogfish. The young boy who discovered the dogfish chose to explore the dogfish and learn from that experience. The high-school student looks at the dead dogfish as a grade and seeks no further truth than what are the names of each part that he come across in the dogfish. The young boy on the beach will believe in what he discovered over the high-school student seeking for a high grade, not giving the dead dogfish any extra thought, because the young boy sought out the experience for himself.
A weak point that can be argued in Percy’s first theory is that a student needs a classroom have access to the necessary books and tools to carry out experiments such as dissecting the dead dogfish. Do students need to have access to a classroom to learn for themselves? The young boy on the beach only used his jackknife to dissect the dogfish and the high-school student had multiple instruments to perform the dissection. Referring to the young boy, Percy explains,” He too could use an instructor and a book and a technique, but he would use them as his subordinates, just as he uses his jackknife. The biology student does not use his scalpel as an instrument; he uses it as a magic wand! Since it is a “scientific instrument,” it should do “scientific things” (6). The young boy can still use books and teachers as a reference to further enhance his understanding of a subject, but that is because he chooses to do so. The biology student has set in his own mind that the instruments that he is using will make him capable to performing the dissection and understanding exactly what he is doing. Percy’s concern is that students are lacking the experiences they need in order to find the truth. Students need to go out and experience for themselves, like the young boy discovering the dogfish on the beach, to have a full understanding of what they are learning. Percy is concerned for students because the classroom is restricting students from learning on their own and students are being handed almost everything they learn. The walls around a classroom are literally restricting students from seeing what is really out there, like the high-school student dissecting the dogfish. All the high-school student sees is the dogfish on the tray ready to be cut open. The young boy on the beach sees the dogfish in its natural setting and has a real deep feeling and understanding of the dogfish. Students need to self-discover in order to reach their full potential in understanding the truth.
The example of the dogfish highly illuminates the idea of sovereignty versus consumer. The young boy has the authority over his own experience by having no prior knowledge of the dogfish. By never being exposed to a dogfish, he has no idea what to expect from opening it up and looking inside. Even though he may not know the specific names of each part, he is able to take from the experience his own interpretation of what he learned. He can accept what he has seen throughout the dissection because what he came across while experimenting is what he controlled learned by himself. The young boy also was enthusiastic to learn about the dogfish. Percy states that he is “exercising his sovereign right as a person,” (6) by deciding to take upon this experience himself. The high-school student does not have the authority over his dissection, his teacher does. The student then becomes the consumer in this experience. Percy states that before the student starts the dissection, he will come across the dogfish listed at the bottom of his material list as 1 specimen of Squalus acanthias, which is the scientific name for dogfish. Percy said that by listing the dogfish along with the phrase “the specimen of” is where the student loses the ability to interpret the dogfish and question what he comes across. Percy says “the phrase specimen of expresses in the most succinct way imaginable the radical character of the loss of being which has occurred under his (the students) very nose” (6). “The specimen of” demeans the dogfish and what the dogfish is all about. The student no longer sees the dogfish for what it naturally is but rather sees the dogfish as another experiment to be graded. Even though the young boy on the beach did not have the same basic knowledge on how to dissect the dogfish as the high school student did, he still demonstrated how having control over what you learn will guide you down the pathway towards the truth. The high-school student became the consumer to the knowledge that his teacher has presented him with, he did not come to that knowledge on his own like the young boy.
The importance of sovereignty in a classroom continues into Walker Percy’s second theory which states that teachers should undertake the role of Socrates in the classroom. Socrates was a Greek philosopher whose teachings were always directed to uncovering the truth. He would tell his students to question everything and to not accept any given answer until it is fully questioned and given truth. Percy explained teaching in the ways of Socrates is “to help the student come to himself not as a consumer of experience but as a sovereign individual” (8). Percy believes that teachers should teach students to explore and question everything and anything instead of accepting what is presented to them by other people. By Percy asserting that teachers should teach more like Socrates, he is saying that they should use the Socratic Method in the classroom. The Socratic Method is when the teacher asks a question and the students answer it. After the students give an answer, the teacher responds to that answer with another question. The questioning process goes on and students can come to a point where they contradict themselves in their thoughts and ideas and then finally arrive to an answer that has their own truth behind it. The Socratic Method allows students to seek out their own truths behind any given question and allows for the opportunity for students to explore and discover answers for themselves, rather than being told to do so by their instructors. The Socratic Method allows students control over their own thoughts and ideas. The teacher is simply guiding the student towards finding the truth. The student can become more independent from the restricting ways of a classroom and have room to grow and develop their own thoughts. However, students can become tired of being bombarded with question after question. As students become tired, they will soon become uninterested in a subject. This is why having a teacher in a classroom is utterly important. Breaking up time between the constant questioning of students with other idea developing activities will keep students on track with finding their pathway to the truth.
Percy’s two theories about education highly emphasize the point that students who have more control over the way they learn and interpret different subjects can allow them to accept what they find during their exploration for the truth. Students benefit by discovering the truth in their education for themselves rather than being instructed on how to do so. The more control a student has in discovering his/her education will allow for more independence from the confining classroom that he/she resides in now. With a balance between a student’s independence and his/her teacher’s control over his/her education will give the student a great advantage over the people who decide to take the safe and secure path.
Percy, Walker. The Loss of the Creature. New Orleans: 1954. 1-8. Print.
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