Zen, the art of motorcycle maintenance, and pedagogy

Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is concerned with quality, and the prose wrings out two different forces. The first is the ‘romantic’ view, which appreciates the aesthetics of objects such as motorcycles, but doesn’t much care for dissecting the motorcycle to learn how it runs or how to maintain it. The ‘classical’ approach is interested in how the motorcycle works and the critical thinking necessary to keep it working. Classical finds quality in the understanding of the ins-and-outs of a well-running machine, while the romantic finds it in the image of a person riding the motorcycle on a lonely highway.

Teachers experience this dichotomy on a daily basis. Teach grammar, and the students can quickly lose the beauty of how words, phrases, and clauses combine to make beautiful thoughts. Focus primarily on poetry or literature, and students fail to appreciate the craftsmanship necessary to construct a piece of literature. This is true in every subject. Math can be astounding, but there’s a lot of studying and practice needed for students to appreciate the wonders of math. The same for science, languages, woodshop… the list goes on.

The struggle is: Do you teach students what they need to know with the foresight that a classical approach will blossom into a romantic awareness? Or do you teach the romantic viewpoint with the intention of delving into specifics–and in the case of a mortocycle, mechanics–and hope that a love of the idea of the subject evolves into a fascination with the parts that make it operate?

Pedagogy falls into this dichotomy as well. Some teachers want students to have a classical approach to the subject. This is the educator who would rather focus on grammar than read To Kill a Mockingbird. The romantic teacher focuses primarily on To Kill a Mockingbird, with the intent the literature will lead to an appreciation and understanding of grammar. Of course, there are some classical teachers who care nothing for developing the romantic mindset and vice versa. The resolution comes through blending the two approaches. The rub is this is easier said than done. Experience is important and so is a love for not just the subject, but the idea of the subject. If you’re teaching how to maintain a motorcycle, you need a love of the romantic notion of riding as well as a lucid understanding concerning how the parts create the whole.

Teaching is complicated, there’s no doubt about it. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance offers an important perspective for leading students toward a craft they will understand and enjoy.