Polanyian Perspectives on the Teaching of Literature and Composition

M. Elizabeth Wallace, Peter Elbow, Louise Wetherbee Phelps, Sam Watson, Janet Emig
1991 Tradition & Discovery  
We may not have Polanyi's blessing on what we are up to here today. One of our panelists, Sam Watson, told a story yesterday about Polanyi's complaint when visiting an American university: "You are all discussing my thoughts and my books--that's wrong; you should be looking at, talking about, other things, focusing on other things you want to explore." While I understand Polanyi's complaint--in a sense, the greatest compliment we can pay his work is to return with new energy and commitment to
more » ... r individual explorations, our callings--often I am struck with how much my students need to confront Polanyi's ideas before they are even able to truly look at or talk about or focus on other things. Their confused ideas about what knowledge is and how they know things--and why they know things--prevent their seeing and knowing, result in paralysis or fruitless, directionless activity. For instance, my own reading of Polanyi helped me to see clearly for the first time essential contrasts between Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence, the authors I focused on in my doctoral dissertation. Hardy, who was both impressed and depressed by Darwin's findings and by the dictates of positivist theories of knowledge in the late 19th century, created a character in Jude the Obscure whose life's ambition was to attend Oxford University and whose life's tragedy was his inability to get in. In an attempt to convince us that Jude's tragedy was a loss for all humanity as well, Hardy has Jude lament near the end of the book that there was only one thing he would have been able to do well in his life--"I could accumulate ideas and impart them to others" (Part VI--Ch. 10, 317). Lawrence, in a sense rewriting Jude, allows the heroine of The Rainbow, Ursula, to attend university, eager to hear "the echo of learning pulsing back to the source of the mystery" (Ch. XV, 404). But eventually disillusioned with academia, finding only mechanistic views of life and thought from her professors, Ursula Brangwen leaves the university and sets out to "create a new knowledge of Eternity in the flux of Time" (Ch. XVI, 456). The contrast between Hardy and Lawrence's theories of knowledge--how knowledge is discovered and/or created and transmitted--became essential to my understanding of the differences between these two writers, as well as their profound affinities. And I could never have seen that aspect of their work without Polanyi's achievement behind me. How could a scientist, first a medical doctor in his native Hungary, then professor of physical chemistry at University of Manchester in England, finally a philosopher of science, help me see the work of Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence
doi:10.5840/traddisc1991/1992171/225 fatcat:7w36kkzyzndrfpzz3bmcoiu2jq