Steering and the ruts

by Carl Dyke

“He told me years later that serving the church in Oxford reminded him of driving an old Model T Ford on a muddy country road; the steering column had so much play in it that turning the wheel didn’t do much good and the car just followed the ruts anyway.”

Tim Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name

8 Comments to “Steering and the ruts”

  1. Sounds a lot like trying to get a bill through Congress.

  2. “—you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c.—and a great deal to that purpose:—Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a half-penny matter,—away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.” Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, 1, i.

  3. Awesome, really must read that some day.

    “It is very important that teachers should realize the importance of habit, and psychology helps us greatly at this point. We speak, it is true, of good habits and of bad habits; but, when people use the word ‘habit,’ in the majority of instances it is a bad habit which they have in mind. They talk of the smoking-habit and the swearing-habit and the drinking-habit, but not of the abstention-habit or the moderation-habit or the courage-habit. But the fact is that our virtues are habits as much as our vices. All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,—practical, emotional, and intellectual,—systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be…. So far as we are thus mere bundles of habit, we are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves. And since this, under any circumstances, is what we always tend to become, it follows first of all that the teacher’s prime concern should be to ingrain into the pupil that assortment of habits that shall be most useful to him throughout life…. To quote my earlier book directly, the great thing in all education is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy…. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work are subjects of express volitional deliberation.” William James, Talks to Teachers.

  4. This is a restatement of the classic “habit is second nature” argument, which dates back at least as far as Burke. It has a lot of relevance, though, for pedagogy, since one of the things it teaches us is that, since our capacity for self-control is always finite, the only way to master something is to bring it into the realm of habit and automatism.

  5. Right Dave! In fact I think we can get it back at least to Aristotle if we poke at it a bit; it’s the ‘ground up’ sort of insight that has opposed/balanced ‘top down’ moralisms through most of intellectual history, in various forms.

    I remember memorizing a lot of stuff when I was in Italian school as a kid. Exemplars of virtue and whatnot. Definitely a more habituating kind of pedagogy there, but not a lot of encouragement for thinking. I guess we’d want take two distinct points from the quote-conversation so far: it’s important to get the ruts right, but it’s also important to tighten up the steering.

    I think I just sounded like a Jesuit there.

  6. “One often hears that a certain habit has become a ‘second nature’; but was the ‘first nature’
    really the ‘first’?” Gramsci, Prison Notebooks.

  7. Exactly. Gramsci’s notion of hegemony seems to me to offer a powerful critique of the “second nature” thesis, because it shows how habit and automatism can work in the service of a particular (unjust) social order and attendant set of power relations and inequalities. Unsettling that distinction between first and second natures helps to point out the difficulty of assigning a specific origin to one’s identity either in nature or nurture.

  8. Agreed.

    “Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.’” Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook.

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