Sunday, 27 November 2011

Oedipus outside Colonus

Deciding to teach Greek tragedy to my Year 1 IB Eng A Lit class has proved to be a very bold decision. I resisted it for many years because i was taught Greek tragedy at school and university. On the one hand, i felt that my experience as a student of a text in Greek would not transfer well into teaching and on the other hand, it presented a cultural challenge that i did not assess as manageable for young people today. Not really shifting my perspective, i did put a tragedy on my syllabus for the new course. The new motivation was based in exactly what had prevented me from teaching tragedy before; that both students and I would be challenged. We should be able to spend some time in discomfort and if the value of literary texts lies in the interpretation and evaluation of ambivalence, among other things, then there is a tragedy that fits the part very nicely: Oedipus at Colonus. Although the story pre-dates Antigone, it is the last of the Theban plays that Sophocles wrote, in all the maturity of his dramatic art and in the context of the city of Athens ruled by the Spartan-backed dictatorship of the Thirty Tyrants.

Despite my misgivings and the level of the challenge, the students have responded adequately and with considerable reflection on several aspects.

First, Sophocles' philosophy and the greatness of the Tragic Hero. However, the concepts of reverence (ευσέβεια) and wisdom (φρόνησις) that Sophocles speaks so much of, are not easily translatable, especially since reverence extends beyond morality in Sophoclean works.

Second, the Aristotelian aspects of the Tragic Hero and the notions of pity and sympathy received a lot of attention, often in very lively and engaged classroom discussions.

Third, as we paced ourselves with the conceptual difficulties that the play presents, even for scholars, the first secondary source was introduced and it was very encouraging to see how young adults responded to the arguments that Ahrensdorf presents with regard to political rationalism as represented in the character of Theseus and religious passion in Oedipus. Oedipus is shown to be self-contradictory and self-destructive in Ahrensdorf; this very human aspect that invites Kitto to talk about the "essential greatness [of the Tragic Hero that] impresses itself at last on the gods themselves" (Kitto: p 127) was very accessible to young adults, despite the identification problems that Oedipus' old age presented. In essence, the perception of the play as being about the dignity of being a man and the anger we feel at our mortality was shared by the students. I suppose this is telling of the enduring value of the play as a work that delves into an examination of the human condition and its precariousness. Interestingly, Theseus, who is deemed to be the protagonist of the play by Ahrensdorf, did not receive as much attention. The tension between the personal and the political was found weak and the personal always won in the students' comments. Although they have a good grasp of political notions and they do possess a political discourse, albeit one lacking in sophistication due to their age and experience, Theseus' political rationalism, which does not underestimate the power of religion, emerged more as rhetoric rather than conviction. Given that the audience is not a-political, can one assume that the political message is lost on them and therefore, the shortcoming lies with the work? I suppose not. My interpretation is that the experience of our students has been shaped in such a way that the political is not expected to be prioritized as an issue in a literary work. Their intuition is that: 1. the person everyone talks about is the protagonist and 2. the story in a book is about someone's adventures, suffering et c. This reaction to Theseus reminded me of the famous experiment by Chabris and Simons with the invisible gorilla. When you are trying to count the passes amongst team members at a basketball game, you miss the gorilla that walks through the court. When all this fuss is made about Oedipus- and this has been going on for centuries, thank you very much, classics scholars and Mr Freud- how can one notice Theseus?

The fourth aspect in the modern challenge of Oedipus at Colonus regards the story line. Because there is not much of one. I would like to generalize and say that students expect literary works to have a story and a plot and involve some action. But this would not be true as in the last ten years of my teaching, students have responded very positively and insightfully to plays without a story such as Beckett's Waiting for Godot an Ionesco's The Bald Soprano. Then the conclusion would seem to be that students today can relate to the Asburd more than they can to Sophoclean concepts and ideas. A valid conclusion indeed, and one that offers us some food for thought, as on some level, Sophocles and the Absurd do share the preoccupation with the human condition. Notably, there is one clear cultural obstacle in the understanding of Oedipus at Colonus by some of our students and this is the nature, character and will of the greek gods. Having named my son after a hero killed with the help of Apollo, a decision i made when I was their age and long before I did have a son, educating them about the greek gods becomes a more personal task. Today, having read Ahresndrof i see my decision as political.

To be fair to all, half of the students in my group are studying Antigone for another Lang A course and the other half Oedipus Tyrannus. They are Theban scholars in the making. They will be rewarded next week with Woody Allen's version of tragedy, Mighty Aphrodite. After we discuss Yeats' A Man Young and Old, part IX, an adaptation of the first stasimon in Oedipus at Colonus, based on Richard Jebb's translation.

Maybe we can recover some continuity in the fragmented post-modernist tradition of the 21st century. Or, to quote Oedipus: "So, when I am nothing, then am I a man?"

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Go Global

Between a 3-day seminar at a retreat with colleagues from school and a visit home to check on things, i spent three brilliant days in The Hague attending and presenting at the IB Inspiring Conference.
The IB is opening its Africa, Europe and Middle East global center in The Hague, a move that is part of the new structure of the organization, but also one that carries some symbolism because of the location itself. Beyond the symbolism, it was inspiring to listen to Erica McWilliam (one can get a taste here) and other speakers about empathic leadership, the IB research unit, the academic developments in the organization and IB recognition.
The new strategic plan and the new language in the organization are typical examples of a change that is directed from within, but with an agenda that reflects the changing world we inhabit. In this sense, the organization is responding to the educational landscape that emerges with initiatives and planning that will promote access and diversity of educational needs, with the Career Certificate and IB online courses.
This short entry is just to register my personal excitement (a more analytical response may follow when i have less homework). I am sure that change and growth inspire misgivings in others, maybe with a good reason, but as a teacher that is aspiring to becoming trans-national, i cannot help thinking that continual inquiry and perpetual motion are the concepts and also the course of action required to face up to the challenge of modern education. For more excitement, watch this space.