Friday, August 26, 2011

A great idea for a course I'd love to teach... What do you think?

"The real cycle you are working on is the cycle called yourself."

I am re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) with my friend Julie. Maybe you know the storyline: Basically, the author, Robert M. Pirsig, serves as narrator of the tale. He embarks on a 17-day motorcycle ride with his 11-year old son. They are joined for part of the journey by a husband and wife riding a second motorcycle. Traveling from Minneapolis to San Francisco, the author explains his personal philosophy in a series of talks. Educating his friends and training his son enables the narrator to delve more deeply into self-awareness and finally grapple with his personal issues to find peace.

The book was published in 1974 and has sold over 5 million copies worldwide. ZAMM is based on Pirsig's actual 8-24 July 1968 ride. An excellent summary of ZAMM is HERE. More about Pirsig's philosophy, the Metaphysics of Quality, is HERE.

My idea is this: gather a dozen adventurous, motorcycle-riding philosophy students and re-enact this ride. We would travel over the same course, stopping for food and rest in the same places Pirsig wrote about, and discuss his philosophical concepts every night around a different campfire. How awesome would that be?

Check out a detailed map of the 17-day route HERE. It has GPS points and period photos. It's a great resource. 

Here's a concept sketch of how it would work. Students' tuition would cover fees and expenses. Course-related expenses would include: hiring a trail vehicle and crew with spare parts, communications equipment, and power generation to provide all emergency maintenance and medical support; medical and liability insurance; all required training aids (I imagine a hologram of Pirsig hovering over the fire!); and all required coordination with local jurisdictions for transportation and accommodation. All meals would be provided (the trail vehicle might double as chuck wagon). We'd ride together as a group and camp out every night. There would be a blow-out graduation party at the end of the trail. All of us would be responsible for getting to Minneapolis with a serviceable motorcycle and suitable camping gear, as well as getting back home on our own. 

If nothing else, it would be an awesome summer job. Think of it! Getting paid to ride and teach and drink local beer around a campfire while thinking deep thoughts with cool people. Heaven, right?

This is so exciting! ZAMM was a favorite of mine in Junior High. Another fave, for similar reasons: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach. At that time of my life, I was riding my bicycle everywhere. I had already ridden across the state of Iowa twice when I read ZAMM the first time in 1976. I was definitely the type to perform my own (bicycle) maintenance. My current ride, a Harley-Davidson Road King has many more parts and I have turned maintenance over to a qualified mechanic. However, I do have the service manual and I ask Mark a LOT of questions! 

And yes, I kept my dogeared and annotated copy of ZAMM. I had it with me on my last long bicycle ride, from Notre Dame, IN to Norfolk, NE in 1980. I did not get much reading done. 700 miles in 7 days! I agreed to read it again now with Julie and I am so glad I did. Some of the philosophy went over my head at the time. Now, some of the underlined passages ring a bit truer for me as I am certainly older and hopefully wiser.

"The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That's impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barrier of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is - not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both" p. 261

Here is a place where I disagree with Pirsig: 

"[...] the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people's mind." p. 2.
2 + 2 = 4. That is true regardless of whether people invent math.

Pirsig has been sharply criticized by some modern philosophers for considering something abstract as non-existent. Despite this apparent scientific materialism, there are some others who think Pirsig's philosophy is too religious or spiritual. At the same time, famous atheist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, quoted Pirsig, saying "when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion." Pirsig is a paradox, but that's OK. He shows how art and science go together, how the best technology is indistinguishable from our deepest values, and how the quest for Truth, aka Quality, is the key to peace.

I remain a fan of Pirsig's Quest for Quality. People can argue broad points and even nit-pick details. There is value in examining Pirsig's philosophy critically. And I think it would be a blast to share the critical examination of Pirsig's philosophy while riding over the same path he rode in 1968. This could be the Dharma Bums road trip of a lifetime for people.

2014 is the 40th anniversary of ZAMM and the 20th anniversary of the Road King. Perfect!

Who's with me?