A Dialectical Approach: A Parable for Moderns

May 31, 2015

It would have taken an Eagle Scout to untangle the eyebrows of J. Kevin Pennyworth, as he fumbled weakly at the door of Dr. Peiro, the president of the college. His bowtie was askew, the silk handkerchief in his suit coat the recent victim of a sneeze. Breathing heavily, he considered discarding his bowtie, and unfastening the top button of his shirt, but then as the gravity of the situation coiled and hissed in his stomach, he thought better of it. The soul of J. Kevin Pennyworth was not calm and quiet, neither was it like a weaned child with its mother. More like a terrified rodent in a cobra exhibit, really.

He had been sipping his morning coffee, drawing peaceful breaths and curling his moustache around his little finger. But then Darren, the director of the College’s program of artificially intelligent exams, had burst through the door with the face of a recently startled chimpanzee. “There’s … there’s a problem,” he wheezed. “A problem?” Pennyworth asked, and gave his moustache a vicious twist. “With the exam.” “Finals were two days ago.” “I know. Shortly after the students took the exam, evidence started cropping up that they had remembered what they had learned. The test administrators immediately put the dangerous subjects under quarantine, of course, but today they reported that the problem is wider than we thought. I mean, they thought. I didn’t know until this morning.” “How wide of a problem?” Pennyworth asked, his eyes beginning to bulge like those of a prawn. “Possibly the whole graduating class.” “Can’t they all be quarantined?” “The professors, sir … they’re panicking. Saying they might sue the College for not maintaining a safe work environment.” Pennyworth’s stomach writhed like a nervous rat snake. It was in this manner that he arrived at the door of Dr. Peiro, clutching at the door handle. “Come in,” Dr. Peiro’s voice said through the door. Pennyworth entered. The room was quiet, and rather dark. Pennyworth could hear the blood in his ears. A long Persian rug’s length away, beyond a dark cherry desk and silhouetted before the tall, curtained windows, stood the ample form of Dr. Peiro. Dr. Peiro was very large, very old, and had been president of the College since before anyone could remember. His eyes were like soft, liquid pools of dragon’s blood. (Dragon’s blood is a very dark red, almost black.) His mouth and cheeks were like a Bible, not in the sense that they spoke truth, but in that they were very large, and flapped about when he spoke. “There’s a problem, sir,” Pennyworth said. “With the exam.” Dr. Peiro sat down abruptly. “A problem?” he said, his jowls quivering. Pennyworth narrated the story he had heard from Darren, all the while attempting to appear as small as possible on the giant rug. Dr. Peiro was silent for a long time, and then slithered forward over the desk, and whispered into Pennyworth’s face. Pennyworth could feel spit. “Do you understand what this means? The long tradition of excellence maintained without fail since the Revolution, the long tradition of excellence with which we have coaxed the best and brightest of our nation to the school, is threatened by the most imminent destruction.” Pennyworth raised his hands to his head, and seized his hair with both fists. He could almost feel the gray hairs sprouting up between his fingers. “What do you want me to do, sir?” he asked. Dr. Peiro inched a little closer, darting his dragon-blood eyes about the room. “I don’t know,” he said. Just then they were interrupted by a pounding at the door. Dr. Peiro lifted himself up from his desk with what closely resembled the hop of a very fat rabbit. Through the door burst the professors, shouting and gesticulating. Pennyworth was knocked to the floor, where he gripped the carpet with his fingernails. Standing up, strings of carpet poking from his fingers, he saw Dr. Peiro surrounded by the milling crowd. He thought briefly of comparing the scene to Orpheus surrounded by the shades of Hades, but then remembered that Orpheus’ resemblance to an ancient toad was probably very small. One professor, as thin and stiff as a wood plank and clean-shaven, demanded safe asylum from the inevitable result of the students being released into the world. Another shouted that the very definition of education was under assault. Dr. Peiro flapped his hands, and gradually a fevered quiet descended into the room. “Friends, fellow teachers,” he said, walking over towards the windows, “I understand your just concern over the disaster which has overtaken us. But we are reasonable men, and I must insist that we conduct ourselves reasonably even with respect to this imminent danger. I would like to call to your attention the principles of the Revolution, upon which this most revered institution was founded. The purpose of this institution is to provide to the young men and women of our nation an education, an education of excellence, an education which will suitably prepare them to succeed in our modern world. As our forefathers duly noted, this education is not about facts, or the cultivation of specific truths, as was once taught in the defunct nations of the western world. No, this education is about principles, processes of creative thinking, and the accumulation of valuable experience. For these reasons, our forefathers developed an exam intelligent enough to discern what the student should remember, and what he would not. By this means, the student is freed from others’ ideas and the crushing weight of others’ truths. Friends, today we have witnessed a glitch in this exam. We must not let ourselves be fazed. How many were our forefathers willing to kill in the Revolution in order to bring us to the place we now enjoy? We must not shirk our responsibilities now. Imprison all the students and we—the world—shall be safe.” Dr. Piero’s address was met by some weak applause. Then Pennyworth spoke up. “Sir,” he said. “Wasn’t the Revolution all about challenging assumptions? All the principles of the Revolution stressed the necessity of not falling back on merely traditional mentalities and fears. Perhaps the danger of simply letting the students go would be less than we think.” The room fell as silent as death, as Dr. Peiro and the professors all turned to face Pennyworth, white-faced. “Are you suggesting that we should turn these students—learned students—over to the world, still full of facts and ideas?” asked Dr. Peiro, in a strange, wavering voice. Pennyworth took a step back. “Well, I don’t know, sir. I’m just asking the question.” The professors instantly began whispering among themselves. “What would become of us?” asked one. “Wasn’t he in the room with the exam this morning?” said another. “He’s been infected.” The words “infection” and “exposure,” were soon hissing around the room, and the professors, an angry mob, made a rush at Pennyworth. “But, the principles of the Revolution!” Pennyworth shouted over the mad screams. “Damn principles! He’s been infected!” a professor shouted. They seized Pennyworth, and bore him violently down the stairs. His head struck again and again against the wall, he began to grow dizzy. He felt like he was being pulled apart. Then a sudden blow struck him once again, and he blacked out. When he awoke, all was quiet. He was first struck by the headache pounding through his ears, and the stifling cold of the smooth, concrete floor against which his nose was pressed. Very slowly, he raised his head and looked around. He was surrounded by the gray, concrete walls, and the darkness of the school’s dungeon. He wondered, briefly, for what reason such a place had ever been built. He shuddered to think of what hard realities must have motivated his esteemed forefathers in its construction. His cell was tiny, with a slit of a window allowing air in from the outside, and another window, gridded with bars, communicating with the next cell. The floor was bare, except for a straw mat, and in place of a pillow, a single volume entitled The Educational Principles of the Revolution: A Dialectical Approach. Alone, hungry, and cold, he thought of shedding a bitter tear, and perhaps even giving an existentialist soliloquy. But then he considered how there would be no one to hear him, and no means by which his noble existence could be commemorated by future generations, and so thought better of it. Suddenly he heard footsteps in the cell next to him, and looked up towards the black bars of the window. A face, young and with a hint of a beard, poked itself up. “Hullo,” it said. “Are you also a learned man?” Pennyworth almost leaped out of his skin.

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Michael Helvey

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