Sunday, November 11, 2007

Gordian's Knot

Alexander Cuts the Gordian Knot, by Jean-Simon Berthelemy (1743-1811)

The Gordian Knot is a legend associated with Alexander, The Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem, solved by a bold stroke ("cutting the Gordian Knot")

According to a Phrygian Tradition, an oracle of Telmissus, the ancient capital of Phrygia, decreed to the Phrygians, who found themselves temporarily without a King, that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. Ahmidas, a poor peasant, happened to drive into town with his father Gordias and his mother, riding in his father's ox-cart. Before Ahmidas' birth, an eagle had once landed on that ox-cart, and this was explained as a sign from the gods. Ahmidas was declared king by the priests. In gratitude, he dedicated his father's ox-cart to the Phrygian god Sabazios, whom the Greeks identified with Zeus, and tied it to a post with an intricate knot of cornel (Cornus mas) bark. It was further prophesied by an oracle that the one to untie the knot would become the king of Asia (today's Asia Minor-Middle East)

The ox-cart, often depicted as a chariot, was an emblem of power and constant military readiness. It still stood in the palace of the former kings of Phrygia at Gordium in the fourth century BC when Alexander arrived, at which point Phrygia had been reduced to a satrapy, or province of the Persian Empire. (Iraq, Iran today)

In 333 BC, wintering at Gordium, Alexander attempted to untie the knot. When he could find no end to the knot, to unbind it, he sliced it in half with a stroke of his sword, producing the required ends (the so-called "Alexandrian Solution", taken by the Hellenic Army IV Army Corps as their motto). Even though disputed by Plutarch, (pulled out not cut), either way, Alexander did go on to conquer Asia and fulfill the prophecy.

Now days, we have a toy puzzle, similar to Rubic's Cube, which defies solution. (pictured above) In the packaging there is a step-by-step procedural solution for taking it apart (untying) and then, equally difficult, putting it back together (retying). I enjoy these puzzles, not that I'm especially good at them but, I like the challenge. They are maddenly fascinating all at the same time.

Metaphorically, I can relate this "intractable problem knot" to the "mess" we, as a country, have gotten ourselves into in the Middle East. There doesn't seem to be a ready solution, easy or hard. Maybe our leaders should've "learned from history" and had an exit strategy before they blundered in to slice away with bold strokes.(like Alexander or some eagle) It now appears that the knots have grown and divided into "offspring knots"...or maybe they were there before all the time. i.e. Afghanistan and Pakistan a la the Taliban. These still and always have been "male dominated" cultures or "half-cultures" if you will...discounting the power and importance of their women in roles of leadership etc. (i.e. Pakistan's current struggle) Will stumble in there like Alexander and try to force our ways and values on them all? It reminds me of the scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" where Indiana Jones just takes out his six-shooter and dispatches the scimitar-weilding dueler. Why play by their rules? We have our own rules and values and they apply everywhere in the world. Right?

This same situation now exists in many of our schools, districts and classrooms. The systems are all knotted up in procedural rules and ineffective rubrics for learning and discipline. All we seem to have to "fix" them are TESTS AND MORE TESTS. The threat of tests are used everyday and kids have come to expect them. Why do anything extra or out of curiosity if it won't be required on a future test? There just seems to be only one solution to why kids can't or won't learn...finding the right tests or "test-taking behaviors" to train into them. When a "sub" (like me) comes in and questions some of their procedures, i.e. the reason or validity of them; many of the outspoken ones ask, "Why are we doing in this way?...We've never done this before...Our regular teacher doesn't ask or require this?...How many do I have to do to be done right away?" I can give you cases in point at almost every level but mainly at the older (upper grades). Very "closed minded" already by the 7th and 8th grade level, especially in Math. "Just show me/require of me the minimum. Don't make me go through it step-by-step in logical order. That will take too long and I won't finish by the end of the period or I might have to take it home for homework." If they don't get their way, when I insist they try a new or different approach, they try "the game of uproar" trying to get their classmates involved. I'm convinced that most of the regular teachers don't even care anymore and are just "covering the material" take it or leave it...most leave it. Too hard of a knot to untie, takes too long, and it isn't worth it. They can't see into the future of our country or even our state and the hopeless, passive, non-copers we are "educating". I just heard on the radio that California 4th graders are #48 out of 50 in Reading and Math. We wonder why that is? Just look at our schools, their lack of support and their lack of innovative approaches. They keep waiting for the "bold stroke" of decisive solution but are unwilling to try anything that might inconvenience or change their schedules and ADA. Maybe the Greeks i.e. Alexander, had a point or an edge or...a clue? RRR

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