Dana Burgess - The Gift of the Sphinx

The Gift of the Sphinx
Whitman College Convocation Address
August 30, 2013
Dana L. Burgess

Good afternoon!  To new friends, First-Years, their parents, relatives and friends, welcome!  To old friends here on the stage and down front, and to returning students, I want to say that it’s great to be back.

I’d like to tell a story; some version of it is likely familiar to many of you, but I want to see if we can think about it in a new way.  Thinking about things in new ways is an important part of what we do here at Whitman.

You might know about the ancient Greek sphinx, a creature part bird-of-prey, part lion, part woman.  Stationed at the gates of Thebes, she asks a riddle of each person seeking to enter the city, “What walks on four legs in the morning, two at mid-day, and three in the evening?”  Those who fail to answer this riddle get eaten by the sphinx; one who succeeds will get the throne and the widowed queen as wife.  Oedipus, ignorant of his  own true identity as the heir to the Theban throne, comes along and answers the riddle correctly by saying, “a human being.”  When this is retold in handbooks of mythology or on websites, that answer is nearly always accompanied by the explanation that a human being walks on four legs as a baby in the morning of life, on two legs in the middle of life, and with a walking stick, making three legs, in the evening of life.

It’s worth noticing that the answer to the riddle so often gets explained.  If we’ve never heard the riddle before, we have a moment when we say, “OK.  I get it.  The riddle was misleading by making us think of a day instead of a life, but the leg thing works out pretty well.”  We go through a little intellectual process of thinking through the riddle and seeing how it works.  Riddles often involve a trick like this.  There’s something that doesn’t make sense, and then there’s something that does.  When we hear about the morning, mid-day and evening, we want to answer the riddle with something that goes through a daily change in leg use.  The riddle has misdirected us.  We all know what a day is and how things change through a day!  Why can’t the riddle just stick with the normal definition of a day?  It may be infuriating, but that’s the way lots of riddles work.  To answer the riddle, we have to get past our usual definition of a day.  We have to make a leap of imagination to see that a lifetime can be like a day.  The handbooks of mythology explain this riddle for us, in case we aren’t able to make that leap of imagination on our own.

It’s hard to solve a tricky riddle like this when there is a bird-lion-woman gazing at you hungrily.  Just looking at her must be discombobulating.  Is she a woman?  Is she a bird?  Is she a lion?  She doesn’t fit any of our pre-existing categories.  In fact, she seems to violate our sense of categories.  She seems to be something that can’t exist.  She’s kind of a riddle herself, and we may have to make another leap of imagination just to use the word sphinx and to let that word refer to this hybrid creature, neither this nor that nor the other.  One thing we do know about her is that she’s really, really smart.  If she eats us, it’s because we couldn’t solve the riddle she’s made up for us.

Many know the rest of the story, popularized by Sophocles and Freud.  Oedipus takes the throne of Thebes, marries the widowed queen, and rules well.  A divine plague upon the city forces Oedipus to search for the murderer of the prior king.  Working like a detective, Oedipus labors to reveal the truth.  Through long investigation he finds that he is, himself, the murderer of the prior king, that he is the son of the prior king, and that he has married his own mother.  He punishes himself with self-blinding and self-exile, leaving Thebes to wander as a beggar for twenty years.  Sounds just like a Greek tragedy, doesn’t it? Everything’s awful at the end.

I’d like to invite you to think about Oedipus in a new way.  Yes, I know, he killed his father and slept with his mother; he blinded himself and wandered as a beggar for twenty years; most things didn’t go very well for Oedipus.  But, intellectually speaking, Oedipus successfully came to some important new understandings.  Sophocles, the author of the play, wrote about Oedipus as an old man many years later, when Sophocles himself was an old man.  In that later play, the Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles portrays Oedipus as wise, if a bit cranky, and even makes Oedipus’s final resting place a holy site, sacred to the gods and beneficial to the city of Athens.  So, some things did go pretty well for Oedipus, and this story of Oedipus is kind of a riddle itself.  How can this character who suffered such awful things have been, somehow, successful?  To understand the original riddle of the sphinx, we needed to get past our normal definition of a day.  So maybe to understand the riddle of Oedipus we need to get past our normal definitions of success and failure.

Consider Oedipus before he met the sphinx.  He lived in Corinth with a man and woman he mistakenly believed to be his parents.  One day he got a disturbing piece of information.  A drunken man insulted Oedipus at a party and said that Oedipus wasn’t really the son of those he thought his parents.  A drunk isn’t a very good source of information, so Oedipus travelled to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi to ask the god about this insult.  The god didn’t clarify the drunk’s remarks, but he did tell Oedipus that he was destined to kill his father and lie with his mother.  Such information from so reliable a source really bothered Oedipus, and he left Corinth to avoid doing these terrible things.

Consider how Oedipus dealt with the information he got.  He knew that he had reliable information, and he tried to act on it.  Sometimes we hear folks talk about education as information transferal.  We professors down front get to wear these funny-looking outfits because we know something; we tell it to you; now you know that same something.  If you think of education this way, we professors are kind of like the Oracle that gave Oedipus otherwise unavailable information.  You come to college to get access to information you couldn’t get elsewhere.  But the information revolution has changed all that.  Now, all information is publically available, so why would anyone go to college?  If education is about acquiring information, students should just ask Google what they want to know. 

Way back in the early 1970’s the Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire criticized this way of thinking about education as information transferal.  He called that the “banking model.”  The student is the bank, and the information is the money that gets “deposited” in the bank.  The bank is really just a holding facility.  Freire described what happens to the student in this kind of education, “The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world.  The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.” (Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970,Continuum Press, p. 73).

Oedipus was a very good student.  He was smart and insightful, and he worked hard to solve riddles.  But I want to give some of the credit to the sphinx.  She wasn’t working with Freire’s “banking model” of education.  She wasn’t doing any information transferal at all, but she did give Oedipus a gift: She didn’t tell him the answer to her riddle; she just gave him a riddle to work on.  She left it to Oedipus to do the hard work, what a colleague of mine has called “the heavy lifting.”  Oedipus didn’t learn the answer to the riddle from someone else; he figured it out for himself.  The story shows how the sphinx’s riddle helped make Oedipus really good at solving riddles, so he was later able to solve the riddle of the prior king’s murder and, as part of that, the riddle of his own life.  The sphinx helped Oedipus develop the skills he needed to understand his own life.

Consider the relations between the sphinx’s original riddle and the riddle of Oedipus.  The answer to the sphinx’s riddle is “a human being,” and Oedipus is a human being, so the riddle answerer is the answer to the riddle.  Oedipus has to make a leap of imagination to solve the sphinx’s original riddle; he has to understand something familiar in a new way.  He has to understand the thing he is, a human being, in a new way. Becoming the king of Thebes and becoming responsible for the investigation of the murder of the prior king, Oedipus now has another riddle to solve; who killed the prior king?  Again, he turns out to be, himself, the solution to the new riddle.  Again, he has to make a leap of imagination to think about himself in a new way.  Oedipus learns a lot about himself.  He learns that he really is from Thebes.  He learns who his mother and father are.  He learns that his prior understanding of himself was incorrect.  Those are all valuable lessons, even if they’re painful.

I don’t want to give the impression that self-knowledge has to come with the unpleasant baggage it carried for Oedipus.  I’ve shared some educational theory from the fifth century B.C.E. and a little from 1970, which may seem nearly as far away.  As positive encouragement, I’d like to offer an idea from 2003 by Nel Noddings, another theorist of education, “One purpose of schooling should be to develop the intellect, but that does not mean stuff the heads of students with material arbitrarily chosen by experts and designed to rank and sort them.  It means rather to guide students toward the intelligent use of their intellectual capabilities in both personal and public life.  It means equipping them with the power to evaluate and direct change, to resist harmful changes and promote those that contribute to human flourishing.”  (Nel Noddings, Happiness and Education, 2003, Cambridge, p. 260).  Noddings argues that education can contribute to human flourishing in both personal and public life, that it can make you a better and a happier person.  She emphasizes that this sort of education works not by information transferal but by equipping learners “with the power to evaluate and direct change.”  That involves a liberating autonomy rather than a passive obedience.

Nobody told Oedipus who he was; he figured that out for himself.  Maybe it’s not even possible for someone else to tell you who you are; maybe we all have to figure that out for ourselves.  You can do a Google search to find out the capital of Arkansas (Little Rock?) but you can’t do a Google search to find out who you are, what you’re good at, what makes you happy, what matters for your life.  Information transferal isn’t any help with that stuff.

When folks say that a college professor is like a sphinx, they don’t usually mean that in a nice way.  It suggests that we know the answers students need, but we keep them secret for the sake of our own power.  Remember that the sphinx is a crazily hybrid creature; she doesn’t fit the normal categories.  In the story of Oedipus she does terrible things, but she also gives Oedipus a remarkable gift.  That’s part of the riddle of her hybrid nature: the curse of being forced to solve a riddle is also the gift of the ability to solve riddles.  She can’t give that ability to Oedipus, but she can create the circumstances for him to develop it for himself.

Sometime during the next four years, you may be irritated to ask a professor a question and get some obnoxious reply like, “I don’t know; what do YOU think?”  There may be various reasons for that reply.  Maybe the professor really just doesn’t know.  Maybe the professor wants to begin a genuinely interactive conversation. Whatever the reason for the non-answer to a question, I encourage you to take the opportunity to think about the question again.  Having a riddle to solve is good intellectual exercise; maybe you’ll make a leap of imagination and come to understand something in a new way.  Maybe the intellectual effort of working on the riddle will make you better at solving riddles.  The really important riddles might be about yourself and your place in the world.  If you get good at solving riddles, maybe you can put your skills to work on the riddle of yourself.  Thank you.