Zen and the Art of ManlyMan-ness

I first heard of the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values when I was a lowly junior at Parkwood High. The class was AP calculus. My teacher– I’m trying desperately to remember his name– was a short stout little redfaced man with a frizzy red beard and ambitions. We loved him. It was his last year at our high school so he felt entitled to a little fun. He deserved it, too. Anyway, he’d just read the book and was struck by the passage in which Pirsig explains the psychology behind grades. (This applies to you and your Korean travails, Briana.) Essentially, students who are motivated will learn the material. Motivation shouldn’t come from grades and penalties. And if they aren’t motivated by the material, they’ll flunk out.

The student, with no hard feelings on anybody’s part, would have flunked himself out. Good! This is what should have happened. A large amount of money and effort had been saved and there would be no stigma of failure and ruin to haunt him the rest of his life. No bridges had been burned.

That’s very brief. I’d love to quote the whole passage but I fear for my readers’ attention spans. My own, too. So Mr. J (I’m remembering, slowly, the name) took Pirsig’s ramblings to heart and said that for the whole year, we would have no grades. We didn’t have to turn in assignments or read the text. He recommended it, of course, but it was optional. And every single one of us passed the state exams. We all got college credit. It was his crowning moment. (This was also the man, by the way, who taught his twin daughters the rudiments of calculus. They were two years old. I’ve since read articles claiming that it’s one of the branches of mathematics that is conceptually simple enough that this is possible.)

So that was when I first heard of the book. I read it a couple years later and enjoyed it, for the most part. Pirsig’s pretty didactic and rambling, but it’s still interesting. What really struck me, though, was the way he talks about machines. Quick background: the book is a story about the extended motorcycle tour he and his son took. They learned to work on their machine themselves and the book is really about the beauty of technology and learning pieces of the puzzle. It’s an elegant thought, which is why it’s stuck with me for so many years.

It surfaced from my subconscious a few months ago when Robyn was having trouble with her Toyota. That poor car. It had stuck by her unfailingly for years. We thought it was the radiator because of the hissing and steam. (Bear in mind we know extremely little about cars.) But that was a simple diagnosis. She didn’t have the money to fix it and she came over, wailing and gnashing. I said, look. I know how to follow a recipe. There must be a recipe online for changing a radiator out. Then she found a used radiator at a junk yard and we went and picked it up for sixty-some dollars. And thennnnnn… we changed it! Ourselves. With Ashley’s tools and a gaggle of men standing around snickering. (I don’t know whether you can say “gaggle” for men. I do know you can say it for geese.)And it worked. ==> brief footnote: Turned out it was probably the water pump and not the radiator that was at fault (the gasket blew the radiator so it actually did need replacing): but by that point, we were so geeked at having fixed the radiator that we said forget the car and went to bask in our glory.

That’s one example of the way this book changes a person. I need to fix the windshield wipers on my VW; the cable is broken. I may do that tomorrow.


  • First of all, I want a fancy blog.

    Second of all, I agree that the motivation to learn shouldn’t come entirely from grades. My brain is stir-crazy and skippy, so at the moment I can’t present you with any clear refutation, but I swear that idea is wrong on many levels. No, a person who wants to learn, who relishes the experience of enriching their own world, will never stop seeking out education in many forms. But what I’m talking about is creating behavior in children and teenagers.
    When I get back there will be passionate discussions!

  • Passionate discussions! I can’t wait! So…. when you comin back??

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