Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Scholia, Essays, and Education

Over the years several of my Jewish teachers have reminded me that the most important part of the page is neither the text, nor the commentaries, but the white space.  Because the white space is the place that remains for us to fill with our own commentaries.

(White space, refracted)

In an earlier post I spoke of the pleasures of finding marginalia in others' books, and of writing one's own marginalia.  The word "marginalia" means, of course, "things [written] in the margin."  In a way, the aim of education is to prepare us to write our own marginalia.

We set aside places for education, and these we call "schools," from the Greek word scholé, meaning "leisure."  Most students don't think of schools as places of leisure, but it is only a person with leisure from menial daily work who has the leisure for school.

That word scholé is also related to the word scholion (Greek) or scholium (Latin).  Those words mean "a comment."  The act of reading is not complete with seeing the words on the page; we have read a text when we have observed it, worked to understand it, and then contemplated its meaning for our own lives.  Looking at words without reflecting on them and then calling it reading is like looking at a menu without eating a meal and calling it "going to a restaurant."  Technically true, but not at all nourishing.

Those with leisure to read books also have the leisure to reflect on books and on what they mean for us.  When that reflection takes the form of scholia (the plural of scholion and scholium) - that is, when we write comments on texts, the writing is an attempt to complete the act of reading.  So when we teachers assign essays we are (ideally) not assigning writing so much as reading. The aim is not a polished essay; the polished essay is merely the sign of something else.  The aim is reflection on texts.  The word "essay" comes from a French word meaning "attempt, try"; each essay is an attempt to become a little better at observing texts, at understanding what they mean, and at articulating what they mean for us.

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