What A Certain Change Of Scenery Can Do

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who knew how to sully a chalkboard with the best of them.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who knew how to sully a chalkboard with the best of them.

The photo above will make sense below, I hope. Read on. Derek is with us in Kerala for one more week before he moves on to Australia. I am reflecting on his time here, while also currently in conversation with prospective interns for the second half of 2015. And I just received news of Michael, the poet prince of past interns, who is currently on a tug boat in the Atlantic ocean. His experience, since graduating from Amherst College the year after he interned with us, is not typical of anything other than that we have had a very interesting variety of interns who go on to do very diverse, interesting, meaningful things of their own choosing.

These reflections are mixing up with reflections on Ethiopia that I hope to make enough sense of to produce one relevant post, soon. The meaning of our Ethiopia expedition, I already know, will have something to do with the value of perspective, and change of scenery, and leapfrogged expectations.

The pitch for an internship with us is related to those same values and is straightforward, in one sense: practical work experience in sustainable hospitality, social enterprise, or some variation of the two. The trickier part of the pitch is being clear about the value of spark plugs blowing out in the middle of the night before you’ve reached the top of the mountain.  It is not possible to predict what a particular spark plug moment is going to be like in the future, or even that a particular person will be ready for it.

But it is possible to predict that most of us, most of the time, benefit from removing ourselves from our comfort zone. We may have just one zen moment, or a whole string of them, or none at all. And any of those may be just the right thing for us. It is making the decision to put one foot forward in a particular direction, and living with it for as long as it is useful for you, that seems to be the real source of valuable life experience.

So, the photo. It is not necessary to know who this philosopher was, or even that he was a philosopher. Just knowing what follows is enough to appreciate that sometimes a change of scenery is the best way to prepare yourself for the next big thing in your life:

…He revolutionized philosophy twice, fought with shocking bravery in World War I, inspired a host of memoirs by people who knew him only glancingly—and for six years taught elementary school in the mountains of rural Austria. Biographers have tended to find this bizarre. Chapters covering the period after his teaching years, when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, are usually called something like “Out of the Wilderness.” (That one’s from Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. The next chapter is called “The Second Coming.”)

By the time he decided to teach, Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive…

…he took extreme steps to change his circumstances, divesting himself of his enormous family fortune (which he dispersed among his siblings, making sure he could never legally access it again); leaving the palatial family home he’d grown up in (it was literally called the “Palais Wittgenstein”); and looking for the kind of hard and honest work he hoped would distract him…

In 1920, after a year of training, Wittgenstein took up a post at an elementary school in Trattenbach. It was a tiny farming and factory village in the mountains south of Vienna; Wittgenstein accepted the job there after rejecting one in a town he decided was too cosmopolitan. (It had a park with a fountain in it.)

He cut a strange figure in Trattenbach. Since, earlier, he’d tried to apply for work under a false name and had been found out, he was open this time about his background—the citizens knew he was descended of one of the richest families in Austria. Yet he lived in ostentatious poverty: he slept in the school kitchen and ate cocoa and oatmeal for dinner out of a pot he never cleaned. The adults of the village distrusted him from the beginning, but he made a more positive impression on some of his students. When one biographer visited Trattenbach fifty years later, he met with former pupils who still remembered Wittgenstein’s lessons, some of which were as charmingly philosophical as one might hope: one student recalled being introduced, at that young age, to the Liar’s Paradox (the Cretan who declares “All Cretans are liars …”).

But Wittgenstein was “interested in everything,” and he engaged his students in a sort of “project-based learning” that wouldn’t be out of place in the best elementary classrooms today. They designed steam engines and buildings together, and built models of them; dissected animals; examined things with a microscope Wittgenstein brought from Vienna; read literature; learned constellations lying under the night sky; and took trips to Vienna, where they stayed at a school run by his sister Hermine. Just to get to the train required a twelve-mile hike through the mountainous forest around Trattenbach; on the return trip, the students made this hike after midnight. On the way, Wittgenstein would ask them the names they’d learned of the plants in the forest. In Vienna they would discuss the architectural styles of the buildings they visited and look for examples of the machines they had modeled. Another project grew into what was, remarkably, the only book Wittgenstein published in his lifetime besides the Tractatus: a spelling dictionary he developed with the help of his students, which briefly saw official use in Austrian schools…

Read the whole blog post about Wittgenstein as schoolteacher here.

2 thoughts on “What A Certain Change Of Scenery Can Do

  1. Pingback: A River Runs Through It, In Ethiopia | Raxa Collective

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