The Fever Has Broken.
(At the end of the WebCT course on Don Quixote, I invited students to write a review of their own thought process and reactions to the act of reading the novel. This is one of the reviews that I received. I have taken the rare step [for me] of publishing somebody else's thoughts on my webpage as I believe these ideas fit well into our current debate on the value of critical thinking within our own education system. I will publish the student's name after graduation [May, 2005]. The essay is included with the student's written permission.)
The fever has broken, and both Don Quixote and I have realized that our realities and "truths" are not always what they seemed. I am excited to reflect on the question of how my perceptions of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, along with the nature of the reality around me, and the nature of knowledge and its basis in reality have changed in the past few months. I hadn't really thought about the reading of Don Quixote as changing my own perceptions, but upon reflection, I realize Don Quixote and I have something in common.
In the first part of the book, it always seemed as though it was Don Quixote who was completely out of touch with reality, and Sancho Panza was much more grounded. I think they were both products of their social experiences, and as such had different takes on what they were seeing. Perhaps Cervantes exaggerated the
differences in perceptions to make a statement about the society, because it was in fact Sancho who was continually following and obeying Don Quixote despite his "madness".
Perhaps the two characters represent society on a larger scale, in that what is done does not always make sense but it isn't often questioned. In the moments of clarity on the part of Don Quixote in the first book, the reader is given a glimpse of hope- maybe the situation will change for the better.
In the second part, it seems that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza switch roles…while they both waiver on the margins of reality, they seem to compliment each other. That is to say, that if Don Quixote has an unrealistic perception, Sancho Panza will try to reason with him. In other cases, it was Sancho Panza who seemed to be unrealistic and Don Quixote was doing the reasoning. Perhaps, in relating that to the larger scale of society, one could draw the connection that one group will always be out of touch with social realities, thus someone else is always needed to bring them back to a realistic plain of existence. I think it is fascinating that at the end of these years of adventures as a knight-errant, Don Quixote (after suffering a fever) came to the realization that what he believed for so long to be his "truths" were just the opposite.
After spending much time with a certain "reality" it is hard to come to terms with a change in perception. Don Quixote ordered that people stop calling him by that name,
and to instead use his real name, Alonso Quixano. He comes to the realization that his past adventures had been nonsensical, and states, "My judgement is returned clear and undisturbed and that a cloud of ignorance is now removed, which the continual reading of those damnable books of knight-errantry had cast over my understanding." He continues to say that, "Now, I perceive their nonsense and impertinence, and am only sorry the discovery happens so late." (Motteux p.756)
Interestingly, my own perceptions of realities have changed drastically in the past few months. The "truth" that I no longer accept as real is the absolute validity of formal education. Like Don Quixote, I wish I'd realized this sooner than I had. I am only days away from obtaining my undergraduate degree, and it is now that I realize that a formal education is not all that it is cracked up to be. The schooling system in place teaches children to conform and obey authorities, and deters original thought. Anyone who doesn't shape themselves to fit into the mold is seen as a problem- people who think critically are dangerous to the maintenance of the system! I realized only recently, that I myself have not been equipped with critical thinking skills. This is something that I am conscious of though, and I am working on improving.
One must question everything, one must question authority. Sancho was right to not accept everything Don Quixote said, even though Don Quixote was in a position of power over Sancho. Even though their social realities were different, it was not appropriate that Don Quixote force his ideas on Sancho- and vice versa.
I feel that my whole experience in the schooling system can be compared to a meta- theatre of sorts. After the seventeen years that I have been schooled, I only realized recently that there were negative aspects to being schooled. From kindergarten on, I received positive reinforcement for being a "good student", which really meant that I accepted the authority of my teachers, and did not question what they told me. I was
unaware (as almost all students are) of the hidden curriculum of conformity and the perpetuation of class differences within our society. I did realize that school (the subjects learned and the methods of learning) was not the best use of my time, or the most effective way to learn, but that was the extent of my criticisms. University is a continuation of this formal education, packaging schooling with certification (as Ivan Illich would say). I am glad that I went to university, yet at the same time I am glad that I have come to the realization that it is not reflective of my actual intelligence or skill level. It is, however, a reflection of my relative privilege within our society, and my ability to conform to the ideas of my educators (consciously or unconsciously). It was in university that I was exposed to this very idea, so it's not all bad. At the same time, it is a shame that it took me so long to realize the truth about the formal education which has been my life up until this point.
I think it's appropriate to compare my experience with schooling to a meta- theatre, because for years I was bombarded with the usual ideas about schooling being a positive thing, and the more schooling you have the more opportunities you'll have, the smarter you'll be, etc. Also emphasized was the idea that those with more schooling are superior to those with less. It was those in charge of perpetuating schooling that were responsible for creating this environment of untruths around me. Knowledge was controlled, and "truths" were presented that were beneficial to the perpetuation of the system. I was ignorant as to the ulterior motives of the institutional administration, and as such it as though I was an unknowing character in a meta-theatre. I perceived my situation to be complete truth, while those around me knew that it wasn't, yet they continued to play along.
As Don Quixote came to the realization that his thoughts and perceptions had been clouded, I too have come to that realization. It is only now that I can perceive my situation with greater clarity, and now with a critical eye I am able to assess and enjoy my last while at school. I look forward however to leaving school, which has been my reality for as long as I remember, and experience new things. I hope to gain knowledge from experiential learning, rather than book learning. It seems as though that may have been the case with Don Quixote when setting out on his first and second sortie… he had read all about these things, yet wanted to experience them first hand. Perhaps I have read all about the cultures of the world, the realities of life, and now it is my turn to go and experience them for myself. Perhaps I will perceive things to be realities, while others with different backgrounds and different experiences will see them as something totally dissimilar. In a way, I feel as though I can identify with Don Quixote at the end of the second book- where he finally has clarity about life. In another way, I feel as though perhaps I am starting a sortie of my own, and I have a bumpy and unpredictable road ahead of me.
Either way, the book has taught me that true knowledge and reality are subjective, and what you perceive and believe for a long time to be true may suddenly change. The book shows that while one may believe they're right all the time, they may be on the fringes of reality. It teaches the reader to question "reality" constantly and critically, and to be open to the perceptions of others. Perhaps in that case it is they who have the more reasonable interpretation, and you could benefit from hearing their perspective on the issue. In my case, the fever has broken, giving me an understanding of my own current situation. Luckily, I am gaining the critical thinking skills needed to assess future situations- so perhaps I will have a more clarity in endeavours on my next sortie.
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