The first time I saw this wonderful cartoon, I thought it was just funny, The second time, I thought it was witty and funny—not at all a common combination. I still think it is witty and funny—the whole Olympic gesture with the scores on cares the way they used to be displayed—but now I am thinking it is a little sad, also.bon voyage 5.jpg

“Who are you to judge?” [1]

We always imagine when we see the scores held up by the judges that they know what a good performance is. We might imagine, to take the case of platform diving, that the judges had been very good divers themselves in times past and they know a great dive when they see it. That doesn’t work for this picture, I’m afraid. The caterpillars have never been butterflies.
They have no experience at all with what they are assessing.

The next thing that occurs to me is that whoever knows what, only one of these creatures is actually flying. The caterpillars can imagine, they can hypothesize, they can project…but when it comes to saying what it feels like, the butterfly takes the stage.

There is a distinction to be made—it isn’t valid for everything, as I will note below—between those who are are actually doing something and those who are only criticizing. Criticizing is pretty cheap by comparison with flying. [2] If you are flying, you can fly in the wrong direction, you can run into something, you can fall out of the sky. Leaving aside for the moment, predators who feast on caterpillars, nothing all that bad can happen to you while you are just sitting there criticizing someone else.

I get the chance to preach every now and then. I’m not a very good preacher—not at least to the congregation I get access to—but going through the process has the effect of making me a good deal less critical than I would be otherwise. [3] When you spend a lot of your own time backstage, and when you are a very occasional preacher, you spend a lot of time backstage, you know how many sudden inspirations would be meaningless to the people you are going to preach to. You know how different it is to build a story that means a lot to you and to know with that clear sinking feeling that it will not mean anything when you actually have a chance to give that sermon. A good sermon is a picture that makes sense from the standpoint of the people who can see it. You just got done drawing it; you can’t see it the way they can.

But I’m good at judging

So the other side of this question is that an activity—flying, in this cartoon—is chosen as real and other things—judging, in this cartoon—are demoted to being “not quite real.” That is the source of the jab about teachers being people who can’t actually do anything. “Those who can,” the slam goes, “do, and those who cannot, teach.” Some activities are “really doing something,: in this insult and teaching others to do that thing are not really doing anything.

So those who can’t box can teach boxing; those who can’t play tennis can be tennis coaches, and those whose own lives are frightful messes can still counsel others about how to improve their relationships. In each of those examples, there is a real activity (boxing, for instance) and a fake activity (teaching boxing). But I maintain that as appealing as that form of grievance is, it is false. Both boxing and teaching boxing are “real.”

Let’s look at it from the other side. There are superb performers who have no idea how they do what they do. They make terrible teachers. To teach, you have to know what works AND how to help others acquire the knowledge or the skill required. Neither the knowing nor the helping require a past experience with doing. That does not argue, of course, that the experience of competent practice might not help; it argues only that doing and teaching are not the same thing. Both are “real” but they are different.

And the counselor who is quite skilled at helping couples see what is impeding their pursuit of a better marriage may not be good at being married—at least not to his current spouse. Does the fact that he is not a good husband mean that he is not a good counselor, as if one activity were “real” and the other only a pale reflection. I don’t think so.

And although it takes all the fun out of the cartoon to say so, there is no reason to believe that the “judges” are not correct. The fact that they cannot fly doesn’t mean that they can’t see. And 8.66667 reflects quite a lot of agreement, when you stop to think about it.

[1] OK, I’ve abused the quotation. The word translated “judge” in this passage would better have been translated as “condemn,” but my use of it requires that it be able to have meaning in both contexts and “judge” does that for me.
[2] Actually, these days almost everything is cheap by comparison with flying.
[3] I’ve been a college professor most of my life and my sermons still sound mostly like lectures.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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