Friday, February 06, 2009

Repertoires and abilities

For nearly four decades now literary scholars have been keeping themselves awake with the bogey of the canon. The time has long passed for giving the bad idea a decent burial. I propose to replace it with Gilbert Ryle’s distinction between repertoires and abilities.

Ryle sets out to answer Socrates’ question “Can virtue be taught?”[1] It can, but only if it is cared about—deeply. Deep caring is the proof that education has succeeded. “[W]e can properly be described as having learned or been taught standards of conduct when, under the influence of other people’s examples, expressions, utterances, admonitions, and disciplines, we too have come to care deeply about the things they care deeply about,” Ryle writes.

The reason most of us laugh at moral education is that “the idea strikes us as ridiculous that there should exist expert tutors or crammers in fidelity, modesty, or generosity. . . .” But this is to reduce education to only one sort—what Ryle calls “instructing by dictating,” or what is now derided as a sage on the stage. But there is another sort of education. Ryle gives the example of learning to play the piano. “The wisest theorists in the world can lecture as eloquently as you please,” Ryle says; “but the clearest memories of their doctrines will not, by themselves, enable Tommy to play the piano.” Starting with five-finger exercises, practice is also needed—ten thousand hours of practice to become a virtuoso, if recent research is to be believed. “Learning doctrines by heart is one sort of learning,” Ryle concludes; “learning to do things is another sort, and one which is not generally much assisted by learning doctrines by heart.”

For these two sorts of learning, Ryle suggests the shorthand terms repertoires and abilities. They are usually confused, because both can be acquired. But the ability to play the piano is not the same as a repertoire of pieces that can be readily played, from a familiarity with them. What is more, a repertoire is nothing without the ability to use and enjoy it. And the abilities are implicit within the repertoire. They are not an abstract set of movements, like swinging the arms or standing on tiptoe, but the concrete skills required to play these pieces in exactly this way.

Ryle goes on to argue that there is a third category—the value of conduct. I may acquire the ability to do something, but this is no guarantee that I will use it morally. For instance, a man may be a well-trained surgeon, but there is nothing in his training to prevent him from killing instead of healing patients on the operating table. Indeed, his training has equipped him to kill more efficiently, if he chooses. Similarly, you may acquire an ability to play a game, but this will not insure that you will play the game to win. These motives and desires are separate and distinct from the abilities and repertoires.

You must also, therefore, learn to care deeply for the things you are handling, the actions you are performing. The very fact that a repertoire is a selection, Ryle observes, embodies the necessary degree of necessary caring. If you care deeply enough about playing the piano you don’t play just anything at all. No one cares deeply for an arbitrary gathering. A person cares only for what has been selected with care and preserved out of the conviction that it is worth something.

[1] Gilbert Ryle, “Can Virtue Be Taught?” in Education and the Development of Reason, ed. R. F. Dearden, P. H. Hirst, and R. S. Peters (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), pp. 44–57.