Finding Quality

The latter part of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a great cascade of opinions and philosophical abstractions, but I felt it was all bound together by one question: the question of Quality. Quality drives Phaedrus to madness and permeates the very fabric of existence. The narrator/Phaedrus explains that “Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects” (Pirsig 247). It is what unites the world. Saying this about Quality, however, may be construed as an act of definition. Perhaps it’s an intellectual’s way of attempting to define what, according to the narrator/Phaedrus, should never be defined. According to him, “Any attempt to develop an organized reason around an undefined quality defeats its own purpose. The organization of the reason itself defeats the quality” (Pirsig 395). This exhortation not to create a structure of reason in an attempt to understand Quality is an interesting one. It suggests that we limit and cripple Quality when we attempt to encapsulate its meaning in our words. But how can one lecture on Quality or teach its ways to others if describing it is impossible? How can writers be taught to write with Quality?

A professor can teach his or her students about grammar. Students’ writing can be graded to indicate whether a professor believes that a certain creation is of Quality. Comments can be offered for the improvement of certain uses of language. But can one teach Quality? The narrator/Phaedrus argues that teachers cannot directly instill Quality in their students and attempts of establishing principles of Quality are ineffective. He says, ” Walk into any of a hundred thousand classrooms today and hear the teachers divide and subdivide and interrelate and establish ‘principles’ and study ‘methods’ and what you will hear is the ghost of Aristotle speaking down through the centuries-the desiccating lifeless voice of dualistic reason” (Pirsig 360). Some professors attempt to teach using principles and methods, and some take a less methodical approach. I don’t think either group can directly teach Quality as it is discussed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That Quality isn’t one thing, and it can’t be given a definition. Even the greatest professors aren’t capable of imparting such an amorphous and complex concept to others.

Perhaps a professor is better described as a mentor. The narrator/Phaedrus describes the true search for Quality as one that must be undertaken alone (Pirsig 396). Although I agree that we have to support our own weight and forge our own trails, I do not think that means a writer can’t be urged on by the guidance of his fellows. Maybe a professor can be a mentor who seeks to motivate a writer to search for Quality and helps him to see through the mist of his self-involvement to recognize when he has found it.

However, I don’t think a mentor has to be a professor. Writing students pay tens of thousands of dollars for the specialized mentors known as professors, but couldn’t they receive motivation and guidance from less expensive mentors who may be willing to invest more time in them than the average professor? There is certainly an argument to be made that college is only one of many ways to be successful. So why do we go to college? For me, the answer is that employers care whether you have a college degree and I need a graduate degree to be given a chance in my chosen field. I don’t mean to imply that I don’t care about learning or my education. I care about both deeply. However, I could read much of what my professors tell me in books or learn it through personal experience. In fact, most of what I learn in school seems to be through personal experience anyway. If I didn’t need accreditation to gain employment and the respect of my peers, I think it’s unlikely I would choose mentors who cost $10,000 a year to assist me. Professors are great mentors, but a good supervisor in an employment situation can be as well. Also, people get paid when they work hard for an employer or supervisor. People have to pay for the honor of working hard for professors.

Since we can find mentors everywhere, I don’t think it’s an institution that makes someone a good writer. Luckily, the narrator/Phaedrus offers another explanation for what can help people succeed. He suggests, “We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption” (Pirsig 358). Different variations of this sentiment are echoed on nearly every site that offers advice about ideal employees. Even if I somehow fail to succeed in my chosen career, I still think such ideals are what will help me find my own Quality as a writer. I think seeking to embody these ideals is a very worthy goal and essential to maximizing my potential.

If integrity, self-reliance, and old-fashioned gumption are really as vital as I believe them to be, I think they also reveal one possible method of passing on ideas about Quality that all the best mentors use. They display it. I have always found the best mentors to be the ones that are walking displays of their own versions of Quality. These people have traveled through my life and left impressions like enormous craters that I will never forget. One is a grandfather who never attended high school but, through sheer gumption and self-reliance, financially supported a wife and three children who all became college graduates. Another is a friend who gave two years of his life to be a missionary for his religious community in a country he had never visited and whose inhabitants speak a language he was not even familiar with because he felt it was his calling. I can’t define such people’s Quality, and I think it would be doing them a disservice to try. What I can say is that they make me want to find my Quality in writing and elsewhere each and every day. If I don’t, I have no business counting myself as an equal with those who do.


3 thoughts on “Finding Quality

  1. Molly says:

    I’m so glad you chose to write some about Pirsig’s goal of quality. I think you have a really great question on how exactly can we teach writers to write with quality. I don’t have the answer to that, but I think it might be useful to define how Pirsig views quality. First, I really think Pirsig attempted to write this novel with quality in mind — crisp sentences, a distinct style, and a story line that people can connect with. A major part of quality that I think Pirsig finds particularly crucial is that of redemption. I wrote my blog on this, so I’ll just get to the main points. Basically, redemption is the theme of this book, rather than quality. Redemption brings about a whole circle of completion. Relationships with Chris and John and motorcycles being broken down and fixed are examples of things being redeemed and made whole again in this book. Therefore, when things are made whole through redemption, quality is gained — quality of life (Zen) and a complete book are the products.

  2. kjnicholas says:

    You sir, are braver than I am. Way to just go out there and try to define Quality, or at least talk about it.
    Something I find interesting is you point out how employers want students to come from a university. You’re paying to receive accreditation that essentially means because of your education you can do work in a worthwhile way; at least employers believe that don’t they?
    I think this is a question that students in the humanities really struggle with. What am I getting out of all of this? Because it’s not like I’m going to graduate and know how to be a nurse or an engineer. I’m majoring in English Writing, so I’m going to graduate and know how to be a writer, right?
    Your blog makes me want to know what motivated the original University People (seriously who were those guys?) to create an English Department. “Oh we’ll put the doctors here. We’ll train the chemists here, the sculptors there, the agricultural experts here, the business managers there. Oh, and put the writers there.”
    I’ve had a lot of people say, “Well I don’t have to go to college to learn how to write.” But as you mentioned, if you want to work in an area in which writing is done, with the possible exception of becoming a novelist, you usually need a degree. And someone decided it was a worthwhile field to hire teachers for. Someone decided it had Quality.

    Thanks for the blog post, the best ones conjure questions in my mind and yours did a great job.

  3. chutson says:

    Great post! And very interesting discussion on why we see college education as ‘quality’. One scenario that immediately popped into my mind. I started out college in biotechnology, then switched to Writing the middle of my sophomore year. For the most part, my very sciency/engineering family weren’t extremely happy at my choice–asking some of the same questions that you highlight–what do we, as humanities students, get out of our degree? My granny took a bit of a different stance, and told me that she didn’t care what I decided to study, as long as I enjoyed it and got a degree. What ‘quality’ does she see, purely in a (any) college degree, that would give me something I couldn’t get anywhere else?

    I have trouble with this question. I think I needed college as a ‘safe’ environment to mature a bit before hitting the real world. And, to be perfectly honest, much of my decision to go to college was that it was expected of me, by myself, my family, and society as a larger whole. I’ve had another look at it this year when I was thinking about doing a MFA–do I really need another degree to be ‘fit’ to write ‘quality’ writing? Can I get the same result with no MFA, and not throw a pretty substantial amount of cash down the drain as well?

    I think you are smart to give us a very insightful view into your thoughts and conclusions of Quality, while leaving room for personal interpretation. You leave it open for each individual to have their own working idea/definition of quality. For some, quality is a degree. I know several other examples of people with ‘quality’ careers that dropped out, or never went to college at all. I know several others who are working in completely different fields than their degree and being extremely successful. Why do we put such an emphasis on degrees, when they are obviously not the be-all, end-all? Why do we such ‘quality’ in them? I don’t really have a full answer to that question.

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