1Postmodernists reject the proposition that a universal understanding of objective reality, or of what is out there in the world beyond the observer, actually exists. According to postmodernists, each person’s understanding of reality differs—as everyone’s subjective experience of the world differs—from that of everyone else. Philosophically, this perspective began to enter into general intellectual discussion after Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) published his Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. In that work, Kant asserted that human beings never actually know objects that they perceive in the world as objects in-and-of-themselves; they know only what their limited senses give them of the objects in the world. Therefore, their perception of reality ultimately is a subjective reality and not an absolute reality. The reception to Kant’s insights has gone through several phases: it helped to give a philosophical grounding to the subjectivism found in the Romantics; it helped to produce the concepts of space and time, or spacetime, that fascinated many of the modernists (including the arch-modernist Albert Einstein); and it led eventually to the preoccupation of the postmodernists with the surface and nature of texts. One approach to reality that developed out of Kant’s enlightened philosophy is referred to as relativism. There also developed the idea that an understanding of the world is relative to the perspective of the observer, which became an important tenet of postmodernism.
2The short story “Gryphon,” by the American author Charles Baxter, illustrates the distinction between two world views that have exerted strong influence upon educational theory: that of postmodern relativism and that of earlier scientific realism or positivism, founded by Auguste Comte (1798-1857), which affirms that universally valid, scientific knowledge of the objective world can come through the senses. In other words, Baxter’s story presents a situation in which the postmodernist notion that “the objective world is ultimately subjective” confronts the positivist notion that the objective world is ultimately objective and knowable through sense data (Gallant and Kleinman 3). The positivists further assert that their scientific approach to reality is equally valid in logic, epistemology, and ethics, without reference to theology or metaphysics or other mystical disciplines (Positivism). Thus, Baxter’s “Gryphon” questions the tenets of scientific realism, which seeks to find logic, coherence, and universality behind the apparent chaos of the objective world, and it questions the system of education that affirms the propositions of positivism. At the same time, the story also brings into question some of the more extreme applications of postmodernist practice.
3Before discussing the postmodernist elements in “Gryphon,” it is important to address how this story reflects its author’s perspective and the common interpretation of the text. In an interview with Kevin Breen, Baxter states that many people fabricate stories and make false statements to elementary students without ever getting caught. Baxter then compares this situation to the way the American public in the 1960s and early 1970s was deceived by politicians, especially Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, about U.S. foreign affairs (Breen 64). In the Preface to his book Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, Baxter once again reminds us: “We often pretend, these days, that public lying by politicians has no effect on the stories we tell each other, but it does” (xi; emphasis added). Although “Gryphon” is apolitical, it does address the issue of authority, and Baxter’s writing of this story was inspired by his perception of untrustworthy American political agendas. This is reflected in his calling the substitute teacher in “Gryphon,” Miss Ferenczi, a “half-miracle, half-monster” figure (Breen 64).
4In her article “Bigger Than We Think: The World Revealed in Charles Baxter’s Fiction,” Molly Winans notes that Baxter often depicts a world that is much bigger than our assumptions about it and presents middle-class fictional characters who “mess up a lot” and struggle to “believe in all sorts of things.” Winans further adds that Baxter’s fictional characters illustrate Flannery O’Connor’s concept of “[s]trangeness of behavior,” which, in O’Connor’s view, is the foundation of the short story (12). According to Winans’s analysis, Miss Ferenczi “manipulates the children’s minds.” Elaborating on Baxter’s referral to Miss Ferenczi as “half-miracle, half-monster,” Winans explains:
We understand the miracle part of the equation through the story’s unnamed narrator, who finds joy in the substitute teacher’s hyper-reality and defends her against detractors; Miss Ferenczi’s world, where facts of science are mysterious enough to keep good company with zany inanities like angels in the aisles of concert halls, is a miracle. (13)
5Mystery is both miraculous and “monstrous” because, according to Baxter, “the unexpected is seldom beautiful” (13). The monstrosity in “Gryphon” occurs when Miss Ferenczi apprises a student named Wayne of his approaching demise, because the Tarot’s prophecy is, indeed, “a moment of shocking cruelty” (13). Winans further adds that Miss Ferenczi is “a mystic, a charlatan, a woman who determined to be weird,” and that her students, after learning about contradictory facts and truths from her, “fall from innocence”—a concept that “Americans romanticize so fervently” (14).
6Winans’s interpretation of “Gryphon” is valid, as it reflects the theory of creative fiction that Baxter discusses in depth in his book Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Baxter observes that the United States is always intrigued by “a certain variety of the isolated thinker,” who could be either a sage, an eccentric individual, or “a weird mixture of the two.” The philosophies presented by the isolated thinker are based on his or her “cranky insights” rather than on commonly shared ideas or knowledge. The loss of innocence happens when people realize that appearance does not truthfully define substance and that “there are depths to things,” that the surface becomes illusory, and that “the illusion has been designed that way by fools or malefactors” (60-61). Thus, it is clear why Winans calls Miss Ferenczi a “charlatan” who “manipulates” her students’ minds. Baxter also criticizes the American obsession with innocence: “We would rather be innocent than worldly and unshockable. Innocence is continually shocked and disarmed” (Burning 21).
7To understand how Baxter constructs the character of Miss Ferenczi as a teacher who makes mistakes but acknowledges no responsibility, we can consider his advice for writers: writers should engage in a dialogue with their characters and “persuade them to do what they’ve only imagined doing” by gently pushing them into situations in which they should be held accountable for their own mistakes. He adds, “When we allow our characters to make mistakes, we release them from the grip of our own authorial narcissism,” and this narrative approach will create a “wonderful” story (Burning 15). Baxter warns that fictional characters who are admirable and noble are boring and soon will be forgotten; only characters who do not have to be good and who “only have to be interesting” are remembered (32). In “Gryphon,” the students definitely will never forget Miss Ferenczi and her lessons because she deviates from the standard image of a traditional teacher, and her lessons evoke active discussion, fear, and bewilderment. She represents the concept of defamiliarization, which Baxter defines as “a technique for finding a certain kind of detail that resists the fitting of the object into a silhouette, that is, into a ready-made symbolization” (42).
8In the article entitled “Interpreting the Variorum,” Stanley Fish argues that literary interpretation is circumscribed culturally and politically, that is, by the practices and assumptions of an institution, rather than linguistically, by the coded/prescribed meaning of words. He coins the term interpretive communities to refer to a group of textual analysts “who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions.” Thus, these strategies destabilize the reader’s active role in the creation of meaning and “determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually assumed, the other way around” (207). However, “Gryphon” could be interpreted through a different critical lens without relying on the author’s intentions and his theory of creative writing. A reader-response approach helps shed some new light on the story’s underlying themes and issues as the reader and the printed text interact, and it is the reader, not the author, who exercises total control over the text to produce meaning.
9In “Gryphon,” one controversial topic in the confrontation of relativism and positivism is that of mathematical truths. Are mathematical facts absolute, or are they, in some ways at least, relative? On the morning of her first day as a substitute teacher in a fourth-grade classroom in Michigan, befuddled by the lesson plan that the regular teacher has laid out, Miss Ferenczi, asks a student, John Wazny, to stand up at his seat and recite the multiplication tables for six. When John mistakenly states that six times eleven equals sixty-eight, a classmate frantically alerts Miss Ferenczi: “John said that six times eleven is sixty-eight and you said he was right!” (Baxter 626). Miss Ferenczi then explains that “[i]n higher mathematics, which you children do not yet understand, six times eleven can be considered to be sixty-eight [...]. In higher mathematics numbers are ... more fluid. The only thing a number does is contain a certain amount of something. Think of water. A cup is not the only way to measure a certain amount of water, is it?” (626). In order to avoid further detailed, and possibly confusing, discussion that might involve such topics as non-Euclidian geometry (in which triangles do have more than the conventional 180 degrees), Miss Ferenczi states simply that she is the “substitute teacher” and that six-times-eleven as sixty-eight is “a substitute fact” (626). In this way, Baxter establishes the theme of substitute, or relative, realities that Miss Ferenczi presents to her students. She could be considered a “deconstructionist” who believes in “multiple meanings” (Parker, How 87), or a postmodernist who, in Daryl B. Harris’s words, “reject[s] all notions of epistemological, ontological, and methodological certainty as expressed in the varied discourses of European modernity ranging from the arts to the sciences” (212).
10In this instance, Miss Ferenczi’s substitute fact has at least two connotations: first, it is a substitution for a conventionally understood mathematical and memorizable fact; second, it is a substitution from the perspective of one observer to another, an alternative frame of reference. Miss Ferenczi finally asks her students, with care: “Do you think [...] that anyone is going to be hurt by a substitute fact? [...] Will the plants on the windowsill be hurt?” (Baxter 626). Apart from the disconnect between the effect of substitute facts upon the human mind versus their effect upon potted plants, this carefully raised question is addressed more to positivism itself, with all its assumptions, than to the elementary school students, with their limited experience. Germ theory, for example, was a substitute fact in medicine when it originated, but eventually it became a mainstream tenet (a fact) in medical practice. The idea that witchcraft is superstition was a substitute fact in ethics and law when it originated, but today accusations of witchcraft no longer are taken seriously (as fact) in the American legal system.
11In the afternoon of that first day, while discussing the Egyptians during a unit on geography, Miss Ferenczi mentions the creature that gives Baxter’s story its title, a gryphon, which she describes as “a monster, half bird and half lion” (629) while writing the word on the blackboard for the students. The narrator, Tommy, who earlier had experienced difficulty in spelling balcony (trying first balconie, then balconey, and finally balkony), spent five minutes looking up the word in a dictionary at home. It took him five minutes because gryphon is given as a “variant spelling of griffin” (630). In his title, Baxter uses the substitute teacher’s alternative spelling for the name of “a fabulous beast with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion” (630). Thus, the title of the story itself derives from a substitute spelling, which, according to the dictionary consulted by the narrator, also is valid. The young narrator, a student who wants to understand Miss Ferenczi’s lessons as valid, “shouted in triumph” when he found the definition (630), because he realized that his teacher had not been inventing that information. Nevertheless, during her instruction, Miss Ferenczi sometimes does become oddly extreme in some of her assertions, even as her introduction of alternative approaches to reality stimulates questioning and investigative interest, at least in the narrator.
12We get a glimpse into the Kantian influence in Baxter’s story when we consult a footnote in the Preface to the first edition of The Critique of Pure Reason (1781):
Our age [that of the European Enlightenment] is the age of criticism, to which everything must be subjected. The sacredness of religion, and the authority of legislation, are by many regarded as grounds of exemption from examination of this tribunal. But, if they are exempted, they become the subjects of just suspicion, and cannot lay claim to sincere respect, which reason accords only to that which has stood the test of a free and public examination. (2)
13Kant returns to this important observation at the conclusion of his Critique of Pure Reason: “Method is procedure according to principles. [...] As regards those who wish to pursue a scientific method, they have now the choice of following either the dogmatical or the sceptical [sic], while they are bound never to desert the systematic mode of procedure” (249). According to Kant, constant questioning of facts is necessary in acquiring non-mathematical synthetic knowledge. In Baxter’s story, Mr. Hibler and his colleagues, the regular teachers at the grade school, tend to follow the dogmatic approach in their instruction. This is a problem inherent among followers of positivism: a fact, once determined, is considered to be a fact universally, without regard to the varying perspectives of other observers. After a few days, Miss Ferenczi is dismissed from her duties as substitute instructor, and the students are returned to the positivist approach to education taken by a regular instructor: “On lined white pieces of paper we made lists of insects we might actually see, then a list of insects too small to be clearly visible, such as fleas; Mrs. Mantei said that our assignment would be to memorize these lists for the next day, when Mr. Hibler would certainly return and test us on our knowledge” (Baxter 634-35).
14Returning briefly to the topic of Miss Ferenczi’s substitution in arithmetic, relativists would note that, to most observers, six times eleven always is sixty-six, but to an observer with a different frame of reference, six times eleven may equal sixty-eight. This shift in frame of reference is called a “language game” by Chris Snipp-Walmsley, who explicates Jean-François Lyotard’s report on knowledge in The Postmodern Condition. Snipp-Walmsley notes that this term “can be best understood as the system of rules and conventions which frame and govern a particular discourse” (407). Understanding how difficult and complex this concept must be for her young students to grasp, Miss Ferenczi finishes her discussion on that matter by saying, with a note of resignation: “When your teacher, Mr. Hibler, returns, six times eleven will be sixty-six again, you can rest assured. And it will be that for the rest of your lives in Five Oaks. Too bad, eh?” (Baxter 626). Her deep disappointment is made apparent by her rhetoric: the majority of the students will be bound henceforth by dogmatic teachers to unquestioning, unwavering faith in facts, and there is a possibility that, with the exception of their days with her, they will never again open their minds to critical, skeptical thinking about what constitutes knowledge. Like Kant, Miss Ferenczi assumes that skepticism and critical thinking are desirable, and for her they are desirable even at an early age. The morning event in which the substitute teacher attempts to make her students aware of substitute mathematical facts is the first in which she insinuates her relativistic view into the regular curricular material. She will be granted only a few days to continue.
15The discussion on arithmetic and some spelling work conclude the morning period, and Miss Ferenczi eats her lunch in the classroom with the youngsters. When a student asks her why she chooses to eat lunch with them, she replies, “I talked to the other teachers before class this morning [...]. There was a great tattling of words for the fewness of the ideas. I didn’t care for their brand of hilarity. I don’t like ditto-machine jokes” (627). By referring to the verbal interaction among the other teachers in this way, she indicates her attitude toward the monotony that her colleagues share in their intellectual lives. Like their instruction, their conversation is a repetitive regurgitation of thoughts and phrases (“ditto-machine jokes”); they do not make productive use of their time in the lounge, but Miss Ferenczi can enjoy a productive hour with the fourth-graders, some of whom (probably including the narrator) may have the potential to become critical thinkers. She considers her time spent attempting to instill a skeptical spirit among her students, even in matters of diet—the stuffed fig and smoked sturgeon that she had packed as her lunch in contrast to their sloppy joes and peaches in heavy syrup supplied by the school—to be a valid substitute for an hour of exchanging platitudes with colleagues.
16After lunch, Miss Ferenczi offers her students a substitute unit on the Egyptians. Instead of discussing the Egyptians’ hand-operated irrigation system, she opens her discussion with the topic of the pyramids and Egyptian slave labor. Eventually,
she began to talk about the movement of souls in Egyptian religion. [...] She said that the Egyptians believed that people act the way they do because of magnetism produced by tidal forces in the solar system, forces produced by the sun and by its “planetary ally,” Jupiter. Jupiter, she said, was a planet, as we had been told, but had “certain properties of stars.” (629)
17It is in this unit of instruction that she mentions the eponymous gryphon and says that “an old man in Egypt who worked for a circus had personally shown her [a gryphon] in a cage” (629). It is in such instances as this that Miss Ferenczi perhaps stretches the credibility of her substitute facts to the breaking point. Nevertheless, Tommy is delighted after school when he finds the word gryphon in the dictionary. Miss Ferenczi has sparked at least his imagination, and prompted him to think about and to seek verification of a fact. William A. Reinsmith, in his article “‘Gryphon’: Taming the Fabulous Beast,” notes that the story is disturbing because it addresses a common problem in education: memorization, rote learning, and testing are standard pedagogical practices, and teachers fail to “ignite students’ imaginations, to enliven their sense of wonders” (140). Miss Ferenczi’s teaching methods should be celebrated because she imbues her students with the idea that “learning could take place with enthusiasm—even passion,” and that test scores should not be used as the only means to assess the outcomes of learning (143). Reinsmith concludes that Miss Ferenczi represents the “true teacher” who acts as “a catalyst for change, an agent of transformation” (146).
18Joe Harkin, in his essay “In Defence of the Modernist Project in Education,” notes that postmodernist educators (such as Miss Ferenczi) view the modernist status quo in education “as oppressive and to be subverted by constant questioning in the interest of uncovering and highlighting difference” (429). Miss Ferenczi’s agenda, indeed, is to subvert the status quo of instruction in the grade school classroom. Her subversive action has its desired effect at least upon Tommy’s young mind. In the opening sentence of Harkin’s article, he states, “Modernism takes as axiomatic that human beings have agency and, through the application of reason, may work to improve themselves and the world” (428). This is the positive side of modernism’s agenda, which Harkin is defending. When Tommy tries to tell his mother about the topics discussed by Miss Ferenczi in his classroom, her response is simple: “It’s very interesting [...] and we can talk about it later when your father gets home. But right now you have some work to do” (Baxter 630). The mother’s dismissal of her son’s narrative about the substitute teacher’s instruction represents a general lack of interest in how knowledge is imparted or acquired in the town’s grade school. Her indifference to what her son is enthusiastic to discuss reflects her blind acceptance that what is taught dogmatically or unquestioningly by the local educational authorities is universal truth, and blind acceptance of the probability that the instruction follows the axiomatic plan of the modernist education that Harkin defends. Baxter’s story suggests, however, that even Middle America should question the way in which knowledge is conveyed, because the blind acceptance of dogmatically imparted knowledge often is, as Kant implied in the concluding paragraph of his Critique of Pure Reason, a hindrance to the development of new ideas: “The critical path alone is still open” (Kant 250).
19In his article on “postmodernist ideas” in higher education, an advocate for postmodernist approaches, Harland G. Bloland (attributing the positivist’s position almost exclusively to modernism, an attribution that too often, and mistakenly, occurs) states: “higher education is so deeply immersed in modernist sensibilities and so dependent upon modernist foundations that erosion of our faith in the modernist project calls into question higher education’s legitimacy, its purpose, its activities.” Bloland continues: “In attacking modernism, postmodernism presents a hostile interpretation of much of what higher education believes it is doing and what it stands for” (522). However, because the shift from modernism to postmodernism occurred at a time during which relativity theory (influencing modernists) was competing with quantum theory (influencing postmodernists), the period of modernism in education concurred with the period in which positivism prevailed in education, because educational theory lagged behind the science that was influencing the new intellectual developments of the day. Nevertheless, as Miss Ferenczi’s instruction implies, the sooner children are presented with alternative (postmodernist) possibilities in various areas of knowledge, the more prepared they will become to move the sciences forward. The positivistic approach to education affirmed that all knowledge is verifiable and therefore scientific, even after Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle had begun to shake the general faith in positivism’s tenets. Children who were taught in grades K-12 under positivism’s premise that knowledge is based in absolute fact would later be faced in college, if they had the opportunity to pursue higher education, with the unsettling realization they should have been questioning the absolute value of the very facts that they earlier had been required to memorize. The skepticism recommended by Kant in 1781 was set aside by scientific realism and by positivism, but it was being recovered as the insights of postmodernism prevailed over those of positivism.
20In his essay, Joe Harkin does state, critically, that postmodernists construct a paradigm of critical thinking, and the status quo in education then admits “spaces for resistance and students’ experience” (429). He goes on to quote Richard Edwards and Robin Usher’s observation on “the different and shifting knowledges through which the social formation is constituted” (157). The final result of the implementation of the critical agenda in education implied already by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason remains unrealized even today, but perhaps it would include a redesign of the power structure inherent in the delivery of an education, making learning more accessible and impartial to discrimination. While Harkin acknowledges that a postmodernist approach to instruction “is valuable, [...] it does not follow that the modernist project of humanistic progress should be abandoned because that endeavor has been misdirected, or carried out in bad faith” (430). He does not advocate reactionism in education; he advocates rather that the modernist project in instruction can lead to progress in the development of knowledge if it is redirected appropriately.
21While relativism acknowledges that each person’s experience of reality is different, it still reaffirms that a body of scientific knowledge does exist. Therefore, inherent in the argument of a relativist is the acceptance of the idea that even relativism cannot establish itself as a universal truth. For this reason, the assumption, until proven otherwise, is that analytic and synthetic knowledge should be taught as knowledge in grade school, but perhaps tempered by the insights of relativism, as relativism offers an approach to instruction that expands critical thinking and opens possibilities for creative endeavors. In mathematics, on the one hand, people can solve problems and arrive at the same result. In the humanities, on the other hand, and especially in literary and cultural studies, people arrive at multiple interpretations and derive multiple meanings from observing a single object of study (Parker, Critical 3). It is for this reason that even synthetically developed mathematics was placed by Kant among the transcendent elements of mind (universal truths) while other areas of synthetic knowledge were not (subjective truths). Traditional mathematics and higher mathematics coexist and lead to valid formulations. In the humanities, interpretation is an ongoing process by which one does not arrive at absolute conclusions, and there is never one universally acceptable formulation. Nevertheless, postmodernist approaches to education can enhance all fields of study. As Deborah J. Haynes states: “Because postmodern ideas and critics are throughout culture, [...] interests in science, anthropology, literature, philosophy, religion, and the visual arts [are] constantly stimulated” (249). Even so, it should be remembered that, even in the sciences, validity does not imply absolute truth value.
22In “Gryphon,” Miss Ferenczi applies postmodernist, relativistic views to several academic disciplines in an effort to destabilize educational complacency and cause her students to question what their school presents as absolute knowledge. Even she goes too far, however, when she implies that there is truth value in at least one of her more extravagant assertions. While introducing the students to Tarot readings, she walks over to Wayne Razmer:
He picked his five cards, and I could see that the Death card was one of them.
“What’s your name?” Miss Ferenczi asked.
“Well, Wayne,” she said, “you will undergo a great metamorphosis, a change, before you become an adult. Your earthly element will no doubt leap higher, because you seem to be a sweet boy. This card, this nine of swords, tells me of suffering and desolation. And this ten of wands, well, that’s a heavy load.”
“What about this one?” Wayne pointed to the Death card.
“It means, my sweet, that you will die soon.” She gathered up the cards. We were all looking at Wayne. “But do not fear,” she said. It is not really death. Just change. Out of your earthly shape.” She put the card on Mr. Hibler’s desk, “and now, let’s do some arithmetic.” (633-634)
23After Wayne Razmer reports the incident to the principal, the narrator defends Miss Ferenczi:
“You told,” I shouted at him. “She was just kidding.”
“She shouldn’t have,” he shouted back. “We were supposed to be doing arithmetic.”
“She just scared you,” I said. “You’re a chicken. You’re a chicken, Wayne. You are. Scared of a little card,” I sing-songed.” (634)
24In the afternoon, Miss Ferenczi is gone, and the students are back to memorizing lists of data. Perhaps she crossed a pedagogical demarcation in presenting a Tarot prediction as a foregone certainty, but the narrator’s statement in her defense also is valid. The grounds for her dismissal would be justified, in all probability, by the age-group of the authority figure’s audience.
25John G. Parks, in his commentary on Baxter’s story, notes that human beings must constantly negotiate “their way through a complex and often confusing world” (623). This is possibly why Baxter names the substitute teacher Miss Ferenczi, which sounds suspiciously similar to the word frenzy, a word that, as postmodernists do, emphasizes that meaning remains forever unstable, and that the post-World War II environment in which we live is characterized by chaos, fragmentation, absurdity, distrust, and skepticism. In the story “Gryphon,” Miss Ferenczi applies the principles of postmodernist educational theory in an effort to make her students critical thinkers, and simultaneously the author causes his readers to question what often is considered to be factual knowledge.