My scrambling of the title of this book I just finished means nothing, or maybe it does represent my confidence of understanding. ZatAoMM is certainly among the Books I Ought to Have Read but Didn’t, and served as a perfect early book of reading while on the road.

The heady philosophy parts are still muddy to me, and I write this without reading any other expert opinions, but the ideas about what it means to be on the road, the unpacking of form versus function (or looking at form AND function), and what the lead character attempted in his teaching are still ringing powerful echoes.

I knew a little bit about the book before hand, but what I got from reading was much more, and have so many highlights. The opening quote now unfolds much more than when my eyes first passed

And what is good, Phadrus,
And what is not good…
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

For Phaedrus’s forays into dissecting what is “Quality” in the classroom and in writing (it is undefinable yet we know it); his experimentation with not grading was fascinating, but mostly, the way he would take something that presented itself has a dichotomy, and how he would forge a third path. And this dichotomy finally presents itself in Phædrus’s own relationship to his son.

Let’s dive in…

Nevada Lonely Road flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

Sometimes it’s a little better to travel then to arrive.

The road is certainly frontmost on my mind- and the trip in ZatAoMM is both a metaphor for itself and the travels of the human mind (or spirit). The author seems to be at his most relaxed state while in motion, when his Chataqua plays out. The trip the author and his son make up the mountain outline the notion of “being there”

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.

This is really impossible to do– the just float in the moment of a hike, and appreciate every little thing. I’ve tried it. I imagine this is the Zen-like state, letting go of ruminating the past and hand wringing about the future. When I figure out this middle ground… well, that is likely a life long project.

It’s wrapped up in another strain, but this travel part is, I think, one of the routes to work on “stuckness”, which Pirsig cleverly re-routes from a thing to be frustrated about to something that offers potential:

If your mind is truly, profoundly stuck, then you may be much better off than when it was loaded with ideas.

The solution to the problem often at first seems unimportant or undesirable, but the state of stuckness allows it, in time, to assume its true importance. It seemed small because your previous rigid evaluation which led to the stuckness made it small.

But now consider the fact that no matter how hard you try to hang on to it, this stuckness is bound to disappear. Your mind will naturally and freely move toward a solution. Unless you are a real master at staying stuck you can’t prevent this. The fear of stuckness is needless because the longer you stay stuck the more you see the Quality…reality that gets you unstuck every time. What’s really been getting you stuck is the running from the stuckness through the cars of your train of knowledge looking for a solution that is out in front of the train.

Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors. It’s this understanding of Quality as revealed by stuckness which so often makes self-taught mechanics so superior to institute-trained men who have learned how to handle everything except a new situation.

What he describes is something that happens a lot to me, and has happened within the last week or too with trying to find a solution to a tech problem– in this case I was fumbling around in my mind a way to deal with a bug in my fun pechaflickr tool. I decided to let it idle, and it was while walking on a trail in the forest, while barely mulling on it, that the solution opened up- not when I was hunched in front of the computer.

2011/365/197 Today's Hike is Brought to You By the Letter H
2011/365/197 Today’s Hike is Brought to You By the Letter H flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

And he does urge us to go to the “high country of the mind”:

In the high country of the mind one has to become adjusted to the thinner air of uncertainty, and to the enormous magnitude of questions asked, and to the answers proposed to these questions. The sweep goes on and on and on so obviously much further than the mind can grasp one hesitates even to go near for fear of getting lost in them and never finding one’s way out.

Pirsig also hits on some of my frustration with the sameness one can see along the typical chain store part of what I referred to as Little Plastic America.

Sometimes when you switch from a federal to a state highway it seems like you drop back like this in time. Pretty mountains, pretty river, bumpy but pleasant tar road””old buildings, old people on a front porch””strange how old, obsolete buildings and plants and mills, the technology of fifty and a hundred years ago, always seem to look so much better than the new stuff. Weeds and grass and wildflowers grow where the concrete has cracked and broken. Neat, squared, upright lines acquire a random sag. The uniform masses of the unbroken color of fresh paint modify to a mottled, weathered softness. Nature has a non-Euclidian geometry of her own that seems to soften the deliberate objectivity of these buildings with a kind of random spontaneity that architects would do well to study.

This section was ironic in that the author rode through parts of northern Idaho that I had just passed through- Grangeville, White Bird, New Meadows…

Ranging in the Open
Ranging in the Open flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

It is that open spaceness I am feeling that their motorcycles went through, and the changes from places my friend Donna and I talked about where people are Wavers versus getting into the suburban areas where the conversation is absent or superficial. There is the freedom of open space that makes you feel more open, or an oppressiveness that closes you in.

Lonely people back in town. I saw it in the supermarket and at the Laundromat and when we checked out from the motel. These pickup campers through the redwoods, full of lonely retired people looking at trees on their way to look at the ocean. You catch it in the first fraction of a glance from a new face…that searching look…then it’s gone.

We see much more of this loneliness now. It’s paradoxical that where people are the most closely crowded, in the big coastal cities in the East and West, the loneliness is the greatest. Back where people were so spread out in western Oregon and Idaho and Montana and the Dakotas you’d think the loneliness would have been greater, but we didn’t see it so much.

The explanation, I suppose, is that the physical distance between people has nothing to do with loneliness. It’s psychic distance, and in Montana and Idaho the physical distances are big but the psychic distances between people are small, and here it’s reversed.

It’s the primary America we’re in. It hit the night before last in Prineville Junction and it’s been with us ever since. There’s this primary America of freeways and jet flights and TV and movie spectaculars. And people caught up in this primary America seem to go through huge portions of their lives without much consciousness of what’s immediately around them. The media have convinced them that what’s right around them is unimportant. And that’s why they’re lonely. You see it in their faces. First the little flicker of searching, and then when they look at you, you’re just a kind of an object. You don’t count. You’re not what they’re looking for. You’re not on TV.

Pirsig, here in the 1970s zeroes in on technology and probably not the kind we think of today–

Technology is blamed for a lot of this loneliness, since the loneliness is certainly associated with the newer technological devices…TV, jets, freeways and so on…but I hope it’s been made plain that the real evil isn’t the objects of technology but the tendency of technology to isolate people into lonely attitudes of objectivity. It’s the objectivity, the dualistic way of looking at things underlying technology, that produces the evil.

I might have to come back to this, but it does connect with my own thoughts that we tend to give too much power to technology as an influence- “the tendency of technology to isolate people into lonely attitudes of objectivity” is a human issue, not a technological one.

Phaedrus speaks like a guy in my circle (the non Google plus kind) on railing on institutions

He felt that institutions such as schools, churches, governments and political organizations of every sort all tended to direct thought for ends other than truth, for the perpetuation of their own functions, and for the control of individuals in the service of these functions. He came to see his early failure as a lucky break, an accidental escape from a trap that had been set for him, and he was very trap-wary about institutional truths for the remainder of his time. He didn’t see these things and think this way at first, however, only later on.

As much as he tried to play within the institution of Academia, eventually he was cast out (or left). The universities he was part of did aim for to perpetuate their own function, and what else can an institution do? They really cannot be 100% altruistic, as they would not go on without looking to perserve their way of being.

Quality flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

It was the pursuit of Quality (capitalized) in his Montana teaching that went a long way down the road, when asked by a colleague “I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.” This one question took him many miles, and his journey is worth considering among the initiatives that continue to roll out with the idea that Quality is Quantifiable.

It is here where the book goes to a place I never hear mentioned- in Phaedrus experiments with questioning education and experimentation with doing away with grades.

As a result of his experiments he concluded that imitation was a real evil that had to be broken before real rhetoric teaching could begin. This imitation seemed to be an external compulsion. Little children didn’t have it. It seemed to come later on, possibly as a result of school itself.

That sounded right, and the more he thought about it the more right it sounded. Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own. That got you A’s. Originality on the other hand could get you anything…from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.

He discussed this with a professor of psychology who lived next door to him, an extremely imaginative teacher, who said, “Right. Eliminate the whole degree-and-grading system and then you’ll get real education.”

Abandon grading? My how far we have gotten with this since the mid 1970s. But he did not just spout about it- he tried it:

Phadrus’ argument for the abolition of the degree-and- grading system produced a nonplussed or negative reaction in all but a few students at first, since it seemed, on first judgment, to destroy the whole University system. One student laid it wide open when she said with complete candor, “Of course you can’t eliminate the degree and grading system. After all, that’s what we’re here for.”

She spoke the complete truth. The idea that the majority of students attend a university for an education independent of the degree and grades is a little hypocrisy everyone is happier not to expose. Occasionally some students do arrive for an education but rote and the mechanical nature of the institution soon converts them to a less idealistic attitude.

The student’s biggest problem was a slave mentality which had been built into him by years of carrot-and- whip grading, a mule mentality which said, “If you don’t whip me, I won’t work.” He didn’t get whipped. He didn’t work. And the cart of civilization, which he supposedly was being trained to pull, was just going to have to creak along a little slower without him.

He did not abandon the experiment when the students complained (maybe they were experiencing an element of ‘stuckness’).

As I said before, at first almost everyone was sort of nonplussed. The majority probably figured they were stuck with some idealist who thought removal of grades would make them happier and thus work harder, when it was obvious that without grades everyone would just loaf. Many of the students with A records in previous quarters were contemptuous and angry at first, but because of their acquired self-discipline went ahead and did the work anyway. The B students and high-C students missed some of the early assignments or turned in sloppy work. Many of the low-C and D students didn’t even show up for class. At this time another teacher asked him what he was going to do about this lack of response.

“Outwait them,” he said.

His lack of harshness puzzled the students at first, then made them suspicious. Some began to ask sarcastic questions. These received soft answers and the lectures and speeches proceeded as usual, except with no grades.

Then a hoped-for phenomenon began. During the third or fourth week some of the A students began to get nervous and started to turn in superb work and hang around after class with questions that fished for some indication as to how they were doing. The B and high-C students began to notice this and work a little and bring up the quality of their papers to a more usual level. The low C, D and future F’s began to show up for class just to see what was going on.

After midquarter an even more hoped-for phenomenon took place. The A-rated students lost their nervousness and became active participants in everything that went on with a friendliness that was uncommon in a grade-getting class. At this point the B and C students were in a panic, and turned in stuff that looked as though they’d spent hours of painstaking work on it. The D’s and F’s turned in satisfactory assignments.

In the final weeks of the quarter, a time when normally everyone knows what his grade will be and just sits back half asleep, Phædrus was getting a kind of class participation that made other teachers take notice. The B’s and C’s had joined the A’s in friendly free-for-all discussion that made the class seem like a successful party. Only the D’s and F’s sat frozen in their chairs, in a complete internal panic.

And here is the key–

This surprising result supported a hunch he had had for a long time: that the brighter, more serious students were the least desirous of grades, possibly because they were more interested in the subject matter of the course, whereas the dull or lazy students were the most desirous of grades, possibly because grades told them if they were getting by.

And thus we continue the system.

I’ve got a lot more of thinking from this book than I can even try to write- they other major takeaway is Pahedrus’ refusal to limit his thinking to binary- this or that, whether it is more important to know the operation fo a machine than to appreciate its outer nature (well maybe he was more leaned toward the function). Way, way, way too much I see ideas that are limited ti binary choices.

In all of the Oriental religions great value is placed on the Sanskrit doctrine of Tat tvam asi, “Thou art that,” which asserts that everything you think you are and everything you think you perceive are undivided. To realize fully this lack of division is to become enlightened.

Logic presumes a separation of subject from object; therefore logic is not final wisdom. The illusion of separation of subject from object is best removed by the elimination of physical activity, mental activity and emotional activity. There are many disciplines for this. One of the most important is the Sanskrit dhyna, mispronounced in Chinese as “Chan” and again mispronounced in Japanese as “Zen.” Phædrus never got involved in meditation because it made no sense to him. In his entire time in India “sense” was always logical consistency and he couldn’t find any honest way to abandon this belief. That, I think, was creditable on his part.

And yeah, I keep mixing up the spelling of Phadrus/Phaedrus, but in the end he has to deal with his own bit of binary split into who he was and who he is.

10110100 flickr photo by Uqbar is back shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I found a full text version of ZatAoMM at – it smells like it might not be official, but I snagged it to make it easier to pull quotes. For the author’s info, I did purchase a licensed version!

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Got Zen?
Got Zen? flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. Such a rich book… I read it two or three times (though that was at least fifteen years ago), and it opened up so many fruitful avenues. As much as any specific insights, for the way it provokes a more thoughtful means of engaging and thinking through the world.

  2. What a wonderful post, Alan. I read ZatAoMM while I was in college and it felt like an epihphany. Your post made it feel like that all over again. Interesting how timely Persig’s refusal to accept binary thinking feels. And the experiment to abandon grading? Brilliant. Thanks for reminding me what a treasure trove the book is. I just copied the quote about climbing the mountain into a letter that’s going to my son who is hiking on the Applachian Trail this month. Thank you.

  3. You know we were reading this book at the same time this summer … it was my tenth or twelfth time through, as I find myself reading it again about every three years or so. It’s all pretty overwhelming to me, especially the way in which the wonderful truths and insights in the book are still the product of a damaged and severely divided self, a self that is wise but not whole. Wise but not whole: good words to frame a mid-life quest, I think….

    The parts on Phaedrus’s teaching in Montana are some of my favorites in the book. My strongest, most important mentor in grad school told me the story of the kid who couldn’t write an essay until Phaedrus told her to write about the brick at the top left of the front wall of City Hall. My own work as a teacher demonstrates to me–sans analytics–the truth of the observations you quote above. And all my edtech stuff convinces me that Phaedrus is right: that school with integrity is possible, that the motivation must come from within. That piece about the student who gets bored, leaves, then wants to move forward and finds himself, naturally and urgently, setting his own curriculum and learning a ton–well, that one has gotten all the way down into my soul, and is now a tree with many branches.

    And of course the graduate school story cuts to the bone.

    It’s very cool indeed that our eyes were running across some of the same words at the same time.

    Thanks for getting me past so many gumption traps. Thanks for sharing with all of us what gumption looks like, deep down.

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