What Prometheus Taught Us About Learning

Reading Time: 7 minutes

By Caleb Chiam (14S06O)

Back when Mrs Lim was still the Principal and I was a lanky boy of dubious athleticism (still am actually) in Secondary Two, there was an assembly talk Mrs Lim gave that I dwell on every now and then. I didn’t expect it to stick with me, given that my attention was divided between her (in retrospect, very wise) words and a particularly riveting Math worksheet of a topic I cannot quite recall.

She told us a story about Prometheus. In mythology, Prometheus was a Titan – a race of powerful immortal beings that was at the time, subservient to the Olympian gods. Rather than share in the latter’s company, Prometheus bade his time among men. He saw that they lived like animals for they ate their meat raw. They shivered in the night, getting no sleep as the wind robbed them of any warmth they could muster. Their suffering made them piteous, and this was a great pity because Prometheus saw the immense potential Mankind held. They needed heat. They needed light. They needed fire. And Prometheus was determined to get hold of some.

He took a reed and went to the edge of the earth that he might touch the sun as it rose at the dawn of a new day. The dry pith caught fire and with this precious spark, he hurried back to the men in the caves and taught them the art of firemaking from wood and how they might use this flame to cook their food and to stay warm in the coldest nights. The men and women gathered round the fire and they were warm and happy. Before long, they mastered the art of firemaking and smithing. Life began anew for them. All this Prometheus did against the wishes of Zeus, and for his trickery, he was bound with the chains of Vulcan to a rock at the topmost peak of the Caucasus Mountains, where eagles ripped apart and feasted upon his liver daily. Being immortal, he did not die.

The iconic image of Promethus being attacked by Eagles

I recount this story to make two points. Firstly, that Prometheus of Promethean flame fame (duh) was a trickster – someone who disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior. And secondly, that his crucial act of giving knowledge to Mankind so raised them that the Olympian gods feared the heights they might reach. Zeus himself remarked, “No, indeed! Why, if men had fire they might become strong and wise like ourselves, and after a while they would drive us out of our kingdom. Let them shiver with cold, and let them live like the beasts. It is best for them to be poor and ignorant, that so we Mighty Ones may thrive and be happy.”

Now why is this important? Is the second point an allegory for fighting against the government? Is the first a call for us to grow our hair out, leave our tutorials undone, and paint the sky red? No…and yes. It’s not about going against the government per se, but that’s a topic for another article. But leave our tutorials undone? Wholeheartedly yes – but only if you have better things to do. Bear with me here, this will take a while.

Think about the entire enterprise of school. It really is marvelous in some ways, isn’t it? The bringing of like-minded individuals of the same age group together. The intensity of back-and-forth discourse between teacher and student, peer and peer as they brave the current and search the murky river for nuggets of truth. The sportsman in the arena, perhaps imbued with the peculiar force known as the Rafflesian Spirit – described by E. Wijeysingha to be ‘a powerful force that takes control of a person, inspires him and instils courage and determination’. Lovely.

…except that probably isn’t how you conceive of school, is it now? I confess this is an idealisation of the current state of affairs, albeit one grounded in reality because there are times when I truly do feel these things and am so grateful for such opportunities and for this mess called life and- right. As I was saying, it is not quite what we see on a daily basis. Students are bored. Apathetic. We go in a lecture and the same battle plays out as Morpheus, the God of Sleep, wars against the Sugar Rush Monster. The number of victims claimed by the former increase throughout the week. And when we are not valiantly nodding our heads to some unearthly rhythm or bowing reverently arms crossed, our attentions are divided between “if I wasn’t sitting here, I would be _______.” (the irony is that when we are somewhere else, we wish we could be back home mugging) and “I wonder if they’re selling Tom Yam today”. We receive news of upcoming tests and tutorial deadlines with indifference (“oh here we go again”) or shock (“did you hear that? Not only do they make us attend school and pick subjects we would like to study, but they actually want us to spend time doing homework on said subjects? The nerve of some people.”), but the result is the same: we grit our teeth and slog through it, slowly, methodically. Can’t get this fact to stick in my head, but I’ll bite my tongue because if I curse and swear, I’ll never stop. Get it done, you can sleep when you’re dead, surely it will pay off in the A-levels. Surely….

Depressing much. Don’t you wish it could be so much more? Isn’t it, you say. Look at the bright banners. Look at our sportsmen. Look at our artist(e)s. Look at our councillors. We aren’t muggers (not all of us anyway), we are Thinkers, Leaders, Pioneers.

I hear you. And you are right. I have immense respect for the artists and musicians because they make good art. It’s such a steal that we can watch for $10 what a group of talented individuals have spent tens of hours creating. They labour at their craft to add a little beauty and meaning to the rest of our lives, and they do it for the sake of the craft itself. Wonderful.

And yes I am also grateful for the councillors for the work and amount of saikang they have to do. They fill a need because no way would we be getting school event after event if we only had teachers to run the show. And even if some may be doing it for the curriculum vitae, my personal experience has shown me that they are often simply delightful individuals who have undertaken the role of slave with no pay, which is pretty selfless. That being said, they are custodians, they do not lead.

Towards sports, I have mixed feelings because the nature of such activities is that they are always competitive. (The wind rushes past, and I hear the disembodied words of Mrs Lim: ‘stop competing, start excelling.’) But I acknowledge there is beauty in teamwork, camaraderie, in the friendly rivalry between schools, though I don’t think very much about school pride, because it seems small and petty. (Go all out for Raffles. What does that even mean?) The question is not so much who won as it is “Was this a game to be remembered for the ages?” Better yet if sportsmen do it for the sheer beauty of the sport. I only hope that those who do the morning announcements will not have to think twice about praising the team for a spectacular showing if they come in 2nd, or god forbid, fail to break in to the top 3 placings. They gave themselves up for a sport. Is that not worthy of our admiration?

This passion we see is nothing short of breathtaking. But step into a classroom, and you may see these vibrant individuals with now-lifeless eyes and faces drained of colour. They stare back at you unblinking, with dull incomprehension written all over their faces. Where is the passion? Where is the joy? Where is the joie de vivre?

Face it, you’re bored. And the reason for that boredom is simple. You are not seeing any beauty in these subjects. No beauty, no purpose. You can tell yourself to muscle through and that you don’t have to love what you study, just do well in it, but that is the surest way to stifle the soul and to be unhappy. It is primarily this idea that distinguishes work that is hard, and play that is fun. Difficulty in itself is not a bad thing, it is only when that difficulty arises from a lack of gumption. Because it is hard to kill your soul little by little by doing what you do not care about. Along this same idea, Gandhi offered this nugget of wisdom: Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

If you are bored, take a hike, eat a crepe, sit on the toilet. Boredom means the activity has ceased to be meaningful. Boredom means that you are not seeing things with fresh eyes, you have lost that initial curiosity. You are not in the state to appreciate beauty, and if you keep at it, you will become cynical, frustrated, and you will want to simply abandon the entire enterprise – which you should (don’t do that tutorial! Do anything else as long as it’s interesting. See, I linked it back), to refill that gumption tank. Or you can force it on yourself to mechanically complete your work, and in doing so, cut away another piece of yourself.

If you are wondering what beauty there could possibly be in our subjects, it is the beauty of knowledge. Remember that when Prometheus imparted knowledge to mankind, he so lifted them that they lived their lives anew. The knowledge we gain in school has the capacity to do that for us. Knowledge gives us new ways of seeing the world such that the world we perceive is wholly different. They add a new dimension to our reality, giving our experiences more colour, flavour, and depth. Math is admirable for its rigorous certainty. Literature for enabling us to feel more expansively and to grasp the human condition. Physics for the stories it tells us about the world in motion. All fields of knowledge have theoretical beauty. The mathematician, scientist, and literary critic engage in an act of creation as much as any artist. Ultimately, all learning is about the appreciation of beauty. The act of which raises us out of ignorance, baseness, selfishness. Remember Prometheus who gave us knowledge that we might lead better lives.

Taken from zenpencils.com
Taken from zenpencils.com

Maybe I am naive in refusing to acknowledge that we are just here for the grades so that we can move on to the next part of our lives. Maybe it is a hypocrisy I would be happier not to expose. But I will stubbornly believe that school can and ought to be so much more. And I sincerely believe that we are only Auspicium Melioris Aevi when we are tricksters like Prometheus. The ones who will change the world are not those who willingly kill their souls, but those who have come alive.

Prometheus had to defy Zeus to give man fire. Mrs Lim asked, “Who is the enemy? Who are we overcoming?” There were some murmurs of hwa and chong. No, she said, the enemy is within. The one to overcome is ourselves. The side of us that thinks small, breathes small, lives small. The side of us that kills the soul when it cries no in the smirking face of pragmatism and success. For all the times that your head said no but your heart screamed yes. But to be bigger than that?

Now that is excellence.

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3 thoughts on “What Prometheus Taught Us About Learning”

  1. Remember: Everything will seem pointless at first sight. If your teachers guide you to see the uses of what you are learning, good. If not, remember that meaning is grounded in your attitude; meaning is sought. Everything has a meaning and it is up to you to find it so that you may continue to enjoy what you are doing and what you are learning.

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