Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Invisible Academies (Chapter 3)

The Archē Academy

I arrived at the Archē Academy early. Bathed from the East in the only sunlight ever to reach its walls and windows, it glowed an iridescent orange. As I awaited the hour of my appointment, I spoke to people streaming through the city's East Gate to their places of work. Among those who live in the Academy's vicinity, I learned, the true colour of the building is the source of some controversy. Despite deep division in that regard, all accept as fact - and not without some pride - that it was the first official building of the White City. Eschewing palaces and ministries, the Emperor's first act was to create a school (this school, their school) to forever safeguard knowledge and the past, which to them are synonymous.

As to its colour, there are proponents for every hue in the palette of the rising Sun, from ceremonious purple to sacrificial red. Each is happy to state the colour of the building as they see it in the here and now, to accept that it may be a different colour every day, every minute, or every time they happen to walk past it. The subjectivity of these existentialists is trusted by no one, least of all themselves, and two main factions have coalesced on the subject: on one hand, those who argue that the building can only be white, though it is never seen to be, and on the other, those for whom black is a certainty assured by the senses.

To the former Cartesians, appearances are not to be trusted and it stands to reason that the Emperor could only have inaugurated the White City with a white building. Notwithstanding this logic, supported by the unquestioned infallibility of the Emperor, they further argue that only the reflective achroma of white can honour the past, by protecting it from the blanching rays of each new day. To their empiricist disputants, history gives scant evidence regarding whether the naming of the city predates the erection of the building or vice versa; even if the archive were complete, the Emperor's logic cannot be inferred from the logic of ordinary minds; the achromatic purity of black is equal to that of white; and the only way to honour the past is to absorb the light of the new day, that its rays may be filtered by prior knowledge and not let loose upon the world, refracted and untamed.

To neither faction is it of any interest that proof has repeatedly been presented that the building is now grey.

The Emperor has seen fit to ensure that each Academy serves a locale, a community, and so the complainants on either side are, in their vast majority, students and alumni of the Archē Academy. It was thus clear to me as I left off speaking to passers-by that, more than bricks and mortar of this or that colour, the Archē Academy (and perhaps the whole Academy edifice) is built of this polemic. This thought was interrupted as I noticed a student moving in the opposite direction to the otherwise well-ordered crowd. I asked after her as I waited at the reception desk, and was informed she had come unequipped. She would return tomorrow.

Inside, the impermeability of the walls and the staining of the windows have ensured that the curriculum is incontestably empiricist. Though it was already obvious to me that the Academy is not premised upon a model of indoctrination (at least not a successful one), I was intrigued to see if the diversity of opinion in the general population was reflected in the school. What I found was that personal opinion has little place there. While a curriculum built upon experience appears to lend itself to individual interpretation, and a curriculum delivered chronologically must continuously highlight the erroneous nature of what has been held in each successive era as infallible knowledge, there are a number of criteria to discourage relativism. These criteria form the basis of strict hierarchies - of people, of subjects, indeed of the senses themselves.

At the bottom of these hierarchies are the students (not in order of age, but of proven maturity), the arts (not for lack of value, but because their true appreciation relies most heavily on the acquisition of prior knowledge and experience) and taste and smell (which seem to be perceived as wholly unacademic, though use of the other senses is also strictly proscribed). At the top of the hierarchies are the Emperor (or, to be precise, his subtle and less subtle instruments of measurement), the sciences (to which here belongs the study of language), and sight (for the direction of one's eyes is understood as the direction of one's attention). The Archē Academy is the first in the Empire, not just historically, but academically, and all its many eyes are fixed upon maintaining that status, be the minds behind them conscious of this or not.

The school's hierarchies and reverence for the past go hand in hand. They sustain and nourish each other, and are supported by rituals I found worthy of note. Speech is limited in quantity and quality, because a singular outburst might loose something new upon the accepted canon. As a result, no sentence is ever complete - completeness itself can only be conferred by the Imperial Authority of the Guardian of the Archive Vault, whose visits are separated by millennia. A student's sentence, already heavily shaped by prior teaching, will, no sooner pronounced, be dissected, pulled apart, have clauses amputated and others inserted, punctuation moved, changed or removed and only be transcribed into a book when it matches the sentence on the teacher's lesson script and can be transcribed into all books. The lesson script itself is not written by the teacher but by his or her superior, and is also subject to revision according to changes in the examination specifications, in direct correlation with imponderable movements in examination authorities, who in turn respond to the fathomless logic of the Emperor - a conduit for which I assume you are, dearest Secretary. In this way, every new event in history has the potential to re-write the entirety of the curriculum. Despite inscrutable fluctuations over aeons, it is no wonder that the Archē Academy has maintained its place at the Empire's apex, for a disciplined hierarchy is the most responsive system to changing circumstance.

As with speech, movement too is restricted in number and type. It is an oft-repeated cautionary tale in the Academy that the wave of a student's hand once blew chaos into the pages of the archive itself. For this reason, any potential for action with uncertain outcomes is dealt with in advance through policy and enforcement, habituation and exclusion. Students walk from class to class in single files along the left-hand wall, with hands behind their backs. Some see their maturity rewarded with an elevated status to monitor adherence to this code. Teachers walk with their hands by their sides. The most venerable of them walk backwards, at once showing the ideal direction of travel for the academic mind, and the profound abilities conferred upon them by detailed and encyclopedic knowledge of the past.

What of the student who hadn't brought a pen that morning, whose path I crossed as I entered? I never saw her again, but she has crossed my mind many times in the intervening month. I wonder whether she gave her exclusion any thought at all, and if she did, whether she had any power to change the circumstance in time for the next day. I imagine her across the road, contemplating the colour of the Archē Academy. Will that experience come to shape which faction she joins in the great polemic? And, if so, is it possible that the Emperor willed it thus? Having created the White City, the dark vault of the age-old empire and the grey Academy, is it conceivable that he abhorred the cold logic of this achromatic scale enough to create the conditions for dangerous little sparks to flit briefly into existence?

I suspect the archive is incomplete on the matter.

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