Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Study Guide

Robert Pirsig

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Part 3, Chapter 16 | Summary



In this chapter the narrator and Chris climb a mountain, and the narrator reflects that every major religion has an allegorical tale about mountain climbing: "The allegory of a physical mountain for the spiritual one that stands between each soul and its goal is an easy and natural one to make."

He says that Phaedrus's search to define Quality was a route through the mountains of the spirit: "He made systematic, rigid statements about what Quality is, and worked out an enormous hierarchic structure of thought to support them." But in the process, he loses his sanity, his family, and his property. All he has left is his dream of Quality; "Then, after the electrodes were attached, he lost that."

The narrator backtracks to discuss the first part of Phaedrus's exploration of Quality. The concept becomes a framework Phaedrus can use to teach rhetoric. When his students begin to have trouble thinking of things to write about, he instructs them to narrow their focus and gives them assignments such as describing a coin or their thumbs. Their writing improves dramatically. It is fresher and more original. When students think for themselves, they see there is "no limit to the amount they could say."

Phaedrus also decides to eliminate grades in his classes. Though some students strenuously object, he is confident the grading system creates a "slave mentality" that makes real learning impossible. To everyone's surprise the students begin to work harder, with more creativity and originality. Classes teem with lively discussion.

But Phaedrus begins to doubt his new system. His students do their best work if they look within themselves rather than think about grades. But if they could find the answers for themselves, why do they need to take classes at all? Phaedrus wonders what the students could use as a goal instead of grades? Phaedrus doesn't want to "teach dull conformity to hateful students," but he thinks true learning takes place in spite of teaching, not because of it.


Here again Phaedrus's ideas on teaching seem so fresh as to be revolutionary. Grade-free classes expose the hypocrisy inherent in higher education. College ideally represents a chance for a young person to enhance their world outlook, increase their knowledge, learn new skills. But as one of his students puts it, "Of course you can't eliminate the degree and grading system. After all, that's what we're here for." Fine, Phaedrus thinks. The less motivated students can flunk out, learn about the world, and eventually return to college feeling ready to learn.

Pirsig is now offering a more complete and complicated picture of Phaedrus. Instead of showing more of his damaging insanity, the author paints a picture of a hardworking, concerned, sincere teacher who cares deeply about his students. Phaedrus wants to maximize their experience in the class and maximize valuable learning. There is great value in this emerging. Readers can anticipate more as the story unfolds.

As a result of Phaedrus's new teaching methods, "a hoped-for phenomenon" begins. Students at every level become more engaged and work harder. Class participation soars. Yet Phaedrus seems almost eager to make himself miserable. Instead of being inspired by the evidence that his teaching has improved, he begins to pick apart his new system. If students can learn on their own, what is the point of teaching them?

Pirsig is masterful at conveying the thought processes of someone who is thinking too obsessively and focusing not on the process, but on the goal—finding "that missing seed crystal of thought that would suddenly solidify everything." In college Phaedrus became obsessed with the notion that hypothesizing led only to more hypotheses, proving the worthlessness of the scientific method in explaining reality. Now, as a teacher, he obsesses over the idea that the more he improves his teaching, the less his students need him. His role as a teacher will soon be worthless. At both times in his life he drives himself to the edge of a cliff to find an absolute truth, the one underlying principle.

Earlier in the book readers have learned the narrator's opinion that Phaedrus went mad more because of his weird antisocial behaviors and the resulting estrangement from his community than because of his obsessive thoughts. So readers still have no clear idea of the cause of his breakdown but now have a clearer picture of Phaedrus as a caring teacher.

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