“The tao that can be told is not the eternal tao”.
There’s a thing. Many of the world’s readers, on opening the Tao Te Ching and reading the first line, probably sigh deeply; close the book, looking once more at the back cover; then put it straight back on the shelf and meander towards the Terry Pratchett section of the bookshop. It would appear that shifting units may not have been Lao Tse’s primary consideration. Mind you, considering that legend tells us he was pressed into writing his thoughts down as he was fleeing the oppressively claustrophobic nature of civilisation, that might not come as much of a surprise.
At this point, one is tempted to draw a direct link between Lao’s flight from civilisation and the TEFL teacher’s flight from…whatever…but let us leave the dodgy links for another day and thus refrain from adding to the already negative image that the world of EFL has allowed itself to be lumbered with.
OK, well, Muhammed Ali has written the Tao of Boxing, Bruce Lee’s The Tao of Jeet Kune Do is also an established classic, there probably exists a Tao of Business Management and there are undoubtedly heaving bookshelves in some warehouse or the other where Book Liberationists could save the Taos of Soccer, Tea, Guns, Divorce, Banjos, Tetris and of course Sex from the pungent baths of bleach at the pulping house. “So, what does the world need?” thought I, “The bloody Tao of Teaching EFL.” The answer came to me as I stared glumly at the most recent lottery ticket that lay in front of me, not even one number circled. Now, there is already a Tao of Teaching, but I couldn’t find a Tao of TeAching – surely Lao Tse was really just the straight guy in a double act, feeding his partner a line? Anyway, thank you Lao. I owe you one.
The project that I have set out before me is to try and interpret the lines of the Tao Te Ching in a way that might be familiar to the befuddled EFL teacher. In so doing I realise that I am exposing myself to ridicule from the hardheads who know all there is to know about teaching and are exceptionally dismissive of the rest of us, but as the Tao Te Ching reminds us, there’s no good that comes without bad. It’s a strange silver lining that has no cloud, so to speak.
For those of you who have no understanding of what the Tao Te Ching is, a brief overview:
It is often described as esoteric (which might explain why some people eagerly –and perhaps furtively- flick through it and then put it back on the shelf, somewhat disillusioned). It is said to be over 2500 years old, although most copies available through Amazon, Waterstones etc are much younger. It was written, we think, by a man called Lao Tse, although there is also the argument that Lao Tse was actually an amalgam of several people. Lao’s name is often translated as “Old Master” or “Old Sage” or even “Old Boy” and, somewhat ironically, his masterpiece has become an object of much academic study (ironic if you consider the line from one translation, “Give up learning and put an end to all your troubles”).
Basically, the Tao Te Ching (often translated as “The Way and Its Virtue” but also “The Way and the Power of the Way”) is a book of teachings, which are expressed somewhat poetically and leave themselves open to all sorts of interpretations. Hence the Tao of Dog-loving may find itself sat alongside the Tao of Animal Torture. Is this surprising? No, because the Tao speaks to us of universal truths; the rules and laws that shape the universe. These things apply to everyone, no matter how weird the feather that tickles your particular fancy. Why then is there no Tao of TEFL?
There is now.
In helping me write this blog, I have used two translations of the Tao Te Ching: firstly, the version by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. Not only is this a beautiful book to look at, but it is also the first version of the Tao Te Ching that I ever read. Secondly, the Ursula K. Le Guin version, primarily because she is a fellow anarchist and I quite like that. In addition, her book is beautifully presented and I quite like that too.
I propose to look at each section of the Tao Te Ching and attempt to meld them onto the world of EFL. In theory, it should not be a difficult task because these principles underlie the workings of life itself. As long as it’s not harder to read than to write…