“Heaven and earth last forever,” begins this section. Why do they last forever? “They are unborn/ So ever living.” Much the same as language, then. “Much the same as certain people’s language classes, then,” adds a cynical voice which we are going to disregard.
The general idea about language is that it exists and there are rules that govern how it is used correctly. This is a nice idea, but not strictly true. Language exists but there are more people breaking its rules every time they open their mouths than there are people who follow the rules. Language is unborn until the moment it is used. At that point, all sorts of factors will interact to give meaning to that language: the context in which it is being used, the relationship between the speakers, the intonation used to deliver it etc. Because of this, the argument is that it is pretty pointless to study language before it has been created. In other words, there isn’t much point at looking at a whole load of random sentences that someone else has written, because who knows what they could mean? The doors to all sorts of misinterpretations are thrown open. Don’t believe me? Open up a grammar exercise book, pick a sentence at random and find out how many contexts it could emerge from.
Far better, I would suggest, to look at a stretch of language that was recently constructed by its users and explore the rules that gave meaning to it. You can change its meaning as well and explore the rules that are exposed by so doing. You could focus in on the smallest part of it and use that to generate new language. This is what keeps the language alive.
This section also tells us that the wise person will lag behind and thus be ahead of those who think that they know the way. By watching the others explore the unchartered territory ahead, the wise person –for which read teacher- will at least know where they are going. They should have a clearer idea of how they got there and what happened along the way. The people who were forging the path may have been too close to really notice what was happening. In a classroom, this means that the teacher stays out of the limelight and watches. They note down what happens and are prepared to remind people about what took place or identify interesting landmarks that were passed along the way. Practically speaking, this can mean, get the learners talking (yes!!! It’s that easy!!!) and leave them to it. When they start drying up, jump in and get them going again, but then withdraw.
There are a great many teachers who see themselves as the necessary protagonists of their classrooms. They will justify their central role with perfectly valid reasons, but the Taoist will probably not share those reasons. A teacher who occupies the central space is working in a classroom that is not working efficiently, and, albeit unintentionally, they are not doing much to set the process back on track. This seems pretty much in keeping with contemporary ideas about learner centred classrooms and teachers as facilitators. But I think the case to be argued is that the teacher is a participant in the learning process, just as the learners are. The learning process should be participant based and learning –driven. The TTC would seem to think so too. Of course, Lao Tse and his translators were better with words than I and simply said, that by being “detached, [we are] at one with all.” Detached from what? From the concept of teacher as wielder of power and knowledge, perhaps. By acting according to our nature, not according to our perception of how a teacher should act, Lao assures us that we can “attain fulfillment”. That’s nice, isn’t it?