¡Me cachis en diez!
This is one of those parts of the TTC where you know that the Old Geezer’s mates must have looked at him a bit askance from time to time and thought, “The day he takes off in a horse and cart and leaves all civilisation behind is the day that we’ll be rid of his blathering. What is he on about?” If we skip the first part of this verse, it will be much more convenient…and perhaps a little bit sacrilegious, but if you can’t buck the trend in Taoism, it’s not really Taoism, is it? Whoah, dude, I think I just hit upon an eternal truth.
So, what are we skipping? Well, essentially a lot of weird conditions and trippy questions. “Attending fully and becoming supple,/Can you be as a newborn babe?” I’m guessing that Lao was talking about the puking mewling variety of babe rather than the short dress and high heels variety. That said, on Deansgate in Manchester at the weekend, the two merge seamlessly into one. What lessons are in this line for the teacher? If a students pays full attention and shows that they are willing to be flexible in their approach to the language, is it not possible that they might take on the learning capacity of the wordless?
“Understanding and being open to all things,/Are you able to do nothing?” Questions like this mean that some people will never accept that there can be a Tao of Revolutionary Activity. They say that Lao just wanted people to put up and shut up; a sort of turning-the-other-cheek before the the fella from Nazareth went and earned himself a big name on the back of the same philosophy. And Lao is saying here that in order to be fully in contact with the Tao – the way of Heaven- we have to be able to know that there are many things competing for our attention and our actions. We need to understand this and, in response, do nothing. The mystical side of Tao says that everything is an illusion and Taoists meditate to disconnect themselves from the matrix. The amount of effort that they have to put into so doing would seem to suggest that this is not a very natural state of awareness which begs the question of how in keeping with Tao it really is. I prefer my gloss on the whole thing – now, there’s a surprise. Lao isn’t asking for a state of passivity or acceptance that che serà serà. He’s advising us not to interfere where we don’t need to. For the language teacher, we need to understand how people learn languages and be open to the idea that there may be other ways that people learn languages too. Then we do nothing – that is, we don’t interfere.
Is it possible to know all things? The wisest answer would probably be “NOOOOOOOO.” So, perhaps we just understand that we cannot understand. Now you’re open to all things because nothing might be objectively real. We realise that instead of one truth, there are billions of truths. We need to learn how to interact in a world that is only one among billions. Thousands of years later, a bearded Russian called Bakhtin was saying the same thing. Stalin was not amused.
Bakhtin came up with the theory of dialogism. This basically said that each of us has an understanding of reality that is only real to us. When we give a word a meaning, it is not necessarily a meaning that is shared by other people. Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty was also attuned to this fact: more so than Alice in fact. HD said, rather pompously, it has to be admitted, that words mean just want we want them to mean, “neither more nor less.” If you read Alice in Wonderland with a taoist pair of glasses on, HD doesn’t look quite so daft after all.
Essentially, Bakhtin put forward the view that conversation is about achieving heteroglossia – that is, a shared understanding of what we’re on about. I think back to Kevin, one of my pre-intermediate students. Kevin had been speaking his own language in the class and, as was our wont, he was fined ten pence. I noted him rooting around in his pocket but was shocked to hear him announce to the class, “Diarmuid, I have one penis.” Through dialogism we were able to reach heteroglossia – aided by Kevin pulling his one penis out and showing it to all the class. This allowed us to explore how one speech community had already assigned a very different meaning to the word penis and, instead, preferred to use the word pence to describe the small copper coin that Kevin held aloft so proudly.
Dialogism results in the hustle and bustle of daily life. We go about in a general state of anarchy as each of us is surrounded by a bubble of meaning that is only real to us. We struggle noisily to break through the boundaries of our realities in order to interact with the realities of other people. Our sights are set on heteroglossia – our shared understanding. And it’s a chaotic, noisy, messy affair with no order to it. Try telling that to the purveyors of language coursebooks where the myth is peddled that verb tenses follow a certain order and that you can’t teach one thing before you’ve taught the other. Real language learning is, as this comic strip puts it, like waltzing with a porcupine – try to follow the beat, but be prepared for lots of pricks, eh, Kevin?
When you are open to the fact that not everything has to be how you see it, asks Lao, “Are you able to do nothing?” The answer is, “You should be.” Because, says the Yoda like sage, “Giving birth and nourishing, Bearing yet not possessing, Working yet not taking credit, Leading yet not dominating” is the main thing. Is Tao. This does not mean that we all have to be enduring Braxton-Hicks contractions in front of our students. We can give birth metaphorically to a whole range of different things. It’s a lot less painful (usually) and a damn sight cleaner. For example, we might aim to give birth to an appreciation of reading which we will then nourish. Or an acceptance that English can be used to talk about oneself rather than to pass an exam. Or a realisation that people are different and deserve to be treated with respect (for the most part). These acceptances, realisations and appreciations can then be nourished through the activities we do with the students. We can use the language, without possessing it and without measuring the efforts of our students against our own criteria. The language doesn’t belong to us exclusively and the things that we use the language to talk about do not necessarily belong to us either. The language is used by all of us to talk about things that we believe and have experienced. But it is only through shared ownership that meaning is made possible. It’s yer old dialogism again, innit?
Working yet not taking credit,/Leading yet not dominating,/This is the Primal Virtue. Oh yeah. So, we work but we take no credit? I’m surprised by how many teachers I have met regard student success as an indicator of their own worth as teachers. Student success is exclusively down to the efforts of the students. The best we can hope from a teacher is that they won’t cock it up. We can act as an obstacle to success, but I think it is rather presumptuous of us to think that we are catalysts of success. This isn’t all bad though. It once again locates the responsibility for learning within the student. Their success reflects their work. It doesn’t matter if the teacher is lousy – a good student will find a way to learn even from a terrible teacher. Taoism lets teachers off the hook!
As for leading, not dominating, this is, I hope, a given for many teachers today. But it may not be a given for all of us. There may be millions of teachers who feel that they need to assert their dominance in the classroom in order to maintain control. If you are stood in front of a classroom of sixty, as many compatriots of Lao may have to do on a daily basis, it might seem that “dominating AND leading” are pretty good options. But we dominate when we want to impose our ways upon others. And we often dominate because we don’t trust the others to be any good by themselves. Lao might have asked us how we can hope for somebody to learn a language if we are looming over them with a whole battery of verb tenses and irregular nouns. If a language is a tool by which we are able to communicate our innermost thoughts, emotions, fears and hopes to an external audience, it’s hard to see how we are going to be able to do that if we have some poor teacher stood at the front leading us in lockstep chanting of seemingly irrelevant nonsense. For real language to emerge, the teacher needs to allow the students room to say what they need to say. And that means cutting the reins and allowing some degree of autonomy.
Of course, if the goal is just to get the student to successfully regurgitate some mangled construction that has no meaning to or for anybody, then dominance
might be just what the doctor ordered. To go back to the birthing metaphor, it would be like encouraging people to go through the immense pain and discomfort of pregnancy so that they could give birth to a three kilo bag of potatoes. The end product might have some use in a given situation, but it was a whole lot of effort and pain for something that you’re going to find quite difficult to become emotionally attached to. Mind you, it would put a different spin on the idea of “Giving birth and nourishing.” I wonder if that was what the old hippy meant?