This goes to eleven
Thirty spokes/meet in the hub./Where the wheel isn’t/is where it’s useful.
Hollowed out,/clay makes a pot./Where the pot’s not/is where it’s useful.
Cut doors and windows/to make a room./Where the room isn’t/There’s room for you.
So the profit in what is/is in the use of what isn’t. (Ursula Leguin)
This week, the message is for those who are undergoing an inspection. The eleventh part concludes that “Usefulness comes from what is not there.” The suggestion is clearly that the next time that your school or institution is being inspected, wait for your students to enter the room, lock the door behind them and hang these words on a sign outside the door. The message will be clear: the inspectors will be more useful in their absence than they will by their presence. And I find it hard to see how somebody armed with a clipboard can be so arrogant as to presume that their authority is greater than that of a figure as renowned as Lao Tse. Of course, you will probably lose your job.
Perhaps we should look for an alternative interpretation. Chapter Eleven basically reminds us that when we shape clay into pots, it is the empty space that we are after; when we build walls and ceilings, it is the non-wall and non-ceiling that we inhabit; when we build a wheel (oh, come on, how do you spend your weekend?), the spokes serve a purpose but they converge on the empty space in the middle of the wheel and it is this space that holds them together. In what could be a mantra for managers (or the exasperated moaning of a teacher whose worst pupils never come to class), Lao tells us, “…profit comes from what is there;/Usefulness from what is not there.”
This chapter speaks to teachers about a number of things. Let’s look at the teaching side first of all. It’s now almost a cliché that “some of the best lessons I have ever given were ones I had to make up on the spot.” In other words, when the plan fails and we are forced to improvise, a lot of learning seems to take place…although a less charitable interpretation might be that a lot of teaching takes place. In the absence of a planned approach to learning, it would appear that more learning is done. Similarly we could argue that in the absence of theory, true understanding is made possible. In the absence of materials, true communication is achieved. In the absence of photocopies, better materials can be made. In the absence of textbooks, more useful texts can be developed. In the absence of students…oh, right…a clever person always knows when to stop.
What about for learners? How does the advice apply to them? Learners are stereotypically obsessed with the tangible aspects of words and grammar. If I had a pound for every time that a learner told me that they needed to improve their vocabulary or wanted to learn some “new grammar”, then I would be typing this at a much later hour whilst my servants dusted the nuclear bombs I had hidden in my fake volcano – and that would be true if the offer only applied to last week. But, as we all know, the language is more than the words and the grammar. They are merely the spokes of the wheel, the clay that shapes the pot, the walls that make the room. It is the space created by the existence of grammar and words that is most useful. And here, the Endless Sage answers the tiresome debate about the role of grammar within the syllabus. It is indeed profitable. With a knowledge of grammar, the room can be made bigger; the wheel can be made spokier; the pot can be as clayish as you want it to be. Bt the usefulness is to be found within.
And within is an important concept both in Taoism and in language learning. Some of these truths seem so self-evident that it can seem surprising that we ever strayed away from the Path. The idea that grammar could ever be more important than the meaning is one that is somewhat baffling. Perhaps I am mistaken in assuming that there is anyone who actually thinks this way, but I don’t think so. There are people who still insist on teaching English as if it could be assimilated through a detailed understanding of the verb system when it is probably more accurate to say that a detailed understanding of the verb system is best achieved through complete assimilation of the meaning system that the language employs. And, as Bakhtin reminded us, meaning comes from within but can only ever be realised once it is out there in the social world.
In short, Chapter 11 tells us to focus less on the tangible and enjoy the usefulness of that which remains empty and elusive. In a world where there is a near
obsession with filling the vacuum with noise and activity, it is this advice that might help us extend the four score and ten years that we are allotted. In the classroom, this can best be done by finding the time to shut up and look at what emerges from the emptiness. Hopefully it won’t be a looming monster that trawls seaweed through your classroom.