Cheaper by the dozen
This is a pleasant addendum to the previous chapter and is full of some typical Taoist inconsistencies. If you think back to the Taoist symbol, we can see how each side is delineated by the shape of the other side. We can see the white spot in the black mass largely because the black mass defines the shape of the white spot. The white spot therefore needs the black mass in order to exist. It is as much the absence of black as it is the presence of white. Oh yeah, baby.
Similarly, says Lao Tse, the colours blind our eyes; the noises make us deaf; the multitude of flavours make us less able to actually taste anything. When we go arsing off after some fleeting dream, we end up living lives of quiet desperation. “Precious things lead one astray,” in the words of the Bard from Beijing. When there is too much choice, there is really very little choice. Worth remembering the next time you walk into a supermarket and emerge five days later, squinting in the daylight. Instead of walking around garishly decorated aisles, there was a world outside that could have had a stronger claim on your attention. Of course, as my students are often telling me, “With the development of technology” the world has become a better place. But there are plenty of people who are beginning to ask themselves whether or not this Is really true. Perhaps, they think, it is better to try and grow your own fruit and vegetables rather than buying them in a shrink-wrapped back of plastic. And not just because of the romanticism that holds that earthy is good. Home-grown stuff is cheaper, tastier, more nutritious and less likely to lead to waste than the Buy One Get One Free offer on dragonfruit at your local retailers.
But this isn’t the Tao of Gardening, this is the Tao of Te(a)ching. So what could Lao Tse have meant when he wrote of such things? Scott Thornbury might have something to say here. At the close of the twentieth century, the word is that Scott Thornbury was seen trundling his possessions out of the city. He was stopped by the Urban Guard at the city gates and asked to write down his teachings on teaching. Before disappearing into the void, the Kiwi Master left us “A dogma for EFL”. In short, this was an article it was argued that the real purpose of English – i.e. its status as a tool for communication – had got lost beneath an avalanche of materials that claimed to mediate between the learner and the learned but really served to alienate the one from the other…and the language from its purpose…and the learner from the language…and so on. What ELT needed, Thornbury and Meddings humbly suggested, was less stuff and more communication. They urged the smashing up of photocopiers, the defenestration of videos, the battering of tape recorders and the burning of books. I admit that I may be putting words in their mouths.
But their call was very Taoist in its outlook. There are too many precious things that lead us astray, they were saying. We need to see beyond the resource packs and CD-ROMs and Interactive Whiteboards and Student Books and Workbooks and videos and websites and teachers’ books and conferences and publications and journals and ibooks, and podcasts and blogsites and twittered tweets and facebooks and glogs and CDs and DVDs and so on. We need to stop chasing after the correct way of teaching and realise that maybe it is to be found in talking with the students (notice that preposition).
Our perception of teaching is becoming defined by the books and the materials, but these serve an even more clearly defined purpose: they exist to fill the coffers of the publishing houses. They are designed to return maximum profits. If they are pedagogically sound, then fine, but they MUST make money. Well-designed materials make even more money, but don’t for a minute think that the principal aim is to increase the effective acquisition of the language being studied. That would just be a lucrative spin-off. Lao Tse advises us that coursebooks might not be the answer, So what is?
He tells us that the wise are guided by their feelings, not by what is in front of them. In Le Guin’s translation this is rendered as being guided by “the inner/not the outward eye” which brings us back, once more, to the realm of the world within. It could be equally rendered into folksy advice such as “trust your instincts” or “go with what you know”. but I think that it is more than that. It is more about accepting that what you know is likely to be conditioned by external forces which need to be stripped away. What do I mean? Well, here’s a subject close to my heart:
In my not-so-humble opinion, the idea that teaching is an anodyne apolitical activity is an idea that is clearly related to the anodyne apolitical materials that are foisted upon us. And the anodyne apolitical approaches to training us. And this anodyne apolitical approach clearly serves the interests of some and militates against the interests of others. It is an ideological position.
If, in the spirit of dialogism, we are prepared to accept the validity of other viewpoints, the ying that defines the yang, teaching is no such thing. It is a highly contentious, political activity that seeks to remake the world. Which of these two opinions is the correct one?
That depends on how you see it once the external conditions have been stripped away. Once you have done away with the glut of flavourings, colours and noises that surround it all, what are you left with? A highly politicised act or a neutral exchange of functional information? Now is the time to be guided by what you feel, not what you see.
Don’t just trust your instincts; strip away the bullshit first and then trust your instincts.
Lao Tse ends the chapter by telling us that the wise let that go and keep this. This admirable terseness contains pages and pages of wisdom – relax, I will leave them to be written by the pen in your mind. Suffice to say that the advice is to abandon all of that which is removed from the here and now, the that. It came from other places, was wrought by other hands, and was directed at other circumstances. The this, on the other hand, comes from your experience, emerges from what is happening in front of you, has your sticky handprints all over it and was brought about by the situation in which you find yourself. It is not Unit 54 in your textbook, it is why Abdullah is babbling away animatedly with Chen Hong. It is firmly grounded in the here and now and the here and now is the crucible of learning. [This whole paragraph should now be re-read in the voice of Gil Scott Heron.]
Lose the that, baby, and embrace the this. With lines like that, entire religions have been born and, in turn, given birth to rich and hedonistic pastors. Sigh.