This is one of those parts of the TTC that need to be memorised and then lived by, especially if you’re a teacher. It deals with, on the surface, the nature of leadership. Lao favoured the kind of leader who “is barely known by men”. Presumably the women could have his picture all over the ladies’ washroom.
The top dog, says Lao, is the one that nobody realises is there. The one who just lets people get on with things. “WAIT A MINUTE!” shouts the teaching profession, “You can’t just let Them get on with it. There’d be anarchy!” An argument which, when talking to an anarchist, is rather diminished. And of course, an argument which is totally groundless. Because removal of constraint is not freedom, it is the granting of permission to act freely. Now, if you have the power to give somebody the right to act freely, they are not really free. They are still subject to your granting of their rights. It’s the same with the mot du jour “empowerment”. We do activities to empower our learners. But if you are powerful enough to give power to your learners, it doesn’t really address the fundamental hierarchy, does it? After all, he who giveth also taketh away. The learners, might I venture, should be empowering themselves.
Lao was talking about acting as real anarchists! Power is not yours to bestow, it is yours to share. But it is also the students’ to share. How could Lao have had such daft ideas? Well, because he trusted people. And in return he was trusted by people. They knew that he wasn’t trying to control them. And so they didn’t see him as a threat to be resisted. As a result, people were free to get on with things. When things we accomplished, people were able to look back and say “We did it!”
And that’s what this chapter is about. People doing things “without unnecessary speech” and looking back to say “We did it!” Not “You’re a really good teacher!”, but “We did it.” In the Taoist EFL classroom there is very little glory for the teacher. The teacher takes a back seat and creates space for people to use the language. As the play is being written, the teacher can join in and point out where things appear to be getting a reaction that is different to the intended one, but the main focus is on students AND teacher recreating a world within their classroom. At the end of the learning experience, the students should be able to look back and see how their learning has helped them achieve things that they couldn’t do before. They should look around the classroom and see their classmates and the evidence that their studies have progressed and they should use the first person PLURAL to summarise their achievements. They don’t say “I did it,” or “You helped ME do it.” They recognise that the space they inhabit, the time they inhabit, is a shared time and a shared space and that it was constructed by all. They are almost oblivious to the teacher who scampered around helping to resolve problems and maintain the impetus. For Lao, this kind of teacher is the “true leader.” The next time you see a student in the street who clearly doesn’t remember your name, you should feel honoured, not rejected!
There is also a message here for the applied linguists, those people of science who have spent the last sixty years trying to come up with order in this apparently chaotic system. Lao says that in order to achieve, “actions…without unnecessary speech” are vital. Do, don’t talk. Lao was, it would appear, not very enamoured with the academics. This might have been because Taoists tend to view the world as an illusion or perhaps they view it as illusory. That is, the things we agonise over are pretty insignificant and are often the objects of our gaze because we want to find out how to control them. Applied Linguists look at language acquisition in the hope that they discover a quick and easy Way to Language Learning. Michel Thomas, the language guru to the stars, is busy making a fortune out of telling people that his method is the method. All of it nonsense, of course. Lao says that we need to get on and do and forget about the whys and wherefores – quite the opposite from Socrates’ admonition that the unexamined life is not worth living.
In fact, Lao has often been criticised for preaching a creed of passivity and resignation. This idea of people not really thinking and just doing might be a good example of this. Shouldn’t Lao be advising people to think about their situation? Shouldn’t we be analysing things first then acting? Well, Lao is not advocating passivity or resignation. He is advocating action and recognising that this is what happens first. The peasants and working class of the Russian revolution didn’t sit around arguing whether it was better to be a dialectical materialist rather than one of those vodka swilling dialectical idealists. They thought no more than, “Bloody hell it’s cold and I’m starving. Let’s go and see what old Alex has got over at the Winter Palace.”
Why should we waste our time and our effort in agonising over the unexplainable? In the hope that progress is made…perhaps as an offshoot? Why not just teach? Why not just use language? The argument will be that because if we just taught that would mean that learners would still be sitting down translating the works of Shakespeare into Urdu. But that’s also the antithesis of Taoist EFL. Remember, the grammar translation method was there to force people to break the language down into grammatical structures. It also rested on the assumption that because it had been said in English, the same idea must exist in Urdu. Taoist EFL wouldn’t say that. Taoist EFL would say that language is about who you are and what your world looks like. It would expect you to use language to shape yourself and your world. The Taoist teacher would make room for your language to perform this task and would guide it to an effective way of achieving it. One way of doing this is to trust that nature will take care of providing a syllabus: learners will need to learn what they need to learn. This is a big concept for people to get their heads around. Without the guiding path of a syllabus (based, more often than not, on what sells books rather than anything else), people cannot trust that everything that needs to be covered will be covered. Thornbury made the point that grammar should be uncovered rather than covered. And I have to admit that the first image that comes into my mind when I think of things that are covered is a coroner pulling a sheet over a dead body. But for those people who are untrusting of the idea that people’s need for grammar will emerge from their need to be understood, Lao reminds us that, “To give no trust/Is to get no trust.”