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Yan Tan Tethera

The Fogartys were always a noble family. No pickpocketers hanged on our family tree..

Here we are! A quarter of the way into the TTC and we read the opening line, “Give up learning and put an end to your troubles.” If I could translate that into Latin (volunteers welcome) and draw Lions Rampant and Dogs Couchant, I would reinvent the heraldic shield of the Clann Ó Fóghartaigh and do away with the old family motto of Fleadh agus Fáilte (“PARTY! ALL WELCOME!”). When I win the lottery and can build my own Academy for the Furthering of Pedagogical Debate, I will hire the best stonemason in the world and ask that she carve out this great truth over the imposing entrance to my walled utopia. If I was David Beckham, I would have these words translated into Gujerati and then tattoo them around my neck.When I die and am laid out to rest, these words will be inscribed upon my headstone. Oh, Lao. You are my one and only true love.

Lao asks in this chapter if there is any difference between yes and no. Which, when you think about it, is a difficult question to answer. You can either say “yes” or “no” – although what use these words are to somebody who is asking you the difference between them…

He then goes on to describe how everybody else seems to have sorted themselves out. They’re all off at parties, being clever, enjoying the excesses of life, having a top time. Lao, on the other hand, is sat at home with no real direction, skint, depressed, stupid and alone. That pretty much sums up my time at university. Hmmm. That actually pretty much sums up my time since university.

But all is good with our jedi master. He’s quite happy to be on his own without any friends, money or whathaveyou. He is “different”. He gets all he needs from the loving mother’s milk (or Liebfraumilch, as it is also known). Anybody who gets all that they need from Liebfraumilch is most definitely different. Perhaps Lao meant something else. Let us explore.

Lao essentially sets up a dichotomy: there are those who have it all and feel quite happy. They run about, display their great learning, only do things that have a clear purpose. And yet that opening line seems to suggest that they are troubled. It also suggests that their troubles come from the need to pursue learning.

The wise just sit there and make the most of what comes along. This gives them all that they need.

Then there are those like Lao who are more like babies, just sitting there without any of this Learnt Knowledge and who are neither content nor frustrated by the lack of direction. They go where they are taken. Lao describes them in his concluding lines as being “nourished by the great mother”. Nourished – that is, they get what they need in order to grow.

The others are off pursuing happiness, wealth, knowledge, purpose. The wise just sit there and make the most of what comes along. This gives them all that they need.

This, mes amis, is at the heart of it. When we deal with our needs –not our desires- this is not learning. Learning tends to be when you have to accommodate other people’s needs and desires. We don’t lean how to eat, how to breathe, how to perform more earthly functions. They happen and because of that, we happen too. When we start complicating matters by introducing Set Rules and Correct Procedures, we are going to cause troubles.Note too that this view of humanity as perfectible was being put forward in China about 2500 years ago. In Europe, the concept seems to have passed us by and we are now under the impression that where once we were all damned and could only be redeemed by Christ the Lord, these days it only takes a few kind words from the celebrity judges on some “Talent” show to give our life meaning.

Lao is not saying wallow in ignorance. Lao would reject ignorance as well as intelligence. Lao would accept people as they were. Again, if we are pondering what is meant by inclusion in the classroom, surely it doesn’t mean just accepting “different” people as if they were just like us. It means being able to offer an education that meets everybody’s individual needs. If we are looking to assess students, giving up learning means providing an assessment of what they can do rather than reflecting what they can’t. Now, it is true that it would be hard to expect all of this from a school. After all, when you’ve got thirty kids packed into a classroom and following a curriculum that the government has decreed as being the only one worth following, then I would argue that whilst you may not have given up learning just yet, you most certainly have given up teaching. It is only the educational culture which we have been drowning in for years that says that education must take place within the confines of The School. Prior to that, a lot of learning was done by living. These days, the only “learning” that can take place is one that has pre-stated outcomes and which can be certified. If you don’t have a certificate, you didn’t learn anything. It is this learning that Lao thinks needs to be given up if one is to lead a trouble-free life.

It is also important to point out that neither is Lao advising the downtrodden to abandon any hope of redemption through education. There are those who feel, for example, that illiterate people need to be taught to read and write. This, they say, will improve their lives and allow them to participate equally in society. So, rather than change a society that discriminates against people who cannot wield a pen, the solution is to change these less-than-complete humans and make them conform to what is expected of them. Of course, newly-literate people tend to be found around the bottom rungs of the career ladder until they die. It was never illiteracy alone that kept them down there. Similarly, if one looks at revolutionary forces around the world, one sees that whilst the leaders may have been bushily-moustachioed intellectuals, the ones who broke into the palaces or strung up the rich landowners tended to be the illiterate peasants and untermenschen. To repeat, Lao is not saying “Stay stupid and conform”; he knew only too well that learning (whether it be by the school, the church, nationalism or whatever) was what caused stupidity and conformity. The mind without reins is free to run wherever it wants.

Now a clip from what should be essential viewing on any teacher training course. I thank you!

Categories: Commentaries on TTC
  1. February 1, 2010 at 10:04

    ELT is completely structured around the concept of ‘change thyself to fit into mainstream society” whether it be students (don’t sound too Spanish or too Greek, make sure your English sounds like a native speaker of standard English ) or teachers (don’t talk to your students about politics, that’s not your job). It is all about asking people to change – first the teacher gives up the ghost of their own agency and then the teacher asks the student to conform and change in turn as that is what “is best for them”. Its so strange that it is of course never expressed in those terms, but always as if it were a neutral action like making a cup of tea as it is disguised as ‘helping’. Just like the benchpin of almost all psychoanalysis, the point is to break the spirit and become part of the many – not to cause trouble or disagree or upset anyone or be different or try to change the very stuctures holding us all down. To help people to accept that they will not succeed and reach the dizzy promised heights, all at the same time as offering them that potential as the carrot/stick reward. What a paradox. It may be that I am just suffering from Monday morning blues, but this is the part of my job and role as a teacher I find the hardest. I don’t want to do anything other than to encourage my students to succeed in all that they do, but I don’t want to promote the dream that their qualifications will afford them the success and wealth they are all being told it will – because for most that is never gonna happen. And I don’t want to live that illusion myself either. I think I may have to blog about this – I had been wondering what to write about next and now I have found my calling. Thank you Lao

  2. dfogarty
    February 2, 2010 at 11:50

    Hi Sara
    I agree with all of the above and can only add to it by widening the target range: it strikes me that education per se [and quite possibly “sic”, as well] is all about learning to fit in. When I came to the UK and had to get a PGCE to work within further education (TEFL qualifications not being worth the paper that they were printed on or paid with), one module was all about inclusion in the classroom.

    Now that teachers are discouraged from locking students into book cupboards or standing them outside in the classroom, the system needed to work out what could be done with the less cooperative buggers (a reference to the title “Making the Buggers Behave” book for teachers). The State would roll out a policy of inclusion. Travellers, illiterates, troublesome sorts, sufferers of various mental conditions were all to be included in the educational project. Who could possibly object?

    Well, only those killjoys who noted that inclusion meant that these individuals had to fit into what was expected of them rather than the other individuals learning that there are other ways of evaluating a person by looking at what their certificate says they can do. One way is to look to see if they are human and, if so, treat them accordingly. Of course, this is all romantic tosh by some whinging liberal. God forbid that we should ever find ourselves in the kind of Stalinist gulag where people are deemed worthy just because they are people. Much better if they learn how to write and to count.

    In the meantime, as you say, we portray ourselves as a caring profession. May our tongues shrivel if we ever call a student a “client” or a “customer” because what we do as teachers is oh-so-special. We’re like parents. Bah! Aren’t they the ones who fuck you up?

    As teachers we have potential to allow people to recognise their own potential. We have potential to show people how to realise their own potential. More often than not, this potential is squandered and people argue along the lines of, “I”m paid to teach them language or to pass them through the exam.” Perhaps this is what was meant by “Arbeit Macht Frei”? By losing ourselves in the minutiae of our job, we can free ourselves from the responsibility we have to our students.

    The solution? Dunno. But A solution might be to encourage people to look critically at reasons for failure. I am sick of hearing, “My English is poor,” or “I am no good at English.” I usually respond these days by saying -among other things- that what they mean is that the way they have been taught has not allowed them to progress as far as they would like/need. Once that is established and the (as far as I am concerned) myth that some people are naturally good at languages is dismissed and the bedrock truth is laid that everyone can get better at anything if they want to and are prepared to work for it, then I think we are ready to help people see that they are perfectible and that ultimately they are the only agents for change in their own lives.

    I do not want to read that last sentence back; not only because of its meandering structure, but also because of a deep suspicion that it reads as if the Iron Devil herself could have written it.

  3. February 4, 2010 at 14:34

    You can’t MAKE anyone learn. No teacher should be (or is) responsible for their students’ learning. We can ONLY make sure of our teaching. All the above about inclusion is true (even more so in FE in the UK).

    Student fails in traditional education system (higher ups: ‘The system has failed the student. We must make sure they achieve something. Shunt them into a Further Education college’). What they fail to realise is that some people have less chance of succeeding in this way.

    The point of teaching students to pass exams is also key. It’s double-edged – we need them to pass to get funding; they want to pass exams (and take as many as they can) because it’s proof (really?) of their language skills. Whatever happened to just teaching, learning and developing???

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