Home > Commentaries on TTC > 25 – The atomic number of manganese (I love Japanese cartoons)

25 – The atomic number of manganese (I love Japanese cartoons)

“There is something
That contains everything.”

To what extent do you agree or disagree? Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own knowledge or experience. You should write at least 250 words.

Lao goes on to say that he hasn’t got a clue what that “something” is, but if he was pressed to give it a name, he’d call it “Great”. Luckily, history doesn’t mention any children being born to our old sage, who in Anglo Saxon poetry would have been given the alias, Numbnutted namegiver. Still, perhaps he was just in a hurry to shuffle off into oblivion.

Before we start looking at what it all means to teachers (well, this one at least), let us ponder upon the mysteries of Verse 25:

Being great, it flows.
It flows far away.
Having gone far, it returns…

There then follows a verse where Lao establishes that there are four Great Things: “Tao is great; Heaven is great, Earth is great; humankind is great.” Poor old Lao – he was reduced to sounding like an inchoate teenager. Although now, he’d probably claim that Tao was gr8. However, this isn’t the Daily Mail so I don’t want to stray off down the path of demonising hoodie wearing ragamuffins. Anyway, as I was saying, that verse leads to this:

People follow earth,
Earth follows heaven,
Heaven follows The Way,
The Way follows what is.

"I dunno." (To be read in Scooby-voice)

Gr8! Now, what does it all mean, Scooby?

Firstly, Lao claims that Tao is something that was there before owt else. It was the prima causa, the sine qua non (is there no start to my talents?). However, it is also “unbodied” and “unchanging”.

This reminds me of when I had to teach English for Physics once upon a time in a country whose name I do not want to remember. Most of my own physics education had been spent standing outside the classroom door as a punishment, so my qualifications were somewhat circumspect. But I began to read a few bits and pieces and was shocked to discover that physics – and science generally- is all based on a big poetic metaphor called matter. It can’t be seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched and yet it is the stuff of which whole galaxies are built. And it never disappears or gets destroyed. It just gets reshaped and reused. God’s plasticine (if you believe in her). It sounds remarkably like Tao.

For a language teacher, I wonder whether or not Tao might be language itself? If you are prepared to humour me, I would like to explore this; if you are not prepared to humour me, well, so long, farewell, auf wiedersehn, goodbye.

Check this out (pwffhwwfffll!!!)

Let’s do a checklist; a doctor has recently published a book about how checklists save people’s lives. I want to be a hero, so here’s my checklist. If I save your life, please write and let me know. Cheques need to be made payable to my three year old son whose bank account can’t be taxed by law (and which I have full access to).

Language is gr8. CHECK!
Language contains everything. CHECK!
Language was there before Heaven and Earth? CHECK!
In the silence? Errrr…check?

Language can act as the mother of all things? CHECK!
Language moves on? CHECK!
Language goes far? CHECK!
Language revisits its past selves? CHECK!

Heaven and Earth are subjugated by language? CHECK!
Language, in turn, is subjugated by everything that exists? CHIGGITY-CHECK!

And herein lies a beautifully ponderous conundrum: language shapes and defines EVERYTHING, but is, in turn, shaped and defined by everything. That kind of natural conundrum was made precisely for teenagers sitting down to write an A level answer. I have no idea why I seem to have take up the crusade against people aged 13-19.

Now, for teachers this must surely have some implications? I should cocoa. First of all, let us wonder at the arrogance of the belief that We can bottle the unbodied and undefined force of language; can the Mother of All Things be bottled? Some of us like to think so.

Can the Mother of all Things be bottled? No further questions, yer 'onor.

Let us ponder the wisdom of trying to encapsulate the essence of language in “Grammar checks” at the back of the coursebook; language contains everything and moves on. In an exam that our students were set recently, they were asked to insert the word like into sentences wherever they thought appropriate. These exams were to determine whether or not they could have moved to the next level. I was hoping that somebody would put forward the following as an answer:

She looks my sister.
She like looks like my sister, innit?

Had they done so, I would have put them in the highest class of all: my secret Tao class that I run in the dusty attic of Hogwarts. Of course, as coursebooks have a rather restricted range of functions for dear old like, students hadn’t learned it, didn’t recognise it when it was used like as a filler, or like as a reporting verb, so they just came out with the usual dross. Should learners have to be subjected to grammar as how it is spoke? I couldn’t give a monkey’s. My point is that by blinkering the students, we are dullifying their language learning abilities. And before anyone writes in (as if) to complain that dullify doesn’t exist – open your eyes! Of course it does. I’ve used it twice in the last two sentences.

Language both subjugates and is subjugated by everything. Whilst I find this mind-blowing, in my case it doesn’t take much. A light draught caused by the gentle closing of a door will set my mind blowing along like tumbleweed through a ghosttown.

In fact, this apparent duality of language is something that MarxistElf and I have touched upon recently. Language carries its own baggage (not wanting to tip the bellhop); but it is also shaped by the baggage that the Languageuser carries with them. It both shapes and is shaped. Like plasticine, again. Actually, if I’m going to run with the whole mind-blowing thing, I’d say that it both shapes and is shaped. Like plastic explosives.

For us as teachers, what does it mean? I’m not sure if it means anything other than a rather trite language is individual. In other words, when student A opens their mouth and unleashes a torrent of Klingon, somewhere within it should reside thought and meaning. It is a comment upon the educational system that this is not always the case.

I have students who churn out essays that will help them “pass the IELTS” but which are entirely devoid of thought or meaning. They are an assembly of cliches that finally manage to say, “I guess there are different opinions about this; I choose the least contentious one.”

Sure. It helps them get their IELTS result (does it?), but might it not have other less palatable effects? It would seem to me that the teaching that gives rise to such learning is not at all tao-based; Lao would say that it is an abhorrent, unnatural act. And I would agree with him. I try to encourage my students to invest some of themselves in their writing. I plead with them to tell me what they really think and to hang the consequences. I do this in the belief that if you try to convey exactly what you think and mean, then you are going to be a damned sight more applied than if you are just sticking phrases together and you will be literally gagging for feedback once you’ve handed it in.

However, reality proves that it is very difficult to stray from the more trodden path of just vomitting out lexical zombies ( © David Crystal???) and I end up with coins that have two sides and topics that are very hot and other such nonsense. Mere husks of meaning and thought.

How much more attractive is the road less travelled. And with that rather cliched ending, I give you Robert Frost, ladies and gentlemen. For those of you who are loathe to watch 20+ minutes of You Tube, stick with it. The professor’s point is rather taoist: he encourages us to see what is actaully written, not what many people assume to be true. Frost, revealed to be a US version of Philip Larkin, aby writing about how the human condition is to draw curtains over reality and believe in myths, is also in harmony with our own Mr Tzu, and we welcome his contribution to the discussion.

Categories: Commentaries on TTC
  1. marxistelf
    April 15, 2010 at 13:04

    Hi there,
    Fantastic video on Robert Frost’s poetry. Challenged my own prejudices and will now look at Frost’s poetry again. It also helped cement some general ideas on how we make sense of our “teaching careers” in ELT. Hopefully, will develop it in a post soon. So thanks very much for that, absolutely priceless.
    Caught up with some challenging issues (certain personality) over at MTG at present but looking forward to continuing this rich and lively discussion (this time over here)on the nature of language.

  2. marxistelf
    April 18, 2010 at 12:59

    Finally, time for a fireside chat!!

    As always, I thoroughly enjoyed your ideas and the individual manner in which you express them. But rather than agree with you, which would be boring, I will set out a critique (largely, if not entirely, stolen from a little know academic Nate Hawthorne http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com/2009/10/19/am-i-gonna-say/ ).
    Hawthorne wanted to critique the idea of “a common” which he describes as:

    “On the one hand, the common refers to the earth and all of its ecosystems, including the atmosphere, the oceans and rivers, and the forests, as well as all the forms of life that interact with them. The common, on the other hand, also refers to the products of human labor and creativity that we share, such as ideas, knowledges, images, codes, affects, social relationships, and the like.” Hardt also calls these “the ecological common and the social and economic common or the natural and the artificial common,” though he stresses that he thinks there are important limits to the dichotomies of ecology vs. society or natural vs. artificial.

    What is immediately apparent to me in these quotes is that they apply to all human societies as such. All human societies have involved ways of interacting with the earth, and all have involved labors which produced ideas, emotions, and relationships, as well as maintaining and producing new biological life. That is, “the common” here means on the one hand “human existence in a relationship to the natural world” and on the other “human sociality.”

    In my reading outside ELT, I am increasingly seeing reference to the notion of language as “the common” and see a shared concept here with your notion “language shapes and defines EVERYTHING, but is, in turn, shaped and defined by everything.”
    Indeed, as soon as I saw this quote Cavell in Hawthorne’s piece, I thought of your “plastic explosives”:

    ““We learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts. Nothing insures that this projection will take place (in particular, not the grasping of universals, nor the grasping of books of rules), just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections. That on the whole we do is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, senses of humour and of significance and of fulfilment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation – all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life.’ Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) TERRIFYING.” (Stanley Cavell, “The Availabilty of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy”, in _Must We Mean What We Say?_, p52)”

    The problem is to what extent does this ahistorical/non-concrete view of language and the classroom helps us to understand the present/past and futures? Again, Hawthorne is on hand with Hegel’s cheap remarks about cows that pass in the night:

    “To be polemical, Hardt and others make a mistake mocked by Hegel in his Phenomenology, then make another mistake. Hegel wrote that some people had an idea of “Absolute as the night in which, as we say, all cows are black,” something Hegel called “the very naïveté of emptiness of knowledge.” (http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ph/phprefac.htm#m016.) I claim that “the common” is likewise a sort of “night in which all cows are black,” in that the category tells us nothing specific about anything. What’s more, I argue that adherents of the concept make a mistake akin to looking at some cows in the dark and saying “these cows have a unique quality! when looked at in the night time, they look black!”

    The idea of Fire

    For me language is like fire. It exists out there, a particular combination (potential combination) of matter. When Homo Erectus (I think that’s because they stood on two feet!!) took to controlling fire, fire actually took to controlling him/her. Once fire could be controlled it had to be maintained- whole social rituals formed to sustain it. Indeed, were a group to desert one society for another they took “the baggage” of fire with them. What’s more, the ability to cook meat made proteins far more easily available providing the opportunity to hunt more meat. Indeed the effect of fire can be seen in smaller teeth and larger brains, the eventual transformation from “one species” into another. Indeed, I believe apes use only 9% of their energy in brain activity whilst Human Beings use up to 27% (I can’t understand why I’m so overweight!!).

    The point is that an open fire has little direct meaning to us today, other than a romantic get away in the mountains, whilst the reality is that it once formed the very cornerstone of our sociability. A “warm person”, is after all a person keen to share our fire and a “cold person” vice versa.
    Language is even more so an extreme form of this duality. Not only is that which enables us to express or thoughts, it is the very thing which gives shape to them in the first place. Like you I share this wonderment. Like you I am equally carried away with the breeze of an idea. I recently read that elderly signers (deaf people reliant on sign language) sit there muttering to themselves with their fingers. Is that not so Vygotskian? The internalisation/creation of language by means of a dynamic organism reaching outwards.
    The difference would be that as a Marxist I want to understand that when you express yourself thus:

    “For us as teachers, what does it mean? I’m not sure if it means anything other than a rather trite language is individual. In other words, when student A opens their mouth and unleashes a torrent of Klingon, somewhere within it should reside thought and meaning.”

    I, however, want to interrogate the word individual (even Klingon!) and how it has changed historically (as Raymond Williams did) to ponder on what we’re all doing in the room in the first place.

    Maybe there is some cross over with the London Group and their talk of multi-literacies in the modern world:


    Maybe we are both interested, you and I, in how meaning in all it forms (sound/visual/tactile/smell) is constructed to convey meaning. I certainly know that whilst I and others at MTG may criticise you (and Dogme) for failing to place language learning in its wider social context, you certainly appear to know how to nurture a fire, to pay attention to its magic, its needs, the social relationships which form around it. For those of us wishing to change the world, we need to learn and share the same skills.

    Thank you for continuing to make me think that litle bit harder.

  3. April 20, 2010 at 10:02

    “…once upon a time in a country whose name I do not want to remember” he he he…I wonder what country that would be…

    Lots to chew on here. Before I get lost in nostalgic reverie about my days as a Humanities students at an American university, blackboards and glasses and short-sleeve button-up shirts and black ties and the Transcendentalists and all, and before I start reflecting on where I might have ended up had I not taken the path which had led me to post longwinded comments on language blogs here on a Tuesday morning in Barcelona, I should instead make some random comments on this lovely post, some of which actually have something to do with language teaching.

    A) “Language was there before Heaven and Earth? CHECK!” Isn’t this a little bit more Genesis than Tao Te Ching? In the beginning was the Word, etc., etc.? Personally, I’ve always been more attracted to William S. Burroughs’ claim that Language is a virus from outer space, but that’s just me, probably.

    B) Your gentle rebukes of both “Grammar checks” and “lexical zombies” remind me of something I read recently, on Mr. Thornbury’s blog if I recall, this old debate in which one side says:

    “well, everything we think we know about language leads us to believe that language is grammaticalized lexis and not the other way around, so we must teach language chunks, conventionalized lexical items above all else, and chuck the ‘mcnuggety grammar syllabus’ out the window.” (The Lexical Approach and all that.)

    And then the other side (personified in this case by Mr. Harmer that says, “Perhaps, but if we just teach conventionalized lexical items then we just have students spouting off what we think they should want to say, which in the end leads us to all the cliché ‘hot topics’ and ‘two sides of every coin’, etc. If we equip them with enough grammar, they will be able to work out what they want to say for themselves.” (The slot and chain thing, I guess.)

    Interesting then, going back to Frost, that this most famous of closing lines, has through repetition upon countless repetition become so conventionalized to the point that it’s lost its meaning, or the meaning has become twisted. Popular culture has this habit, to the point of mangling the phrase (“Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well” as opposed to the actual “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio.”) or just inventing it as it sees fit (“Play it again, Sam”).

    So maybe students should be given access to this huge storehouse of clichés, proverbs, etc. A task in and of itself, yes I know. But in order to play around with the language, and thereby participate in the culture actively in a way, they’ll need to know how to play around, what can be changed how, where to squeeze in the qualifying adverbs, whether they can omit the relative pronoun, etc., etc. Another task, worth teaching.

    In closing, let me trot out a couple lexical zombies, with some changes of my own:

    Reciba un cordial saludo,
    desde un pais de cuyo nombre no quiere Ud. acordarse,

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