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.
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.
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.
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.