Home > Commentaries on TTC > 37 – The number of as-of-yet unidentified radio signals that have been received from outer space

37 – The number of as-of-yet unidentified radio signals that have been received from outer space

Cool Hand Luke's prison number

Selling points of Tao? Well, you don’t have to do anything and yet somehow everything gets done. Or put more poetically, “Tao abides in non-action,/Yet nothing is left undone.” Lao goes on “If kings and lords [and presumably teachers] observed this,/The ten thousand things would develop naturally.”


Chapter 37 reminds us that in the Big Scheme of Things, we don’t amount to an awful lot. Were the Lurgy to return and annihilate the species, Planet Earth would most probably start to feel a lot better. We would not be missed. Now I am sure that there is nobody reading this from whom this will come as a revelation. If there is, my apologies. I take solace from the fact that you were probably sitting when you got the news.

What will it be for tea tonight? Will it be burgers, made out of kids? We ho-ope it's chips, it's chips...

The idea of tao is that it pervades everything in life. As I’ve mentioned before, there are Taos of this and Taos of that. So, in the tao of teaching what could Lao mean when he advises teachers to leave well alone and stop messin’ abaaaaahhhht? As far as I’m concerned, it means what it says. There are many teachers in the world who hold themselves in a very high regard and see themselves almost as saints for the hard work that they do for such little pay in the pursuit of such noble aims. Wait! Such noble aims as what? Generally, such noble aims as cramming a national curriculum into the innocent brains of their charges. By smashing any degree of individuality and enforcing consent. By wielding power and authority with the intent of coercing young children to do things that run counter to their nature. Not such a bleedin’ noble profession now, is it, eh?

Actually, I am being facetiously provocative. Or trying to be, anyway. But the point is that teachers tend to meddle in the natural ways because they think that their meddling is, in some ways, better than the force that created the planet and all that is on it. In a taoist classroom, there’s a lot less meddling. Teachers sit back and observe. They participate as equals and, as is the case for all participants, they may take the role of authoritative source if called upon to do so. Within this crucible, upon this petridish, the learning bacteria flourish.

But let’s put the argument to the test in a different field: if scientists had stopped meddling and prodding and mixing, would be have the medicines of today? Would I now be sat in a cave, thumping a rock? It’s a valid question and I am going to have to hide from it. Perhaps a Wandering Taoist will stop by and explain how Wu Wei (action through non action) would be applied if somebody needed a blood transfusion. I’m not that smart. What I would draw attention to is Lao’s second part: “if kings and lords…”. He’s clearly talking about the authorities here. And the teacher tends to be the authority in the classroom, so we will assume that Lao is telling us to lead from the back – put power and authority in the hands of everybody in the classroom. And I think that I, arrogant old me, would presume enough to add “To the extent that you are able, you should seek to share your power and authoirty in the classroom with the students.” It is not enough to say, “I am not able…” and do nothing. You should still seek to do it – by chivvying away at the authoirities above you to give you more autonomy in your classroom to enable you to respond to the needs of the learners.

And perhaps we come back to our industrious scientists who work quasi-independently in their laboratories. Sure, they are employed by universities, funded by multinationals, dependent on external sources of finance, but very often they are the rulers of their own workbench. And things get done. So the Wu Wei happens a level above them – they are not micromanaged, but they still do the work.

Perhaps this shows us that Lao Tsu had a very positive regard for humanity (although any taoist would suggest that he had no regard for humanity at all as he knew it was all an illusion). Lao is saying (or at least, I am hearing) that left alone, people will get on with it; learning happens naturally because we are inquisitive beings who are constantly striving to better ourselves. And I think this applies to everybody. Yea, even the most feckless student in class.

This is also a damning indictment of the education system which churns out so many disaffected youths on an annual basis. We are pre-programmed to

"For homework, do Page 56 of Murphy, the hypothetical tenses." "Sir, you don't LOOK very Palestinian. Are you from Europe?"

learn; we are pre-programmed to enquire. It would seem that our schooling system -the meddling system- actually produces a large number of “failures”. Of course, it would not be right to blame the schools alone; they are operating within a social context that includes many other contributing factors. But they don’t help. And yet many teachers continue to view themselves and their professions as Blessed: “We give so freely of our time and our life to help the little ones become all that they can be.”

But that’s what we get (under)paid for. To educate children (or adults). The fact that we allow it to spill freely over into our non-working lives is a sign of our failure and not one to trumpet about. And we are not the only people in our society who are underpaid (although I had a conversation about this on a picket line once. A passerby asked me how we could protest about being underpaid when we were on over £30K. It’s not an easy one to answer). On a Twitter thread recently, I have been advocating the dropping of all sense that teachers are Angels From Heaven. We are workers who do our job. If you’re working too many extra hours for no pay, what kind of example are you setting to your students, to your family, to your co-workers? Don’t feel all holy, dammit, feel ashamed!

But we shape children’s lives!” weeps a plaintive whining bee. Oh, don’t be so disgusting! Get over yourself. If we shape children’s lives, it is more than likely going to be in accordance with the manual, as set out in whatever national curriculum that whichever government has deemed appropriate for the production of the next generation of wage slaves. I’ll tell you who should shape children’s lives:…wait for it….wait for it…wait for it…CHILDREN, that’s who should bloody well shape children’s lives.

We don’t hear prison warders banging on about how they shape prisoners’ lives and help them be all they can be. And the comparison is not too far off the

Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work we go...

mark. Screws, as they are affectionately known to their charges, lovingly lock the prisoners away from all temptation (well, nearly all). They then set about their minds by allowing them to take part in a humdrum routine that slowly inculcates the values of passivity, subservience, hierarchy etc and, on rare occasions, a prisoner leaves their cell behind and takes part in the society in just the same way as somebody who didn’t need to go to prison to learn how to behave. Why didn’t that person need to go to prison to learn how to behave? Because they’d already learnt how to behave when they were in the school.

Of course, today’s real challenge is to read through this post and to determine the point at which my extra strong, extra large cup of caffeine kicked in. It should be pretty apparent. How do you feel about being portrayed as a bunch of whining, self-centred bullies who sap the individuality from innocent young children? Be sure to write and tell me…But reast assured, I don’t really think it’s you.

Categories: Commentaries on TTC
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