The traditional number of times citizens of Ancient Rome hit their slaves when beating them, referred to as “Forty save one”
Lao Tsu would have been pretty crap at playing Family Fortunes. Imagine the scene: cheeky TV host, Les Dennis, is beaming at the camera. “Right,” he says, “Our survey asked 100 people to name something that they thought was whole. Now then, what could people have thought was whole? Courtney Love, perhaps?”
Lao would have replied with the following guesses in this order: the sky, the earth the spirit, the valley, everything else. Mr Babbage would have gone into meltdown. There would have been what the English like to refer to as a right palaver. Grumpy old sods around the country would have returned their TV licences to the Post Office, only to be reminded that Family Fortunes is an ITV programme. Lao would have been thrashed, much like my beloved Liverpool Football Club this season. And Lao is not too dissimilar from Roy Hodgson when he concludes, “Too much success is not an advantage.” Of course, Lao could get away with it; Roy would probably find himself impaled upon the Shankly Gates.
Lao tells us here that it is our wholeness that makes us what we are. When we start taking bits away, the whole thing comes crashing down upon our heads. Now look at what your coursebook does to the language…and put a hard hat on. Or have a shufty at what teacher training is, then stand well back. The way of the world in which we live is not The Way of the world. Our way is all about isolating key features and learning from them or leaning on them for inspiration. Lao’s way is about taking several steps back and looking at something in its entirety. The learner who is good at reading, maybe terrible at listening…but that’s not the whole thing. These are just component parts that you may think tell you something, but which fail to miss the whole. Seeing the whole person is a very, very difficult thing to do. So difficult that I wonder if anybody other than Doctor Who and Lao Tsu have ever managed it.
Lao concerned himself, as did many of his contemporaries, with analysing the power structures of the society in which he lived. In this verse he concludes that to get ahead, you need to place yourself at the bottom of the pile: in the same way that roots underlie the biggest tree or the foundations of a house are buried underneath it. We need humility when we are going about our lives. The teacher cannot set herself above the students, nor above the natural processes that gave shape to our languages. The teacher must listen to the students more than the students should listen to the teacher and the language that they use is the language that is. The challenge is to help the students find a way towards motivating themselves to feel the same way about you and the language that you use!
“Jade is praised as precious,/But its strength is being stone.” Indeedy. In our world, the way is to see deeper value in pretty base things: gold, diamonds, sturgeon roe, tobacco, potatoes. We’ve lost the ability to see what they really are and they’ve become fetishes that contain much more signifcance to our lives (roe and spuds possibly excepted) . Similarly English is seen as a passport to success and prosperity when all it is is a collection of sounds, words, structures and patterns that can be used to encode meaning. Like any other language. And the baser view of English is also its strength. If it is just another language, it is within everybody’s reach. Students can probably not be told this enough. As they set themselves the impossible goal of Speaking this Magic Language, they see themselves as inferior beings who Speak English [blessed be its name] Badly. I wouldn’t mind betting that 9 times out of 10, they’ve been taught badly by people who peddle the lie that god farts in English.
Do not tinkle like jade
Or clatter like stone chimes.
Just shut up and sit back. It’s going to be a long journey.