41- Number of times that Macartney tells us to “Let It Be”
I’d written the bulk of this post before I got sidelined by launching ad hominems (forgive my ignorance of Latin plurals) at people who sounded like characters from an adult version of The Addams Family and engaging with Karenne’s inspired challenge. When I came back to it, it had gone…either because of karma or because Mr Felch knows magic. And I was so pleased that I’d managed to squeeze in a pun along the lines of “Read on Macduff” along with a picture of Duffman. On the subject of puns, Gerry Adams writes about how he ended up stood next to his nemesis at the urinals in Stormont Castle when they were beating out the terms and conditions for what became known as the Good Friday Agreement. After micturating for a while, he felt that he could no longer resist, so he turns to his unionist counterpart and says, “So David, I guess that this is the piss process.” He records how Trimble shook, put everything away and told him to “grow up” before slinking out of the Gents. I hope he washed his hands.
As we embark on our exploration of the forty-first verse/chapter/part of the TTC, we will be passing the half way point. Please do not take pictures. We will be told that
The wise student hears of the Tao and practices it diligently.
The average student hears of the Tao and gives it thought now and again.
The foolish student hears of the Tao and laughs aloud.
If there were no laughter, the Tao would not be what it is.
What are you: wise, average or foolish? More to the point, what might LT be advising us to be? Is the Tao something that can be practised diligently? After all, we were told to put away our schoolbags earlier on. Might the clue be in the word “practised”? If so, it has greater poignancy for us as language teachers. To me, it seems that the wise student is a bit too eager. This is the sort of student who intellectualises everything and strips away its nature. The Tao becomes a process of steps that must be mastered. Language becomes a set of activities and sub-activities that need to be perfected.
The average student, on the other hand, goes about her life quite carefree. Every now and then, she is reminded that there are rules and ways and means. She ponders them then goes back about her life. She leads, to the horror of So-Crates, an unexamin’d life. As a teacher, she does what she does and doesn’t really bother to develop too much of a personal pedagogy. She probably puts a great deal of faith in the paraphernalia of her profession and doesn’t feel the need to explore them too critically.
The foolish student laughs at the Great Wonder that is the Tao – but in so doing, supplies the missing element that makes the Tao what it is. And there is a lot to be said for the fool. The fool is someone who can see through the serious facade of life and realises that it is no more than bluster, smoke and mirrors. In teaching, the fool might be the one who recognises that there is more – or less- to teaching a language than our training courses, our course books and our development books might suggest. The fool takes the word communicative and reflects how it has become so overused that it no longer communicates anything. The fool questions all of the pillars of the profession. Schools, coursebooks, students, teachers, classrooms, the subject itself. In the most complimentary sense possible, it is possible to look at the dogme collective as a court of fools. And one of the primary roles of the fools is to act as a catalyst. Where the wise are locked away in a room theorising and the average are not doing very much to have an impact, the fools are the do-ers. They are the ones who take the theories of the wise and put them into practice before pointing out the inadequacies of the new ideas. They may modify the idea themselves or they may simply throw the ideas back at the wise. In either way, they highlight the need for change. And in so doing they are essential to the dynamic of teaching, of tao.
The rest of this verse of the Tao Te Ching is full of oxymoronic aphorisms such as, “The bright path seems dim,” or “Real virtue seems unreal,” or “The easy way seems hard.” It’s enough to put anyone off. Put simply, Lao is telling us that the best way often runs counter to the established way. The established way is often shaped by institutional contraints or financial constraints. Whoever thought that 60 students in a class would be beneficial to learning? Ah, but it saves employing a few more teachers. Who said that giving students an hour or two a week of English will help them? Ah, but you’ve got to get the important subjects in first. When we live in this kind of environment, these absurdities become normal and it is only the crazy people – the fools- who laugh at them and reject them. After all, this is the way it is done. But it is not the way it should be done; nor is it the way it has to be done.
The perfect square has no corners says Lao. Jesus! What does he mean? Simply put, something that Lao was apparently averse to, the perfect square has no corners because it has yet to be made. Great talents ripen late (always pleasing to a 40 year old blogger). Easy to understand, but perhaps of more relevancy when facing a class of adult beginners. The highest notes are hard to hear. But they exist, and they’re a lot easier to hear if you know how to turn yourself into a dog. The greatest form has no shape because it is sooooooo big, so universal, so great that you can only ever get a localised view of it. This is tao, then. This is teaching. It is always imperfect; it can always be better; just because it’s not obvious, it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. And although it might not look as if it’s working, remember – you’re far too close to have an accurate picture of what’s going on. How can you ever be sure? Because The Tao alone nourishes and brings everything to fulfillment: that is, if you let things run their course and don’t interfere too much, then nature will take care of it. This is not the same as saying just leave them to it. Remember, the most natural thing to do when people are trying to do something is that someone – usually the more knowledgeable out of the group – will emerge as a leader and will direct the endeavour. On occasion in the language classroom, this knowledgeable other will be you.