49 – the year that Caesar crossed the Rubicon
It’s 0:56 (7 minutes earlier and there would have been more serendipity about than even I could handle). The alarm clock is set for 05:21, but I can’t sleep. I’m just seeing off a virus that has laid me low for a couple of days and restricted my movement to stretching for the remote or finally collapsing into bed. My body clock has stopped. Not only do I have to be up at an ungodly hour tomorrow, but I’m also teaching from 16.15-18.15 (I have no idea where my love of the 24 hour clock started; I just know is that it happened after I became a manager). All in all, tomorrow is shaping up to be a pretty shitty day. And within this context, I turn to old Lao to see if he can assuage my dread and beckon sleep more forcefully than I could manage as I lay upstairs trying to will myself into nocturnal oblivion.
Verse 49 is headed “Trust and Power” in Leguin’s translation. It is a picture portrait of the wise. Unfortunately, as Lao Tzu is the pen wielder, it is a picture portrait that looks as if it was done by the Earl of Gloucester after the Duke of Cornwall rips his eyes out. [For concerned readers, this is not the latest instalment of the current fad of regime change, but a reference to a scene from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Regrettably, here in the UK, we appear to remain loyal to the unelected tyrant who has ruled over us for almost sixty years].Feng and English’s translation speaks directly to all language teachers – hell, to all teachers. They write, “The sage has no mind of his [sic] own.
He [more sic] is aware of the need of others.” Now, I could rattle on for a couple of paragraphs of how this must speak to teachers blah de blah de blah.. Need to put personal beliefs to one side blah need to deliver what the students need blah blah blah crappity blah. But, to be honest, I don’t know that I believe in this. I do have a mind of my own and I don’t necessarily subscribe to the view that a teacher is not allowed to reveal themself as a human to their students. But what about an abuse of authority?!?! squeal my erstwhile detractors. On whose part? I wonder, sagely.
Let’s see what my anarcho friend does with the opening part of this verse…Ah…that’s better: The wise have no mind of their own/ finding it in the minds of ordinary people. No nonsense about having to be aware of the needs of other people. After all, if none of us had any needs other than the needs of other people who, in turn, were only interested in the needs of other people who, in turn, were only interested in the needs of other people, we’d all be running round like blue arsed flies trying to find the prima causa. But here we have a slight modification.
Here we can find our mind – fractured in the minds of ordinary people. We are there in everything that people think. Our thoughts don’t differ from those who we see around us. The wise and the ordinary think the same things. There is no intellectuality that raises the wise above the ordinary. The teacher can learn from the learners. The students can teach the teachers. OK…in this world, such an idea is no longer radical. But what might be radical (still) is the idea that the wise (which I am choosing to interpret as the teacher) does not need to have a mind of his/her own; all that they need is the minds of ordinary people. I don’t think I need to stretch the elastic too much to see shadows of dogme dreams in there, marking their territory.If “having a mind of their own” equates to “having planned the lesson out prior to teaching it”, then we can read that, “The teacher does not need to plan a lesson before they teach it; it is enough to use the outpourings of the students in the room.” And these are just the opening lines…
Fear not though, for the middle chunk just tells us that wise people are good to all – whether or not all are good to them. Why? Because virtue can be found in goodness? Maybe. That’s what Feng and English would tell you. But Leguin suggests that the real reason is because there is “Power [in] Goodness.” Similarly, trust everyone whether they deserve it or not because there is “Power [in] Trust.” So, is it power or virtue? Well, in my humbling opinion, taoists are more interested in hooking into power than they are into virtue. They are looking for the power that drives us all ever onwards – the power they call tao. And tao can be found when people are able to practise trust and goodness equally and universally. But are there not some people who do not deserve to be trusted? Yes. And you can trust them to continue not to be worthy of trust. If somebody doth smite me and envy my ass, should I just turn the other cheek? Well, you could do that or you can give them what you think would be good for them. But I’m a teacher – what does this mean to me? It means that you will get further as a teacher if you are able to put aside whatever’s in your head and look into the heads of those in the room with you. If you identify what they consider to be good and what they consider to be trust, and are then able to act accordingly, you will have power over them and they will be like putty in your hands. To paraphrase Matthew 7: 12, Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. Christians appear to be less verbose than taoists…but then again, they get the message all wrong!
And so we reach the end of verse 49. Up until now, I have disregarded the efforts of Feng and English and favoured the words of Le Guin. I’m not going to change now.
[Wise people] mingle their life with the world;/ they mix their mind up with the world./Ordinary people look after them. /Wise souls are children.” In short, don’t get too bogged down by the ponderings and scratchings in ELT Today or Applied Linguine; the truth to all the questions that you may have is there to be uncovered in the classroom. You need to adopt the mindset of a child again [don’t worry…my blood also almost froze when I saw the apparent attempt to use the image of children as fresh-faced little bundles of wisdom. But I don’t think that this is what Lao-T is getting at.] Children are bloody irritating when they start off on one of their long questioning routines before the coffee has even reached an imbibing temperature. “What are you doing? Why do we sleep? Who invented the alphabet? Why do we have money? What’s that? Why are Cheerios not triangular? What’s a prime number? Do you say “z” or “zee”? How did Pan die? What’s the difference between the Greek gods and the Roman ones? Why didn’t you tell me more about the slave revolt when I was doing Roman history at the start of year 4?” Thank the lord for the application of John Logie Baird and his friend Booboo [I realise that this means that I have now taken a stand on who actually invented TV. I can only say that I don’t really care.] But children, for we are talking about them, are wise inasmuch as they know that they know Chagall [a pun] and not only that; they are wise too because they can’t be arsed to actually make any effort to retain the answers. So, they ask loads of questions, barely listen to the answers and quietly and steadily become huge repositories of knowledge. Months later they will say, “You know when you said that Pan was murdered by someone shoving his pipes down his throat? Did it hurt him?” It turns out that they were listening all the time – unbeknownst even to them. So too, teachers should walk into classrooms armed with a battery of questions to which they desire to hear the answers. And from the soup of noise, we hope to dredge up some croutons of knowledge.
And the beautiful thing about the Tao Te Ching is that it is full of reminders that teachers are students are teachers which means that everything that I have just said that applies to teachers of foreign languages also applies to students of foreign languages. Try to find out what is happening in other people’s heads and try to give them what they want. Be prepared to ask huge amounts of questions in every class and never go in with a preconception of what should be happening. The learning will come from what actually happens – almost certainly not from what you think should happen. It’s 02:08 now. I really should try and get some sleep. G’night.