On Narrative

In several of these blogs (Education Matters, On Storytelling and others) I have made reference to the importance of meta-narratives as the over-arching stories that enable us to make sense of our lives as well as the past, the present and the future. Early meta-narratives were mythological, religious or philosophical; later meta-narratives were scientific or ideological; very recent meta-narratives have been political and economic, some even psychological or sociological.

The structure of narrative-theory can usefully be broken down into four components: meta-narratives; narratives; formulations; slogans. Each has a role to play in helping us to make sense of things, but not all are equally accessible or easily understood.

Meta-narratives are the narratives that strive to be all-encompassing, to provide a framework within whose narrative structure everything can be spoken of, explained and understood.

Religions probably provide the best examples of meta-narratives, but there is no reason why a meta-narrative need be religious, and the best of them, at least as judged by contemporary lights, are not.

Narratives are stories that can sit within the framework of many meta-narratives because they do not provide ultimate closure: what the story means must always be found by reference to some other, more extensive and comprehensive framework.

The same narrative can therefore co-exist within many meta-narratives, and will assume different characteristics as interpreted by each of them. An example would be, say, the life of Jesus: on its own terms, it is just a story; understood within the meta-narrative of Christianity, it assumes cosmic significance; understood from within the meta-narrative of humanism, it is no more than the life of a perhaps good, perhaps deluded man; and so on.

Narratives must not be confused with meta-narratives, and can be distinguished from them with reference to their closure or lack of it. Meta-narratives ambitiously expect to provide answers to all questions; they cannot refer beyond themselves in order to answer them.

A mission statement defines the purpose of a movement or institution, but typically it leaves elements of the purposes it serves open. For example, the UWC mission statement runs “UWC aims to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future”, but this has a narrative structure because it does not say either why we should believe in peace and sustainability, or what we are to do with either. As a statement of objectives, it is fine, and many would endorse it, but inasmuch as it makes no attempt to say what role those objectives are to play in some greater good or purpose, it cannot qualify as a meta-narrative and so cannot provide an ultimate explanation of itself.

Of course, there will be immediate objections to any suggestion that anyone, especially an educational movement, should make any attempt to dictate what people are to do with their lives, so people will see this open-endedness as a positive thing. And that is fine as far as it goes, but not if it involves confusing the narrative with meta-narrative and treating as something complete in itself something that is not and cannot be.

In fact, to press the point further, whenever a narrative is mistaken for or, worse, masquerades as, a meta-narrative, we should expect to find unintentional or deliberate deception. A narrative cannot provide us with an explanation of why we should take it seriously unless it is incorporated within a meta-narrative structure. (We will turn to the question of how we choose between meta-narrative structures separately.)

Meta-narratives always, and narratives often require extensive studying and listening; understanding either demands considerable brain-power. For this reason, we often find that it is advantageous to convert both into a more readily-accessible form, and typically those forms are symbolic or, when they take a verbal form, formulaic. Religious ritual almost always includes both symbolic and formulaic elements which attempt to summarise in visual, auditory or ceremonial ways the complex, extensive forms of their narratives and associated meta-narratives. Another way we can use such abbreviation is through slogans and quotations.

Quotations and scripted formulations, whether long or short, provide accessible, abbreviated versions, of narratives.

At the shortest end of the narrative structure, however, there are slogans: very brief verbal expressions that somehow seek to summarise the entire narrative and, often, its meta-narrative umbrella. “Jesus is Lord” would be an example from Christianity. “Make love, not war” is an example from nineteen-seventies culture. “Take Back Control” recently won, or at least helped to win, the Brexit vote. The lower the level of education of the intended audience, and the less patience it has with complexity and subtlety, the shorter the slogan needs to be; and the shorter it is, the more successful it is likely to be at galvanising the resolve of its devotees. “Make America Great Again” did it for Donald Trump. Newspapers know this: the less respect they have for the intelligence of their readers, and the more visceral the response they hope to generate from them, the larger they make the headlines on their front pages, and the more simplistic they make the opinions they contain. “Enemies of the People” (The Daily Mail, November 4th, 2016) is one of the more spectacular recent examples of such journalistic crassness.

Slogans attempt to sum up everything about a narrative or a meta-narrative in a few words.

So slogans can be more or less successful and appropriate, their message more or less fair and reasonable, and their impact correspondingly positive or negative. Regrettably, slogans and sound-bites seem to be used more effectively by those who want to distort debates than by those who want to promote genuine open discussion. “Take Back Control” may have been a reasonable attempt to summarise a complex position, but “Enemies of the People” is scurrilous.

It is probably self-evident that the movement from slogan through quotation and narrative to meta-narrative involves an increase in complexity and scope. And it is important to remember that all of us, whatever our level of education, find conceptual overload stressful. When we are faced with a range of choices or arguments or decisions or subtleties that immobilise us through indecision or because we struggle to understand them, we experience anxiety. The least intellectually agile experience this at lower levels than others, but at whatever level of sophistication it arises, our typical response is to try to make the anxiety go away. One way to do this is to reduce the levels of complexity we are ready to accommodate or admit, or to settle for simple solutions to complex questions that render the analysis unnecessary: “Make America Great Again” coupled with “I have no job but that immigrant down the road has” is good enough, under those circumstances. Sophisticated arguments about the collective wealth of a nation and its longer-term dependence in migration and shared ideas are completely lost on such an audience unless and until they can be distilled down to an equivalently simply slogan. “Stronger Together” is not it; that is a claim, not an objective.

So we need to be more realistic about the range of human ability or willingness to tackle difficult arguments when it comes to political strategy. Because all of us have limits, those who understand them need to find ways to express any arguments or issues, however complex, in ways that are faithful to the argument yet accessible to those who could not otherwise understand them, and would not otherwise have the patience to listen to or consider them, and will instead snatch hungrily at every trite and visceral slogan fed to them. And of course this need arises for everyone. And, of course, the process of making something “you” understand available and accessible to someone else who does not yet understand has a name: it is called “teaching”.

Acknowledging that there are different levels of capacity or willingness to engage with difficult arguments is likely to be thought offensive or élitist, but the point here is the opposite of both. If we do not present complex ideas in ways that match the abilities of those we wish to involve in their debate; if, in other words, we only discuss important issues in the language of universities and complex  academic argument, then we systematically disenfranchise vast swathes of the human population for whom this never will be and never can be an effective or comprehensible mode of communication. While those who wish to promote the highest standards of democratic accountability and responsibility continue to do so, therefore, they render democracy unworkable and, worse than unworkable, dangerous. Because everyone’s vote counts equally, everyone needs to have as much access to clear arguments of quality and precision as can be achieved. It is not a matter of whether slogans and sound-bites are good or bad, but whether those who devise them are prepared to take sufficient trouble over them to make them appropriate to the arguments that are being debated and, ultimately, voted upon. Failure to produce good quotations and slogans, good sound-bites and articles, denies and disenfranchises those whose votes all count as much as any other’s but who need straightforward ways to get involved in the real debate if they are to grapple with the ideas that need to determine how they vote.

If democracy is to survive, those who shape policy have an absolute duty to find ways to express the complex issues that drive policy in language that everyone can understand.

In the Brexit debate and in the recent American presidential election, the losing sides failed abjectly to rise to this challenge, and perhaps did not even appreciate the need to do so. And it is also important to realise that, since the need for simplicity encourages the triumph of the simplistic, focusing huge issues in slogans rapidly extends to focusing huge issues on identifiable social minorities, and before we know where we are, those social minorities are the cause of everything that is wrong with the world.

Since the need for simplicity encourages the triumph of the simplistic, focusing huge issues in destructive slogans rapidly extends to focusing them on identifiable social minorities.

But before we depress ourselves too much, it is worth considering the beneficial use of the same technique. Slogans can be our way into a more elaborate and extensive debate, and the beginnings, therefore, of an educational process. I have often been in trouble for the fact that I like to use the word “rhetoric” to describe this process, but I am unrepentant. In rhetoric we grasp at something tentatively and fleetingly that might otherwise elude us altogether; we say or write something about something that flashes across our minds like a bird through the sky in words or drawings that are utterly imperfect, but which are better than losing the thought altogether. Some of the greatest ideas in human history have originally been grasped at, but not comprehended, by such a process.

Slogans, positively used, can exercise the same role in learning: they communicate something of enormous importance imperfectly and inadequately to those who, were they to be subjected to a more subtle and sophisticated version of the same argument, would refuse or fail to take it on board at all, let alone understand it.

Slogans are the seeds from which we grow understanding.

Pretty much all education works like this: we start with very simple versions of very complex things; we pretend, genuinely, affectionately and not mischievously or deceitfully, that what we are saying is true; and we rely on later years and other teachers to fill in the gaps, reshape the concepts and extend the scope when those who are learning are ready. For when we become an adult we “put away childish things” (1 Cor.13). Too much, too soon, destroys learning, as does too little, too late. Infants learn to count by counting bricks or apples; nobody worries them with negative numbers until they are old enough to deal with them because they can’t count negative apples; nobody bothers most of the human race with Gottlob Frege’s set-theoretic definition of a number in their entire lifetime. And yes, it is very important that what we tell the young isn’t completely wrong; but we should always be aware that it is just as big an error to try to tell those who cannot deal with it something that is completely right.

If we want democracy to work, we all have to start making a lot more effort to render the complex issues that affect the course of the world accessible to everyone who has a vote about what to do about them.

The only way to achieve this in the longer term is through education. And if we are right to read the Brexit and Trump results as a backlash by the forgotten people of the world against a political and economic system that favours a complacent and self-interested élite,  we should wake up to the fact that our current education system is similarly geared to serve the self-interests of that same élite. And reintroducing grammar schools will only serve to turn the screw of that neglect one notch further.

The problem – and it is a big problem – is that the sort of education that prepares populations for the kinds of democracy that optimise the benefits of membership of that society for all citizens, rather than just a privileged élite, cannot be based solely upon the measures of excellence that traditional education has espoused and promoted. And those measures are exactly those used to justify the segregation of children at age eleven for purposes of grammar and secondary-modern schooling. Education really does need to follow the central tenet of Karl Marx: to each according to his needs, and from each according to his ability.

It isn’t possible to educate everyone to the same level, but it is possible to educate everyone to the limits of their ability, and we should not settle for an education system that aims for anything less. It isn’t the case that anyone can do anything; it is the case that everyone can do something, and so neither should we settle for an education system that labels some children as gifted and talented and others as not: all children are gifted and talented; it is “just” a matter of deciding in which respects.

The narrative structure outlined here that moves from simple slogans through longer formulations and then through narratives to meta-narratives defines the path of all learning, and it is one of the characteristics of good teaching and a strong educational system that they pace the transition of each student through these phases appropriately at every age and stage of learning. And if this morphing from a discussion of narrative structure to the practice of education seems a little unexpected, it is because we do not generally recognise that the extent of our education is very largely measurable by the extent to which we can master and command appropriate narrative.

The Shrink Cycle

Elsewhere I have written at length about The Stretch Cycle, a description of how positive learning can arise from a cycle of exploration, experience and reflection. I have also written about how we approach and deal with failure. This short piece is an attempt to combine the two to show how, particularly in the context of education, deficiencies in our teaching-model and especially the model we have of the coached relationship between teacher and pupil/student can turn the virtuous stretch cycle into a vicious shrink cycle. The Stretch Cycle does not become destructive because it introduces us to failure; it becomes destructive because of our inability to deal with failure.

The Stretch Cycle does not become destructive because it introduces us to failure; it becomes destructive because of our inability to deal with failure.

It is more or less inevitable that when we set out on some new venture fired with enthusiasm we will sometimes encounter difficulties that bring about disappointment and even failure. The project may appear to founder through no fault of our own; it may founder because we make a mistake or are ill-equipped for the task; it may fail for many reasons. But what do we do when we fail, irrespective of the cause? We probably cannot undo the failure or eliminate the disappointment, but we always have a choice about how we respond. Sometimes we make bad choices and fall victim to Double Jeopardy by beating ourselves up about the failure; sometimes we lash out at those we deem responsible, including ourselves; sometimes we retreat into a sulky silence, withdrawing from the world and further involvement with similar projects as if that somehow punishes those or the circumstances that have caused the problem: “I’ll show them; you’ll miss me when I’m gone!”

None of this is very helpful, and the principal loser is usually ourselves. But how do we deal with it more constructively? One of the first things we have to do is to come to terms with the nature of anger: what is it? If we have never sorted this out, the perpetual danger is that it becomes the energy behind the assault on the one victim we can always locate with unerring accuracy: ourselves. And anger is about energy, especially frustrated energy: I want this but something is preventing me from having it; I want to do this but something is preventing me from doing it. The enthusiasm that launches a project and takes us from our comfort zone into a realm of exploration and experience that may be successful and may not often encompasses and channels huge amounts of energy; when we are frustrated, that energy has to go somewhere, and we will aim it at any available target, calling upon our worst social prejudices sometimes to select them. in extreme circumstances, anger vents itself upon racial and religious minorities, the police, the state as personified in the government, and even, as we have seen all-too-clearly over the past 48 hours, on the law and the judiciary.

Somehow we need to discover ways to deal with setbacks and failure that avoid creating a vicious negative cycle of disappointment that leads through disillusionment to a state lower in comfort than the one we started from. This then becomes The Shrink Cycle.


This cycle need not be as dramatic as those that lead to civil unrest or abuse of self. Like The Stretch Cycle, it is present potentially in all our learning, and wherever there is the possibility of stretch there is also the possibility of shrinkage. For example, a teacher may ask a student a question. The student can give a correct or incorrect answer, a partly-correct answer, or no answer at all. How does the teach deal with each of these outcomes? All-too-often a wrong answer is greeted with disapproval, even disdain, and what could have been an affirming, stretching experience becomes a destructive, shrinking experience. If work is too hard or teachers are insufficiently aware of the down-sides to getting things wrong, the posing of questions and the setting of homework can be destructive. We need, instead, to see a mistaken answer or an only-partially-correct answer as a symptom of something that needs putting right. Unfortunately, we often just treat it as a mark of stupidity or incompetence, thereby compounding the impact of the disappointment on the hapless student.

Where are the dead sheep? I grew up in Devon, a county in western England, and we were often able to enjoy walks on Dartmoor, a wild and beautiful moorland that fills the majority of the central part of the county. One of the things we were told right at the start of these expeditions was that it is unwise and possibly dangerous to drink from moorland streams, however inviting they might look as they dance and gurgle through rocks and valleys. The reason was that you have no way of knowing what might be polluting the water upstream; it could, for example, be a dead sheep.

This image has stayed with me during my career in education because it seems to me that teachers – and I include myself in this – are not always good at seeing a problem now as the result of some failure or deficiency of the educational process “upstream” in the past. A child may  have real difficulty with something because he or she failed to grasp something fundamental years ago, or because something was omitted from the syllabus, or because some misguided shortcut was taken by a teacher trying to make things easier but inadvertently making them more difficult downstream. (“Change the side, change the sign!” is a good example from elementary maths teaching.)

In other words, all of us have dead sheep upstream somewhere, and those dead sheep pollute our minds and hamper our understanding. Skilled teachers will identify them, assiduously asking diagnostic questions to determine what it is that is preventing a student from understanding something or making progress; a poor teacher will just dismiss a student as incapable of dealing with whatever the topic may be because of some toxic mixture of the usual accusations: idle, ignorant, stupid, ill-behaved, unco-operative, and so on (all of which can be symptoms of dead sheep upstream, too).

Of course, there will be students who cannot do something because they lack the ability, and not all learning-deficiencies can be resolved favourably, but we should not start from that assumption because the students we think may lack the natural ability may surprise us, just as those who seem most promising may fail to fulfil their early promise. So we should only reach for the argument that a particular student is incapable of doing something as a last resort when we have explored all the other possibilities. And there are many.

Where are your dead sheep? What don’t you understand? What have you misunderstood? What has happened upstream – and yes, of course it can involve domestic problems, traumatic events, and psychological difficulties as well as more straight educational omissions and misdirections – that results in you being unable to manage what is being asked of you? What has been omitted, or what wrong idea has been inserted, to make this so hard for you?

Where are your dead sheep? What don’t you understand? What have you misunderstood? What has happened upstream that results in you being unable to manage what is being asked of you? What has been omitted, or what wrong idea has been inserted, to make this so hard for you?

This is part of the reflection process that must accompany The Stretch Cycle if it is not to degenerate in a shrink cycle, and the reflection needs to involve student and teacher or project director and mentor in something that will extract from the failure something that can ensure that when we return to our comfort-zone we are still better off, even if we have not achieved what we intended to achieve. This is not to say that we can undo the failure or reverse the consequences of the disappointment, which is usually not possible, but that we can avoid either from leading us into a downward spiral that demotivates us and inhibits later learning.

A question on which much of this hangs is what it is about us that makes us so ready to condemn others as “useless” or “stupid” or any of the other negative epithets we level at so many of our fellow human-beings. In particular, why are teachers apparently so much more enthusiastic about marking things wrong than marking them right?  What is it about red ink that people who enter teaching seemingly love so much? And the answer to that lies in understanding what happens when we fail to deal with our own anger, anger which itself probably results from a dead sheep or a failed project upstream that has left us with some unfinished business with the world or ourselves.

On Double Jeopardy

The process of providing school pupils and college students with positive experiences from which they can learn quickly throws up the challenge that many projects initiated by young people seem as if they fail. There are many reasons why this happens: poor conception; poor planning; lack of determination; serendipity; excessive ambition; unrealistic expectations; and so on. The reality is that even when a project apparently succeeds, there remains the possibility that whatever is achieved will quickly evaporate. A good example is cleaning up litter, where the sites chosen frequently return to their earlier state because the habits that caused the problem in the first place have not changed. Students can grow very dissatisfied as a result of these disappointments, and will ask themselves the question “What’s the point?”

This blog is not however about these “failed” experiments and projects, although it is necessary to remind ourselves of what we have said elsewhere on this topic, namely that these projects only fail if we refuse to see the learning that can accrue even from a project that ostensibly fails. Reflection on why the litter clear-up does not produce lasting change will teach us a lot about human behaviour and how to deal with such an idea in future; it may even suggest that our efforts would be better directed to changing the attitudes that create litter than to clearing it up, or that a dual approach is better than one or the other. So we learn from our failures, perhaps more than we learn from our successes.

Double Jeopardy as we have used it here refers not to a principle of law but to the common human habit of doubling the burden of disappointment attendant on failure by blaming ourselves for that disappointment or failure in addition to suffering it. Not only, for example, do we experience the disappointment of a failed litter clear-up, or at least a clear-up that has only a temporary effect; we also berate ourselves for being foolish enough to have conceived of such a short-lived project in the first place, or perhaps for having planned it badly or failed to take the necessary steps to ensure its greater success. We double the impact of “there is litter there again” with “and I am a fool/incompetent/a useless human being” and even “it/life is all a waste of time” or some such.

Originally conceived as an antidote to this kind of negative reaction to disappointment and failure, conceived, that is, as a way of saying that when interpreted effectively and reflected on deeply there can be no such thing as a failed project, however disappointing, the same principle can be extended to everyday human life. In other words, it is not necessary to restrict the range of positive thinking, to borrow Norman Vincent Peale’s phrase, to specific projects and enterprises: we can apply it to the most everyday of experiences, too, and to similarly good effect.

Consider, for example, “having a bad day”, which happens to all of us, some more often than others. If we are gazing into oblivion one afternoon wondering what on earth life is about and what we are to do with the next few hours or even the rest of our lives, a state of mental affect that most experience at some time in their lives, there is always a tendency to succumb to Double Jeopardy: not only is my life empty of meaning and purpose, but it is all my fault because I am such a failure.

The first thing to say, as I have said many times before, is that there is no necessary connection between the experience and its interpretation and effect: nothing about an empty afternoon or a sense of emptiness forces us to understand it in terms of general emptiness and our own incompetence. Thinking this way is learned behaviour, even if it is also habitual (which just means well-learned and ingrained). There are other possibilities.

The second thing to say is that we need to guard against the temptation to enjoy being miserable, enjoy feeling sorry for ourselves, enjoy or revel in the sympathy that our misery sometimes evokes from others. This amounts to playing what was once called a “script”: we rehearse a pattern of behaviour that is scripted in that it is learned and habitual; we come to expect the supposedly “natural” response to a given circumstance to be to evoke or trigger misery, dejection, disappointment or even despair. We play the record that says “life is a bitch; this sort of thing is always happening to me; somebody somewhere has really got it in for me” or some such. Sometimes a certain kind of narrative structure even tells us that whatever misfortune we have experienced is “a punishment from God” for some putative misbehaviour in the recent or distant past.

This is of course all nonsense. There is no repository of natural or supernatural reprisal, vengeance or balance that doles out misfortunes either deliberately or randomly. Stuff happens. That is all there is to it. We cannot control what happens in more than very limited, local ways; we can control how we respond to what happens. And the golden rule here is the first mentioned above: that there is no necessary connection between what happens to us and our response; there is no necessary interpretation of our experiences; many things may be learned and habituated, but nothing is forced or natural. To put it at its most extreme, there is nothing that prevents us from laughing at disease and death but social convention; neither, in a more mundane way, is there anything that forces us to react with anger, resentment, sadness or self-loathing to disappointment and putative failure but our own learned habits of mind.

There is nothing that forces us to react with anger, resentment, sadness and self-loathing to disappointment and putative failure but our own learned habits of mind.

Consider a different example. We may apply for a job and feel that we are uniquely and perfectly suited to it, certainly far better than any other conceivable candidate; it is made for us. But we are rejected at the first cut without explanation. We feel personally affronted, as if we have been told that we are worthless. Reaction can be, as in bereavement, the usual cycle of denial, anger, depression, resignation, reconciliation, recovery; but we can also blame ourselves or some cosmic power that hypothetically “has it in for us” – deus sive natura – for the misfortune and throw ourselves into minutes, hours, days or sometimes even years of self-destructive behaviour as if it will in some strange way compensate for the disappointment.

It doesn’t, it won’t, and it can’t. Blaming something “out there” is as futile as blaming something “in here”, in myself: nothing dictates that our response to this disappointment should be negative; nothing tells us that any one or any thing is responsible for it at a personal level other than our chosen narrative type. We choose our response, however habituated we are to it, because we choose the narrative structure of our lives; and because we choose it, we can change it.

We choose our responses to disappointment and failure, however habituated we are to them, because we choose the narrative structure of our lives; and because we choose it, we can change it.

Of course, just the same is true of our responses to achievement and success, and sometimes – although we seldom appreciate it – those responses are as self-destructive as our negative responses to disappointment and failure. But both arise from our chosen narratives: nothing forces us as if by some universal physical or biological law to react to anything with either laughter or tears.

But what is “The narrative structure of our lives”? In essence it is the set of stories or, as they used to be called, scripts, that make up the interpretative framework by means of which we make sense of our existence. For example, the interpretation of a misfortune that attributes it to the judgement of God is part of a particular narrative set within a particular theological tradition. There is no suggestion here that it is incoherent, still less insane (which is not to say that it is either coherent or sane, either); the point is only that it is arbitrary rather than necessarychosen (albeit by our society or our upbringing or our parents or whatever) rather than innate; and therefore, because it has by some means or other been chosen, it can by some means or other be changed.

Any interpretation of or reaction to our experiences is arbitrary rather than necessarychosen rather than innate; and, because it has by some means or other been chosen, it can by some means or other be changed.

A pernicious symptom of this kind of habituated learning that makes it very hard to see that it is chosen rather than unavoidable is the notion that, in any given circumstance, or as a result of any given experience, we should or ought to respond in some particular way. People who are riddled by anxiety or guilt – and anxiety is a major modern illness almost as common as depression – commonly spend their lives torn apart by the feeling that whatever they are doing they ought to be doing something else. They may similarly treat the self-destructive behaviour that arises from disappointment and failure as “ordained”, whether by God or nature or some obscure universal law, as something that they ought to endure. But there is no source of this “ought” that has such power because there is no such “ought”.

Social conventions, like some of the most long-established narratives such as religions and political theories, have developed and subtly employ a very clever but very destructive mechanism to retain control over us which a theologian called Hans Albert once called an immunization strategy. Such a strategy is built into the fabric of many narratives and forbids us to question the narrative itself. In other words, a religion may contain as one of its most primal principles a prohibition on doubting the religion, just as Marxism may contain as one of its primal principles a prohibition on doubting Marxism, or Freudianism may dismiss anything that interprets any scepticism about Freud as itself a mental dysfunction caused by something interpreted as Freud would interpret it.

An immunization strategy is the means by which any system or narrative forbids its adherents from questioning or doubting it.

Another way of thinking of this that may be more compatible with modern thinking is to describe certain systems of thought or narratives as creating conceptual black holes that exert a power over our minds so strong – as physical black holes exert gravitational control over their surroundings – that they prevent us from ever escaping their influence.

Conceptual black holes enable some social systems and narratives to exert control over our minds of a kind that prevents us from ever escaping from or even questioning the propriety of their influence.

Conceptual black holes are everywhere, and in the particular example we are dealing with here they consist of the habituated learned practice of personalising our experiences in a way that creates what we are calling Double Jeopardy by making us feel that we are in some sense obeying a necessary universal principle by blaming ourselves for our misfortunes.

And the secret to escaping from all conceptual black holes is of course to give ourselves permission to reject the principles that they advocate and defend. And one of those is the suggestion that we should or ought to respond in this way because it would be somehow wrong, even immoral, not to accept our responsibility for whatever disappointment or failure we are beating ourselves up about.

The secret to escaping from all conceptual black holes is to give ourselves permission to reject the principles that they advocate and defend.

And if we cannot find enough strength or confidence in ourselves to give ourselves permission to reject these principles, we should find someone else whom we respect sufficiently who can give us that permission instead. The power to beat ourselves up over any and every disappointment and failure resides solely and exclusively with ourselves, and therefore the only way we can overcome it is to find a way, coming from ourselves or from someone else, to give ourselves permission to stop.

“Yes”, you may reply, “but others may also beat us up by laughing at us or ridiculing us or treating us as idiots because of our failed projects, and that is not under our control”. Agreed, but the way you respond to their ridicule is under your control, and whether you are hurt by their laughter is under your control, and whether you start to behave like an idiot because of their accusation is under your control. So give yourself permission to ignore them: it’s really not your fault; and even if it is, you still win by learning from the experience and avoiding making the same mistake again.

The first step in freeing ourselves from behaviour that makes us feel responsible for things that are beyond our control is to identify the sources of the voices in our heads that are blaming us for them. Only then can we silence them.

The first step in freeing ourselves from behaviour that makes us feel responsible for things that are beyond our control is to identify the sources of the voices in our heads that are blaming us for them. Only then can we silence them.

On Grammar Schools

The proposal by Theresa May, the new UK Prime Minister, to remove the block on the creation of new grammar schools, has prompted a predictable outcry from a surprising diversity of people who have adduced an equally surprising variety of objections. The most common objection is that selection at 11 by examination is unfair, premature and unreliable, a stressful matter for those coming up to the “11-plus” and no good indication of eventual “success”.

Comprehensive schools were always intended to remove the injustice of selection while preserving the best that all their predecessor schools offered, and therefore not only grammar schools but secondary moderns too, not all of which were as bad as is sometimes claimed.

The main problem Theresa May’s sudden reintroduction of this topic to education creates is that it tries to avoid a debate that is essential before our next major educational reform; indeed, it avoids it while presupposing a particular answer to it. My view is that the debate is essential, and the answer the reintroduction of grammar schools presupposes wrong.

Some will say that the line from universal comprehensives through academies and free schools (with the universalisation of academies not far behind) leads inexorably to the reintroduction of grammar schools, but this is a false inference that leads us down a dead-end. The key question we should ask, and ask of the best independent schools as well as academies and free schools, existing grammar schools and the most successful comprehensives, is what it is that they do that makes them successful.

The key question we should ask, and ask of the best independent schools as well as academies and free schools, existing grammar schools and the most successful comprehensives, is what it is that they do that makes them successful.

The answer, which we can only return to after a much longer excursion into another question, is that we make a difference to any life only by the quality of our interactions. The very best teaching makes children, pupils, students feel valued and affirmed, that they matter, that what they are doing is worthwhile and valuable. The very best teachers have generosity of spirit, a love and enthusiasm for their subject, and the intellectual hunger necessary to make them lifelong learners. These qualities communicate themselves to their students contagiously because they simultaneously affirm and inspire. Find any great school and you will find a school where the vast majority of the staff exhibit these qualities; find a failing school and you will find one where they do not. (There are parental and social aspects to this, too, of course, but they also reflect social values.)

The very best teachers have generosity of spirit, a love and enthusiasm for their subject, and the intellectual hunger necessary to make them lifelong learners. These qualities communicate themselves to their students contagiously because they simultaneously affirm and inspire.

It follows that the problem Theresa May is attempting to address by a return to grammar schools cannot be solved by such a move. The only thing that can solve it is the identification, training, professional development and reward (social and financial) of a new generation of teachers who exhibit these three qualities: generosity; enthusiasm; hunger. In other words, a regression to grammar schools is about taking the apparently easy route to a permanent educational solution because the costs and social changes needed to empower the new generation of teachers we need if all education is to be beneficial to all its client-groups is correspondingly difficult. But if we baulk at this challenge we will throw away the advances of the last fifty years in exactly the way we have just thrown away the achievements of the last forty years of membership of the European Union.

The only thing that can solve the deficiencies of our educational system is the identification, training, professional development and reward (social and financial) of a new generation of teachers who exhibit these three qualities: generosity; enthusiasm; hunger.

But we should ask a preparatory question about the meaning of educational success, which we often assume to be obvious, but is it?

Set aside for a moment all those stories about the badly-behaved kids who rebel against the system then leave school and become billionaires by exploiting their anti-establishment flair for entrepreneurship: no doubt there are some, but they will always be a tiny minority of the population. Ask instead what characteristics we would look and hope for in the successes education could point to.

Here we need to introduce a new concept borrowed from environmental science and applied to human science. Environmental science is increasingly focused upon lifetime characteristics of products: not that this light-bulb burns only 10% of the electricity of an incandescent bulb, but the mean cost from “cradle to grave”, from invention through manufacture to use to safe disposal. Attending too greatly to the wattage of the low-energy bulb compared with the shorter-lived and higher-energy incandescent creates attractive headline figures, but we need to take account of all the factors involved from the start of the process to its end.

So let’s introduce an equivalent human-resource measure we might call “lifetime effectiveness” that at least tries – I am not suggesting for a second that this is easy or even perhaps possible, but the idea it involves must be important to any measure of educational, which is to say human success – to measure our effectiveness as human beings “from cradle to grave” and then asks about the role of education in this process and tries to derive a measure of success accordingly.

Here, the equivalent of the headline-grabbing low-energy bulb’s wattage is the brightly-burning star we are so often shown as an indication of success, but a star which exhausts itself by 30, cannot cope with the anonymity of 40, and becomes a miserable drain on society at 60, 70, 80 if he or she doesn’t commit suicide earlier. We need instead to consider the full-cycle effectiveness of a life, not measure it by its fifteen-minutes of fame. And part of that measure – harder still to quantify – is the impact of that life on other lives: not how great a life was seen to be or claimed to be, but the cost of that fame and fortune measured by the misery it created for and in the lives of others.

We need … to consider the full-cycle effectiveness of a life, not measure it by its fifteen-minutes of fame.

Of course, cries of indignation will greet such a suggestion because we all know that we cannot possibly perform such measurements with any degree of reliability; but there will also be cries of indignation occasioned by the observation that the candles that burn twice a brightly for half as long are frequently responsible (but have we checked our facts here?) for the initiatives that bestow enormous benefits on others. We gawp collectively at the castles and palaces of the supposedly great and ignore the misery of the lives of the slaves and peasants who built them, and we continue to do so even when we become aware of their birth in oppression and tyranny. We do the same for the millionaire industrialists of the nineteenth-century who built fortunes on the misery of their workers. We gawpers are all, in a sense, closet fascists, tacitly giving our approval to behaviour that we would not tolerate for a second were it to be repeated today. Or so we like to think.

In reality, of course, we do precisely that: we tolerate despotic and tyrannical behaviour that produces palaces and the equivalents of modern castles when we tolerate the huge inequalities that capitalism generates, fortunes earned by the exploitation of the labour of others under the euphemism of economic necessity. (A passing nod is in order to the equally tyrannical excesses of communist and socialist systems in which peasants were treated like slaves and even the freedom to dissent was ruthlessly circumcised and controlled, starting with an authoritarian and totalitarian education system in which all expressions of dissent were suppressed from the earliest ages.)

Now all this may seem like a rant taking us off at a tangent to our main theme, “grammar schools”. But it is directly related and relevant because the underlying principles that would lead us to endorse a return to grammar schools are the same as those that would endorse a severely stratified society, whether based on wealth or merit. And here we start to get closer to our goal of understanding, as a preliminary requirement, what educational success amounts to.

I have written elsewhere about the essential role of meta-narratives in evaluating educational (or any other) theory or practice: only when contextualised by an accepted meta-narrative do questions about such things as success and effectiveness make sense. Finding an answer to the question of educational success therefore presupposes a meta-narrative; evaluating the full-cycle effectiveness of a life requires such a meta-narrative; forming an integrated view of what constitutes a successful intervention using something like Richard Feynmann’s “sum over histories” to evaluate its consequences requires a meta-narrative. And the key question that measures of success must ask is “What kind of human being do we think people should be?”

And this is really the point: education arises from, mirrors and embodies the kind of society it aspires to create. An education staffed by generous, enthusiastic, intellectually hungry teachers will produce a society of generous, enthusiastic, intellectually hungry citizens; an education system that models human well-being in terms of respect, dignity, equality of regard, fairness, justice and open-mindedness will produce a society where the same values prevail; an education system that does not judge us by our ability at 11, or 14, or 16, but gives us endless chances to learn and fail and be disappointed and succeed and triumph will produce a society of resilient, determined, hard-working, visionary citizens who will collectively and individually make the world a better place.

None of this can be achieved if we do not rise to the challenge of creating the kinds of schools (and universities) that will encourage the emergence of citizens whose characteristics mirror the generosity, enthusiasm, intellectual hunger and personal integrity of those whom we identify and resource to staff them. Those schools will not seek to determine in advance who are to be the most successful and the least because there is no reliable method by means of which such matters can be determined; instead they will endeavour to give every human child the best chance possible to make of its life what it can and will.

On Teaching

It is common knowledge that education is important, but it is less commonly known that it is the single largest area of human expenditure world-wide, worth something like $5.5 trillion per annum of which about half is spent on pre-university education. That this is so despite the fact that it has almost no robust measures of output and effectiveness or even any clear understanding of what it is aiming to achieve, is remarkable to say the least.

That there is money to be made from education is in no doubt: chains of schools are being created across the globe that charge substantial amounts for education of no directly-measurable quality and aim to make substantial profits from it. This is not the place for that argument; my purpose is different.

Look at the website of almost any school and you will find, either there on the home page or not more than one level below it, some sort of assertion to the effect that “this school aims to make the most of every child, to enable them to discover and maximise their potential in whatever area of human endeavour they are interested”. Shortly after this you will be taken to pictures of happy, smiling children, shown pictures of science laboratories, swimming-pools, gymnasia, and probably treated to some kind of potted summary of recent examination results and university entrance statistics.

What you will almost certainly not find is any kind of serious discussion of how the school proposes to “make the most of every child”, or any detailed description of the qualities of teaching that will make the education on offer effective.

This marketing procedure amounts to an exercise in misdirection – the technique conjurors use to direct the attention of their gullible audiences to the things that do not matter while they are engaged in their wizardry elsewhere – in that it directs the attention of potential parents and students to precisely the things that will not make a difference to them during their time at the school. Because the best-kept secret in education, a secret that is in practice not a secret at all but with which we all collude with the pretence that it is not even the case, is that quality of teaching is the only thing that really matters in a school. We can focus the attention of potential clients on laboratories and libraries and computers and swimming-pools, but they will make absolutely no difference to any student unless there is a human being – preferably a well-integrated army of such human beings – to make the connection between facilities and buildings and location and the things that really make the difference: human engagement, interaction and inspiration.

Quality of teaching is the only thing that really matters in a school.

It follows that the recruitment, professional development and retention of outstanding staff who are great teachers, who deliver quality teaching day-in, day-out for years, is the single most important thing that any school does. Why, then, do these matters so often receive such minimal attention? Heads often delegate recruitment to HR departments or deputies; professional development is often a reaction to necessity rather than a matter of integrated strategic policy; staff retention is assumed but staff are neither nurtured nor cared for. Yet if quality of teaching is the only thing that really matters in a school, all these things are more important than anything else the school does. Schools are in a double sense in the business of raising human capital: raising children to enable them to become mature, responsible, confident adults equipped to do what life will demand of them; raising staff who are ready with the intellectual hunger, inspirational enthusiasm and generosity of time and talent needed to achieve what their younger charges require.

The single thing that best defines and most effectively measures quality of teaching is the personal engagement between staff and students. Enthusiasm is infectious; generosity is contagious. Intellectual hunger comes from an insatiable need for new understanding that is as persistent and lifelong as the need for food. Without it, a teacher is not learning, and when a teacher is not learning, that teacher is not teaching.

The single thing that best defines and most effectively measures quality of teaching is the personal engagement between staff and students.

Schools that claim to “make the most of every child” who do not also aspire to “make the most of every teacher” – and in fact this should be “make the most of every member of staff” – are guilty either of naivety or hypocrisy, because it is not possible to make the most of one without making the most of the other.

There are two things that monitor and measure the effectiveness of education better than any others, and certainly better than examinations: the quality of reflection and the quality of tuition (which I am using here in a semi-technical sense that will shortly be explained).

John Dewey wrote in his Experience and Education (1938) that what turns experience into education, what turns mere experience into education, is reflection, the quality by means of which we make the experience our own and build it into our subsequent outlook on life. Without reflection, experience remains mere experience, just something that happens but not something that enables us to learn and grow.

Reflection converts mere experience into educational experience.

By tuition we mean not teaching itself, but the kind of close pastoral adult-student relationship that arises from small-scale engagement in tutorials where a small number of students meet with one or, better, a small number of staff. These sessions facilitate reflection by enabling students to think creatively about what they have experienced. Tuition ensures that, in a sense, there can be no bad experiences, no unprofitable or worthless experiences, because even an experience of failure where some proposed project does not materialise or does not come off well or does not come off at all can still be the stuff of reflection as we learn what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how to do better in future. Done successfully, tuition therefore inculcates an invaluable life-skill: it teaches us how to make the most of any and every situation we will ever encounter; it enables us to see that rather than having “a bad day” we are just having a day which requires us to learn lessons we have not learnt before in ways we have not mastered before.

Tuition converts every experience into a learning-experience by enabling reflection.

But because the skills required in both reflection and tuition are not generally natural, both need to be acquired, and it is the responsibility of schools to provide the means that will enable staff to become strong tutors in order that as tutors they can enable students to reflect (and there is no reason why tuition should only be offered by professional teachers; it can be offered by any suitably-minded member of staff). Where neither reflection nor tuition are strong, there you have what is almost certainly a failing school, however strong its results may be.

It follows that the place where schools succeed or fail is in the way they embrace professional development, because they are most unlikely to be able to recruit staff who already have these skills; all they can do is hope to recruit staff who are ready, willing and able to acquire them when provided with the opportunity.

On Science

There is a common belief that the closer we get to science, the closer we get to truth. This belief is commonly expressed in terms of the objectivity of science, its “over-there-ness” where it stands independently of human knowing. A friend of mine recently posted an affirmation of this on Facebook that set me thinking (mostly about why I don’t agree):

One of the great things about science is that it’s true whether we believe it or not.

This statement is based upon a set of confused ways of thinking about truth, language and reality (as well as science) that merit exploration.

First, we need to distinguish between science and the things science studies. If the statement is intended to say “things are the way they are whether we believe it or not”, then it might avoid some of the confusion, but not all of it (see below). Unfortunately, the way things are is not what science studies, and scientific knowledge does not consist of knowledge of the way things are, although we can be forgiven for having been led to think otherwise.

Unfortunately, “the way things are” is not what science studies.

So, second, whatever science tells us about the world is not knowledge of the world but a more or less coherent account of a set of theories about the world to which the world seems to conform under certain kinds of experience and testing as performed by certain kinds of creature with certain kinds of sensory organs. Science says more or less that if we do this and that we will experience or “see” this and that, and it provides some explanations for why this is so. But the further from mathematics science goes, which is to say from theoretical physics, the less true even this becomes, and theoretical physics is only partially and tenuously related to experimental physics. When we consider chemistry and biology the relationship between theory and experiment is more tenuous still.

Third, then, our conviction that science possesses a particular and even unique kind of truth that is true “whether we believe it or not” is based upon a mistaken attribution of the theories of science as confirmed by our best experimental practice and something as vague and philosophically problematic as “the way the world really is”. Since nobody could reasonably complain about a statement like “the world [really] is the way the world [really] is”, a science that told us how the world [really] is would be true whether we believed in or not. Unfortunately there is no such science, and never will be, and there are even more problems with a notion such as “the way the world [really] is”.

Surely, someone will ask, this “and never will be” is too strong? Surely the history of science is of a convergent discipline that increasingly renders more and more reliable, accurate and therefore true knowledge of the way the world really is? That is what we like to tell ourselves, and in a loose sense we are right, but we need to be clear about how we are also and will always be wrong.

The ideal of scientific knowledge represented in the first quotation would only and could only be achievable were we able to know things as they are when they are not being known. But it is obviously impossible to achieve such knowledge, so instead we have to settle for knowing things as they are known by the best theory we have right now. But that is quite another thing. In other words, science cannot tell us about the real world unless it describes the world as it would be when it is not being described. And “the best theory we have right now” is not something that would be true whether we believed it or not since it is a theory whose provenance depends upon our belief in and advocacy of it and which will always fall short of knowing things as they would be known were they not being known, which is to say knowing “things in themselves” as Kant put it.

There is no such thing as complete objectivity because there is no knowledge of things as they are when they are not being known.

The best science is the best account of the world that can be given by creatures constituted as we are and positioned as we are; other intelligent life might well have a completely different science that worked for them just as effectively – or not – as ours works for us despite it bearing no resemblance to our science (just as their language and conceptual apparatus would probably bear no resemblance to ours).

One of the great things about science is that its intellectual power provides us with the best theories of the world we can manage right now, …

… and another great thing about it is that it provides a defining quality of what our species takes to be a rational mind.

Of course, whether an alien civilization is bound to have discovered the same mathematics and know the value of pi is an altogether different matter for another occasion.

What constitutes “the best” theories of the world depends upon a point of view. For some, “the best” means those that give greatest control and predictability; for others it means those with the greatest scope; for yet more it means those that afford most security and reassurance.

There will be those who want to defend scientific objectivity and truth by saying something like “Well, yes, if you set impossibly high standards for scientific objectivity, such as that it should describe the world as it is when it is not being described, science can never achieve objectivity; but the problem is that your standards are absurd precisely because they are unattainable.” To which one would happily agree but for the fact that as soon as one turned one’s back the old version of objectivity – the one that says that what science says would be true whether we believed it or not, for example – instantly reasserts itself. And there is no science that can satisfy this criterion or be true to this notion of objectivity because if nobody believed what science says there would be no science. Yes, of course there would still be a world – we can debate that somewhere else, if you like – but there would be nothing at all that we could say about it that would satisfy the kinds of standards that would make what we say of it true in this person-independent sense.

The only way out of the dilemma is to stop believing in something that remains true even if nobody believes it, which is to say, to stop believing in an unrealisable kind of objectivity.

At this point someone usually stamps their foot and says “Yes, but surely you believe that there is still a world, even if we can’t say anything about it?” To which one can really only gives Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brilliant reply, “Nothing will do as well as something about which nothing can be said” (Philosophical Investigations) because if we can’t say anything about the world, what does it mean to say we believe in it?

On Happiness

An article by Emily Sargent in The Sunday Times weekend supplement on Sunday, August 6th, 2016, called “Why are the millenials so unhappy?” failed to answer its own question convincingly. Leaving aside the question whether millenials are less happy than anyone else – it is at least arguable that they are not – it raises the more general question of the source of happiness and its significance. It is not – contrary to popular belief and the opinions of the author of the article – completely self-evident that happiness is even a desirable state to aim for.

What is happiness? If “to be happy” is to be living the life one wants to live, rather than the life circumstance forces upon us, then it is one thing; if it is to experience life as a persistent frothy pleasure-garden, it is another. None of this, of course, is at all new: Aristotle thought about it more and better than most in the Nichomachean Ethics over 2,000 years ago, and came to the conclusion that eudaemonia as he called it (literally good-spirited-ness) consisted of opportunity to spend one’s life contemplating truth on an adequate but modest income (a summary borrowed from Alasdair MacIntyre). Later writers have developed eudaemonism as the pursuit of self-interest (Hobbes) and service of others (Mill), thus setting up the eternal tension between self-centredness and other-centredness as the purpose of life and the source of happiness.

But let us return to our unhappy millenials, because whatever happiness may be, and whether or not it is a legitimate objective of the mature and wise life of a citizen in a free society, any strong sense that it is either not achieved or, more alarmingly, not achievable, presents serious challenges to the social and political stability of a society.

In “On Storytelling” I make the point that most human activity only makes sense within a framework defined by some kind of over-arching story, some meta-narrative, that integrates all our other stories and purposive discourses. In particular, in order to be able to understand our existence to any extent at all, we need to be able to tell our personal story as a part in a greater story. (I will turn to the question of the possibility of a completely narcissistic self-centred and self-generated story subsequently.) When we are unable to locate ourselves in such a meta-narrative – and it is very important to appreciate that we do not need to do so consciously and deliberately, and usually do not – we are unable to satisfy any of the conditions that might be construed as happiness because those conditions will necessarily appear empty.

We used to be able to take some such meta-narrative for granted: it was the Judaeo-Christian story; it was the British Empire; it was the East-West stand-off; it was various thinly-veiled metaphors for what everyone thought to be “success” according to a particular socio-economic meta-narrative. All of these stories have gone, the latter least surprisingly because it was never a real meta-narrative in the first place but just took a couple of centuries to be exposed as the fraud it was. So what do we now do? The angst exhibited by our millenial soul-searching is only more pronounced because their exposure to older meta-narratives has left even less residue than it has with older fogies who can still remember religious, imperial and economics metaphors with sufficient force to allow them some continuing influence, albeit either illusory or delusory. But millenials – perhaps there is a clue in the name – have had no exposure to any of the defining meta-narratives that have shaped our world, and therefore have no over-arching story within which to make sense of their lives. A glance at the trivia that passes for journalism in today’s papers confirms that it is predominantly negative, dismissive, complaining and prejudiced; there is no substance to it at all because there is no meta-narrative within and on which it can find any purchase.

Recent events serve only to emphasise the seriousness of the situation. The Brexiteers had a story to sell of island Britain standing against the bureaucratic forces that are wresting power from Westminster and locating it in Brussels; the Remainers had no such compelling story, and certainly failed to tell it persuasively if they did. It mattered not one jot that the Brexit story was a lie, or rather a network of lies; what mattered was that it was easy to understand and had a simple three-word slogan everyone could grasp: “Take Back Control”. Over the pond the most frightening thing about the Trump campaign is that it tells a story over against which Clinton has nothing to offer; the story may be incoherent, racist, prejudiced, demonic and ignorant, but it is a story, and the fear is that bad and destructive stories will win if there are no good and constructive stories to set over against them. And it has an effective, if vacuous, slogan: “Make America Great Again!” or, worse, “Just nuke ’em!” On that count, Clinton is a busted flush offering reasoned, socially-orientated arguments for long-term economic growth that nobody can get enthusiastic about. The most extreme and distorted elements that proclaim themselves Islamic also have a story to tell so powerful that it lures innocents to offer themselves as suicide-bombers and assassins in pursuit of momentary infamy because their meta-narrative provides them with a justification for such action that over-rides even the value of life itself, their own and that of others. And it is important also to realise that these outrages (as we right-minded people call them with our vague recollections of an alternative meta-narrative) are not the actions of people who are mentally ill or deranged – to think this is fundamentally to misunderstand terrorism – but the actions of people who are rationally persuaded by the power of a story which nowadays “civilization” has nothing to set against.

Of course, this reveals the dark side of narrative theory: that it is not the presence of a story in itself that occasions the good, for there are stories that occasion and justify what some of us would regard as the unspeakably bad. So it cannot be our objective merely to rediscover or reanimate our older meta-narratives, or merely to invent new ones – the invention of a new meta-narrative is not the stuff of an afternoon’s work, anyway – but to weave together the best of the past and the present to create whatever future meta-narratives we may think it worth living by. And if and when we can invent them – and it is a big “if” and an urgent “when?” – they will need to be at least as compelling as the stories told by the advocates of Isis without reproducing the horrors that civilization once endorsed when it thought positively of the Inquisition. And, of course, pace Donald Trump, Adolf Hitler, Lenin, Napoleon and Thomas de Torquemada, there is always the danger that if we do not find a positive, uplifting, noble meta-narrative, someone will enthusiastically offer us a very dark alternative to fill our purposive void.

Millenials or not, if the millenials are unhappy, it should concern us all.