On Painting

I do not paint and I probably cannot paint, but I am fascinated by painting. The only quality that a painting needs, to my mind, is that it compels me to look at it, and continues to compel me to look at it even after some considerable time. It is not necessary to be able to say what qualities give it this power, only that it has them. The same is true of music: music only needs to compel you to listen. And writing needs only to compel you to read. Or speech to listen.

But for me at least there is something special about painting. At one level, the level of physics, of paint and of canvas, it is what it is, timelessly. I remember walking innocently into the Groeningemuseum gallery in Bruges, finding myself confronted by Jan Van Eyck’s George van der Paele, and being literally struck dumb by its compelling power. I still cannot look at it without feeling that moment of transcendence again: that here something touches eternity. Yes, it is famously regarded as one of the greatest paintings of the late middle ages (1434-36), and it has been analysed to death in terms of its perspective, use of colour, imagery, proportion, … you name it, it has been said. And then there is the painting, which has the power to strike you dumb as Job was silenced by the final appearance of God.

Of course, not all paintings have such a dramatic effect, and some of the most famous famously disappoint. The trouble is that we are infected by fame in a way that renders us incapable of seeing; it is as if we see only the fame and not the picture. La Jocunde or Mona Lisa is perhaps the best example: it is a wonderful painting, but it is hard to see it anew because our expectations are already well beyond realisation. (The same is true of human beauty: it is often, perhaps always, more difficult to see the true beauty of someone who is also, at least according to contemporary taste and therefore ‘fame’, superficially beautiful.) Not so the Botticelli room in the Uffizi in Florence: there is nowhere else like it in the world, with The Birth of Venus on one wall and Prima Vera on the other (to say nothing of the Ucello on a third). This is not fame: these paintings transcend their fame; to see them is to be inspired and humbled simultaneously and realise that whatever one had been told or seen or heard is nothing in comparison with the real thing.

But there are other experiences that are less dramatic. Tate Modern in London hosted a Mark Rothko exhibition somewhere round about 2006, and it silenced the cynicism in almost everyone who went to see it. No reproduction in a book or on a website could prepare a viewer for the power of these vast canvases, these floating, mesmerising colours, images that demanded and compelled one’s attention.

Once something has been done there will always be plenty of critics and cynics who will say that anyone could have done it. It isn’t true. Consider writing, which is perhaps an easier way to appreciate the same point: these are just words, familiar words, written in a line. Anyone could have written them in the same sequence. The point is that nobody did. And so it is with painting: anyone can buy paint and a canvas; few of us can produce anything that compels attention with them; almost nobody can create timeless images as van Eyck or Botticelli or Rothko created them.

This asymmetry is one of the most mysterious of phenomena: that once someone has done something, once something has been done, suddenly everyone can see that what they have done could have been done by almost anyone; except that it wasn’t, and nobody did, and in most cases nobody even dreamed of doing what they have done.

Here the writer and the artist are joined in their creative struggles: the blank sheet of paper and the empty canvas allow infinite numbers of possibilities; but they must choose one. And neither knows at the start what they will choose to write or paint; only that they must write and paint, almost as if the writing or the picture were a child whose time had come and who was demanding to be brought into the world with all the pain and danger that accompanies any birth. And the writer and the painter endure in some senses a greater pain even than a mother, for their child is lost to them as soon as it is born. There may be a little editing, a little retouching, a few changes of heart, but essentially it is already gone on a life of its own, to be seen and read and used and abused by a public neither author nor painter may ever meet or know.

But painting is not writing and a painting is not a writing. Paintings command because they are before us in their totality; writing must be experienced sequentially and integrated by the reader in a way that differs sharply from the immediacy with which the painting confronts and commands the viewer. To read is to journey; to view is to arrive. Of course, a reader finishes reading and integrates what has been read, and a viewer sees a painting differently with every viewing, but the experiences are different and the sequences not the same.

A painting can compel us to look at it in a way that a writing cannot compel us to read it. The difference is as apparent as that you cannot hang a novel on a wall and expect someone to admire it; with a painting the opposite is true: you can and must hang it on a wall but you cannot experience it sequentially in the way that a writing must be savoured piece by piece. Book “signings” are a poor and often embarrassing substitute for exhibitions just because what the author signs is something that cannot be appreciated in the present, whereas the artist can show everything immediately.

Or so we may think. But the notion of “immediacy” implicit in such a statement equates looking with seeing and seeing with understanding. In fact few great paintings can be taken in at a glance, still less appreciated. They can be looked at, but not seen. And so the viewer must intuit the quality of the painting and feel its compelling power if he or she is to move to buy it or to spend some considerable time admiring it.

It is like falling in love in the true sense of the word, for it is to stand before it and feel oneself made alive by its promise: that however long we are compelled to look at it, we will never tire of it. And so it is however many times we read great writing, or listen to great music, or enjoy great conversation: we are made alive by the promise of the other.

On Failing

Praise of failure as a necessary part of the path to success has becomes something of a growth industry in recent years as we have come to appreciate better the learning opportunities that failing affords. That does not make the experience of failure any more palatable, but it can help to contextualise it.

However, there is a mistake that is commonly made here, and I have already to some extent made it even in these four or five lines, which is the assumption that something good must come of everything bad. We like to tell ourselves this to console ourselves, and telling us such things as that “every cloud has a silver lining” may help to soften the blow or alleviate the pain; the trouble is that it isn’t always true. And the reason why that matters is that if we allow ourselves to believe the lie that it is possible to find the positives in anything, we will be particularly distraught on the many occasions when we just can’t. And the reason why sometimes we just can’t is that sometimes there just isn’t anything positive to find.

So let’s throw away this false assumption, this consolation, and face the fact that we will all from time to time fail; let’s equally, without making as much fuss about it, recognise that sometimes we will fail for no fault of our own just because there is stuff going on out there there is neither rational, justifiable nor fair; and let’s not forget that sometimes we will fail purely and simply because we mess up, get something wrong, don’t prepare thoroughly enough, find ourselves in competition with someone who is better or deemed better by those with the decision-making power, and that sometimes we are just not good enough.

Everybody fails sooner or later. Even those who seem to live lives blessed by the gods fall over eventually. Or so we like to think. But it is just as important to set this consolation aside as well: there is absolutely no point or purpose or consolation to be had from the fact that others fail, too. Allowing ourselves a self-indulgent smirk when someone we deem more fortunate or successful than ourselves comes a cropper is debilitating and demotivating; as a way of thinking about and rationalising our own misfortunes and failures it absolutely sucks. Why? Because it helps us to achieve absolutely nothing: it makes us feel good for something that represents no positive achievement, no step forward, no learning, no advancement whatsoever. So it removes one of our strongest motives to make progress, by affording us satisfaction even though we have achieved nothing.

Let’s face it: sometimes we will fail for no better reason than that the world plays one of its unkind tricks that has no moral or rational justification; we just find ourselves dumped on our backsides and staring up at the stars wondering whether it is worth getting up. And sometimes the reason for our failure will be that we just weren’t good enough; maybe we will never be good enough to achieve something we aspire to. But telling ourselves that only makes sense when it becomes incontrovertibly true. As someone once said, engineering says that the bumble bee can’t fly, but fortunately nobody told the bumble bee. The only absolute certainty is that you can’t succeed if you don’t try. But there is no law of the universe that says that you can’t fail and still succeed except the one we find floating about in our own heads because we allow it room to be there, the one that says “There, I told you so: you’ve never been any good at anything; you’re such a loser!”

There is a horrible phrase that occurs in some ghastly American boy-makes-good baseball movie or other whose title I can’t remember and frankly don’t want to remember: “You show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser!” But actually we need to turn this on its head: we all have to be good losers; we all have to lose and smile and affirm ourselves and tell ourselves how well we did even though we lost or failed or fell or metaphorically died, even and perhaps especially when it was because we messed up. Ask a stand-up comic; ask actors who have dried; ask politicians who have been defeated; ask job-applicants who have been rejected despite the best cvs and the best experience: the thing that makes the difference is that those who fall over and remain flat on their faces staring into the mud, those that is who believe that failure is forever, subscribe to a self-fulfilling delusion, that there is something wrong or unnatural about failing.

And yes, it may be unfair, unjustifiable, irrational, a complete coincidence or an elaborate conspiracy, but telling yourself that will not make you more likely to get up and try again. And hating the person who succeeds where you fail, or worse still envying them their success, will make absolutely no contribution to your own recovery at all. Better to say “Well done! You deserved it! I’ll achieve as much next time.” So let’s change the metaphor: the great merit of falling over and lying flat on your back is that it affords an excellent opportunity to gaze at the stars.

Our greatest glory lies, not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall.

Attributed to Confucius.

On Writing

The art of writing is an exploration of our unknown selves. As Adam Phillips has said, we do not write to say what we believe; we write to discover what we believe. The empty page or the blank screen is an invitation: come fill it with your words and discover who you are. All real writing is about self-exploration. The greatest writing gives the author more pleasure than it can ever give a reader because it tells the author someone about himself or herself that would otherwise never have been known.

People who do not write, or do not write much, sometimes imagine that the great writers start with a worked-out plan and then painstakingly execute it to a pre-defined formula. Great writing never works like that. The author no more knows the way the story will unravel than the reader, and part of the pleasure of writing is to have one’s story and one’s characters take over the plot and start to force it to go in directions that the author might never have imagined or even wished. The creative process is about bringing into being that which but for that process would have no being. As Wittgenstein once so powerfully put it, “The first time I knew I believed that was when I heard myself saying it”.

“We do not know ourselves very well. Neither, fortunately for us, does God.” Those two sentences stand at the start of my unpublished work Between Silence and the Word: A Study in Creation that I wrote over three blissful summers in Princeton in the mid ’90s. What that book argues is that if we share anything with God at all, if a God there be, it is that we find out who we are by speaking, by bringing into words what would otherwise remain buried in silence and unknown. And it is not – it most emphatically is not – that but for these words only we would know the secrets of our hearts; it is that but for these words even we would not know the secrets of our hearts. Self-expression is creation and self-discovery and self-realisation; we become more by speaking, writing, acting, doing. As Eberhard Jüngel once put it, Gottes sein ist im werden: God’s being is in becomingAnd God becomes through speaking as we become through writing.

Of course one must first learn the language of writing. One can no more write well if one can neither spell nor use grammar correctly than one can play an instrument without mastering the techniques required by that instrument. But what makes writing so powerful and evocative is that it becomes a conversation with a part of oneself that would otherwise be completely inaccessible. Or perhaps I should say that “for most people” would be quite inaccessible. There may be people who can speak to themselves inwardly in the same way, but for most of us the act of writing sets up an other over against which and through which to argue and discover what one really believes.

And the problem is that what one really believes may be as shocking to oneself as what other people believe is sometimes shocking. On a daily and lifelong basis we are engaged in a battle with ourselves to discover what we can tolerate and what we have a need to suppress; Adam Phillips says the same, the life is a battle to manage those aspects of ourselves that we find unacceptable. But acceptable to whom? If I am not who I believe myself to be, who is it that deems me acceptable? If my truer or better self is hidden, sometimes exposed and expressed in writing, who is it that I the writer before these revelations am to myself? What makes us “rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”? Why would we? Isn’t our comfort zone the place we prefer to be? But writing is not entirely voluntary; writers are driven to write, to expose what might otherwise remain hidden forever about themselves or about the world.

Inside the house of the mind that writing explores there are false doors, distorting mirrors, convoluted staircases and terrifying dungeons. Sometimes writing, for all its courage, is deceived by those false images and distorting devices, and repeats what it thinks it is obliged to repeat or what it deems safe to repeat rather than explore the spaces behind those deflectors. We come to a door and face a choice whether to open it or turn aside to more familiar and comfortable places, thereby adding another layer to our collusion with self-inflicted blindness.

But there is another kind of distortion to which writers can fall prey, and it is far less easy to see than a door or a reflection in a mirror: sometimes we sense that our writing is developing in a direction that leads to dangerous discomfort and disturbance, and we veer away from it instinctively as a helmsman will avoid breaking waves. But great writing has to venture closer to the source of danger, and its ability to navigate the waters around it is its strength and its lasting power.

The possibility of newness gives rise to interesting philosophical questions, and to some extent those questions occasion doubt about that possibility. After all, everything said uses words that are not new, yet they can be used in ways that have never been used before. Sometimes we are confused in this respect by a common and pernicious fallacy: that if the number of words we have is finite, the number of things we can say with them is also finite. By analogy with numbers, we can see that this is untrue: the ten digits 0, 1, …, 9 can be arranged not only to form an infinite set of numbers, but a transfinite set of numbers, which is to say numbers that cannot be counted. So if that is true of ten digits, it is even more true of the hundreds of thousands of words in a language. What follows from this is that the notion that we might be able to program a computer to generate a list of all possible sequences of words is not only difficult: it is impossible.

So as we add one word to another, what governs the navigation of our thought through the complex tree of possibilities that can arise? When we start with a blank sheet of paper and a pen, what is the relation between what has not yet been said and what will soon have been said? There is something here about order and disorder, about energy and entropy, about information and knowledge, about the “no longer” and the “not yet”. And in this creation, this marshalling of the molecules of ink from their inchoate reservoir into lines upon a page, irrevocable change occurs: something new enters the world. And what was not written – like the missing lives we will never live – will remain unwritten, for even if and when we return and revisit the idea and write it again, it will not be the same; it will not be as it was when first we drew upon the page.

Picasso famously once said that he decided and discovered what and how to draw by drawing, and the same is true of writing: this blank page has no destiny, no text that is already its own but as-yet unwritten and somehow embedded in it waiting to be discovered; what will occupy the third line cannot be decided until we have first filled the second. Writing is to the page as painting to the canvas and as making love is to the beloved. Someone – I haven’t yet been able to trace it (George Steiner in Real Presences?) – once asked “For which of us has ever made love anew?” To which the only appropriate answer is “Someone who has never made love anew has never made love at all”.

Gabriel Garcia Marques allegedly once wrote “It is not that as we grow old we cease to fall in love, but that as we cease to fall in love we grow old” (I need to check the exact quote), but more probably wrote “It is not that as we grow old we cease to dream, but that as we cease to dream we grow old” and so it is with writing and the creation of newness. It is possible, indeed it is highly likely, that our brains die when we stop thinking new thoughts that arise from and with the creation of new neural pathways, and so to as with Marques, “It is not that we grow old we cease to think new thoughts and dream new dreams, but that as we cease to think new thoughts and dream new dreams we grow old”.

To be truly in love is to be made alive by the promise of the other (I first wrote “by the presence of the other”, but “promise” is far better and far deeper and has far more scope, and I note the change of mind because the difference is itself worth drawing attention to). A writer is in this sense in love with the blank sheet of paper because it promises something that almost nothing else can provide. And so the pleasure of writing, which for some is little short of a compulsion, lies in the encounter with promise in a way that is almost exactly analogous to the desire for the other that drives us when we are in love: the writer can no more be herself when she does not write than the lover can be himself when separated from the beloved.

Adam Phillips (again from @Brainpickings) with his Jewish background, perhaps unconsciously or even consciously affected and influenced by the Talmudic tradition, observes that it is in conversation that we find ourselves, not in monologue (I think I may already have said this), but I am not sure he is entirely right, for writing is a peculiar kind of monologue, albeit a monologue where the written begins to become the interlocutor. The writing, like but not quite like the speaking, which can so easily be ephemeral, lost and forgotten, assumes its own existence: “What I have written, I have written” as Pontius Pilate notoriously once said. And there is an interesting point here, for human writing is in this sense as the biblical authors conceived of divine speaking. Unlike human speaking in its ephemeral transience, divine speaking is conceived by them as permanent and unrealisable: “For so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). And the Hebrew word for “Word”, dabar, is the same word as the Hebrew verb “to drive”; words are “driven out”, “sent” on a purposive course that will achieve an end. When for the biblical authors God speaks, God creates: “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’, and there was light”. This is not a causality of speech and action; speech is action; there is here no distinction between God’s existence as one who speaks and God’s existence as one who creates. And so it is, albeit on a more modest scale, with human writing (and, to a lesser extent, with human speaking).

Words assume a life of their own: they are written or uttered and then taken into a world of language and culture where their significance can not longer entirely be under the control of their author. They can be a gift, but they can as easily be a curse, for what can be understood can also be misunderstood. But like our children, our words also remain to a greater or lesser extent our responsibility, or at least things for which we feel responsibility, and we do not like them to suffer ill-treatment or be abused. So the much-argued issue of the significance of authorial intention is nicely illustrated by the analogy with parenting: yes, our parents made us, but they are not responsible for everything we have become or every purpose to which we have attended. “Our words, insofar as they mean anything at all, must mean far more than we can ever know” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge).

Writing creates an other which is “to us” and “for us” (Martin Buber’s pro me), but it is not an other which can ever remain ours, and so it must also be for and to others. And so the creation of the written or spoken other cannot but involve separation, which is to say that the creation of the written or spoken other must involve the practice that Rilke ascribes to love: “We need in love to practise only this: letting each other go” (Requiem for a Friend).

This “letting go” connects with another aspect of Phillips: that when we speak or write we must place over there and as an “other” something that has already gone beyond our control and therefore may as easily challenge or offend us as please us, something that we have created that demands that we come to terms with it. And some of this may so offend us that, as we noted before, we veer away from it or wish we had not written it or had not said it (or even had not made it). And so the written as other becomes like an interlocutor, a conversational partner who will not always say what we would like to be said. So Phillips is right to say that much of life in general, and this is especially so of our creative lives, involves coming to terms with aspects of ourselves that we are uncomfortable with, and even aspects of ourselves that we would rather repress. For him, psychoanalysis offers a possible but not guaranteed path through this morass of uncertainty, but writing can also afford such a remedy.

Writing also involves letting go because if we seek to write while retaining complete control of what is written the process cannot flourish any more than a human relationship can flourish where one party tries to control the other. To move from monologue to dialogue the written as other must be permitted the capacity to go to places and in directions we might not initially either imagine or intend.

Writing that is not creative, which is to say writing that is turning the handle in a predictable and stereotyped way in which what comes later is predictable from what comes first (Ilya Prigogine says something like this in one of his books on complexity theory where he observes that in most books what comes in the second half is entirely predictable from what comes in the first), is better called scribbling (I am looking for a better word; perhaps “drafting” would do, but even that isn’t right; perhaps “dictating” does it because of the obvious double-meaning). To scribble is to make marks mindlessly, marks to which one has no personal or essential connection, marks that might as well not be made for all the difference they make to the great scheme of things. Lawyers are the quintessential scribblers because their writing is intended to eliminate ambiguity and diversity and possibility in order to achieve an entirely controlled and unambiguous text that cannot be misinterpreted.

Ursula le Guin reminds us (also courtesy of @Brainpickings) of the partnership between the writer and the reader, for to all great writing there must correspond great reading, just as to all great speaking there must correspond great listening. Great reading augments the creative process by imagining new worlds that are stimulated by writing but not constrained by it. Just as what is written cannot contain or convey all that might have been written or all that has not been written, so what is imagined by the reader from what is read cannot be known to the writer, and so the question whether the author “intended” the written to be understood as it is by the reader is just the wrong question: far better to ask how much has been understood by countless readers from what one author has written and be content with that as a measure of writing’s greatness.

“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

We are reborn in writing because we become another to ourselves, but that for some is a reason not to write, not to think, not to speak; it is as if we are afraid that in becoming we lose our being rather than discover and enhance it; it is as if in change we identify an enemy rather than the friend that is the source and essence of life. Some ask about continuity of self in a world of change and flux where everything is being renewed, but presence is less important than promise, and history than future. What we have been liberated from in the transformative creation that dissolves the past in order to create the future is any sense that we are obliged to be in our present what we may have been in our past. In the renewal that creates discontinuity we are set free.

And this is what is really entailed in “the promise of the other” that makes us alive, whether the other be writing, speaking, a person or a lover: that in communion with this other we are transformed and remade, and in the hope that has no expectation we are reborn.

And as an afterthought which is another promise rather than an ending, it is important to recognise that, just as there is no finite limit to what can be written, we must live with the terrible realisation that what we can write but do not write may never be written, rather as the lives we can live but do not live will never be lived.

End of Term – I

At first, nobody noticed. There had been too many false dawns, broken promises, unrealised dreams. What was heralded as something that would change everything had changed almost nothing, except for the worse. Learning had long been confused with memorising, but now knowledge had dissolved into information, skill into technique, quality into quantity, and value into price. It was not reasonable to criticise anyone for cynicism because there was so much to be cynical about. Everything, almost, except the thing that changed education, and in changing education, changed everything.

What everyone expected and supposed was that to program a computer – actually rather a lot of computers – to be good at something one first needed to be good at it oneself. Good enough at least to know what it was that one was trying to program. And then it turned out that one didn’t. All one needed to be able to do – and of course this “all” is profoundly ironic – was to know how to enable the computer to learn. And once the computer could learn, it didn’t matter how good the programmers were; all that mattered was how good the computer’s learning had become.

Nobody noticed because everyone was so focused on the result and its implications for human thought that they missed the real point. AlphaGo had beaten one of the best Go players in the world by four games to one despite the fact that none of the people who programmed it was remotely good at the game. What they were good at was enabling the computer to learn, and programming what was needed to play the game, even if they were themselves incapable of playing it very well.

And that was really the message: all we need to be able to do is to discover what needs to be done in order to be good at something and then program it. Nobody needs to be able to do it; nobody even needs to be able to understand how the computer does it; we just need to know how to tell the computer to do it.

They quickly found, or actually to be honest stole from a little-known twentieth-century philosopher of science, a name for it: The Domain of Sophistication; the place or rather the territory where computers start to be able to do things better than we can do them and where ideas we understood to start with start to get so complex that we cannot understand them any more. Not just by calculating faster, or memorising more, but by being able to operate in territory of great complexity better than any human being can or ever could operate. And the thing that really delivered the killer-punch was that these systems were interactive: they not only learned from their human interactions; they learned even better from their interactions with themselves. They learned how to learn and how to teach learning by teaching themselves how to learn.

So, at first, nobody noticed. The odd, unpredictable move was viewed as a curiosity, an interesting intellectual challenge, viewed almost as we once entertained ourselves by watching physically deformed people in freak shows: how odd; how weird; how strange; how amusing; how inhuman. But if the system could learn to play one of the most sophisticated of games by teaching itself and playing itself, why could it not learn to do anything else that its creators thought sophisticated? In particular, why could something that could teach itself to learn by learning not also teach itself to teach by teaching? Why could not a system that could learn to play a game better than any human being by playing human beings and itself also learn how to teach a subject better than any human being by teaching human beings and itself?

So, at first, nobody noticed.

Mental Stink

Would you expect to find him in the pink

Who’s solely occupied with his own mental stink?

from Stevie Smith, Analysand

Aaron Ciechanovar was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2004 for the discovery of the mechanism by which ubiquitin degrades proteins and thereby allows organisms to dispose of potentially toxic waste products. Ubiquitin effectively allows us to get rid of physiological crap.

The day after listening to Aaron describe this process in beautiful simplicity I suddenly found myself wondering what the equivalent of ubiquitin is in enabling us to dispose of mental crap, the kind of stuff, that is, that we accumulate over time and that potentially poisons our minds just as dangerously as physiological toxins would poison the body.

I suspect that there is no universal method, no ubiquitous system of neutralising therapy, no psycho-ubiquitin, that routinely rids us of this kind of stuff, but there can scarcely be a more essential life-skill than to learn how to detox mentally from time to time.

Failure to manage the accumulated detritus of our own mental lives can only eventually lead to serious mental illness, perhaps breakdown and even suicide. People will often say “I just can’t get the thought out of my head” when they are obsessed with some event that has caused them pain, and obsessive-compulsive disorder is an obvious example of those whose mental stink rules their lives.

Less seriously but much more commonly, negative thinking that destroys any capacity to be optimistic or hopeful and renders all our relationships sour and unsatisfying is something we all have to deal with from time to time.

For those not given to negative thinking, observing someone with the habit is rather like a non-smoker watching someone who smokes: it is impossible to understand why they choose freely to engage in such self-destructive behaviour.

But that is the question: is negative thinking and mental unhappiness something we “freely choose” or is it something that we are somehow compelled to indulge in or, like smoking, something we have become addicted to? And is there a technique or some series of techniques that will act like ubiquitin and enable us to stop thinking negatively (or in any other way we find distasteful)?

The first step in this process is to appreciate that familiar modes of behaviour are almost always more agreeable to us than unfamiliar modes; in short, we are creatures of habit. The habit of thinking negatively is therefore more likely to be comfortable than any other form of thinking. We may even have adopted some defence-mechanisms whereby to protect familiar habitual negative thinking against different modes of thinking that threaten it because we want to protect what is familiar and comfortable against what is not. We resist beneficial change.

Resistance consists of all the mechanisms we employ to protect habitual comfortable modes of thought against other modes of thought.

The second step in the process is to recognise that bad experiences commonly have two components: the event itself is one and our response to the event is the other. Negative thinking gives rise to what we might call double jeopardy: taking a bad experience and then making it even worse by overlaying it with a negative interpretation.

Double jeopardy consists in allowing ourselves to overlay bad experiences with bad interpretations and thoughts about those experiences

But this never makes the experience better; it always makes it worse. So why do we indulge such negative thinking? Because of a third mechanism which negative thinking shares with one of its most punishing cousins: envy. This mechanism is in some respects the most bizarre of all because it arises from the mistaken belief that making ourselves feel bad somehow levels the score or punishes whoever or whatever made us feel bad. Envy is a form of double jeopardy because it takes a situation, for example that we do not have something we want, and adds the additional layer whereby we make ourselves miserable because we don’t have what we want as if this is an inevitable and rational response to and consequence of that lack. But it is not: there is no intrinsic connection between the lack and the interpretation of the lack; only the habits of negative thinking create such an illusion. This beautiful woman doesn’t want me, but if I make myself miserable that will show her. Except of course that the beautiful woman doesn’t care or notice my self-imposed and manufactured misery.

Envy is like taking poison yourself and expecting somebody else to die.

A great deal of counselling and psychotherapy encourages clients with problems to analyse them endlessly and to try to find their causes in some bad experience buried in the past. Undoubtedly sometimes uncovering such causes of unhappiness can help because understanding almost anything helps us to deal with it, but what psychotherapy sometimes lacks is another component of the healing mechanism, namely the single-minded determination to eradicate the negative thinking that constantly punishes us in the present for things that have happened in the past. As with double jeopardy, there is no necessary connection between a past trauma and a present state of mind. And becoming obsessed with finding the causes of unhealthy states of mind may be less beneficial than simply adopting a determined strategy they forbids us from allowing ourselves to be affected by them. And yes, this is a more sophisticated version of “pull yourself together”, which is widely sneered at by those with a vested interest in making us all victims. But refusing to accept that we need to be damaged just because we have suffered misfortune is a major component in not being damaged and not allowing ourselves to become victims, least of all victims of our own negative thinking.

Disconnection is the process through which we give ourselves permission not to be victims of our own unhappy experiences by refusing to accept that there is any necessary connection between those experiences and how we feel about them.

So a strategy that helps to dislodge addiction to negative thinking consists of routinely asking ourselves whether the way we feel about an experience is something we can change. Something happens and we feel bad: is there any reason why we should feel bad; do we have to feel bad; can we resist feeling bad; can we choose instead to feel if not good then at least better, accepting what has happened and trying as quickly and completely as possible to move on?

Unfortunately we easily fall victim to the belief that certain feelings are caused by certain experiences and that there is nothing we can do about them; they are in some sense “natural” or “inevitable”. For example, when someone we loves dies we imagine that we have to feel grief, sorrow, but that is a culturally-conditioned response to death, not an inevitable or necessary one. Of course, cultures also act to make us feel guilty if we respond to all kinds of events differently than the culture expects; laughter and tears are culturally-conditioned too. But the principle of disconnection allows us to choose how we feel in response to any event, regardless of the cultural setting; all we require is the courage to choose our own reaction rather than have it be dictated to us.

Much of what we have said involves explicit or more usually implicit acceptance of the fallacious principle that I can somehow hurt you by hurting myself. Such a belief can involve elements of reciprocal self-delusion: if you allow me to manipulate you by hurting myself, you give credibility to the belief that hurting myself is a good way to hurt you. But there is absolutely no reason why you should indulge me in this practice, and a very good reason why you should not. The ultimate expression of this fallacious belief is seen in certain kinds of motive for suicide, the mistaken belief that by destroying myself I can and will do immeasurable damage to you: “you’ll be sorry when I’m gone”. And people are sorry and often overcome by a morbid feeling of guilt when they experience someone’s suicide because they feel that they could and should have done something to prevent it. But this depends upon the principle that I can somehow harm you by harming myself, which is the principle that drives and energises envy: that by poisoning myself I will somehow cause you to die. Some forms of suicide rely upon the same twisted logic: that by killing myself I can do you immeasurable hurt.

There is another dimension to the same syndrome which a lot of people believe unconsciously: the belief that I can damage you by taking myself away, by denying you access to me. This is of course an amazingly arrogant and presumptuous belief, but many people unconsciously adopt it in their dealings with people: if I don’t get what I want, I will take myself away. Perhaps the roots of the behaviour lie in childhood when children learn that their parents want to be loved by them, and so learn that to deny their parents love is a strong way to get what they want. Children learn to take themselves away in order to punish others and to get what they want. But this learned behaviour is as toxic as negative thinking and feeds the belief that by denying myself something or damaging myself I can damage you or manipulate you into doing what I want.

Self-destructive behaviour only has as much manipulative power as others grant it. To reward self-destructive tendencies by granting them what they are designed to get is to break the golden rule of never rewarding bad behaviour.

It follows that my self-destructive behaviour only has as much power to manipulate you or damage you as you grant it. Societies that reward bad behaviour therefore create the circumstances in which self-destruction becomes a tool of control, and therefore establishes the conditions under which self-harming and suicide can thrive.


Education Matters – I

It is very difficult to say what education is for because the question has no single answer and any collection of answers will almost certainly not cover every possibility. Moreover, even a straightforward answer that might command general assent such as “that education has as a principal aim to ensure that new generations can grow into civilized human beings and play a part in making the world a better place” will fall foul of many questions about what is meant by “civilized” and how the world might be made a “better” place. And then there will be those who will rightly say that this is only part of the picture, and want to insert specific clauses about being ready for employment, being moral, being cultured, and so forth, just as there will be others who will want to say something about health, well-being, a life balanced by physical, mental and spiritual maturity, and so on.

Looked at from an entirely different perspective, the nature of a school as it reflects contemporary education theory will need to take account of its marketability. Here a different set of difficulties arise, for school fees are generally paid by parents, and those who pay the piper tend to call the tune. So whatever brand of education a school promotes and embodies needs to be marketable to at least a sufficient number of potential families as are needed to finance it or, more pertinently, to appeal to a sufficient number of donors to attract scholarship funds sufficient to render the contributions of families largely irrelevant. So what parents and donors think education is – a picture hugely influenced by their own school experience – will be at least one of the criteria by which the attractions of a particular school are judged.

However, one cannot be all things to all people, so the first task is to decide what we want to be; after that we can decide whether we have the resources to be it. So let me start with what I take to be a truism, albeit a truism frequently overlooked in many schools:

Great schools enthuse their students with the best discoveries from the past and equip them with the skills necessary to use them to create the future.

Any school that fails to acquaint its students with the best things of the past condemns them to reinvent everything themselves. Student-centred learning cannot be devoid of direction by those who know more than the students, and while it is perfectly reasonable to be conscious and aware of the dangers of all kinds of imperialism, that should not deter us from imparting the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of past centuries. Teachers have never been the source of all knowledge; there have always been libraries, personal experience and the collective wisdom and knowledge of societies; the Internet has not changed anything fundamentally, it has just altered the speed of access and scope of the resources available.

Enthusiasm for the best of the past – and the wisdom to decide what the best is – define the challenges and responsibilities of school common rooms and curriculum developers. A principle that should always be borne in mind is that schools should concentrate on those things that, were they not encountered at school, might not be encountered at all. This means that work in laboratories, familiarity with the difficult things dealt with in mathematics, acquisition of the critical skills needed for source criticism and evaluation of the provenance of knowledge-claims, and experience in theatres, in musical co-operation, and in art, should take precedence over the learning of languages and the reading of books that can be learned and read anywhere. In this respect the IB’s preoccupation with language-learning is mistaken and wasteful of resources.

Educators and government ministries of education in particular too readily swallow the demands of employers for specific skills, especially the tedious clarion-call for greater numeracy and literacy. Great schools will always produce students who are literate and numerate, but not necessarily in the ways employers would like them to be. But education is not training, and should never be confused with it. Schools that aspire to greatness should never therefore teach accountancy or business studies in preference to literature and philosophy, not because accountancy and business studies are not important features of commercial life, but because they are specific skills that can be acquired as necessary later in life as contrasted with general skills that if they are not learned at school may never be learned at all. What might be more surprising is that I also think most of the time we spend teaching mathematics in school is similarly wasted on arcane topics of neither practical nor intellectual merit. More on this later.

Schools should also take responsibility for knowing what might be good for their students. So a key part of early-years education, particularly as embodied in the IB’s MYP, is exposure of students to the full range of academic disciplines and as wide a range as possible of arts and sports so that no child ever leaves school without at least some idea of what is involved in them. There is enormous merit in a “sampler” system whereby during their early education children have to encounter everything that a “normal balanced educated” person (pace intercultural differences) might expect to know. Even if they do not continue with them, the merit of knowing what they are rejecting or being forced to miss because of lack of time to do everything cannot be over-estimated.

In a cosmopolitan world the content of these early educational experiences should not be limited merely to the traditional subjects of western culture and history. It is shameful that most Europeans think history (and sometimes even geography, too) ends somewhere around the Balkans, and have no knowledge of the histories and cultures of Asia, the Middle East, Africa or the Americas (pace Christopher Columbus, the Slave Trade, the East India Company, and all that).

In practical terms, of course, all this takes time, and there is a strong argument, which I endorse, for the only major transition during school being at the age of 11 after which all seven years of secondary education should partly be dedicated to provision of this fundamental grounding in world cultures. And on this score I should add that too much time is wasted in preparing for examinations if school transitions based upon entrance tests and IGCSEs are allowed to punctuate this seven years: at 13, at 16 and at 18 we take half a year out to ensure students are “prepared” for examinations that are summative without being formative. No wonder children become jaundiced about learning.

Granted this emphasis upon a grounding in world cultures, which satisfies the requirements of learning the best of the past including science and mathematics, another part of the academic curriculum should concern the acquisition of the skills and habits of creative, critical thought. To an extent the IBDP Theory of Knowledge meets some of the requirements, but it is largely too little too late, and it is more important to understand the issues within the framework of all other subjects than to study ToK as if it were a course in philosophy. Unfortunately, many teachers do not understand why ToK is so important because they have never themselves reflected critically on their own subjects.

Which brings me to the quality of teaching in its politically correct form, and to the quality of teachers in its politically incorrect form. And here there is no argument: a great education requires great teachers. Great teachers are not necessarily the most highly accomplished academically – it used to be the case that someone with a decent 2.1 honours degree was likely to be a better teacher than someone with a first, but now when so many get a first so we can’t really say that. But great teachers all share at least these qualities:

  • They are enthusiastic about their subject
  • They realise that they will never know all there is to know about their subject
  • And so are ready to be learners with their students as teachers
  • They are generous with themselves, with their knowledge, time and talents
  • They are interested in all their students, not just the most obviously able ones
  • They teach the way their students best learn, not as they like best to teach
  • They never give up on a child, and see student disaffection as a symptom of a problem with the way learning is actioned and perceived rather than as a fault in the student

All this is really just an extended way of saying that teaching and learning occur best when teacher and learner have a positive, honest, constructive, committed relationship, and that wherever that relationship is missing the teaching and learning process will be less effective.

How does a school attract the best teachers as defined in these terms? Certainly not just by paying huge salaries, although paying salaries that are competitive is essential. There are probably three motivating factors that are more important:

  • the quality and enthusiasm of students, who will make the teaching and learning experience rewarding in its own right;
  • a progressive and imaginative school environment in which the common room is a vibrant reflection of contemporary educational thinking and the senior staff and governors are supportive of those initiatives;
  • a rich cultural, social, sporting, geographical and political environment which will enable teaching and learning to engage with local culture through participation in service-learning and cultural events that reflect the full spectrum of human thriving.

In a residential school, provision of adequate housing and a strong community life are also important, especially when the school is in a relatively remote region; and in all schools teachers expect that their teaching will be resourced properly with books and equipment.

Aside: excessive dependence on textbooks kills creative teaching and schools need to be on their guard against allowing a textbook culture to develop where students and teachers imagine that only what is in the syllabus and the textbook is worth learning and knowing.

To ask what we want from education is to ask what we want from life, and this is not the place for such a discussion. But nothing less will do.

Language and Education

Language is what separates human beings from other species: it allows us to transmit knowledge and skills from generation to generation; it allows us to understand what we have not experienced first-hand; it allows us to imagine, design and create worlds and futures that would literally be unthinkable without language; and part of the price we pay for this power and freedom is that language allows us to lie. Once we employ a tool that allows us to lie, the questions of how we distinguish lies from truths, whom we should trust and what we should not, and what purpose lies could serve, become pressing.

Education at a minimal level allows us to transmit the knowledge of past generations to children and young adults, as well as to provide opportunities that can last a lifetime as we continue to learn new things and pursue new interests.

Education also transmits cultural values and assumptions in the way every culture shapes its education to direct the development of the next generations. So education is both a powerful tool of cultural transmission and survival while also being potentially an instrument of social repression and control in cultures that use it to resist change and divergent thinking.

Education for both these reasons has as a central problem the relationship between social conformity and social change, the question of the balance between tradition and development, the past and the future, preserving what is best while giving scope for the creation of what is better.

One of the most concise and powerful statements of educational objectives can be found in the report of the Secondary Education Committee published in India in 1952 (quoted in the Indian National Curriculum Framework of 2005):

Citizenship in a democracy involves many intellectual, social and moral qualities…a democratic citizen should have the understanding and the intellectual integrity to sift truth from falsehood, facts from propaganda and to reject the dangerous appeal of fanaticism and prejudice … should neither reject the old because it is old nor accept the new because it is new, but dispassionately examine both and courageously reject what arrests the forces of justice and progress…..

As a statement of educational objectives, this can scarcely be bettered, but it is one thing to say it and another to implement an education policy that achieves what it aims to achieve in terms of balanced citizenship. And of course it addresses en passant the challenge of distinguishing truth from falsehood as it affects citizenship.

The Problem of Education

It might be thought that to be given a blank sheet and be asked to write on it a completely new and refreshingly innovative educational scheme would be both exhilarating and exciting, but the challenge of such an invitation presents with formidable difficulties. John Dewey, considering just such a possibility as long ago as 1938, wrote as follows in the preface to his Experience and Education:

[The formulation of a philosophy of education involves] the necessity of the introduction of a new order of conceptions leading to new modes of practice. It is for this reason that it is so difficult to develop a philosophy of education, the moment tradition and custom are departed from. It is for this reason that the conduct of schools, based upon a new order of conceptions, is so much more difficult than the management of schools which walk to beaten paths. Hence, every movement in the direction of a new order of ideas and of activities directed by them calls out, sooner or later, (for) a return to the practices of the past …

John Dewey, op. cit., my emphasis.

One of Dewey’s most important themes, typical of his whole pragmatist philosophy, is opposition to an analysis of the human condition in terms of extreme opposites. He believes in particular that the extremes of “traditional” and “progressive” education are over-stated: “The history of educational theory is marked by opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without”. He goes on to observe that what in modern language we would call teacher-centred and student-centred learning need to be held in balance if education is not to lurch from one extreme to the other. In particular, it is absurd for a teacher to pretend not to see further and know more than students, even if students often see aspects of a topic new to a teacher; the question is how best to deploy such advantages to the students’ optimal benefit.

Dewey then observes that in a “traditional” educational scheme, “that which is taught is thought of as essentially static” in two respects: it is taught as a body of knowledge independent of how it came to be discovered; and it is taught as if the future will be very much like the past. This point is of enormous importance, and of even greater importance today than in 1938: for the majority of human history the rate of development of knowledge and ideas was slow, so the education that sufficed for parents sufficed almost without change for their children. This meant in practice that education did not need to concern itself with active learning, still less with creative learning: everything that needed to be known was assumed already to be known; the task was simply to share it with every new generation. Consequently, accelerating change has largely caught education flat-footed, and change that has ensured that the time from childhood to adulthood covers more than a doubling of human knowledge and technological innovation effectively guarantees that the skills of teachers are disconnected from those needed to engage with their students.

In other words, the greatest challenge technology makes to education has little to do with the possibilities it creates for new methods of learning and different kinds of access to knowledge; it arises instead from the fact that it effectively disconnects teachers from students.

To illustrate this point, consider that when I started teaching in 1984 there was no Internet, no Google, no Facebook, that dial-up modems were running at about 500kbps, and that the storage capacity of most personal computers was around 16kB. We taught using “BBC microcomputers” with floppy disks and had negligible network interconnectivity. This technobabble is irrelevant as far as learning is concerned, but the distance between that and now is also a symbol of the disconnection between teachers whose own schooling took place in the pre-digital age and those being trained now. Whereas it was once the case that one skill-set would serve throughout a career, now one needs a new skill-set every few years as technology creates a race that nobody can keep up with, let alone win.

Question: But should education even be trying to keep up with all this technomania? Is education about training in ephemeral techniques of communication and knowledge-processing, or about eternal truths distilled from the collective knowledge and wisdom of the ages? Is there still a place for an education based upon the painstaking study of the classics that embraces all the difficulties they represent? What do we lose if we embrace technomania without reserve?

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock, 1934, §I

Part of the problem here is to do with the long-standing but almost entirely bankrupt notion that certain kinds of activity work on the brain the way physical fitness works on the body, the notion of the “mental gymnasium”. But it is now established virtually beyond dispute that, for example, doing multiplication of five-digit numbers makes us better at multiplying five-digit numbers but almost nothing else; that doing crossword-puzzles makes us better at doing crossword-puzzles, but almost nothing else; cf. The Invisible Gorilla for further examples and cross-references that indicate how useless mental gymnastics are (apart possibly from deferring the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, which is not such a bad thing).

So, instead of teaching five-digit multiplication, we should teach students to understand multiplication so that when they are doing calculations on computers and spreadsheets they know what they are doing. And being able to do five-digit multiplication actually doesn’t help to understand multiplication very well. (Maybe a better example is the way we were taught to do multiplication using logarithms and antilogarithms: I was brilliant at it, could do it faultlessly, but I had absolutely no idea why it worked or what I was doing, and of course now it all seems pointless without that understanding because we can do the same thing so easily; in other words, I had not understood.) But this leads to a very deep and troublesome educational problem: it is far easier to perform five-digit multiplication than to understand the abstract notion of multiplication; it is far easier to design mathematics syllabuses that require us to learn techniques of differentiation, integration, factorization and so forth than to teach students to understand what each of these things is really about. So the questions educators need to be able to answer are: which skills matter; which knowledge is worth acquiring? And I want to suggest that although we know vaguely what the answers to these questions are, we do not know the concrete practical answers to these questions that will translate them into educational reform.

To be clear about what the issue is here: knowing how to do multiplication or logarithms as a mechanical process not only confers no useful skills, but in the absence of an understanding of the underlying principles that make the processes work it confers an illusory sense of mastery. That education has invested so much time and effort into getting students to learn to do things by rote is a reflection of the fact that to a considerable extent it was using human beings as machines in the absence of alternative machines. But the industrial and now the digital revolutions have transformed this situation: we no longer need human beings to do what machines can do; we no longer need human beings to do what computers can do. So what can human do that neither machines nor computers can do, and how can education optimise those skills and lead to a reaffirmation of what is best about being human while also addressing the question how those humans who have low abstract cognitive ability can have any role at all in such a future world?

And looking at the history of educational theory and philosophy will furnish absolutely no help in these areas because the realisation that mental gymnastics is largely useless for all purposes other than the skills they impart is relatively recent and the challenge to distinguish between mechanical processes and human processes only took place “yesterday”.

The usual candidates for the characteristics that are uniquely the preserve of humans come from such areas as the creative arts and writing, imagination, critical thinking, science and inventiveness, but these are of course the very things that many humans find most difficult.

In a sense, to answer the question of the purpose of education – What is education for? – is to answer the question of life – What is life for? – since an answer to the former can scarcely be given without an answer to the latter. But answers to the latter are not uniform and are certainly not agreed. So what would an answer look like?

What, first, does any answer look like? It could look like one of several things: it could look like an eternal, timeless truth; or it could look like a temporary truth that served its purpose; or it could look like something that could change in order persistently to serve its purpose even at the expense of not being fixed or even consistent. The last of these strikes most of us a very unlike an answer: surely, we say, an answer must be consistent at least and preferably permanent and timeless? But why? We change and the world changes, so an answer should change, and the best answers will change in a way that keeps track of the changes around us and in ourselves. Just as with the changes to the world economy that reflect an exponential rate of growth and that render obsolete a view of knowledge where what was good enough for our parents and grandparents is good enough for us and for our children, so answers must cease to be thought to need to be timeless or even consistent. In particular, what is worth knowing today may not be worth knowing tomorrow, and there is no reason why our values and aspirations should be any more static.

This presents education with a huge challenge: how to provide for rapidly accelerating change while satisfying assessment requirements that do not reflect accelerating change. How, also, to re-equip teachers with new skills to provide for these changes. Of course, for some it will seem that the solution is to opt for a view of education that delivers eternal, timeless truths, because then such reskilling and re-equipping is not necessary; and no doubt there are some elements of timeless truth in anything that is recognisably human education; but education must come to terms with change itself and the necessity to equip successive generations with the equipment needed to accommodate it if it is not to disenfranchise those generations from changes in the world.

Another example of this accelerating change and the challenge to education (if indeed it is a challenge education should try to meet) is that of the world GDP.

A few hundred thousand years ago, in early human (or hominid) prehistory, growth was so slow that it took on (sic) the order of one million years for human productive capacity to increase sufficiently to sustain an additional one million individuals living at subsistence level. By 5000 BC, following the Agricultural Revolution, the rate of growth had increased to the point where the same amount of growth took just two centuries. Today, following the Industrial Revolution, the world economy grows on average by that amount every ninety minutes. (Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence, OUP, 2014, p.2.)

But it is worth observing that this remarkable statistic has been achieved using largely traditional methods of education, and it is certainly not obvious why we should want to change them. Dewey, writing in 1938, asks the same question:

The question I would raise concerns why we prefer democratic and humane arrangements to those which are autocratic and harsh. (Experience and Education, Chapter 3)

The best answer Dewey can come up with is

Does not the principle of regard for individual freedom and for decency and kindliness of human relations come back in the end to the conviction that these things are tributary to a higher quality of experience on the part of a greater number than are the methods of repression and coercion or force? (loc. cit.)

But this surely isn’t enough. If one method of education is only to be preferred to another because it appeals to a sense of “kindliness” there will be many who will eschew it in favour of traditional methods. Dewey sells himself short here: something more must be achieved by changing the methods of education than just a nice warm fuzzy feeling. The changes must be demonstrably more effective. It is to establishing how that demonstration is to be achieved and what the methods are that it demonstrates that a philosophy of education must apply itself.

Somewhere here we need to engage with the hypothesis – which I now advance – that the traditional methods of autocratic and harsh education are not only responsible for the death of learning in older students alienated by them from love of books and knowledge, but also a contributory factor to the brutality and cruel indifference of human beings to the world. In other words – and it is strange that Dewey, who writes so much that brings him to the brink of seeing it, does not apparently see it – the isolation of education from living experience of the objective world typical of traditional education – Dewey says “The school environment of desks, blackboards, a small schoolyard, was supposed to suffice.” (op. cit.) – led to disconnection between learning and living, between education and formative reflective experience, and to exactly the attitudes of the world that manifest themselves in ecological disasters and environmental rape.

There was no demand that the teacher should become intimately acquainted with the conditions of the local community, physical, historical, economic, occupational etc., in order to utilize them as educational resources (Dewey, op. cit., Chapter 3)

In other words, as we shall see again when we consider and reconsider the question “What is education for?”, the errors of traditional education are not just a matter of autocratic and harsh methods over democratic and humane methods, and its success or failure relative to other methods cannot be measured only by asking whether it achieved economic success; rather, the adequacy and inadequacy of traditional education must be assessed relative to the world it has produced and the component societies of that world and the component individuals who live their lives in those societies. Education must be measured relative to the whole spectrum of human and earthly existence.

Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future. (Dewey, op. cit.; my emphasis.)

And “collateral learning” is not just about likes and dislikes; it is about honesty and integrity and intellectual hunger and fairness and awareness of the quality and provenance of knowledge. Students learn to respect others during classes not because they are learning history, but because they learn history in a particular way, because they learn to listen to and respect others, because they have a questioning attitude to sources and authority, because they learn to cross-reference and to connect what they learn with all their other learning.

And when all this is achieved through a school ethos that permeates every classroom, the conditions are ripe for lifelong learning.

The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning. If impetus in this direction is weakened instead of being intensified, something much more than mere lack of preparation takes place. The pupil is actually robbed of native capacities which otherwise would enable him to cope with the circumstances that he meets in the course of his life. (Dewey, loc. Cit.; my emphasis.)

Looked at in the terms of the challenge of change, this educational parable can be retold as a process of deskilling us in the capacity to accommodate change. Small children are naturally curious; they are naturally inconsistent and even fragmentary in the way they deal with things, lurching from one extreme to another in an emotional and intellectual kaleidoscope. Education tends to crush that capacity to deal with variation and prepares us for a life of conformity and stagnation in keeping with the static realities and expectations of past centuries. But those centuries are gone, and education needs to change to accommodate new realities.

This is consistent with a striking reality. Sometimes those who have had little schooling exhibit more vibrant attitudes to life than those who have had extensive education, Dewey adds, because they have not had to endure having life crushed out of them. “What avail is it …” he writes, if someone “loses his appreciation of things worthwhile, of the values to which these things are relative” (loc. cit.). And sometimes those who have been most rebellious during their schooling, even if they have had extensive schooling, go on to achieve far more than those who are compliant and in a limited sense of the term “successful”. So there seems to be a paradox: those who seem most successful according to education’s own criteria of success frequently do least well in later life, and vice versa.

Perhaps it is that a school’s inducement through “collateral learning” is more important than its ostensive learning objectives? In which case it is the values that a school embraces and the qualities of endurance and resilience it inculcates that matter more than its apparent successes as measured in academic results or sports.

What we can immediately infer is that the conditions necessary for an educational environment that will create conditions conducive to the generation of lifelong learning depend more upon the ethos of the school as it is embedded in the ethos of the classroom than on the quantity of knowledge acquired.

Golden Principle 1: the ethos of a school is of paramount importance, certainly of much greater importance than measurable results of external assessment.

Autocratic and harsh educational methods tend to produce circumstances in which the present experience of learning is felt to be unpleasant. This did not seem to matter much in the traditional systems because the assumption was that present experience was of no importance as measured against the acquisition of the knowledge and skills that pupils would require in the future, since “traditional schools tended to sacrifice the present to a remote and more or less unknown future” (Dewey, loc. cit.). Democratic and humane methods, by contrast, devote care to establishing the conditions which “give each present experience a worthwhile meaning” (Dewey, loc. cit.).

What is particularly interesting about this in a climate of accelerating change is that this mortgaging of the present to the future is no longer even theoretically feasible: we simply do not know the skill-sets that the future will require, so we cannot build a curriculum around them. Belief that we can is the product of a static, changeless view of what we need to know and to be able to do.

Ken Robinson, writing 75 years after Dewey, sees the answer to the question “What is education for?” as being “to enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens” (Creative Schools, p.xxiv). He sees education as having economic, cultural, social and personal aspects (pp.45-53), and the things that are worth knowing as involving eight competencies: curiosity, creativity, criticism, communication, collaboration, compassion, composure and citizenship (pp.135-141). He also identifies the role of the school principal as being a mixture of visionary and manager where the principal needs to be clear which role he is performing at any given time. “In schools, great principals know that their job is not primarily to improve test results; it is to build community among the students, teachers, parents and staff, who need to share a common set of purposes” (p.188). Moreover, “In education, natural, sustainable learning depends on the culture  of the school and the quality of the learning environment. Sustaining a vibrant culture of learning is the essential role of the principal” (p.202).

Yet even Robinson in this regard seems to be operating with a strangely static view of what education is about: produce good circumstances and something abstract called education will arise. But will it? And isn’t the absence of “change” from the list of “c”s notable? Maybe we just don’t have a noun to describe change-readiness other than “change-readiness”. And thinking about The Stretch Cycle reinforces the sense that we need a dynamic, experiential way of learning that enables growth through change; in other words, learning through positively embracing change facilitates the stretch cycle and is facilitated by experiential learning and reflection. And a key part of this is the monitoring of the learning cycle, that we assess whether what we are learning seems to be taking us in the right direction, to a broader, more comprehensive grasp of things we need to know and understand.

Robinson also apparently fails to see that the principal also has at least part of the responsibility of any leader to weave the narrative that provides the coherence of the community he or she leads. Without such a narrative, an over-arching account of what the community is for and how it should address its purpose, there cannot be a ‘vibrant culture of learning’ because the community has no raison d’etre.

But how is the principal to generate and sustain – or help to generate and sustain, because this is never a one-person show – “a vibrant culture of learning”? There are two other parts to the answer in addition to the weaving of a suitable narrative: one concerns establishing the necessary conditions for learning, which is to say a proper mixture of freedom and control in a community properly resourced and staffed; the second involves motivation and direction of learning, which is to say intellectual passion and hunger.

What is striking about all this educational theory is that it always stops short of asking the question that alone can provide a framework within which its adequacy can be measured, the question not “What is education for?” but “What is life for?” Yet a moment’s consideration reveals that, especially in a world increasingly concerned about peace, equality, sustainability, respect for the environment, inter-cultural understanding and human and animal well-being, it is impossible to proceed with the enterprise of education without considering the kinds of lives that it encourages, and those lives will certainly and inescapably need to exhibit certain attitudes to such things as sustainability, energy, justice, international relationships and value. Dewey is just wrong to say, on this count, that the most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning (above): desire to go on learning must itself be contextualised by a value-system that makes the learning contribute to desired goals and avoidance of undesirable goals. Education may wish to duck the question of human values but it cannot do so and still espouse a genuinely open-minded approach to knowledge and learning.

Golden Principle 2: Education cannot assume that it is obvious what purposes it should serve or what values it should espouse and embody

Typically, education avoids this question by burying itself in a chain of objectives each of which seems worthy in itself but the totality of which fails to address the ultimate question of values in life: yes you get into a good school; yes you get good results; yes you get into university; yes you get a good degree; yes you get a good job; yes you make a lot of money, achieve fame, become powerful, become influential, etc., etc., but to what end? In other words, what is your meta-narrative? Because in the absence of a self-consciously chosen meta-narrative we will find ourselves pursuing an education system governed by another meta-narrative that we may neither recognise nor agree with, one chosen and imposed by others.

Freedom and Control

Dewey argues that teachers are often forced into a position where they have to behave autocratically and harshly by the failure of the school (and perhaps the educational system as a whole) to have defined sufficiently clearly, and to have agreed upon sufficiently democratically and persuasively, the external objectives and focus that lead to self-imposed control and responsible behaviour. A vicious circle ensues in which lack of common purpose and community degrades behaviour, forces ever more severe restrictions and penalties, and finally drags the whole institution down to the level of something closer to a prison than a place of learning.

In a more democratic and humane system

The educator is responsible for a knowledge of individuals and for a knowledge of subject-matter that will enable activity ties to be selected which lend themselves to social organization, an organization in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute something, and in which the activities in which all participate are the chief carrier of control. (Deweyop. cit. Chapter 4; my emphasis)

What this means in practical terms is that articulating the purpose of the school, the external objectives which it aims to serve, is not just vital for potential students, parents, governors and donors, but for the management and control needed to establish a coherent life for the school itself. Without such a clear purpose the school will inevitably have to resort to greater and greater authoritarianism because self-control has palpably failed.

Golden Principle 3A school that needs to resort to authoritarian methods to retain or establish control has failed to win the hearts and minds of its students and staff to its overall vision and purpose.

To put it another way: such a school has failed to articulate its purposive narrative with sufficient persuasive power, perhaps because it lacks or has not yet developed sufficiently a shared meta-narrative under which to achieve that persuasion.

But this leads to another consequence of even greater significance: that persuasion, which I shall take here to be the key to the relationship between freedom and responsibility inasmuch as unless I am persuaded to use my freedom responsibly there can only be recourse to authoritarianism to establish order (and Hobbes will have won the centuries-old argument); that persuasion cannot be achieved without a shared meta-narrative. And achieving a shared meta-narrative is especially and acutely difficult in a multi-cultural environment in a brand-new school in an alien country to an extent that would not be conceivable in a Winchester or Eton where “the very stones shout aloud” and the implicit meta-narrative is defined by the institution itself and the country and tradition in which it exists.

Intellectual Passion and Hunger

One reason why I was so concerned not to scribble on the blank sheet of paper we had been given here was that I knew that the school of the future had not yet been designed, that nobody knew what it would look like, and that the only way to find out what it would look like was to learn dynamically as we went along with the process and the flow. Such kinetic thinking would only be possible if we did not prescribe the route or the destination in advance. And it would be hindered by prescriptive rules beyond the barest minimum needed to establish a coherent community.

However, I underestimated the need for a meta-narrative within which to define that emergence while over-estimating the extent to which the UWC already knows what its meta-narrative is. In practice, the UWC does not know what its mission is and actually has no meta-narrative to speak of at all. So under this blank umbrella there is no sensible structure within which to define the nature of the school, and we discover that we are alone, buffeted from side to side by the various nostrums that are quoted as if they were meta-narratives when they are only slogans. We claim to exist to promote peace and sustainability through education, but we could not say what we mean by “peace” or “sustainability” if we tried. And nobody is ready to ask whether peace is sustainable.

Now the challenge is to fire up the students with a vision that creates the energy needed for intellectual passion and hunger based upon the creation of the future by design rather than by default. The future will happen anyway, so the question is who will shape and control it. But that cannot be achieved without first defining a meta-narrative, a unifying vision that was once but is now no longer supplied by religions and various forms of ideology such as Naziism and Marxism. Yet without those meta-narratives we are ultimately defenceless against the persuasive powers of other ideologies such as Islamic State.

What is education for? All sorts of answers can be and have been given:

  • It is the means societies employ to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next and by so doing leverage the single most important advantage human beings have over all other known life-forms, the ability to learn from previous generations cumulatively
  • It is the means societies employ to transmit cultural values from one generation to the next
  • It is the means societies employ to control what the next generation will value, believe and think
  • It is a preparation for life
  • It is a preparation for work
  • It is a preparation for adulthood

So we could go on. The answer we choose – and of course we may wish to choose many and say education is for all these purposes, or choose none at all and branch out into a completely different description – will very much depend on when and where we wish the answer to be applied. What this means is that education is asked to fulfil many functions any one of which can seem of paramount importance at different ages: answer the question aged 12 and it is likely to have something to do with shaping life-choices and readiness for higher levels of education and specialisation; ask at 18 and the answer is likely to have something to do with either university admission or employment; answer it at graduation and it will be about finding a job and starting a career; ask it in mid-career and it could be about reskilling, broadening competence, equipping us for career-change or career development; ask it at retirement and it could be about persistent interests, enrichment and personal satisfaction.

Yet all these answers are strangely and persistently passive: they treat education as a provider, as a process that goes on in order to supply a consumer – the pupil or student – with something that he or she wants or needs (or that society thinks they should want and do need). Education as conceived in these answers acts as a reservoir and teachers as the keepers of the sluice-gates that make the reservoir contents available to those who wish (or are forced) to drink.

Revisit the list above from this perspective and identify the ways in which all these answers involve an implicit assumption that the education stream is from some external source to the recipient, pupil or student. Education is something provided for us and done to us on all these accounts, but that suggests that it comes from something over which we have no control and less say, namely established knowledge and tradition. So the structure of an education that equips us with the knowledge and skills of the past but does little or nothing to encourage or enable us to create and define the future is embedded in the heart of education conceived in terms of transmission.

A “meta-narrative” describes some account of existence that gives meaning,shape and direction to our lives. Because of its shaping, directing function, a meta-narrative too may seem like something external to us, something provided for us by some power or tradition over which we have little or no control. Yet any society or culture that deploys one or more meta-narratives to give itself meaning, shape and direction is almost certain to have embedded elements of that meta-narrative into its education system. Religious education is a good if obvious example: preservation of the shape and direction of a society, perhaps even preservation of what it is to be a member of a particular society, involves inculcating successive generations with a shared meta-narrative such as being Christian (or Muslim or Hindu or Jewish), just as being British (whatever that means), being moral (in some tradition) and even “being educated” (which usually means having absorbed certain kinds of methods of thinking and certain knowledge deemed important within the meta-narratives embraced by a particular culture) involves accepting certain externally-defined things as given. So here, too, education seems to serve a pre-determined purpose in the transmission, inculcation or, if you want to be unkind, indoctrination of succeeding generations with the same meta-narrative so that they remain identifiably members of a particular tribe.

Perhaps the least obvious but most important inference from this is that education in some sense or other presupposes a certain meta-narrative that embodies a sense of what it is to be a fulfilled or “successful” human being in some tradition; an answer – albeit implicit – to the question which meta-narrative we should choose, or have (implicitly) chosen or is best, or should allow someone to choose for us. For example, taking some of the age-related answers given above we can see that certain notions of a “successful” education are implicit in them: that a life is successful (and education has done its job well) if someone is gainfully employed, admitted to a university, successful in a career, prosperous and secure in some sense, financially stable, enjoys a fulfilling old age.

But suppose for a moment that all of this is mistaken: that while we need a meta-narrative, the ones we have been educated to employ, and that formed the unspoken background narrative to our own educations, are defective and the wisdom of inculcating them into successive generations at least questionable if not obviously misguided; that the notion of education as a process through which an external reservoir of wisdom, skills and knowledge flows into successive generations of pupils and students is hopelessly ineffective; that even the notion that education is inviting us to choose from a store of pre-configured meta-narratives and their associated traditions, thinking-skills, values, wisdom and knowledge is no more than a self-perpetuating delusion. Suppose, with even more force and weight, that this view of education is actually a major cause of the very problems that we are now hoping education will help us to solve. Suppose, in other words, that whatever education is, it is none of the things listed at the start of this section, and that to continue to practise it as if it were is only to condemn each successive generation to make the same errors that have caused all the problems in the past.

Specifically, let us ask this: do the skills we need to understand the past, and the knowledge acquired from the past that we become acquainted with through education, equip us adequately for the task of creating the future?

If we suspect – and I think we should – that the answer to this is “No!” then however important the element of education that supplies us with the skills, wisdom, values and knowledge derived in the past may be, it is woefully incomplete unless it also enables us to develop the capacities we need to create the future. This is explicitly endorsed by the opening Branding Principle below (Annex B), viz. that we are “Nurturing human talent to engage with the challenge of creating a better future”. Of course, this presupposes that we have some idea of what a “better future” would be, and that in its turn will depend upon the articulation of a meta-narrative.

Examine any educational system and you will almost certainly find embedded within it some preferred meta-narrative. In the case, for example, of the International Baccalaureate educational model and the associated Learner Profile, we find a meta-narrative where undirected and shapeless open-mindedness based upon essentially prophylactic qualities designed to exclude some of the worst excesses of past meta-narratives are thought to be sufficient for the creation of a future free from those excesses.

As IB students we aim to be: thinkers, knowledgeable, inquirers, communicators, balanced, principled, open-minded, courageous [risk-takers], caring, reflective.

But the IB steadfastly and resolutely shies away from any suggestion that we should be endeavouring to make education a means to create new, better meta-narratives that can have a directing, shaping effect on what we do with our lives. This, one supposes, is because underlying this expression of open-minded liberal idealism is a deep disdain for and suspicion of anything that might conceivably smack of “imperialism”.

Imperialism is here being used to denote the attempt by any individual, society, tribe, culture or civilisation to impose its meta-narrative on any other individual, society, tribe, culture or civilisation.

Do liberals who believe that all we need do is to specify the prophylactic qualities that will stave off the worst excesses of past meta-narratives also believe that new and better meta-narratives will evolve by themselves? Presumably they do, because nowhere in the literature of their educational systems do we find any attempt to spell out what such meta-narratives might be or how education as a process in which societies and their offspring share a common purpose might engage in the task of creating them. But so far, unless I am missing something, no credible meta-narrative has emerged from this tradition; instead, a plethora of pseudo-narratives have emerged that have filled the vacuum left by the absence of meta-narratives with trivial beliefs and aims and objectives that are ephemeral and essentially worthless or, as in the case of the UWC, with beliefs that sound noble but are in practice devoid of any tangible meaning. Food, fashion and fun may be sufficient for a vacation of self-indulgence but they can scarcely constitute the backbone of a civilisation that is to be capable of withstanding the assaults of those for whom far more serious meta-narratives are the primary motivating force (such as Islamic State).

Indeed, in its mission statement the IB includes the assertion that we should adopt the view that other people and cultures with their differences “can also be right”. Nobody would argue differently, but suppose one is firmly convinced that the members of a particular tribe or culture are not right, and the actions they advocate are absolutely wrong and an affront to all values of a civilised society? What are we to do then?

The United World College movement mission statement is:

The UWC aims to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.

Fine as far as it goes. But here again the objectives are largely prophylactic: education is to unite us for peace and a sustainable future but with no attempt to engage with the need for such a peace to be sustained by a meta-narrative or set of meta-narratives that will need to be created. Without them peace is not sustainable and the establishment of peace becomes a recipe for disruption, dissatisfaction and war. What, in other words, are we to do with this “peace”; what is peace “for”?

In similar fashion the UWC endorses a view of deliberate diversity in its educational model but makes no attempt to suggest that such diversity needs to be managed if it is to be profitable, i.e. achieve positive and desirable results. Yet diversity left to itself will not produce a compelling meta-narrative any more than the IB Learner Profile, so from whence do these meta-narratives come?

In essence the problem is that to be ready to create new meta-narratives we have to be ready and courageous enough to say what human beings are and should be, and not merely what they are not and should not be. This particular via negativa leads nowhere and runs close to the kind of excessive over-reaction to traditional methods that Dewey is at such pains to point out. And so we come to a tentative suggestion about what education is really for:

Education is concerned with enabling successive generations to create new meta-narratives that will give direction and shape to life on earth in general and to human lives in particular, and facilitate the necessary conditions for sustainability.


It is really important to be vague, to appreciate the place, power and significance of vagueness, and to rejoice in those for whom vagueness is the only hope for the world. Unfortunately, some of us have seized upon vagueness as a way to grab hold of a new kind of anything-but-vague power: the power of anti-everything; the power of subversion; the power that destroys but is incapable of creating.

When you are young it is tempting to be against everything, and there are those who will exploit your readiness to be against everything to make themselves into gurus of anti-everything-ness. But the world as we know it was not built upon such foundations (because they are not foundations). The world as we know it, for all its faults, was built upon the efforts of those who dreamed of making a better place. Sometimes we look back upon their discoveries as obvious, definite; things that almost anyone with any wit could see. But we are wrong: every advance in human knowledge has taken a risk by challenging existing assumptions and knowledge; every movement forwards has risked a compensating movement backwards; nobody knows; vagueness rules; the future is an even less well-known country than the past. But for the bravery of those who voiced and championed their vision of a better world, however vague it may have been, we would not enjoy the privileged position we have over them: to see so much further because we stand upon the shoulders not only of giants (as Newton famously said), but of heroes. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face.”

Vagueness is not weakness: on the contrary, it requires great strength to occupy some of the ill-defined space which vagueness carves out from the excessive certainties of so many worlds. Certainty is the enemy, for it fills in all the holes and gaps from which newness springs and constrains and tightens up the looseness and flexibilities from which adjustment and redirection can arise. Yet vagueness is not utter: there must be some framework within which our thoughts and actions can take shape; in particular, there must be a defining story or meta-narrative from which we can derive a sense of direction and with it purpose.