On Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slogans are the seeds from which we grow understanding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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