Why Educate? To Expand The Self, Rather Than Narrow The Self.

I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent… Samuel Beckett, Endgame.

I like students to learn about things that are outside of their everyday experience. Once  I arranged a trip for my class to see Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. After this bleak, funny play a fifteen year old boy said: “That was shit, sir.”  “Yes!” I said, “You’ve got it! Life is shit and then you die, great interpretation of Endgame! Well done!” The boy scuttled off, dazed and confused. Three years later, he said to me: “My Nan died recently and Endgame helped me understand how she felt in hospital, thank you.” Not every student will experience such an epiphany but there is the possibility that something outside of the student’s immediate experience might matter one day.

I recently attended a thoughtful talk by Michael Rosen entitled: ‘Time to Become Literature Activists, Doing and Thinking.’  Rosen said: “A good deal of education implies that language belongs outside of yourself… It’s a nonsense. Language belongs to all of us because we’re the ones who use it and change it.” Rosen went on to say that the desire to teach ‘Chinese’ to our kids ignores the fact that there are “Mandarin or Cantonese speakers already in our classrooms, it’s constantly the idea that we need to pump some Mandarin in rather than draw it out.” Rosen attacked Michael Gove saying he is someone who believes in the ‘Jug and Mug’: children as empty mugs sit in a classroom waiting for the teacher to pour in knowledge from a jug, this Rosen said was ‘cultural deficit theory’. I don’t want to get into the nuances of that theory here but the kids who can’t speak Mandarin, do have a deficit, a knowledge deficit and it is one that I share: we can’t speak Mandarin. Often teachers have to take language, or knowledge that is ‘outside’ of the student and somehow implant it to ensure it ‘belongs’ to them.

On Start the Week Jeanette Winterson said: “It’s always over-educated people who want to make people have no education or have no access to it.” she says: “The idea that things are difficult only happens if we become cut off from language, it’s all about keeping continuity and not endlessly worrying that people won’t understand…” She asks that we: “Expand the self rather than narrow the self… Something that anchors you… If you want to think freely and also take risks in your imagination you need some sorts of boundaries… you need to recognise… these boundaries might be good for my life, at some point they may not, they may become prison bars instead of something that contains and holds me… when suddenly you have to smash up all that you have known and where you’ve been safe and you’re left naked and howling like a new babe, but that’s later on. To begin with having these shapes around you, structures, however arbitrary, does help your soul to grow.” Language and knowledge from outside ourselves should not be cut off from us just because it’s not readily accessible, we can internalise it, and incubate it, just as a parent’s hug does for a misunderstood and crying child.

The external boundaries and structures are missing from Rosen’s vision of education yet he talks about hearing the phrase “It’s all a matter of doing and thinking,”often repeated by his mother but he says he didn’t know what she meant by it at the time. This phrase originally belonged outside of him yet it festered away in his subconscious and later it helped him make sense of something. Matthew Taylor, director of the RSA made this point to Rosen: “You learn something and for thirty years you forget all about it then suddenly, when you need it, it pops back again… we don’t know until the day we die what learning is going to be useful to us.” The knowledge that is handed down to us from all our yesterdays is a cornucopia of cultural riches and is not, in the main, drawn out of us.

The motto of ‘St Saviours and St Olaves school‘ is: ‘Heirs of the Past, Children of the Present, Makers of the Future’. Let us take Rosen’s mother’s phrase and place it alongside this motto. The children of the present are thinking, the makers of the future are doing but what of the heirs of the past? They are knowing. Knowing, Thinking and Doing, is a way of thinking about education that fits with the trivium. We should not constantly draw stuff out of kids and pander to what they already know, this approach only narrows the self. We should teach children to know, think and do, and this is the basis of my argument in Trivium 21c.

We should educate to expand the self.

8 thoughts on “Why Educate? To Expand The Self, Rather Than Narrow The Self.

  1. Really enjoyed reading this on Sunday morning.

    The following sentence in particular brought a tear to my eye. Moments like this are in my experience quite rare but they are what education is all about wherever it occurs.

    ‘Three years later, he said to me: “My Nan died recently and Endgame helped me understand how she felt in hospital, thank you.”’

    ps…I asked you on twitter recently whether “Trivium21c” was any good and you suggested (paraphrased by me) that it was indeed rather good. I am now able to confirm that I believe your assessment to be the understatement of the year.

    Thank you


  2. Thank you for another thought-provoking and moving post Martin.
    Matthew Taylor’s words remind me of something the late Terry McLaughlin, philosopher, said to me, when passing me on a pavement while I was hurtling along, late, with a pile of photocopying for my students. He stopped me with these words,

    “You know, teaching is a partly tragic activity, for its goods are not obvious”

    I’ve never forgotten that. If we look, always, for the deceit of the obvious (management ticklists come to mind), as the only measure of what we do, we miss the deeper, longlasting power, the substance that we may never see. I think of this, too, when I look at the great cathedrals in Britain. The master mason, the architect, the little family firms of craftsmen employed from Lombardy or wherever … all set about their labours knowing that they would not see the final thing in their lifetimes. Of course, in teaching we must look for evidence of effectiveness; of course, we mustn’t disappear into a smokescreen of agnosticism about impact; of course, the medieval craftsmen had immediate criteria of precision and great skill that they had to abide by; but we also lose so much if we invest *everything* in immediate, surface result. Perhaps we need to learn to live within the ‘tragic’ dimension of teaching, alongside its other, more visible and measurable dimensions. Gaining new, deep knowledge of traditions is immediately empowering for students, and one can certainly see (and actively look for) its benefits, but the short-term, discernible benefit does not exhaust the educational value.

    Trivium21c will be the subject of the “Mummy, Mummy…?” feature in the 2013 December edition of Teaching History
    Teaching History 153.


    1. What a lovely quote Christine: “You know, teaching is a partly tragic activity, for its goods are not obvious” thank you for sharing it. How to balance the short term, immediate experience with the medium term focus on exams and destinations for employment, education and/or training and the longer term focus on ‘the good life’ is such a complex balancing act. Do you know of any schools who really manage this well? I would be interested in visiting them.

      I am very interested in the ‘Mummy, Mummy’ feature, is there a way I can get to read it without having to pay £24?


      1. Individuals, perhaps, communities of teachers, perhaps, but not schools. But you’ve got me thinking about the institutional embodiment of this – what it could be, or mean.

        Re Teaching History, whoops! Sorry. So used to chattering to history people, I forgot about the paywall. I’ll email it to you when it appears.


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