In hindsight, it’s been an uneven few weeks, as it always is when I’m busy rearranging mental furniture. Having reached an impasse with the PhD at the end of last year, I more or less stopped thinking about it and gave myself permission to let it go until I had reason to revisit it. That left a bit of a hole, which I didn’t notice until that familiar you-aren’t-doing-enough-with-your-talents feeling crept up on me one weekend not long ago. Even though I hadn’t actually been doing the PhD, clearly it was occupying some space bubbling away in the background. Now it was gone. And if I don’t have a slow-cooking problem on the backburner, I tend to start climbing the walls. It was time to revisit the ingredients.
Technology. Politics. Education. Those have always been my touchstones in one way or another. The challenge I’ve set myself this time is to bind all three together with some kind of performative element. I’ve always found the theorycraft of the academic world to be distressingly impotent – the purer it is, the less it seems able to touch the world we actually inhabit. There seems to me little point in going further in that direction – I don’t have any interest by and large in talking to a peer group of deep specialists, especially in the slow, stately and slightly stilted ships-in-the-night dance of academic publishing that somehow passes for intellectual debate. No, I want to embed my theorycraft in something I do. I want to stage it somehow and see it lived out.
Two ideas come to mind that have been laying around for a long time. Making a game. And starting a school.
The game idea is obvious, now I’ve thought of it. It fits with my current focus on doing analytical/technical things in my day job, and it’s probably not too far beyond the reach of my present capabilities. I have no idea how to make a game, what it would be about or how it would work. But that’s what makes it perfect for a slow-cook problem. In any case, I can sort of imagine the shape of it already, which makes it mostly a matter of finding out how to call it into being.
The school idea is more abstract. My experience with schools is that they are almost always deeply unsatisfactory affairs that bear little to no relation to the practice of education. I have been through all five stages of grief on this point and have managed – I think – to stop taking it personally. That is a lie, of course – every encounter is like fingernails scraping down the chalkboard of my soul, forever. But that is the sort of comment that tends to upset people, so it’s much easier to pretend that I have become older and wiser or some such, as if accommodating yourself to the commission of atrocities were a sign of maturity.
Anyway, we mustn’t look too closely at the intricate and slightly disturbing internal apparatus whose function is by some eldritch alchemy of character to convert white-hot existential rage into calm blue tinctures of compassionate edification and forbearance. Let’s just paper over that scene by saying that I am someone who finds it quite important to maintain a delicate balance of zen.
What in fact is a school, when you get right down to it? There is an art to stripping back a category to its core, such that it is impossible to judge clearly what is essential and what is merely set-dressing or accreted cruft. Witness the Moffatt and Gatiss revival of Sherlock Holmes. The Victorian setting, the pipe, the deerstalker hat, the cocaine habit – nearly all the iconic associations with the Sherlock category – are vanished in the modern adaptation, yet the essence is still somehow palpably there. The modern version – an instant classic – almost feels more real in some way. When something seems to radically transcend the boundaries of its name, but is still immediately recognisable as an instance of whatever it is, then you know someone has understood their categories well. (Moffatt and Gatiss, for what it’s worth, say that apart from being fast, fun and rambunctiously adventuresome, the essence of the Sherlock Holmes stories turns on the nature of the friendship between Holmes and Watson.)
Back to school. Classroom may be a better word, in fact. There is no space in the world like a classroom. A classroom is a magic portal to other worlds. The walls of reality are softer here and it’s possible in places to push through to... who knows what on the other side. A classroom contains multitudes – it is bigger on the inside. It will change you forever, if you let it. And yet for all that, a classroom is also a safe place. This may in fact be its most important characteristic, for it offers a kind of safety that exists in few other places – the safety to try being someone else for a while without fear of judgment or reprisal. It is like a fitting room, or a car yard, for the self. You can try on a different set of ideas, or test drive some new assumptions, to see how they fit, how they handle, how they feel. You can take home the ones you like and leave the rest, with the confidence that comes from first-hand experience.
Yes, classrooms are special places. If they aren’t, they’re not classrooms. A classroom needn’t be in a squalid little room with chairs and a whiteboard – in fact, it may be better that it isn’t. It is defined by the essential qualities of the space and the relationship between the people in it.
It is a teacher’s responsibility to guarantee the safety of such spaces, to defend the boundaries, and to provide structure to what takes place within them. It is such structure that distinguishes a classroom from other sites of interpersonal safety and discovery such as the lovers' bed or coffee among friends. For a classroom has an added purpose – it is a site of rational enquiry. Learning can be fun, but it is not merely play – it is for something. Education is about drawing out the potential within us and using it both to help us be more at home in the world, and to help make the world a better home. For this reason, it is the student’s responsibility to enter the classroom ready and willing to have an educational experience. If the student is not ready or not willing, then they may occupy the same space as the teacher, but that space will not be a classroom.
The classroom is thus quite a different proposition to the reality of many self-styled institutions of learning, where education is treated as something that is done to people, as if knowledge were an object that can be somehow shuttled from the instructor to the pupil, who must then be duly examined to see if said object has lodged itself successfully.
This is another regrettable instance of confusing means with ends. Education, like empathy, is too often proposed as an all-purpose spray-on solution to seemingly intractable social problems. How to fix the scourge of obesity, racism, binge-drinking, fear of brown people on boats, family violence, being against same-sex marriage, voting Republican? More education. More empathy. Bring it in by the truckload. Teach it at people in schools, at least that way the new generation will have a chance even if everyone who is currently an adult is a lost cause.
Aside from being depressingly well-intentioned, this sort of thinking makes the doubtful assumption that the result of stuffing people full of education and empathy is that they will then hold the same views as you. The practice of doing things to people until they agree with you goes by many names, but none of them are education or empathy.
Education and empathy are both merely techniques – they are not ‘outcomes’, and they are not inherently good or bad. They can be used to many ends, and the choice of ends belongs to those who are having the educational or empathetic experience. People might then find themselves disagreeing over what ends matter and how to accomplish them – but that’s called politics. Let’s not forget too that education can just as easily empower people to do awful things in more informed and sophisticated ways. And while anyone can behave brutally, it takes someone with a well-developed sense of empathy to do something truly cruel.
The technique of empathy – the imaginative capacity to feel-into circumstances other than your own – is nonetheless ultimately what makes the educational experience of a classroom possible at all. So if I am somehow to start a radically transformative new instance of the category ‘classroom’, I will need to find a way to address two parts of the problem. Firstly – what technologies of empathy are available and most appropriate? (‘Technologies of empathy’, in a rare accomplishment of language, is a phrase that manages to transcend politics by upsetting more or less everyone who hears it.) Secondly – what kind of rational enquiry are we embarking upon and what shape shall its structure take?
When I can answer these questions, it will be time to really get busy. That’s the slow-slow-burn problem. Meanwhile, I reckon I’ll start figuring out how to go about making that game…