Though she said she was talking too much (!), Pat Mason wrote a long well-considered response to my Plaguetime Glob Number 13 which has stimulated me to write Number 14. She began:-
Amongst other things, Silence, both internal and external, can be used in any number of ways, to exert power, and pressure or to facilitate space and freedom. And so it is with Noise, both internal and external, it can be used to exert dominance to create opacity, confusion, or oppression. It can also be used for safety and protection. It all depends…
Yes, I agree – the manifestation of silence can mean a number of things! Bafflement, carefully concealed rage, boredom, exasperation, refusal to engage in self-justification… It perhaps requires of the observer a large degree of real silence to make space for understanding what’s behind a silence. When PM Johnson goes silent we know he’s either lost for words, can’t understand the issues, is listening to what Cummings is saying in his ear-piece or desperately consulting his own inner voice hoping it will tell him what to say next, building up to a most unbecoming rage. In other words, he’s not silent at all. Just keeping mum is not true silence. And, of course, noise is always noise, requiring just as much interpretation.
Pat says: ‘taking things deep down into yourself = learning’ can only be done in the absence of noise and the presence of silence.
I’m sure it’s the case that silence is not considered valuable in these benighted times. In the old Third Programme days, which meant so much to me growing up, Humphrey Carpenter (The Envy of the World) records that when a programme finished early they just left silence – nowadays every bit of silence on the wireless has to be filled in with endless yakking about trailers for forthcoming programmes and there are talk shows full of the meaningless yakking of people you’ve never heard of or care about in any thoughtful kind of way; people are incited to ‘have their say…’ Children no doubt think this is the way of the world just as I thought silence was.
One of the most profound things I learned at school was the value of creating your own silence. It wasn’t part of formal learning or teaching; it happened one autumn morning entirely by accident (the best kind of learning, I think, because you pick it up for yourself alone) and, presupposing all the others are still alive, I dare say I am the only boy in the class of six who remembers the occasion – I’m there right now…
Forty years afterwards, in the summer of 1990 (thirty years ago now!), I celebrated the occasion by including a memorialising poem in a book of poems called Gulf, put together at a time when I was consuming the splendid novels of Dorothy Richardson which is why the poem is headed with a lovely quotation from her.
…you’ll find If you keep an eye on yourself that certain circumstances are particularly
favourable to the precipitation of felicitous phrases…
that (during private study)
we hadn’t read very far
into his treasured texts
we pointed out how difficult it was
to concentrate while the barbarians
were all about us – the geographers
and scientists – and he said
(the Greek master who seemed
immeasurably ancient even then)
if you put your mind to it
you’ll be able to work
no matter what goes on around you
you’ll learn to defend your mind
against distraction; a mere sequence
of words then this idea has become
part of the indefinite persistence
of my enclosed world – immune to alien
talk and the rustling of paper bags
I wonder why last I heard of him
my old Greek master had become
a coenobitic Essene
Having given us a very useful project for the future which I at least took very seriously, the irony was that it seemed that he had to absent himself from the world to achieve real silence in a monastic community. Coping with life in the thick of thin things is the Fourth Way to be a real person rather than escaping from the world as a monk which is the Second (emotional) Way. Whilst I am content right now to be distracted from what I had intended to do this morning, I do it with absolute intention with the prospect of getting something worthwhile out of it. Otherwise, I’m fairly successful at being deaf to the rustling of paper bags and the nonsense rustling of alien earnest voices. One can create one’s own silence that returns one to Nothingness. I’m so grateful to Bunter Brown, of whom I’ve written elsewhere.
In the last seventy years it actually hasn’t seemed to be too difficult to defend my mind against distraction partly, paradoxically, because it’s helped me to recognise just what distraction really does amount to and to value a portion of it for whatever it might offer in the way of enlightenment. A rather neat reframe!
True silence is the return to Nothingness or uncommitted Essence; one can then choose to let the silence be filled, for example, with the Music of the Spheres and the Nothingness with a well-considered something or other; the knack is to hold on to external consideration.
Writing things on paper seems to be useful – a relatively permanent record of Internal Considering which becomes External when you consider it ‘in tranquillity’… as though it were written by somebody else – by another ‘I’ from the near (or not so near) past.
I often wonder how it was that in the silence of my being I took to writing about things. Why all these miles of writing? Seventeen or eighteen books of poems since 1988, a couple of yards of notebooks since 1970, many adolescent diaries before that and scraps of things left lying around – I’ve lost track. Though one English teacher, the eccentric Crippo (Mr Cripps), seemed to value my formal essays which I modelled on dedicated essayists Robert Lynd & Hilaire Belloc amongst others and which we were encouraged to write at a time when essay-writing was still considered to be an important accomplishment, I had little or no encouragement to write – it just seemed to be the thing to do, to make some provisional sense of the world. This Plaguetime (and maybe an ancient fairly lively mind) has seemed to precipitate rummaging in the past.
When & where was the seedtime? Being left to my own resources early on, having to design my own version of the world without bothering what others were doing? Probably then.
Perhaps SILENCE as a virtue ought to be in the school & university curriculums – the obstacle race to learning. How many teachers would be able to run classes in the subject? Together with a course in Shrugging the Shoulders, I’d even now be prepared to offer, free at the point of need, the education community a course in Being Silent for a Purpose.
I’ve just remembered ‘Gasbag’ (the Irish Mr Brady) who gave me private advice in the same classroom as that noted above (!) in 1951 or 2 to spend half an hour every day in silent meditation… Good man! Thank you!
Pat laments that ‘school Libraries, which used to be a place of silent absorption are now often times out of bounds or used as junk rooms…’ Having created my own library, it’s many years now (at least 50) since I used a public library but the last time I poked my head round the door of one there was musak and computers beeping away. Civilisation is certainly doomed.
There’s a short story by Isaac Asimov I used to read to kids when I started teaching called THE FUN THEY HAD. It projected us 100 years into the future when all teaching is ‘mechanical’, executed via the computer. Here’s a few extracts:-
Margie even wrote about it that night in her diary. On the page headed May 17, 2157, she wrote, ‘Today, Tommy found a real book!’ It was a very old book. Margie’s grandfather once said that when he was a little boy his grandfather told him that there was a time when all stories were printed on paper. They turned the pages, which were yellow and crinkly [and smelly if you were lucky CB], and it was awfully funny to read words that stood still instead of moving the way they were supposed to – on a screen, you know. “Gee,” said Tommy, “what a waste. When you’re through with the book, you just throw it away, I guess. Our television screen must have had a million books on it and it’s good for plenty more. I wouldn’t throw it away.” “Same with mine,” said Margie… She said, “What’s that book about?” Tommy said, “School…” Margie was scornful. “School? What’s there to write about school? I hate school…” Margie always hated school, but now she hated it more than ever. The mechanical teacher had been giving her test after test in geography and she had been doing worse and worse until her mother had shaken her head sorrowfully and sent for the County Inspector.
Tommy looked at her with very superior eyes. “It’s not our kind of school, stupid. This is the old kind of school that they had hundreds and hundreds of years ago. They had a real live teacher…” Margie said, “I wouldn’t want a strange man in my house to teach me.” Tommy screamed with laughter. “You don’t know much, Margie. The teachers didn’t live in the house. They had a special building and all the kids went there.” Margie said, “And all the kids learned the same thing?” Tommy said, “Sure, if they were the same age.” They weren’t even half-finished reading when Margie’s mother called, “Margie! School!” Margie looked up. “Not yet, Mamma.” “Now!” said Mrs. Jones. “And it’s probably time for Tommy, too.” Margie went into the schoolroom. The screen was lit up, and it said: “Today’s arithmetic lesson is on the addition of proper fractions. Please insert yesterday’s homework in the proper slot.” Margie did so with a sigh. She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather’s grandfather was a little boy. All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. And the teachers were people…The mechanical teacher was flashing on the screen: “When we add the fractions ½ and ¼…” Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they must have had.
Pat declared her interest.
I have two Grandchildren at secondary school, one who has just begun on her new pathway (to what I’m not sure) and the other who is due to take his GCSE’s next year. He is, I am told, likely to do well, he has worked his socks off ‘on-line’ and is not behind. HOWEVER…
During a conversation when he was staying with us in the summer, he disclosed that he found different subjects either more or less engaging using ‘mechanical teaching’ (his words) – He missed the interaction with teachers, and was of the opinion that most learning was done ‘about’ the content in discussion and through questions and answers back and forth rather than the absorption of facts. He said also that he found it more difficult to retain facts where one dimensional learning was used – particularly in English or Maths where he was told to learn this or that, and completed assignments but noticed that he didn’t retain the knowledge he had thought he had learned. With Science subjects however, the masters had deliberately set tasks around the subject and challenged him to come to his own conclusion about the principal being taught.
In other words, there were teachers who, even whilst being corporeally absent – were none the less present through their willingness to find ways to continue to challenge students, to think for themselves.
Pat wonders where the ‘fire and fortitude’ of the 50’s and 60’s went… When I found myself, having escaped from barren office wage slavery in 1964, learning how to teach I took it for granted that the sole task of education was to get young people thinking for themselves – what else was there? Everything followed from that. Gradgrind was in his grave. You had to put up with his facts, of course, but they only became of personal usefulness when they whizzed around in your own scheming brain. Then came ‘factoids’ – brief or trivial items of news or information or unreliable information repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact – a much more tricky item that certainly requires you to think about it for yourself.
In my admittedly limited experience it’s very possible to get people to think for themselves through electronic gismos. It all depends how you do it. Above all, one has to maintain ‘fire & fortitude’. I recall that the idea of ‘thinking for yourself’ was dealt a mortal blow in 1979 when Thatcher came to power. The subjects called ‘Media Studies’ ‘Sociology’ and ‘Philosophy’ became suspect, to be supplanted by ‘Computer Studies’. The Computer is only a very powerful and genuinely useful tool in the hands of somebody who is doused in the Age of Books, having spent years grubbing around conscientiously for bits of information, learning to put it all together for oneself, making connections in a systematic sort of way.
Never mind all this supremely ignorant tosh about ‘catching up’. The notion can only have come from those who have no idea what learning is about. Where are the educational gurus of the kind we had around in the 1960’s who would stand up and dismiss those who make a factoid out of ‘catching up’ as the junkies of mechanical money-profit?
It’s just as Pat said: ‘The most sense I have heard was from a Head Teacher who simply said – we’ll just rejig, starting from now, and I have every faith that the kids will succeed as well as they would always have done…’
And she offers us this poignant story.
My Daughter in Law, is now a newly qualified primary school teacher, and has spent the [time-out], devising ways in which to keep pupils on board with their learning. She has spent the last few weeks of the school holiday preparing for the children’s return. She was tasked with preparing all the Maths lessons for the term for her year group and across another. (7-8-9yr olds ) In my view, a complete waste of time – she had only met the children once for a couple of hours… and naturally has no idea what stage their learning is at currently… so when reality strikes and she finds there is a considerable variance in the level of learning – depending sometimes on the simple question of whether a child has had access to a laptop or not – she will have to flex her thinking and her planning to match. The school has to be seen to be meeting the requirements of the curriculum no matter what.
Children have been clubbed into dank submission by the example we set them and by the factory fodder curriculum, and the nannying health and safety edicts that prevent them discovering for themselves that conkers hurt when you get hit by them. Instead they are simply banned from playing conkers. I am appalled that a blip is seen as the ‘end of their dreams’ – they CAN move beyond the problem by altering their view of it and their relationship with it, THEMSELVES.
What they need as support is Teachers who can use their creativity to find ways of facilitating joy in their learning and who believe them to be capable of doing it. Teaching is a dynamic and creative art. Our teachers are nowadays taught to produce kids fit for the workplace – who haven’t the slightest idea of who they are or what they actually like. Even at a primary school level the kids are taught to pass tests, neatly put into little boxes according the their results and there they stay. Rather than teaching them how to learn, and the joy & fun of perpetual learning, as much about themselves as anything else, or stimulating and nurturing their natural curiosity – instead they are channelling down the narrow funnel of doom some quill driver in the department of education dictates. With a vie to the health of the economy rather than the health of the individual.
The thirst for knowledge doesn’t stop at the end of a university education or at the end of school – our dreams and aspirations change all the time as we come into our being – learning is a perpetual state, it goes on until we are no more.
When I was teaching people to teach in FE in the 1980’s the concept of ‘Lifelong Learning’ was all the rage. The conventional wisdom these days seems to be that school (and maybe university) is the only place where you learn, then you go to work, doing things to make a lot of money for other people, the Bezos & Moggs of the world – the kind of thing I spent my lifelong learning diligently escaping from.
Pat thought my idea of giving kids a sabbatical till the Plague dies down was a non-starter because of lack of proper childcare which ‘means that parents’ career or income streams are also put on hold for a year..’ Of course, it would require a complete rethink about what human life is about, a shifting around of resources in order for people to be able to take time out and not suffer financially – a dedication to the idea that there is a Better World. I well remember spending a good deal of time analysing and making a précis of The James Report (1972) for my less bothered colleagues which, amongst other exciting things, advocated a year’s sabbatical for every teacher every seven years. Such revolutionary ideas do not survive the conventional racket that goes on in capitalist brains. Nevertheless, I still look forward to The World Transformed even though part of me thinks that the planet is doomed.
It requires a deep silence in the mind to provide the opportunity for it even to begin to allow new ideas to penetrate the neurons and wiffle across the synaptic gaps, And a daily banana.