01 December 2006

Words, words, words...

On Sunday Jim Putnam picked up my A day to remember of a couple of days before, and took it in some interesting directions. I've been turning them over in the background of my mind.

The easiest to deal with (so I'll use it to keep my fingers typing while I try to put the rest into some shape of words, as both the day an the week fray towards sleep) is his suggestion that it is my enjoyment of teaching and learning that brought me the opportunity to enjoy that day. I like the idea of that, at the level and direction Jim posits it. It's probably true in a more prosaic way... I do take joy in teaching and learning (but more of that word "teaching" in a moment), and that's why I agreed to risk doing the day. The fact that I was likely to say yes is probably one reason I was asked. Perhaps the fact that I was likely to do it without being paid may also be a reason I was asked - and that too, of course, is down to my enjoyment. But, however that may be, the opportunity started with eight students who had never heard of me - so in the end the credit is all theirs.

Having snagged on that word "teaching" I may as well follow it. I try hard to avoid the word, and I try especially hard to do avoid doing it. Of course, it's unavoidable; it's the word generally understood to represent what goes on in education, and I can't ask the whole world to abandon it. But I still try to avoid it, because at root I regard it as opposing what education is supposed to be. Allow me to bore you a while with some etymologies.

Education comes from the Latin "educare", or "ex ducare", meaning "to lead out". I have no problem with that; to lead people out from where they are to a fuller knowledge of what they are seems a satisfying and worthwhile activity. At best, it is facilitating someone else's self education - leading themselves out.

Teaching, on the other hand, has its origins in "twcan" or "taecan" (Anglo Saxon) and "deiknynai" ( Greek) - all meaning "to show". Yes, I know ... that doesn't seem too bad - but I don't see it as my place to show people things; it implies usurpation of their own capacity to see those things for themselves. Zenna Henderson wrote a story1, four decades ago, called Come on, Wagon, which has stayed strongly with me; I don't have a copy to hand, but the central message was that every time you tell a child that something is true, you implicitly tell them that a million other imagined possibilities are not. I would rather lead someone out through the wonderful immensity of possibility to their eventual discovery of truth than be the one to short change them by showing them the destination without the journey.

Training is worse, its Latin root, "trahere", meaning "to pull along". And instruction (Latin again: "instruere", meaning "to pile up in") is just as bad.

Words are important. The words we use to name things express how we see them. The words we use for people are even more important than the words we use for processes. In Britain, learners below the age of 16 are usually called "pupils" - a word whose root has various meanings, none of them desirable, from "minor" through "ward" to "orphan" and even "doll". In the US they are "students", meaning that they are ones who study, which is far preferable; in the UK they only gain this recognition when they leave school into post compulsory education.

My eight teenagers are students, not pupils; their power is in a vision of their own education, not the strait jacket of my teaching.

It's late, and my thoughts are growing fuzzy. I had planned to ramble on some more, following Jim's lead further ... I seem (as so often) to have picked on one small area for dissent when I had intended to follow him in the many directions where he has "led me out" along new paths ... for today, at least, he is a better educator than I. Perhaps another time.

On second thoughts, no ... not another time. 'If not now, when?' The word "love" is important to Jim – one of the many reasons I value him. It pervades everything he writes, and yesterday he offered a working definition: "Love is the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual growth". That sounds like a pretty good aspiration for education, too.

1. Henderson, Z., "Come on, wagon", in The anything box. 1966, London,, Gollancz.

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