My writing has copped its fair share of tough critiques. I’ve told the story elsewhere of the reader who confronted me at a conference, suggesting at one point that I wouldn’t know if my arse was on fire. A highly respected book publisher (it was Hilary McPhee) once wrote in the margin of one of my paragraphs, ‘This is embarrassing to read’. Colleagues and reviewers often give me feedback which falls distressingly short of the uncritical adulation I’d felt sure the writing deserved.
Then, last week, I received a reviewer’s response to an article I’d submitted to a journal:
… the approach appears innovative but the article lacks substance. .. there is very little analysis here … There are also far too many rhetorical claims … The teacher’s role here needs to be given far more detailed treatment … [Ideas tend] to be unproblematically and somewhat naively dealt with.
I’ve been wrestling, since receiving this feedback, with two opposing tendencies.
The first is to worry that I don’t know enough, haven’t read enough, haven’t understood things deeply enough. The danger here is that I end either being frozen into inactivity or setting on the impossible quest to know everything before I write another word. The article under review at the moment is about Spinoza’s ideas and their applicability to education. I have read a fair bit of Spinoza’s work and many commentaries; I intuitively sense Spinoza’s grasp of something deeply true, and his ideas illuminate my experience. But there are parts of his writing I don’t understand, and no doubt there are important commentaries I haven’t read. There is an internal voice saying that I won’t be ready to say anything until I’ve understood everything.
The second tendency is to go in the opposite direction. I catch myself becoming too superficially accommodating. Because my job depends on me being published, the temptation is to pacify the reviewer in whatever way will get the article past the gatekeepers. I imagine that this is what students in my classes are tempted to do when I critique their work; if that’s what Dr Shann wants, well, I want to pass this unit, so that’s what I’ll give him!
But I’m 65, have read and taught and lived a bit, and I know from experience that resisting these temptations and taking the critiques seriously always improves my writing. (I rewrote the paragraph that Hilary found embarrassing, and many of the other paragraphs in that draft as well, and she published a book that we all, I think, felt reasonably pleased with.)
Usually an unfavourable comment is the result of flaws in my writing that have led to misreadings and misunderstandings.
In the case of last week’s reviewer’s comment, I’m guessing that the critic has misunderstood what I’m trying to do, and that’s probably because I haven’t been clear enough myself about what it is about Spinoza’s ideas that I think are so useful for classroom teachers struggling with the complex world of the classroom.
What is it that Spinoza’s worldview offers the teacher? I think it’s his idea that everything is a part of nature.
Most who have written on the emotions, the manner of human life, seem to have dealt not with natural things which follow the general laws of nature, but with things which are outside the sphere of nature: they seem to have conceived man in nature as a kingdom within a kingdom. But they believe that man disturbs rather than follows the course of nature …[But] nothing happens in nature which can be attributed to a defect in it; for nature is always the same and one everywhere …
Spinoza Ethics Third Part
The complex and often challenging world of the classroom seem, especially to the beginning teacher, a place beyond comprehension, an unnatural world where motivations are malevolent or mysterious, and where ideals are luxuries best quickly abandoned. Talk in the staffroom tends to re-inforce this unhelpful view of things. ‘They don’t want to learn. They’re just hedonists. There’s no point in trying to teach them anything.’
I struggled with this during my early years as a secondary teacher. My aims, I was sure, were noble, my methods were raw but on the right track, my subject-matter was relevant and intrinsically interesting. So why did some of the students resist?
Over time, and with the help of writers like John Holt, George Dennison, A.S.Neill, Michael Armstrong, Rudolf Dreikurs, R.F. Mackenzie, Virginia Axline and many others (all of whom encouraged me to understand the lived life of actual children, and to see that their actions, including their resistances, made sense if we took the effort to observe and think), my experience of the classroom shifted. I became more able to work with what was there.
Spinoza, when I discovered him while working as a psychotherapist, helped make sense of all this. Spinoza reminds us that all creatures in nature are intent on persevering in their own being, that all of nature is working towards increasing its own potency. When we know this in our bones, we experience the classroom differently. We’re less likely to be discouraged by the student who is challenging, and more likely to wonder how we might reach his natural urge to become a more powerful and successful adult. We assume that powerful positive natural processes are present, that these include doubts, resistances, uncertainty and instability, and that understanding and working with these is possible, healthy and likely to lead to greater teacher effectiveness.
All of this is linked with having some adequate understanding of the nature of things. Spinoza begins his unfinished work ‘On the improvement of the understanding’ (1677) with these thoughts:
… seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else (3)
love towards a thing eternal and infinite feeds the mind wholly with joy, and is itself unmingled with any sadness, wherefore it is greatly to be desired and sought for with all our strength. (5)
The chief good is … the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature. (6)
A story that a former student of mine, Aaron Kingma, tells about one of his earliest teaching experiences illustrates this very well. He’d been assigned to a very tough class of Year 8s.
There were ten boys, all of whom had been placed in the class due to some combination of behavioural and learning difficulties … The boys “fed” off each other, and I was informed in no uncertain terms that it was an administrator and not a teacher who decided that it was a good idea to put them in class together; I heard quite a few jokes about teaching them being an extreme sport!
The first few lessons were a trying time for myself as a young teacher …
Midway through my second week with the boys, I had arrived early at school, was the only one there and had forgotten my key to the science block. I was sitting on the back of my car and trying to prolong the remnants of my morning coffee because I had nothing better to do than wait for my colleagues to arrive. “Jake”, something of a ringleader among the year 8 boys, shuffled past me saying “mornin’ Sir” in the gruff manner of a year eight boy. I watched him sit down on the steps of the science block, where to my amazement, he pulled out a dirt bike magazine and began reading it. This was a boy who claimed to hate reading, and vocalised his objections forcefully when someone tried to make him.
After a couple of minutes, I went over and joined him. I managed to strike up a conversation with him about riding, and he seemed to know everything about every bike on the market. I joked that I was looking forward to next year so that I could afford a new one, and much to my amusement he was quick to offer his opinions about which one it should be. I ventured a bit further and asked him where he had learned all of this, and he held up his magazine and said “from these”. Another teacher arrived at that moment, and I went into the staffroom with a new perspective on not just Jake, but his classmates as well.
Has this student read Spinoza? I don’t know, and that’s not the point. It’s more that Spinoza’s view of things helps us to understand our experience. Student behavior makes sense. There’s a reason why some students resist. Students want to learn. Our students are potentially teachable if we work intelligently and courageously to improve our understanding.
These are offshoots of an eternal and infinite truth ‘which feeds the mind wholly with joy’.