It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a sick society.*
In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh warns of the expansive and devastating impacts of climate change amidst the parching and narrowing of human narratives and imagination. In ‘Rainforest Etiquette in a World Gone Mad’, Suprabha Seshan challenges the boundaries between the human and more than human worlds, and the artificial niceties of inhabiting an increasingly virtual and abstract reality. In Unheard Voices, Liz Otterbein attends to the humanity of those deemed mentally unwell and the normalization of institutional insanity in maintaining control over them. In Thought as a System, David Bohm elucidates the incoherence of thought itself, its penchant for fragmentation, its motivational necessity and unyielding impetus, its tendency to confuse the map with the territory and its capacity for creation and deception in creating problems and pretending that they are ‘out there’ needing to be solved by more thinking.
In Culture Against Man, Jules Henry suggests that homo sapiens must perpetuate and conform to culture itself or risk relegation as abnormal, delinquent, deviant or criminal. With close anthropological observations of teaching-learning situations, Henry excavates school (progressive or conventional) as an institution for drilling children (and teachers) in absurd cultural orientations: professing cooperation and creativity while promoting self-interest and conformity to the values and norms of society. Moreover, such absurdity is itself circular, in that we are educated and in turn educate with more of the same, that is, patience, adjustment and adaptation to absurdity.
When education equips us (children and adults) to “be well-adjusted to a sick society”, to fit into an incoherent and increasingly impractical society, then education itself commits us to absurdity; for in educating and being educated, we are complicit in the transmission and reproduction of social norms and mental dispositions that maintain the status quo. It behoves us then to dislodge our commonsensical notions, disrupt well-worn courses of action and disavow the easy temptation to meet our collective or individual predicaments on their own terms. If the world is made and sustained by the absurdities and inertia of the human condition and conditioning, perpetuated in the small moments of our actions and interactions, can it also be undone in the small moments?
I thought to explore these concerns with students in a course called ‘Awakening to the Absurd’. In the context of this discussion, awakening is meant as a movement of perception and action in unravelling two intertwining strands of absurdity: First, the insanity in the seemingly normal and reasonable, and second, the sanity in the seemingly aberrant. The class was based on attention, not taking anything for granted, questioning and turning situations on their head.
If an alien without any teeth were to visit you, would you be able to teach it the significance of brushing teeth? If an alien without the same language, assumptions and beliefs were to visit school, could you draw its attention to the processes of school and learning? In the world as it is today, is it possible to be in it but not of it? We observed and enacted ordinary and extraordinary situations involving actions, movements, sounds and speech, without adding meaning and interpretation to them. The session involved eight students (ages fourteen to sixteen), a teacher apprentice and myself. We met for three and a half hours in the morning, twice a week for two months.
To dislodge our sense of identity, the course began by our assigning each other with absurd names that were anagrams of our usual names. The class was a space where we had to call each other by our absurd name and respond to this name. If, by force of habit, one of us resorted to normality (in calling another by our familiar names), we were relegated to a ‘bench of shame’ where we had to hold our head in our hands, lament about the consequences of our actions and demonstrate remorse so as to be permitted by the others to re-enter the class.
Rather than treating a slouching posture or a person rocking a chair as evidence of disinterest, we used these as opportunities to mirror the different postures and attitudes that we brought to the situation. For example, in one activity everybody watched an unfolding enactment from a slouching or tilted posture, from under a chair, upside down, bent over and from a varied or unusual angle. On occasion we just looked at each others’ faces without any words and at another time we had to do so while laughing hysterically. The intention was to pay close attention to elements of space, position, gesture, posture, stance, movement, words, names, time, sequence and narratives without taking anything for granted and looking at these from changing angles of regard.
We looked at social and psychological situations and turned them on their head. Occasionally the inspiration for some activities was drawn from the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ (the work of playwrights such as Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett). However, this was not decided beforehand but introduced in response to something that emerged from our interactions, in an experiential manner rather than rationally through words and explanations.
At an end of term school meeting, students shared some of their work from the previous session. Each student had closely observed a very normal, everyday experience in their lives—such as brushing one’s teeth, making a cup of tea, walking along the corridor, falling asleep—and any feelings associated with these activities. They each wrote a narrative (page or paragraph) describing their observations devoid of any interpretations and evaluations. The intention was for the author to devise a precise set of instructions for another person to enact.
The next step was to take these short narratives and render them in an absurd light (remove teeth from brushing, enact something in a reverse/ jumbled sequence, introduce a strange object or vary the proximity of interactions). The challenge was also for an audience to simply observe ordinary or extraordinary actions without imposing or adding their own meaning and interpretations. Some of us experienced this as funny, others as challenging in getting ourselves out of our comfort zones and others as downright absurd. The audience found it strangely intriguing and engaging even if they were unable to explain why or what it was all about.
For many students, this was the first time in acting. My intention was for all of us to discover skill and technique that are not mechanical but embedded in a movement of teaching and learning unfolding from attention. As for me, after several years of ‘teaching’ I wished to, as a challenge, enter the class without any plan (even to put aside prior experience, skill and knowledge), and to improvise every class from scratch in attending to the situation athand and what we all brought to the moments of our interactions.
What impact did the course have on the students and on me?
Retrospective reflections from the students regarding the course included phrases such as ‘uncomfortable’, ‘strange’, ‘easy’, ‘natural’, “It is possible to be interested in a story without understanding it” and “life might be lived without adding any meaning”. On recollection, my own reflection was that the course involved “the disorientation and disruption of commonsensical meaning-making and action, and diving beneath the wreckage of the settled, the known and the possible”.
But did the course change anything fundamentally? Did it fulfil its aims? Which activities worked and which activities did not work? Such questions align themselves with our quest for ‘learning outcomes’ and recast the educational and educative encounter into the separations of means and ends; process and content; intentions, activities and results; and educational relations (student, teacher and subject matter). Indeed the subject matter of the course itself was its unfolding impact on all of us and our on-going relationship and interaction with ourselves, each other, and the world.
Within this space and during this time called ‘class’, I came upon four principles of teaching that served as an invocation for me, that I wish to share:
Principle 1: Pay close attention to everything and don’t take anything for granted.
Principle 2: Unless you are just conveying information, do not meet or answer a question or problem on its own terms (that is, enquiry is not merely moving from question to answer to question but questioning the questions themselves).
Principle 3: Disavow and disrupt any distinctions between teaching and learning (both student-centred and teacher-centred notions of education perpetuate spurious dichotomies).
Principle 4: Don’t be absurd; there are no principles of/for teaching!
When we teach safely, we proceed in such a way that our first-order beliefs about excellence, motivation, ability, intelligence, teaching, learning, academics, school, practicality and the so-called ‘real world’ are never fully called into doubt. We begin with an assumption that we know a great many first-order things to be true, and hence, teaching essentially involves a search for principles and practices that will justify and apply these beliefs. When we teach with risk, on the other hand, we expose these first-order beliefs to the perils of inquiry. What does it look like to uncover a curriculum? Why learn maths or art? When and where is learning visible? What occasions or smothers teaching? What is a ‘class’? Everything is up for grabs. I have adapted this approach from James Rachel’s Moral Philosophy as a Subversive Activity and contextualized it for teaching.
Can we learn to reframe and turn our challenges on their heads and teach to disrupt the known, the familiar, the settled and taken for granted? Awakening to the absurd can be extended to teaching any subject when it involves disrupting and reframing the curriculum (visible or hidden) in terms other than the learning that it aims to attain. Teachers may wish to explore this challenge for themselves but for instance:
(i) We might start with any question and find different and wildly diverse routes to work out its answer[s]; or (ii) we might start with a question and its answer[s] and find different ways to make sense of and traverse between the answer[s] and the question; or (iii) we might even start with an answer that spawns questions across vastly diverse areas of subject matter. For example, starting even with an uncontexualized, specific and seemingly banal answer such as “42” what are all the questions we can generate? (The questions could range from the chemical properties of molybdenum, the periodic table, rainbows and refraction, Catalan numbers, Pythagorean mathematics, Alice in Wonderland, the layout and development of New York City, The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank), World War II, the Kabbalah and even the Meaning of Life in The Hitch Hiker’s guide to the Galaxy!), or (iv) we might even generate unanswerable and impossible questions? This could occasion not merely the undoing of the proverbial ‘textbook answer’ but the undoing of the textbook itself.
Neil Postman speaks of Teaching as a Subversive Activity. William and Rick Ayers challenge us towards Teaching the Taboo. Their suggestion is not just about seeking more questions rather than answers but about exploring the world around and within us in unusual, irreverent and impossible ways. With schools, teaching and curricula so resolutely focused on demonstrating or reproducing what we already know (the tried and tested), today, more than ever, ‘not knowing’ is a crucial point of departure for learning and teaching. It calls for disrupting the known, the status quo, the taken for granted and the familiar, and for reframing our questions and terms of engagement with the world. This, then, is an invitation for teaching with care, attention and a touch of madness in an insane world.
- Ayers, R., & Ayers, W. (2011). Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
- Bohm, D. (1994). Thought as a System. London and New York: Routledge.
- Ghosh, A. (2017). The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
- Henry, J. (1963). Culture against Man. New York, NY: Vintage.
- Krishnamurti, J. (1996). ‘Can We Create A New Culture?’ In Total freedom. San Francisco, CA: Harper One.
- Krishnamurti, J. (1979). Education. Fifth Seminar Meeting at Brockwood Park School. Retrieved 5 November 2017, from http://www.jkrishnamurti. org/krishnamurti-teachings/view-text.php?tid=1353&chid=1052&w=%22pu t+you+on+a+pedestal%22
- McDermott, R., & Raley, J. D. (2009). ‘The Tell-tale Body: The Constitution of Disabilities in School. In W. Ayers, T. Quinn, & D. Stoval (Eds.), Handbook of Social Justice in Education (pp. 431–45). Mahwah, NJ: LEA.
- Otterbein, L. Unheard Voices: Journal of a Psychiatric Nurse. CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
- Rachels, J. (1997). Can Ethics Provide Answers?: And Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Seshan, S. (2016, July 24). ‘Rainforest Etiquette in a World Gone Mad’. Retrieved 5 November, 2017, from http://www.countercurrents. org/2016/07/23/rainforest-etiquette-in-a-world-gone-mad/
* Source unknown, but attributed to J. Krishnamurti