Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.
— Robert Frost: Mending Wall
The farmer-speaker in Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall takes a wry look at his neighbour’s self-satisfied retreat behind his father’s saying: ‘Good fences make good neighbors’. Where their lands meet, a wall is unnecessary because one is all apple orchard and the other all pine, and neither harbours the cows that could trespass. Yet the neighbours meet each year to walk the line along the wall that separates them, and rebuild whatever has tumbled. It is a ritual that brings them together, but only to ensure that the wall between them stays strong. Here is a paradox somewhat analogous to the connection between schooling and unconditioning.
Most of the deliberate activities in a school are concerned with building up: accumulating knowledge, honing skills, developing the complex processes that constitute what we call thinking; developing too an aesthetic and moral sensibility, a stance towards the world and towards ourselves. Perhaps all of this is necessary and much of it unexceptionable. But something there is that doesn’t love these structures that we ritualistically, and sometimes lovingly, erect, and they contribute in a large measure to what you might term ‘conditioning’. The security we derive from them is shown to be precarious, especially when, in spite of our efforts at building together, we find ourselves in conflict—with each other and within ourselves. When the speaker in Frost’s poem suggests that it might be elves that cause the disrepair to the wall, it is an impish reminder that human nature cannot be easily compassed and that our diligent efforts to mould it are undermined by forces we do not fully comprehend. Nor can conditioning itself be simply understood, as it is vaster than any individual’s lifespan and subtler than the identifiable circumstances of birth and of life experience, including formal education.
Can a school, then, help raise our awareness of the conditioning processes that it is itself so largely, but by no means exclusively, responsible for? And can it do this for both the teachers and the taught, so that both together become learners about themselves?
Answers to these are perhaps suggested through a reading of Frost’s poem. An annual occurrence in farming life becomes an occasion to question a strongly—or conveniently—held position. Questioning beliefs, or at least seeing that assumptions, opinions and prejudices have a strong hold on us, is one entry into the domain of conditioning. In a residential school this hold is manifest, for instance, in the way cultural tastes are expressed. Teenagers tend to have strong biases in favour of certain kinds of movies, music, food, clothes or experiences and equally strong prejudices against others. These are heavily conditioned by peers and the larger social environment, and as a teacher one is bemused by the strength with which these are apparently held. Why are young people not more open-minded, we wonder: why are these tender shoots already so rigid? We are both concerned and exasperated—feelings that are understandable even if accompanied by an amnesia regarding what we were at the same age. More to the point, they might be accompanied by a certain blindness to what we are at present: just possibly broader-minded than the stereotypical teen, through age and experience, but sometimes not even this, and no less susceptible to the ubiquitous workings of conditioning even if we have learnt to be more guarded in how it is expressed through us.
Seeing this is to see that it is the ground from which we question or point things out that is the key to the efficacy, and even the authenticity, of the enterprise. Choosing to ignore the limitedness of our own perspectives, or not asking the same questions of our own lives, or asking them (of others or ourselves) with the weight of condemnation, is likely to do no more than breed attrition. Much can be learnt, in this regard, from Mending Wall. There is, for instance, the matter of tone. If an extreme of exhortation is the selfrighteous and nitpicking one-upmanship that, say, political rivals on prime time TV flaunt, or are pushed into adopting by aggressive and time-conscious anchors, nothing could be further from it than the urbane, restrained and gently teasing voice in this poem. Leisurely and disingenuous though he might sound in his questioning of received wisdom (‘I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out’) the speaker is neither casual nor inclined to see this merely as a local issue (in which he differs from his neighbour but gives in good naturedly to his whims). In his stark image of the neighbour as ‘an old stone savage armed’ (with boulders to strengthen the wall between them) he sees the divisiveness and insecurity that has left a stain on humankind. But he manages through his image to suggest it without harping on it; and the absence of stridency is not merely disarming: it is also commensurate with the task of turning our consciousness inward. His refusal to rail at the neighbour’s smug self-enclosure is no mere expression of tact, nor a sign of superficial liberalism or disengagement. It comes instead from the recognition that here is a thing in which we are all implicated and that butting your head against it would only give you a headache.
If some, like the neighbour (as far as we know), choose not to understand him, there will be others like the reader drawn in to witness the episode, who respond to the poet’s tone and perhaps find that they are looking within themselves. The poet is reaching out to a larger constituency, which certainly includes himself, and if it involves judgement it is not the judgement of one who knows it all and is beyond being judged in turn. This makes for engagement rather than obedience or disobedience, or even acceptance or rejection, or the no-man’s land of indifference; and engagement is what a teacher must strive to maintain, even through situations that require her to lay things down sharply and unambiguously.
But if the farmer-poet chooses not to press his point (or is doing so in a way that might not be apparent) what of the adult in a school who, in her capacity as house parent or class teacher, takes on a more critical responsibility for the students in her care? Would she—should she—look askance from the sidelines, but do no more than ask a question or two when ‘spring is the mischief’ in her, and leave it at that even as she realizes that her ‘words had forked no lightning’ with her students? On the face of it this would seem an inadequate response, possibly even an abjuring of responsibility. There must be ways by which she can—and should—sustain the challenge, so that unreason does not prevail by default.
Indeed there must, but there is no blueprint for this and there are cautions to be observed. It seems that at the heart of the business is a raising of self-awareness and that the biggest challenge in engagement is to prevent its becoming no more than a clash of competing wills, ideologies, opinions, or tastes—in other words, non-engagement!—even if at school it is less ugly than the rabid self-assertions we see on TV.
At this point it would be worthwhile to interject that the issue is no longer, and actually never was, primarily that of helping students to confront their conditioning. The more piquant challenge—and opportunity—in a school is for adults themselves to live and work in harmony in spite of the myriad temperaments, beliefs and preferences, not to say agendas, which they bring with them. With all the weight of our accumulated selves, do we have the lightness and the clarity to feel we are together? If doing the inner and outer work for this to happen as adults did not interest us, there would be a shade of inauthenticity in our efforts to do so with students. It might feel easier with students: there is a moral and institutional charge one carries as a teacher (however lightly one may wish to exercise it) that eases our way with students; also, our attachment to what we consider due to us is less consuming when it comes to students than our fellow teachers. Another aspect of what we conceive of as ‘conditioning’ is at work here: the sense of self that is attached to its ways, afraid of letting go and prone to feeling bruised by others’ words or actions.
The enterprise then, whether with students or with fellow teachers, requires sustained engagement, a scepticism of ideological positions and a nurturing, in ourselves and others, of what it takes to be self-aware. The question follows whether these are central to the way we function in the school. This needs to be asked because in the hurly-burly of life at school other considerations have a way of being prioritized. For instance, in dealing with serious violations of discipline, personal feelings of outrage, or indulgence based on one’s cultural predilections can assume greater importance than continued engagement with students (and with one another) on the issues involved; or in being confronted with students’ insensitivity, which expresses itself in a variety of ways, the urge to correct them quickly and bring about ‘order’ can come in the way of perceiving—and helping them perceive—the roots of insensitivity; or faced with the rigidity or unreasonableness of one’s colleagues, one may ignore the reasons for such tendencies and fail to see how they manifest in one’s own attitudes. Situations of this kind arise all the time, and perhaps a common factor in the way we approach them is our sense of urgency, our feeling that here is something importunate that must be tackled quickly and ‘effectively’. This may be the case: no doubt there are situations where we have to act promptly, not to say surgically. The question is: does this invariably drive the way we act? Is this the ‘default mode’ that we slip into? If so, it could be that we are losing out on some of the potential richness of shared learning in a school.
This brings us once again to Mending Wall. Frost’s poem admirably fulfils Emily Dickinson’s dictum to ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’. There are many truths in the poem, but underlying it also is a reticent wisdom, a willingness to allow uncongenial voices their space while querying them, and an ability to let go when it seems necessary to do so, not only so that harmonies are preserved in the moment but because, as already mentioned, the poet is addressing a larger constituency, and doing so in a larger time-frame. Immediate outcomes are of less concern to him than a clarifying vision. His ‘constituency’ includes all who have the time to pause, to discover that this poem is not primarily about potential disputes between farmers in New England, and to re-examine their own lives in the light of the poem’s understated clarity and intensity. Because the truths are told slant, we find our intelligence engaged and our energy not wasted in reacting against, or feeling overwhelmed by, a tone of didacticism.
It may be argued, however, that even this is a disguised didacticism. Possibly, but then it must be asked: is creating a space in which people might see for themselves something that you wish them to see, conditioning? And if it is, is all conditioning of necessity bad, a smudge on a pristine whiteness? Much rests on how we understand this word that is so tinted for us by Krishnamurti’s distinctive use of it. We may find ourselves in the position of saying that any acquired wisdom, even if its source is not didactic, is not wisdom at all. This would be paralysing if we took it too literally, especially as people concerned with teaching and learning. It would be more productive to facilitate self-learning to the extent possible (as Frost’s poem implicitly does) and to see ourselves and our students as learners, reflexively interested in how we learn: that might be the beginning of ‘unconditioning’ (which is, by the way, a word even more problematic than ‘conditioning’—the computer underlines it with an angry red). For, unconditioning is clearly not a simple deletion of files or programs from the brain—were that possible—but has much to do with deepening our shared awareness of the hold these programs have on us, or rather of the fact that we are these programs.
But we are also more than them, perhaps, and this is the potential that a school should be concerned with: through the way lessons are taught and problems of various kinds dealt with, through the energy we give to nurturing human relationships and through the spaces we create for exploring the larger world and seeing how we are shaped by our connections with it and shape it in turn, thereby allowing spaces for reflection and for silence. Can we, in other words, allow for conditioning and unconditioning to happen simultaneously? Perhaps this parallels another simultaneity that we might, in conclusion, briefly consider. If the wall in Frost’s poem represents the needless divisions that humanity has indulged in, a kind of deadly ‘game’ (to borrow the poet’s word) that has been endlessly replayed, it is pertinent to ask what the ‘good fences’ represent. For the neighbour in the poem the truth that they embody is self-evident, and ‘Good fences make good neighbors’ bears repetition but not justification. The poem invites us to examine not only the saying but the fixedness with which it is held to be true. If our first response to both is somewhat critical (especially as we tend to identify with the speaker’s commonsensical undercutting of rigid notions) over time another, more positive, response begins to emerge as well, and this too is about both the saying and the way in which it is held.
Though fences are erected for similar reasons as walls, on the whole fences evoke a less immovable impression than walls. If they are felt to be lighter boundaries that help us preserve space around ourselves—but without a sense of separation or isolation—in an increasingly cluttered environment, they serve a valid purpose. It may indeed help us to be better neighbours if there are boundaries of this kind which are shifting and tacit and which foster understanding and respect. These fences need amending rather than mending, because to ‘mend’ is to return to the status quo and to ‘amend’ is to ameliorate by being responsive to change.
As for the certitude with which the saying is repeated, a kind of quiet certainty about things that matter may stand us, and our students, in good stead in a world in which basic values such as honesty, decency and a respect for all life are more and more visibly being eroded, partly under a misguided relativism. To be clear, after having examined them patiently, that some values are necessary for human beings to live well together, is not necessarily a limitation if one is open to re-examining them at any time, and is actually doing so through the press of circumstances. The dynamic between certitude and questioning is analogous to that between conditioning and unconditioning. The school provides ample opportunity for these to be held in balance. It is a balance, through self-awareness, that might make for something more durable, but less divisive, than the wall that the neighbours have to mend at springtime between their respective pines and apples.