When a sermon offers excess of sight

I have been thinking a bit about Bakhtin’s concepts of excess of sight and the non-alibi of being as outlined in Jeff King’s talk that I posted about last Saturday. It has already had an impact on the way that I have been talking to students since Monday as we feel our way through the various constructs that lead them to Qualified Teacher Status.

It has certainly impacted my language, and as I am also re-reading at the moment Peter H Johnston’s pair of wonderful small books, Choice Words and Opening Minds, I am thinking constantly about the way we shape language to enable children to develop agency in writing, thinking and in the choices they make. Johnston’s fundamental thesis, I guess, if you could trace it, is that the choices we make and the care we take with language, as teachers, releases children into making the range of choices they need to become fully literate. The same goes for teaching students.

I find myself agreeing again with Jeff King when he says that our feedback mechanisms currently ‘do not meet the criteria of the architectonic self and cannot be considered a relational practice.’

To recap, what Bakhtin calls the ‘architectonic self’ consists of three aspects, the I-for-myself, the other-for-me and the I-for-the-other. The first one relates to the non-alibi of being, whilst the second two relate to the idea of excess of sight, that ability that enables others to see us differently (and more fully?) than we can ourselves. The non-alibi self (the I-for-myself) is that which assumes the autonomy and responsibility for reacting and responding to others’ excess of sight. The terminology is unfortunate: I don’t think that Bakhtin saw the I-for-myself as something necessarily selfish. It is better considered a guarantor, should we choose to activate it, that allows us to make decisions about others’ perspectives on us.

There is a lot of half-helpful cod psychology (LinkedIn positively oozes the stuff) that we must ‘be our own person,’ not ‘subject to others’ judgements’ of our worth or actions. Somehow, if we are put upon by others’expectations, it must be their issue, not ours. It may just be, according to Bakhtin, that they have excess of sight we can not see yet. So, can we just live with the view of ourselves that we assume?

Well, yes and no. Hopefully the rest of this post will explain what I mean by that.

Listening on Sunday morning to Stephen Palmer, the rector at St Aldates in Oxford, teaching on the action and purpose of the Holy Spirit, gave a sudden twist to Bakhtin’s typology. I don’t usually expect sermons to impact on my ontological understanding on a slow Sunday morning (though, on reflection, they should and I wish that they would more often), but Stephen’s exposition of this passage in John 14, so close to my thinking about Bakhtin, raises some challenging understanding of what exactly is going on inside us:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them……anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them (John 14: 16-23)

We now, as Christian people, are indwelt not just my Jesus, but also by his father and by the Holy Spirit.

This raises the possibility of a whole load of different aspects to our selfhood, beyond that imagined or described by Bakhtin (perhaps here standing as a representative of ‘the world [that] cannot see him’): for instance, there is now the I-for-Jesus (and conversely the Jesus-for-me), and the Jesus-for-others (acting through me), as well as, intriguingly and separately, I-for-the-Spirit, the-Spirit-for-me and the-Spirit-for-others. The intertwining and perichoresis that this hints at is complex: the whole concept of God the Father, Son and Spirit working out their dance within my life, seeking to live my life with and through me – this is alarming to most Christians, or at least it should be, but this challenging passage in John 14 has been in the bible for a long time and really the Christian church should have figured it out by now.

The Holy Spirit certainly is blessed with (suffers from?) excess of sight. His ability to discern soul and spirit within us, as the writer to the Hebrews has it, and his understanding of our whole (architectonic) self – these beg the question as to whether his presence is that of a visitor in the attic, tiptoeing past us on the stairs as he seeks to impact our world, or a clean-sweeping, redecorating home-owner, taking full possession, enabling us, through the suffering and joy that that entails, to take our place as a living stone in the body of Christ (1 Peter 2), or part of the lamp set upon a lampstand and city on a hill (Matthew 5)

John clearly describes the homecoming of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit within us as the latter. Our architectonic selves are reoriented so completely as to be both examples and agents of transformation.

The implications of this, especially in community (and Bakhtin was clear that the architectonic self functioned fully only in community) raise some fascinating possibilities, allowing the prophetic and missional lives of any Christian community or church to offer, humbly, the excess of sight into our communities that we need. It opens up, for instance, the possibility of the exercise of the gifts of the Holy Spirit both within and beyond churches (I have always enjoyed Paul S Williams’ teaching that the gifts of the Spirit are given for practice in the church but actual use beyond it), making sense of the purpose and power of prophecy, word of knowledge and healing within a congregation. It brings a dynamic to the humble offer to another of allowing that excess of sight in a way that makes complete sense of ‘mutual submission’ – and teaches our non-alibi self to be humble about the possibility that a) others can see us more clearly than we can ourselves and b) therefore we ought to find a way of allowing ourselves to be discipled within that excess of sight.

Areas of vocation and ministry, the nature of Christian community and service, the way we relate to the world – all of these are enriched by thinking about the internal relationships between our architectonic self and the indwelling Godhead. Dallas Willard’s dictum about the Christian life being our lives as if Jesus was living them suddenly has new impetus as we allow Him to govern the different aspects of our self.

There is much more to explore in this, and you will easily think of other areas of communal and personal discipleship that can be reimagined using Bakhtin’s helpful schema. What it does for many Christians brought up to think of the action of the Spirit as being for us as individuals, is to map out new ways of seeing his work as first of all communal, with ourselves as those Spirit-inspired agents of transformation.

Midsummer murders (of crows, that is)…

There is something lovely about being outside on the evening of the summer solstice – as though God has given you an invite to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, in your own village. So this is a photo-blog today, just with a few of the things we saw on midsummer evening in Bradwell, the suburb of Milton Keynes where we live….

Bradwell Abbey Pilgrim Chapel….the bit that survived the ‘reformation’
Grey heron and little egret going fishing…
Cut grass showing the stint structure of the medieval and pre-enclosure farming patterns along Loughton Brook…
Poppies seeding in the atrium of the Romano-British villa in Bancroft

Star struck

I spent 4 hours and 30 minutes this morning getting from my house in Milton Keynes to a school in Ilford. It usually takes me an hour and a half. The reason? The legacy of yesterday’s RMT walkout from national and TfL (Transport for London) rail services. It took a drive to the coach station (20m), a coach from Milton Keynes to Baker Street (1h30m, as trains weren’t running till 9 from MK), an hour and 35 minutes on the 205 and 25 bus routes after a 30 minute wait as the first two were all full and wouldn’t stop (tube stations closed till 8 or 9 depending on where you were) then a short trip on the Elizabeth line from Stratford to Ilford, and a 15 minute walk.

Was I inconvenienced? For sure. Was I hot and bothered when I arrived? Definitely. Did I wish I could have taken my usual train? Absolutely. Did I wish that the RMT could have found a better way of making their demands? Yes I did. And did I get peeved at the fact that tube and national rail services were still not up and running the day after the strike? Of course it was annoying. And poor planning, to boot.

But did I support the walkout? Yes.

Do I support the right of workers to withhold labour in support of a demand for better pay and conditions? Completely.

Do I think that they should carry on until they get an equitable solution? Yes I do.

Do I think they have argued their case well? Yes.

Do I favour other unions coming out in support of pay claims? Yes.

Do I wish the Labour party was more robust in support of workers? Oh, yes.

We look at labour relations in this country from a Tory narrative, carried by either the sensible or the rabid right-wing press. Today’s Times headlines the Johnson/Shapps Tweedledum/Tweedledee double act saying that these wage demands will fuel inflation, and that we are going back to the ‘dark days of the 1970s’.

This is bunkum, as I expect they don’t know, but it sells papers… Yes, it will create inflationary pressures, but as Sharon Graham has argued forcefully, this is actually on the backdrop of falling real-time wages for most working people for 10 years, and is nothing compared with corporate greed in the form of price gouging and a growing monopolism in all sectors. And as Aditya Chakrabortty has noted, growth in the 1970s was double or triple what is now. And even if we were the sick man of Europe, we were at least in Europe.

The party of economic sanity, careful management and clarity has gone AWOL without excuse or reason. They haven’t even left a note. The serious thinkers that are replacing them are on the left, well organised, thoughtful, committed and not necessarily in the Labour Party. If the ‘bad old days’ of the 1970s are back, it is because the Conservative party never learnt the lessons properly the first time around, but instead bludgeoned unions on the back of an appalling political philosophy.

What we once knew, what we now don’t, and so care less about

One of my childhood memories was going with my aunt (now 95) in Swansea to Brynmill Park ‘to feed the ducks.’ It remains a rainy day in my memory, and I am not altogether certain I enjoyed it. I don’t remember feeding the ducks, so maybe it was just a walk. But I think it was the first time I had seen a board that explained and identified all the wildfowl on the pond in the park. And what I remember was that the board was a wonder, full of animals I had never heard of. But also, what I remember is that the common British wildfowl – swans, mallards, geese, coots and moorhens – they were not there. There was an assumption that you knew these ones already. They were so common, and children had encountered them so often, that you didn’t need to be told by Glamorgan County Council, or whoever put the board up.

Same aunt, sitting in her house in the Uplands, about 4 or 5 years later maybe? I was 13 or 14 and had found a copy of a book that fascinated me – An Atlas of Plant Histology. I had discovered microscopes at the age of about 10, and loved looking at cells and bits of skin under the microscope. I remember taking a very thin slice of a radish and looking at it under a microscope at school (in the days when they had external illumination and a rotating mirror beneath the stage). But the book, like the board at Brynmill park, was a very wonder. I carried it around with me, showed it to anyone who would listen. There was so much amazing life and information at this microscopic scale. I showed it to my aunt one day (she had studied biology at the University of Wales in the 1950s and had taught biology at Ogmore Vale for many years) and she sat me down and said – if you want to be interested in botany, then learn the names and habitats of wild flowers. That’s what you do botany for.

So I did. My dad had a Collins guidebook to British wildflowers and I learnt as many as I could. It got to be a habit, fed not only by my aunt, but also by my uncle, an amateur botanist and collector, and a perfect partner for my aunt. To this day, I cannot pass a privet hedge in flower without having a look for a privet hawk moth caterpillar – bright green with diagonal pink stripes. I have not seen one for 40 years, but it doesn’t stop me looking.

Yesterday, I passed a similar explanatory board near a pond in Milton Keynes, not far from our house, and noticed that the birds it was identifying – crow, blackbird, robin, pigeon, sparrow, herring gull, Canada goose – were all so common as to hardly need identification.

And it made me wonder about this knowledge of the natural world – the common knowledge of our culture – and what we have been telling our children about it, and whether that reflected exactly what we feel about it. Plenty of young people and adults now have a concern for ‘the environment’ and we have all seen Attenborough’s series of stunning films over the last 30 years – far fewer seem to know or care about their gardens, local farms, agriculture, ecology and the wild flowers, weeds, birds, insects and reptiles that populate their immediate world. Our understanding of watersheds and natural drainage extends to whether there is enough pressure for the boiler or whether there is a hosepipe ban….. This is a cultural knowledge fast disappearing, and therefore not cared about. Those who know their local world, who can name its parts and its inhabitants, will care for it.

I visited a school in the autumn set in the midst of farmland, yet farming or gardening or soil care was not on anybody’s curriculum…. It reminded me of Linus in the old Charles Schulz cartoon shown here, and of Norman Wirzba’s wry comment that we all want to ‘live in a good neighbourhood’ without the necessity of learning to be good neighbours. We are OK with the generic, but the specific and local we find somehow remote. Few young people forage, as far as I can see – the foragers I see in Milton Keynes are either in their fifties and above, or from cultures that respect foraging as a necessity.

One of the purposes of knowledge – perhaps the central purpose – is love, to love what we know and care for what we know, and thus come to care for it, and know it, more deeply: whether that is ordinary folk, or plants or birds or our neighbours. Older versions of the scriptures rightly use the verb to ‘know’ to describe sexual relations – and he knew her – and this is right: the intimate interleaving of knowledge and love, what Catholic academic Paul Griffiths calls ‘the reflexive intimacy with the gift.’

This reflexive recalling of the past to mind in love is explored most beautifully in Wendell Berry’s short novel Remembering (Berkeley, Ca: Counterpoint Press). In two occasions in the book, in which Andy Catlett is the central character, coming to terms with losing a hand in an agricultural accident (re-membering is thus a pun here by Berry) and mourning that loss, during a visit to San Francisco in the 1980s, there is this enormous leap of recalled knowledge across space and time that instructs and affirms the value of what was taught and learnt.

Here is the first passage, a memory of himself as a teenager in the early 1950s, with his father, Wheeler:

Andy knows how firmly ruled and how unendingly fascinated his father has been by the imagining of cattle on good grass. It was a vision, finally, given the terrain and nature of their place, of a community well founded and long lasting…..

‘Look’ he says, for he has brought Andy where he has brought him many times before, to the grove of walnuts around the spring, and the cattle are coming to drink….they drink in great slow swallows, their breath riffling the surface of the water, and then drift out under the trees. Andy and Wheeler can hear the grass tearing as they graze.

‘If that won’t move a man, what will move him? It’s like a woman. It’ll keep you awake at night’

Andy is old enough to be told that loving a place is like loving a woman, but Wheeler does not trust him yet to know what he is seeing. He trusts it to come later, if he can get it into his mind.

‘Look’ he says. And as if to summon Andy’s mind back from wherever it may be wandering, for Andy’s mind can always be supposed to be wandering, Wheeler takes hold of his shoulder and grips it hard. ‘Look. See what it is, and you’ll always remember.’

What manner of wonder is this flesh that can carry in it for thirty years a vision that other flesh has carried, oh, forever, and handed down by touch?

This intimacy of knowing and remembering and being inspired by what we know and connected deeply to it – this is a part of being human, connected in ways through memory, place and experience that we rarely dwell on.

I am not connected to ‘the environment’ – I am connected to the garden I tend, the house I care for, the neighbours I speak with, the wild animals – birds, hedgehogs, foxes, insects – that live near me: the whole ‘household,’ the oikonomos of which I am steward. Herons and egrets that fly over and nearby, are part of our world, and somehow I am connected to them. The pigeons that court each other on our fence (and our cat who engages them in threatening conversation), the blue tits that nest in our boxes, the ants that annoyingly live in our grass patches, these are all part of that household.

A second memory that Andy Catlett calls to mind in the novel is a time in 1946-1947 after his grandfather Marce Catlett had died, and he is staying with his grandmother, Dorie, to keep her company and help her:

The evening comes when they put the eggs under a setting hen in the henhouse. He is holding the marked eggs in a basket, and Dorie is taking them out one by one and putting them under the hen.

‘You know, you can just order the chickens from a factory now, and they send them to you through the mail’

‘But this is the best way, ain’t it?’ He hopes it is, for he loves it.

‘It’s the cheapest. And the oldest. It’s been done this way for a long time.’

‘How long, do you reckon?’

‘Oh, forever.’

She puts the last egg under the hen, and strokes her back as she would stroke a baby to sleep. Out the door he can see the red sky in the west. And he loves it there in the quiet with her, doing what has been done forever.

‘I hope we always do it forever,’ he says.

She looks down at him and smiles, and then suddenly pulls his head against her. ‘Oh, my boy, how far away will you be sometime, remembering this?’

I know I have used these quotes before in this blog, but they are significant to me because as we get older, memories, often triggered by taste and smell, reassert themselves and come to us with new meaning.

I never became a botanist, and it took Wendell Berry’s writing to turn me into a better neighbour and gardener. But I remain grateful for a familial education that taught me to look upon the natural world, to know and love it, and to live in love and gratitude to the God who made it in love, and in the same love, to steward it well.

Feedback as problem

In a 1978 essay entitled Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems, Wendell Berry laments the way that the language of industrial efficiency has come to dominate human relationships in much the same way as industrial thinking has dominated agriculture since the Second World War. This is not a new theme in Berry’s work – indeed it is a central one – but the essay is one of the earliest expositions of the issue, and one of his most powerful. Having discussed the agrarian and familial metaphors used for people in the bible (husbandry, bridegroom, motherland, sheep of his pasture, shepherd, brothers, sisters) he argues:

Now we do not flinch to hear men and women referred to as ‘units’ as if they were as uniform and interchangeable as machine parts. It is common, and considered acceptable, to refer to the mind as a computer: one’s thoughts are ‘inputs’; other people’s responses are ‘feedback’….work is judged almost exclusively now by its ‘efficiency’ which, as used, is a mechanical standard, or by its profitability, which is our only trusted index of mechanical efficiency. One’s country is no longer loved familially and intimately as ‘motherland’ but rather priced according to its ‘productivity’ or ‘raw materials’ and ‘natural resources’…

And this was 35 years before the rise of Amazon distribution centres…..

I was alarmed, slightly, to read feedback in Berry’s list of industrial words. But of course he is right. I came across feedback originally in its acoustic sense, of the uncontrolled amplification of a signal creating a feedback loop when a microphone was picking up a signal from a speaker. It was entirely a physical, mechanical term.

Feedback has no real ‘natural’ meaning, though it appears in some biological sciences in an adulterated and misapplied form, a reverse engineered use of a mechanical term for a natural process.

Last Sunday I heard Jeffry King from Texas State University give a brilliant and helpful talk about the way that feedback works in the higher education classroom, which got me thinking hard about my own teaching.

Jeff’s argument was for a prioritising of the relational being of pedagogy in the classroom, privileging the teacher-student relationship as the heart of the educative process. Seeing that this relationship was more commonly seen as incorporated in larger systems which often distorted the relationship, he was seeking instructional strategies that focused on it, and then how did those strategies align with how the self is constructed in relationship (what Bakhtin called the architectonic self) so that we as relational beings could be directed to those classroom relationships in order to facilitate and deepen our learning.

The argument he made was then complex, using Bakhtin to demonstrate that pedagogical actions are not so much ‘delivered objects’ as they are descriptions of relational events, with the emphasis on the reasoning in and response to others that drive those pedagogical acts. To do this, we commit to participating in a relationship. When I watch a student in a classroom unengaged relationally with the children, compared with a teacher who is fully engaged, the difference in both communication and learning is profound.

New knowledge is thus seen as a function of the change that happens in the relationship and to me, and naming it: the subject-object dichotomy is transcended as we (both student and teacher) take on the perspective of others and participate as both teacher (subject) and learner (object). As we alternate between the two we learn more about ourselves, others and the topic in hand. In doing so we cross the gap between what I can and cannot see (Bakhtin’s ‘transgredience gap’), taking on other’s perspectives, which over time, with a plethora of different perspectives, leads to a fuller understanding. This resonates with the ‘knower and known’ understanding of how knowledge is made argued for by Parker Palmer and others.

Using Bakhtin’s architectonic self, Jeff explained the self as relationally constructed in three parts: the I-for-myself, the other-for-me, and the I-for-the-other. The latter two lead to the concept of excess of sight – how others can see us more fully than we can see ourselves, because they have an outside perspective. We can engage in what Bakhtin called ‘outsideness’ – the process of standing outside ourselves in order to see ourselves more fully, but we may require others’ help to do that. Our response to another’s excess of sight of us is what Bakhtin termed non-alibi: I and I alone am responsible for responding to another’s excess of sight for me: no-one can do it for me. This is the I-for-myself (or, in others, the other-for-themselves).

So in the relationship between teacher and student, this is where we find ourselves:

  1. Teachers providing students with an excess of sight (I-for-the-other)
  2. Students providing teachers with an excess of sight (other-for-me)
  3. Teachers’ non-alibi responses to students’ excess of sight (I-for-myself)
  4. Students’ non-alibi response to teachers’ excess of sight (other-for-themselves)

These impact on the way we give feedback, student and teacher self-perception, concepts of self-assessment and our self-regulation.

Feedback strategies show relational qualities if they encourage self-perception within a particular educational context, and when reflection is encouraged over correction. Where feedback from teachers to students is descriptive rather than evaluative or where it leads to enquiry – these too are relational qualities, as are things like course evaluations from students to teachers.

Feedback strategies show relational qualities if they encourage self-assessment. Student self-assessment is seen through increased self-regulation, academic performance and in creating their own feedback; and teacher self-assessment is often geared to peer observation, increased autonomy and efficacy and self-scored rubrics. Self-assessment is not relational when the participant, rather than the relationship is at the centre of instruction, so self-scored rubrics and outside observers generating feedback are not relational.

In short, ‘feedback can be considered relational when it places the relationship at the center of instruction’ – a long way from current practice, which is often evaluative against external criteria or rubrics.

Jeff’s recommendations for relational feedback were the following:

  1. We need feedback that encourages students to focus on change as a measure of improved performance, by emphasizing moments where they observe students reflecting on differences, and by scaffolding assignments to encourage students to notice changes in their own work.
  2. We need feedback that promotes excess of sight, by using questions that challenge students to take on a different perspective, and that provide them with an opportunity for excess of sight, and by providing peer feedback opportunities.
  3. We need feedback that creates opportunities for students to issue their non-alibi by asking questions that elicit student thinking, asking students to elaborate on previous statements and by providing evidence that appears to contradict students’ responses.
  4. We need feedback that provides teachers opportunities to issue their non-alibi by collecting student feedback in the context of a specific pedagogical event through questionnaires, suggestion boxes, small group interviews and by asking individual students to report on observations of specific lesson components.

This talk is predicated on what we might term the normative ideal of community, a term used by Clifford Christians to indicate that a relational approach is preferable to a non-relational one and that a relational ontology (as Jeff used) is fundamental to being human. This speaks against the kind of feedback that we gain from being observed by others (as teachers or teaching students), which many of us value and have got used to. For myself, I can imagine that the invitation to observe me by a trusted other is a different kettle of fish from being made to stand there and be observed as part of a course, or as part of the process of performance review, as so often happens in schools and of which I was a guilty perpetrator!

To see feedback problematised in this way was really helpful, because we need the deepest possible understanding of it if we are engaging with whole, respected, human beings. Feedback that evaluates, and thus transgresses the non-alibi self who alone takes responsibility for response and learning, is of a different order to that which simply reports an excess of sight: this is what you did; this is what I saw; I noticed this…. – creating the gaps between the intent and the outcome that students can learn from. Slower, but deeper. And fully relational.

Context, soil health and healthy research (1)

In a discussion of the work and impact of the organic agricultural scientist Sir Albert Howard, Wendell Berry wrote the following in an essay in 2006:

Everything, as he saw it, existed within a context, outside of which it was unintelligible. Moreover, every problem existed within a context, outside of which it was unsolvable. Agriculture, thus, cannot be understood or its problems solved without respect to context. The same applied to an individual plant of crop. And this respect for context properly set the standard and determined the methodology of agricultural science. (in: Berry, 2009, Bringing it to the Table, p.166-167, Berkeley, Ca. Counterpoint)

Albert Howard, born to a farming family in Shropshire in 1873 (he and I share a birthday, which is pleasing), was for many years (1905-1924) Imperial Economic Botanist to the Government of India, and famous for two books in particular, An Agricultural Testament written in 1943 and The Soil and Health, written two years later, and his writing and thought have provided for Berry something that ‘I have been aware of…in virtually everything I have done, and I don’t expect to graduate from it…his thought is systematic, coherent and inexhaustible.’ Howard died in 1947, when Berry was just 11, and remains one of the most respected voices in the organic movement, although, as Berry points out, a large chunk of that movement have departed from his abiding concern, which was for health:

The growing of crops and the raising of live stock belong to biology, a domain where everything is alive and which is poles asunder from chemistry and physics. Many of the things that matter on the land, such as soil fertility, tilth, soil management, the quality of produce, the bloom and health of animals, the general management of livestock, the working relations between master and man, the esprit de corps of the farm as a whole, cannot be weighed or measured. Nevertheless their presence is everything: their absence spells failure (The Soil and Health, p.22)

The methodology of Howard’s research, therefore, was an integrated one. His wife wrote of this:

The basis of research was obviously to be investigation directed to the whole existence of a selected crop, namely ‘the plant itself in relation to the soil in which it grows, to the conditions of village agriculture under which it is cultivated, and with reference to the economic use of the product;’ in other words, research was to be integral, never fragmented. (From: Sir Albert Howard in India, Louise Howard, 1954)

This integration of the subject of research fully in its context is not a new approach, but in his concern for health of organism, process, growth environment product, eater and farmer, at a time when the industrialisation of agriculture had been accelerated by the war effort, Howard was a long way ahead of his time. Berry’s concern about some of the organic farming’s focus on humus production and the absence of toxic chemicals only, is expressed thus:

There is nothing objectionable about this kind of agriculture, as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. It does not conceive of farms in terms of their biological and economic structure, because it does not connect farming with its agricultural and social contexts. Under the current….definition of organic farming, it is possible to have a huge ‘organic’ farm that grows only one or two crops, has no animals or pastures, is entirely dependent on industrial technology and economics, and imports all its fertility and energy. It was precisely this sort of specialization and oversimplification that Sir Albert Howard worked and wrote against all his life. (Berry, 2009, p.162-163)

I think that this strong thinking is sorely needed in educational research. In the specialist obsession with randomised control trials, in the focus on numerical outcomes in learning, of the micromanagement of cognitive load and retrieval practice, in the relentless determination to get the curriculum ‘right’ or define the right kind of ‘powerful knowledge’ we are missing many things, but one thing that is missing from all is the health of families, or communities, of relationships, of joy and of the motivating love that binds them altogether in harmony, to use a Pauline expression. And I think that using the example of Albert Howard we might find both a metaphor and an example of how to teach well. Additionally, the stipulation of context (often seen in Dylan Wiliam’s saying that ‘everything works somewhere, but nothing works everywhere’) is an important factor in exactly how and what we generalise in educational research. Specific research on the brain may have a wide applicability: research on how a class learns to build community together in one particular jurisdiction, may not.

The metaphor we could use comes from Howard’s own description of the work of Nature (or Mother Nature – Natura, which I have discussed in the work of Berry elsewhere) as a vice-gerent of God in creation:

The main characteristic of Nature’s farming can be summed up…. Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and prevent erosion; mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease. (Howard, 1943, An agricultural testament, p.4)

To use this statement as metaphor point by point is to stretch the imagination to uselessness, but the concept of a classroom, or an individual child’s mind, or a school, as a garden, or garden of delights, goes back to John Amos Comenius. Both metaphors, of a healthful field or a garden of delights, require the educator to assemble in her or his mind the full range of social, parental, experiential, economic and cultural factors affecting that child, along with the educational expertise she or he brings to the child in the classroom. In seeking to educate, an awareness of that which inhibits growth, undermines the work of the educator and prevents flourishing is critical. Howard’s work in improving indigo growth for clothes dyeing focused not on one bacterial or mycological factor or another, but on the health of the whole system. Rejecting a typical scientific approach, in which each factor was isolated in turn, they grew the crop at field scale, using local Indian agricultural techniques, and looked at soil, climate and the growth history of the whole plant. In the end, they found that waterlogged soil during the monsoon was the problem, which killed the roots.

Whenever we look at any system that is working well, we may ask legitimately about precursors. What was it that you did so that this works effectively? But in asking that question, we have to look at the whole system and not simply at the outcomes. Those outcomes might (as in certain parts of my garden) be a result of Miracle-Gro! The trouble about our educational system is that it positively invites focused application of (maybe toxic) chemical fertiliser, and, through the academies program and testing, destroys smaller scales in the interests of standardisation. As Wes Jackson has often argued, quoting Pope, there is a ‘genius of the place’ that requires us to ensure that ‘the processes of agriculture, if they are to endure, have to be analogous to the processes of nature. If one is farming in a place previously forested, then the farm must be a systematic analogue of the forest, and the farmer must be a student of the forest‘ (Berry, 2009, p.163)

We tend to take this quite seriously at UEL: we are a locally based social-justice university whose clientele are for the greater part from Newham, Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge, Ilford, west Essex and Hackney. Many people live within a bus ride of the university: we know whom we serve. Thus our particular context (both teaching and research) as a university will be different from that of more nationally- and internationally-established London universities. What this means is that how we do contextual educational research must be qualitatively different from that in other places.

At both university-level and in schools, we have to wrestle too with the god of growth. How dare we not be improving our outcomes year on year, despite the fact that the children are different? Why are we not going up the league tables? A lot of that type of growth-fuelled thinking in schools has been whacked by Covid, but the roots of it, which derive from an Enlightenment view of progress and evolutionary theory, persist, and far from contributing to systemic health, undermine it.

Focusing on health, on affection and on beauty (a hugely underrated but important research outcome) will result in happier schools, as they do happier farms. Health would need to be defined for each school: because the conditions and context are different for each child, parent body and school setting, health has to be related to that context. Beauty too will change with each year group, each teacher-child relationship, each cultural commitment to the curriculum in context. And affection will be easier some years than others, but is a necessity, even if enacted sacrificially by teachers who know the needs of their children.

This gives you some idea that the metaphors that we can derive from the relatively short essay by Wendell Berry on Howard’s work are extensive. But as example too, there are lessons.

Firstly, Howard faced, within the scientific community, accusations of ‘invading fields not his own‘ and engaging in boundary-crossing methodologies. He ‘refused to accept the academic fragmentation that had become conventional by his time‘ (p.168). Of course this is much less a problem now than it was then, particularly in the social sciences, and boundary-crossing research, bricolage and mixed methods are all within the realm of normal. On top of that, his intentional approach to what today would be called ‘close-to-practice research’ derived from his ‘guiding principle of the closest contact between research and those to be served‘ (Louise Howard, 1954, p.44).

Secondly, we may take from Howard the view that those who are being researched have better knowledge than the researcher, and have limitations to their success that they know better than the researcher. Howard was sent by the Indian imperial administration to use the chemical fertilisers developed in laboratories in Britain to improve the yield and extent of produce from Indian farms. He ended up learning

what the people of the country know, that the diseases of plants and animals were very useful agents for keeping me in order, and teaching me agriculture. I have learnt more from the diseases of plants and animals than I have from all the professors of Cambridge…and other places who ave me my preliminary training. I argued the matter this way. If diseases attacked my crops, it was because I was doing something wrong. I therefore used diseases to teach me…..I think if we used diseases more instead of running to sprays and killing off pests….we should get much deeper into agricultural problems than we shall do by calling in all these artificial aids. After all, the destruction of a pest is the evasion of, rather than the solution of, all agricultural problems (in: Sir Albert Howard in India, p.190)

That this is subject to restrictions and limitations is also helpful. Poor communities, such as those that Howard was working with, have little money to invest, so capital has to be borrowed and that places limitations on what improvements can be made. His solution was to work within the existing system, making improvements where they could be effected. In practice, it meant that a given farmer usually had a yoke of oxen for ploughing: the investment needed for improvements, if the family were to retain their livelihood on the land, ran usually to borrowing a neighbour’s two oxen as well. Berry notes that by the observance of such limits, ‘Howard was enfolded consciously and conscientiously within the natural and human communities he endeavored to serve’ (p. 170).

Lastly, like agriculture, education is ‘practised inescapably in a context, and its context must not be specialized or simplified‘ (Berry, p. 168). For this reason, there is an important argument to be advanced for educational practice and educational research to be close to practice, to involve those who are practising, and to take seriously all that they know about the context in which they work.

Borders of our peace

8 months before I started writing this blog in 2011, we lived in Shropshire, in the Welsh borders. A visit back there this weekend to attend a friend’s 60th birthday party gave us the chance to meet up and dine with old friends, to meet with family and reacquaint ourselves with the town of Shrewsbury that was home for us and our children for 13 years. In many ways – in far too many ways – it was like coming home. The deep roots of fellowship with Christians we have known for a long time, the willingness of people to make conversation and the sense of being near Wales are all features that draw us back time and again. We felt enriched, refilled, encouraged, appreciated and accepted – not words that I have always found applicable to our experience of churches in Milton Keynes.

But there was one experience – the only one that did not really involve people – that made my heart sing, and we nearly missed it.

Between 1200 and 1537 a community of Augustinian monks lived and farmed on the slopes of Haughmond Hill, a ridge of Longmyndian (Precambrian) sedimentary rocks that extend southwards to Bayston Hill (where we used to live) and then south again to the Long Mynd, west of Church Stretton. Lying on the western slope of the hill is the remains of their monastery, their former lands extending down the slope to the River Severn, and the view west encompasses the flood plains of the Severn, the town of Shrewsbury, the Breidden Hills (the ridge in the picture above), the hills of Pontesford and Pontesbury to the south west, the Stiperstones and the Shropshire lead fields beyond them, and to the northwest, the Berwyns and the hills of southern Clwyd. It is a wonderful view of an astonishingly lovely place and I had forgotten just how lovely it was, and how deeply I was attached to it.

Haughmond Abbey obviously went the way of all monasteries in the 1530s, but large parts remain. The Augustinians then, as now, had a commitment to love, wise study, community and the common life: it was and is a social order, valuing not just the work of God within each monk, but reverencing what happens in the spaces between each monk, in the relationships and in mutual submission and service. The common areas in the abbey are prominent. The chapter house is large, still roofed, and well-preserved. The eating area and kitchen are still there, and the internal steps of the abbey church lead you uphill to the site of the high altar. But all of this was new to us. For some reason, we had never in those 13 years ever visited Haughmond Abbey. I am so glad we decided to turn aside and look.

There is something deeply vocational into our culture of finding Christian ways of serving and developing community, and for all the difficulties that they faced, both spiritual and political, toward the end of their lives, monasteries represent places of community and industry which in our protestant, individualist way, we have never been able to recapture in our culture. The sacrifice of heart is too great, the permanence too demanding, the denial of self too exacting, the daily discipline too alien to the do-what-you-want-to and be-whoever-you-want-to-be motifs that govern the way we live now.

There were other things of beauty too. At a distance, within what then would have been the abbey grounds, a farmer was cutting hay, his tractor-drawn combine spewing out chaff a kilometre or so distant. Cattle, sheep and horses in adjacent fields helped me imagine the vibrant agricultural life attending such places of worship and study.

It was a place and time of joy for us, a place that reminded us that there is a pace of life that can be ordered and mundane, structured around worship, prayer, stillness, study, hard work and fellowship: such components that might find their way into our lives today and bring us peace, and slow us down.

Jubilee? Really?

The nature of jubilee and its origins in the scriptures whose edicts underpin our culture, are those of celebration through restoration. It is, in its original formulation in Leviticus 25, an economic restoration of land to those who originally owned it; an undercutting of the principle that something is mine because I currently own it; a structural feature of the economy that governs economic relationships, such that prices and debts were calculated on the basis of ‘years until jubilee’; an agricultural policy to protect and enrich the soil; and a fundamental economic expression of God’s care for the poor, the dispossessed, the land and those who live on it and gain their livelihood from it. It would, had their been such a thing, been a form of justice reflected in the tax system. And this was a celebration, a renewal of the reality that Israel was not dependent on its own wit or strength, but on God.

This last feature is something that our capitalist economy, based on mercantilist roots and the exploitation of, rather than care for, the land, has nearly eradicated. Jubilee is a root of social justice that has been violently secularised in Marxism and agitated and fought for by socialists in every continent. It motivated the chartists, the early trade union movement and legions of those fighting against dispossession. As Robert Mugabe said, when he was a dynamic young revolutionary: ‘The only right by which you hold this land is the right of conquest, and is one right that can be easily reversed’ – his disastrous policy of seizing white farms was simply a violent Marxist expression of Jubilee.


And here we are, celebrating the long reign of the last Christian monarch we are likely to have in the UK. Apart from the trappings of state in posh churches, I have heard little in the media about the deep Christian motivations to Elizabeth Windsor’s service, though yesterday’s Platinum Party got close to the strong sense of the spiritual that is at the heart of her leadership, and I could watch her having tea with Paddington Bear for hours…. But this was, as Martin Kettle has pointed out in the Guardian yesterday, a jubilee about Elizabeth Windsor. It had nothing to do with empire, very little about commonwealth, not much even about recent history. It was about a graceful, much loved, elderly lady who took seriously the gift of God that had allowed her to serve her country for a very, very long time. A wonderful, popular celebration of her life and impact, but not, in any biblical sense, a jubilee.

Many of the commonwealth countries, more Christian than Britain, have an ambivalence about the royal family, given our long and devastating commitment to colonial policies and the slave trade. And of course, the Queen, like all of us, is not simply formed by the work of Jesus: she is subject to the cultural expectations of class, history, constitutional position and birth. And within these constraints, she has acted wonderfully and consistently in her commitment to service, working tirelessly and without complaint with a series of more or less uncouth Prime Ministers eager to co-opt her to their political vision. The current incumbent, living in his shadow-world of lies, selfishness, incompetence and ambition, must tax her patience most of all. He remains the single most potent argument for having a sensible monarch as head of state.

The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC) has published two useful celebrations of Elizabeth Windsor’s life as queen. The first, published at the time of her 60th year on the throne, was called The Servant Queen and the King she Serves. It was witty and enjoyable and did a great deal to remind Christians and others of the roots of her service.

This year’s sequel, recently arrived in the post, is called The Queen’s Faith. This is written as an exemplar of Christian public service, in keeping with one of LICC’s main focuses. There are plenty of Christian voices in similar vein, and they are to be celebrated.

But I was alive in 1977 and remember that first ‘Silver Jubilee’ well. The mugs still exist somewhere! 25 years later, we had the 2002 ‘Golden Jubilee,’ overshadowed by the Afghan war and deteriorating relationships with the Arab world. And then there was 2012, overshadowed by the Olympic event in London. And now platinum. But including this one, four of these ‘jubilees’ have come and gone, and economic justice for farmers, for migrants, for the poor, for people of colour and for women (and how many of these categories intersect!) is as far off as ever.

And then the big elephant in the room, brought to light again by the Black Lives Matter campaign of 2020, has been slavery and the issue of reparations. We have, since 1837, found the money nationally to pay off slaveholders for their ‘property losses’, but we have yet to pay any money at all to slaves. The black nations of the western hemisphere remain among the poorest on earth, whilst the slave-holding and slave-trading nations that gained untold wealth from slavery through the tax system – the US, the UK, France – remain the richest of the large democracies.

Under an equitable jubilee, one true to its Judeo-Christian roots and understanding of jubilee, this would not be so. A jubilee would be a good time to restore into our tax system a recognition that much of the shared wealth in the UK, and certainly the strong economic base that helped Britain rise to power in the 18th century, was entwined completely with slavery. That way, all would contribute, and it could be structured like income tax, as a progressive tax so the richer paid more, whilst bringing back into public ownership and use, as and when they became available, those assets that were wholly derived from the slave trade.

Politicians have said that this is too difficult, but reparation to slave owners has worked. What better mark of jubilee than to commit ourselves to renewed economic justice and begin the process of repentance and reparation now?

Bilingual within one language

“Nursing a glass of water, Kantemir asked me: do you think we should stop speaking in Russian? Do we have to be ashamed of our language? That is probably the only question to which I have an unequivocal answer: “No!” Let me try to explain. Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskiy both speak Russian, but their languages could not be more different. Zelenskiy’s Russian is passionate, emotional and vibrant – alive. The language of Russian propaganda is dead: a senseless pile-up of obscure bureaucratese. The great Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev made a powerful film, Loveless, about an absence of love in everyday Russian life. The Russian that Putin and his cronies speak reflects this – it is deliberately un-alive. So no, we will never be ashamed of Russian: we speak a different language.”

This quote is from an article in yesterday’s Guardian by Russian writer and journalist Ivan Philippov. It typifies in alarming and clear language the way that within every major language there is a struggle for meaning.

At the mundane level, the level that I face and the one that teachers in schools face, there is a lack of clarity, a deliberate obfuscation and a policy-led perversion of the English language that comes from the DfE’s desire to make teaching and learning in its own image. But, as far as I know, nobody has died from this, yet.

With Putin and Zelenskiy, the version of Russian that they speak has mortal consequences. In the same way that Lenin and Stalin reduced their enemies to ‘lice,’ ‘vermin’ (or thinking of the way that the Hutu Interahamwe in the 1994 Rwandan genocide reduced Tutsi to ‘cockroaches’), the language of war and conflict has been sanitised to a ‘special military action’ whilst the Ukrainian leadership is portrayed as Nazis who by their very presence justify ‘denazification.’ (What is interesting about that word is that it was, according to Tony Judt in Postwar [Vintage, 2005, p,56], first coined by the US military units in their southern sector to ‘abolish the Nazi Party, tear up its roots, and plant the seeds of democracy and liberty in German life’ – again, nobody died as a result of that program).

Russian is a glorious and beautiful language that despite being the language of oppression for many peoples in the world, both east and west, who found themselves on the wrong side of Russian or Soviet expansion, found a rich literary flowering in the golden age of Lermontov, Pushkin, Turgenev and Tolstoy, and again in the ‘silver age’ of Chekhov, Akhmatova, Gorky, Tsvetayeva, Blok, Bulgakov and many, many others. For a number of years I devoted myself to its study, not just practically, but as an object of beauty, as any language can be, and as any language should be. In the hands of Putin, it becomes a dead thing, a tool of destruction, set about with the deliberate lies for which the Russian leadership is now world famous. It has reached the point that any denial from the Kremlin must be taken as an admission, any assertion made must be regarded as the opposite of what actually happened, and any promise made must be immediately disregarded and measures taken to prepare for the opposite of the promise to happen.

Languages of power – Mandarin, Russian, English, Arabic, French, German, Spanish, Italian and many of the Slavic languages amongst them – will always be co-opted by the powerful to make the language mean, like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, ‘just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ But even in languages that have flourished or become more complicated as minority languages (Welsh in the UK; Polish and Yiddish in the Russian empire, for instance) are not, once rooted in free peoples, immune from this co-option by the powerful. I do not imagine that Eliezer ben Yehuda, when he was compiling the language that became modern Hebrew, conceived of it as the language of oppression that so many Palestinians see it as today. It was itself a re-expression of a national identity, linked to a significant history.

Yesterday I posted about the work of Ingrid Gogolin, and her perspective that bildung becomes more significant as a transformational educative tool when we encourage the citizenry, through the education system, to become bilingual or multi-lingual. Her book on this subject – Der monolinguale Habitus der multilingualen Schule (2008, Waxmann) tackles the fact that the German education system is functionally and historically monolingual (both in terms of language and approach) whilst the students it seeks to teach are now multilingual (again, both in terms of language and a growing cultural heterogeneity). This poses serious questions to a system (like that of the UK) that seeks to maintain a monolingual stance, and that, in Gogolin’s phrase ‘limit the competencies that are necessary to cope with the complexity of school work under the circumstances of linguistic diversity.’

Without exploring Gogolin’s thesis any further, it is worth us thinking how the range of different Englishes that are spoken in schools (both in terms of a variety of dialects AND in terms of the varying discourses around education) allow for, and provide the vocabulary and syntax for, a range of critical approaches. This use of language as a tool for re-establishing something close to the heart of what most educators want, does require us to redefine terms, undermine the language of policy-makers, engage in critical discourse analysis and see that linguistic struggle, both real and metaphorical, as central to our work as teacher educators.

Bildung: adoption and adaptation

Two pieces of writing have prompted this post, both from Germany. The first is WG Sebald’s brutally honest Zurich Lectures on air war and literature contained in his On the Natural History of Destruction, and which is currently my bedtime reading. I am not sure whether it helps me sleep any better than Scandi noir but it least has the virtue of being relevant in the real world. I have wanted to read the book for a while, and found it in a National Trust second hand bookshop whilst in Dorset last week. Its principal thesis is that postwar writers in Germany, in seeking the reconstruction of their country, have either ignored (mostly) or trivialised (in places) the shattering experience of those whose cities were utterly destroyed by the combined efforts of the RAF and USAF bomber squadrons in 1943-45. Hamburg (Operation Gomorrah 27.7.43), Halberstadt (8.4.45) and Koln (30/31.5.42 and many other dates) are cited in Sebald’s lectures. What he finds unusual, and what we are invited with him to marvel at, is the lack of published written testimonies and eye-witness accounts by German authors and the collective turning of the national face away from remembering the horrors that they experienced. Even those authors that tried to write about the destruction veered towards melodrama or towards a spiritualisation of the experience, a hermeneutic at one remove from the terror. Comparing Hans Erich Nossack’s Interview mit dem Tode with Peter de Mendelssohn’s Die Kathedrale, Sebald writes:

Where Nossack successfully exercises deliberate restraint in his approach to the horrors unleashed by Operation Gomorrah, de Mendelssohn plunges headlong into over 200 pages of trash.

It is clear, from Sebald and from other sources, that the RAF and the USAF were considerably better at bombing and destroying cities than the Germans were. Approximately 1200 people died in the two main air raids on Coventry in 1940 and 1941. Over 20,000 were killed in Hamburg on the night of 27 July 1943. 25,000 died in two nights in February 1945 in Dresden. The majority of these people died by burning or by suffocation, in absolute despair and terror.

The second piece of writing is a short article in BERA’s latest Research Intelligence, which arrived on my doormat on Saturday. Entitled ‘The View from Germany: Bildung‘ the article is written by Ingrid Gogolin (University Hamburg), a significant voice in German education, and in about one side of A4 discusses the nature of bildung in continental education and how that is mediated more fully through multi-lingual education, such that the ‘foreign is considered to be constitutive for the creation of new insight’ (p.35). This is Gogolin’s particular insight, and I shall return to it later.

Bildung, of which I have written before, in the context of the work of Zong-Yi Deng (UCL), is best defined as the formational cultivation of intellectual and moral powers in the individual. It aims to develop the early educational work of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon in the 16th century into a civic virtue: a neo-humanist reform that accurately reflected in education the intellectual shift from an authority structure of church and king. It was largely developed in Prussia to begin with, and this gave it its individualist streak, rooted as it was in a heady Protestant mixture of Calvinist and Lutheran thought that gave the Enlightenment its highly non-communal nature. A little more about that background can be found in Christopher Clark’s The Iron Kingdom and here.

The two pieces of writing have little in common except for being written by German authors and having the city of Hamburg mentioned in both. It is almost blasphemous to put them next to each other: one a furious analysis of German amnesia after some of the most appalling experiences that civilians can face, the other a helpful, Enlightenment-informed perspective toward a richer education.

But what links them in my mind is the last paragraph of Gogolin’s article:

The normative perspective, however, that bildung, (as can be fostered by institutions created for this purpose – such as kindergarten, school, professional or academic education) leads to personalities who are likely to form peaceful, just and fair societies, has been proven again and again to be an illusion…. (Gogolin, 2022:35)

In other words, even the best education can’t prevent the wholesale cognitive usurping of a nation by unscrupulous and evil leaders. And it is here that it intersects with something that I have been wondering about for a long time. How is it that the wonders of the Enlightenment, the power of von Humboldt’s vision for learning to impact not just the mind but the ‘highest and most harmonious development of his [sic] powers to a complete and consistent whole’ as von Humboldt wrote of bildung in 1854 – how did this fail so epically as to bring forth the Prussian militarism that gave rise to the war against France in 1870-71, the First World War and the terrors of the second? All over the world, peoples are looking to education as the answer to their nation’s social and economic woes. Families in south-east Asia scrimp and save so that at least one of their children can be properly educated. And yet, one of the most promising educational movements, affecting both mind and moral character, born in Germany, at crucial moments failed Germany, proving again and again, as Ingrid Gogolin writes, to be an illusion.

I don’t have any answers, by the way. I wrote to Ingrid Gogolin to ask about this, and to share early thinking that, paradoxically, also emerges sideways from Sebald’s book. Gogolin writes, in the BERA article, that von Humboldt saw language as the ‘the formative organ of thought.’ If this is the case, then gaining mastery in other languages confers not just a utilitarian and linguistic advantage, but opens a different door:

The encounter with other, foreign languages forms the basis for the extension of one’s own worldview: the potential to understand and deal with variety and plurality that a person will encounter in their lifetime. In this perspective, both the ‘own’ and the ‘other’ languages are indispensable, complementary aspects of general education. Both function ‘as a mutual completion within a harmonic whole’ of a personality (Koller, H-C., 2011, Eur. Ed. Res. J. 10:376 in Gogolin, 2022)

If this is so, and the gaining of perspective offered by a grasp of another language brings a light not available to those who remain monolingual, then something else becomes possible – a mutual submission and a collaborative educational purpose that strives to use our multilingualism to adopt and live in one another’s worldviews. This is at least a ‘vector’ – with both direction and movement – that allows us to see education as a transformational enterprise. Where bildung was meant to lead to a transformed individual ‘not only with respect to knowledge, reflexivity and thought, but in their entire relationship to the world, to self and to others’ (Gogolin, 2022: 34), a collaborative mutual submission might also allow us to see one another as necessary parts of ourselves as we learn and grow: where we see love as transformational and leading to a ‘being part of one another.’ Here we are bordering on the rhizomatic, interconnected thinking of some post-humanists, on Pauline theology, and perhaps of the epistemology of cultures more deeply rooted to the land, language and the spirit world than we are.

What emerges from Sebald’s book, in a long passage describing Alexander Kluge’s Geschichte und Eigensinn, is the idea of education as offering an alternative future. Citing the example of the primary school teacher Gerda Baethe, who sees her work as leading somehow to hope, Sebald writes:

It is true, the author comments, that to implement a ‘strategy from below’ such as Gerda has in mind, would have required ‘70,000 determined school teachers, all like her, each of them teaching hard for twenty years from 1918 onwards, in every country that had fought in the war.’ Despite the ironic style, the prospect suggested here of an alternative historical outcome, is a serious call to work for the future, in defiance of all calculations of probability (Sebald, 2003: 64)

Ranged against this hope, Kluge and Sebald agree, is the power of the argument that the bombs have already been made, the aircraft already constructed, the crews already trained, the fuel supplies argued for and delivered – what possible reason is there NOT to drop these bombs on our enemies? It makes no economic sense not to make use of them.

Bildung, like any other formational enterprise such as discipleship and social care, has to contend with those who see the economics of a situation as overruling education – and when it is not overruling it, then co-opting it, a situation that we live with today.

What is needed, beyond what bildung has to teach English school education, is a commitment to mutual submission, the learning of one another and one another’s languages and lives, so that enmity need not fall prey to the logic of economics.

And in passing, this becomes probably the best reason for learning modern foreign languages that I have ever come across!