Voices: An Initiation Into The Conversation Of Mankind.

978-0-271-05407-0mdFor Oakeshott: “…education is not a technocratic process of creating future workers, or even a simple transfer of knowledge. It is an adventure, an initiation into what he called “the conversation of mankind”. It is how we learn to be human.” Jesse Norman MP

How refreshing to think of education, not as a journey but as an adventure; if we jettison the idea of journey and the obsession of getting somewhere ‘worthwhile’ and on time, we can also jettison such concerns as the need for grit and resilience to endure this journey. Yes, there may be danger, we might have to take risks but we all have the wherewithal for adventure, especially when it is of itself and not a way to something else. This is an adventure, an exploration about what it is to be human.

Voices joined…

This is very different to the ‘student voice’ idea trumpeted by David Hargreaves that was central to the work of reforming the education agenda in the ‘noughties’. Hargreaves wrote that:

“Student voice is mainly about how students come to play a more active role in their education and schooling as a direct result of teachers becoming more attentive, in sustained or routine ways, to what students say about their experience of learning and of school life.”

How mundane; how unadventurous, no wonder this became about teachers talking less and students expressing their opinions via toothless schools councils and about snotty nosed kids saying One Direction are better than Shakespeare when you’re trying to learn ’em a Sonnet or two.

Conversation is from the Latin conversari: ‘To live with, and keep company with.’ It is a conversation that begins with mankind’s first utterances and continues through the now; from all our yesterdays to all our tomorrows. This conversation allows us to live and keep company with all our fellow women and men from time immemorial to the time yet to come.

And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Why did the Lord ‘confound ‘our’ language?’ Maybe He didn’t trust the one direction, one voiced version of mankind beloved of some curriculum planners and middle managers: a single voice where all agree – a utopian place where mankind is at once at rest and lacking in adventure. This world would be inhuman: a utopian dream where everything is understood, what would be the point of that? Be born, have a look around, get bored, die. It is our differences that hold our interest. A conversation between interesting people talking about surprising, interesting things is a delight. And in order to initiate students into this world we have to ensure they are ready to be both interested and interesting. In our fascinating, complex, world a student who is constantly carping ‘this is boring‘ is herself boring for she is not taking part in the conversation, she is indulging in an act of cultural vandalism and we should not indulge her. In order to take part in the conversation a student needs to respond to the: “Manifold of invitations to look, to listen and to reflect…”

Oakeshott differentiates between the ‘real’ and the ‘ideal’ conversation of mankind. In the ‘real’ one he regrets the domination of a few voices, those of politics, and “science… with its eristic tones…” He wants a plurality of voices; the voices of humanity – akin to what Hannah Arendt described in this way: “The fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world… We are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.” The human condition is infinitely variable and complex, and invigorating. How much of our contemporary education world is trying to silence voices? How much of what we do has become deafened to other voices? Oakeshott’s ideal conversation allows no hierarchy and gives valuable space for the newly involved and the non-conformist voices, indeed it includes ‘the other’… In this we can find echoes in the words of Edward Said: “The renewable, almost sporty discontinuities of intellectual and secular impurities – mixed genres, unexpected combinations of tradition and novelty… No-one today is purely one thing… Labels are no more than starting points… In Eliot’s phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the other echoes that inhabit the garden.” These echoes are the different ideas and thoughts of different peoples that, as Oakeshott put it: “Take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions.”

This is the job of education to bring new people into the conversation, to get them to listen to different voices, to enable them to join in and help them to articulate so that they may be understood by fostering their voices. The teacher passes on the inheritance, as Hector puts it in The History Boys: ‘Pass it on boys, pass it on’… but also sets the younger generation off not as inheritors of a fixed body of knowledge but as participators in an ongoing conversation. This is revolutionary stuff in these days of ‘British Values’! Oakeshott understood the need for: “A plurality of discourse… As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of… a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.”

The teacher ensures this conversation “does not deliver… a clear and unambiguous message,” the teacher ensures there is delight in doubt: “Certainties’ are shown to be combustible, not by being brought in contact with other ‘certainties’ or with doubts, but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order.” Here the challenge and possibility of new thoughts and ideas are always one utterance away. This conversational classroom does not want to hear students’ certain voices where they close down the answers to facts or opinion, we want fewer answers, but not necessarily more questions, maybe more thinking aloud allowed, and far more playful…

“Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian… Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation.”

Liberal learning is an education in imagination, listen to its voices.

26 thoughts on “Voices: An Initiation Into The Conversation Of Mankind.

  1. wendy

    Wow! This is a delight, refreshing and describes a wonderful purpose for the heart and soul of language and how it could evolve to be used as a weapon of mass construction!

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. Leah (@LearntSchool)

    Hi Martin, what a lovely piece. You’re completely right about students who declare work ‘boring’ but I must step in to defend those who say this, and (if you’ll allow) I’ll do it with a story of my own from reflections on my schooling and this is from when I was 17 years old:

    Let’s Talk about This
    Sometimes at my youth club we do an evening discussion. It’s a two hour long conversation with a global issue as a starting point. An old man introduces and mediates the event which is relaxed, friendly and inclusive… you can picture it by imagining the complete opposite of school debates.
    We’re a group between 13 to 18 years and I’m ever amazed by how much is known by my peers and how thoughtfully feelings and ideas are expressed. We don’t take notes and there are no expectations, so we do speak up. We share our own perspectives and, beautifully, we’re open to the experience of understanding another’s perspective.

    At school things have gone in such a different direction that, during my free periods, I’ve taken to being alone in the library to get homework done. All of my peers and I have been fed the same lessons. The result: we don’t have different perspectives to share. None of us know what we truly care about… but we must say something to the careers adviser! So, when asked, we’ll list a couple of subjects or say what we’ll be studying at uni. What do you hear in our common room? Do we discuss global issues? Great literature? The big ‘why’? No. They pulled!? What’s that person wearing! Why are ‘these kinds of kids’ such idiots? “Oh” and “did you do that question, can I copy?” Trivial.

    You want to cure conversation?
    Here’s how: pack a syllabus full of detail then dictate how and when it’s all to be learnt.

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    1. Martin Robinson Post author

      Hugely important to teach great stuff and to ensure it’s taught at the best times, returned to and grown and moved on from… The teacher is an essential part of the conversation. The root. Without the teacher the conversation is debased. The teacher introduces the range of voices and initiates the conversation in the languages of those voices.

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  3. whatonomy

    Martin, you have a real talent for reminding us that we already have the answers to many of the burning educational issues of our time.

    Educational is renewal. The more it resides within a restrictive hegemony, the less able it is to renew.

    The inhuman ‘utopian’ dream that you warn us of is, as we both know, where we now live.

    We need more reminders like this, to place humane principles at the core of ‘the conversation’.

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  4. chemistrypoet

    Strangely, this very evening (as I was journeying in a car) it struck me that I have always regarded life itself as an adventure. But it is also a journey, of course. We are travelling through time. It is the ambience we carry with us that determines if we are merely enduring the journey, or striking out on an adventurous journey. For us, that starts in education.

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    1. Martin Robinson Post author

      What would a physicist say about this journey in time…? Education starts before schooling and continues long after… the word adventure helps us think in the present tense rather than forever looking to the future…?

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  5. logicalincrementalism

    What troubles me about framing education as a conversation is that it appears to marginalise the nitty-gritty issues of survival – without which there would be no conversation at all. What importance does Oakeshott attach to the concrete in education?

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    1. Martin Robinson Post author

      I think he’d think that the world comes to us imbued by our way of knowing it – the concrete is very much there, but what is true is also understood by how we describe it. For example: in what way do we understand ‘water’, as water or H2o ? Which is more true or concrete? This doesn’t alter the fact…

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  6. CristinaM.

    I enjoyed reading about education as a “conversation of mankind”. Strangely though, it reinforces the study of the Western canon – knowing from within so you can deconstruct it and challenge it.
    In reality, this conversation rarely takes place – how many of us, including adults, have knowledge of “the other”? How many of us were introduced, while in school, to other modes of knowing the world? To other cultural identities? How many of us heard about Rubén Darío, or César Vallejo, or Maya Angelou, or Chinua Achebe or Mariama Bâ or… *before* university years?
    So while I agree with you on the eradication of the “trivial”, I can’t but wonder why this conversation takes place within the same structure as it always did. It is somewhat ironic that a beautiful post about “conversation” uses exclusively Western modes of discourse.
    In Miner’s words…
    “Today most theoretically minded westerners would deny that they are heirs to mimesis, that their views are shaped by mimetic assumptions.”

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    1. Martin Robinson Post author

      Thank you Cristina, as I said on Twitter Achebe is a good a place to start as any… As is Said’s book Culture and Imperialism… The conversation is inclusive… The echoes are multiple… But, as Hugo of St Victor put it: the perfect ‘man’ has extinguished his [love of place] – he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place….

      That’s adventure

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  7. Pingback: How to choose study texts in English: Part Two | Othmar's Trombone

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