The Gatekeepers

pic-2-shield-of-achilles_1.jpg

…the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.

Don’t read this

The job of the gatekeeper is to stop you entering somewhere or to encourage you so to do. Blessed are the gatekeepers for they shall help you see the world whilst closing other bits off to you. They are self appointed or appointed by groups of other gatekeepers. Gatekeepers are prejudiced and subjective, they distort how the world is seen by forming ‘narratives’ but this is how it should be, for without them one wouldn’t be able to see the ‘wood for the trees’.

I dread going to art galleries, all that art! ~ picture upon pic, gallery upon gall, I soon get tired and mind-numbingly head ‘achily’ irritable. One day, in order to alleviate my exhibition pains, I decided to follow a gate-keeper who selected a few works and took us (a small group) through, told us stories, made connections and answered questions; she had selected a curriculum and told us about it. She was a teacher and we were a group of student novices, ready to be led. Her reductive approach, her selection, her biases all to the fore, allowed me to see more and understand more than I usually do when visiting such museums. What she showed was as significant as what she chose to ignore in a vast collection, itself selected by other gate keepers.

I suppose that now we live in the days of the algorithmic gatekeeper that spotifies your taste and knows you better than you know yourself, the art of the homemade music tape, selected with care, for a friend, is lost. If you still enjoy making selections, or lists, best of compilations, then you know what you leave out is difficult. The story you tell is about how the pieces you select ‘fit’ together, the order, the contrasts and the complementary qualities, a through line of thought holds the narrative together – maybe genre, style, type, geography, timeline etc. It says something about you and your tastes, as well as your idea as to what might be ‘good’ or ‘interesting’ for the person you are making it for. When the person listens to your ‘tape’ he does not think that this is all the music of the world, he does not expect it to be chosen to represent a bland no-thing selection free of biases, no, the very thing that interests him is your prejudicial selection and what it says about you and your impression of him: ‘why did you choose this?’ and ‘why did you not include this?’ becomes an interesting discussion, but more interesting is the stories that emerge from the selections themselves.

In his introduction to his book: ‘the Infinity of Lists’ Umberto Eco writes: “It… is in Homer that we find the celebration of a… descriptive model: the one ordered and inspired by the criteria of harmonious completion and closure represented by Achilles’ shield. In other words, already in Homer it seems that there is a swing between the poetics of “everything included” and a poetics of the “etcetera”.

The woman showing the selected paintings in the art gallery was showing an etcetera, she left a lot out, her job as the gatekeeper was prejudicial, subjective and thoughtful.

Ntokozo Qwabe, the Rhodes Scholar who co-founded the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign has reportedly said that Oxford University: “actively shapes the configuration of the Eurocentric curriculum which we study, furthers colonial epistemic injustices  and produces graduates with an unjustly skewed view of the world…” Should the gatekeepers of Oxford University not be ‘eurocentric’, should the colonial past be ignored, and should all institutions seek to not have a skewed view of the world? I think not. If I go to a Jazz Club, I would expect to hear Jazz-centric music, now I might complain about the type of Jazz but I would know that would fall on highly tuned ears; however if the whole evening descended into heavy metal or if every type of music were represented I might have a right to complain. That a curriculum formed in one of the bastions of european education is ‘euro-centric’ should not be a problem, what loss would occur to world culture if a curriculum in a Chinese institution was not ‘asian-centric’, an Islamic centre of learning was not interested in Averroes because studying him was too Islamic-centric (or not enough…) At times we are all ‘othered’ and, indeed, this is now, rightly, part of the story as peoples’ stories exist cheek by jowl but that doesn’t mean certain stories should no longer be told. Yes, we should look for new gatekeepers, yes they should open gates to new lists and collections but other gates don’t have to be slammed shut.

Western Civilisation is an ever changing story of associated works, that argue with, support and undermine each other. The stories ought to be told together, through various gatekeepers arguing with or arguing for, or bits of both, the western tradition. To dismiss the entire tradition as western centric and that therefore it should be dismantled would be a disaster. Just as local high streets, with local shops need protecting from homogenisation of global brands so do centric-curricula as they have unique stories to tell. A local curriculum, and a curriculum of nation, and continent, as well as an idea of what might be ‘universal’ values of humanity all have a place – a search for home, belonging; as well as reaching out into the world and longing…

The job of the gatekeeper is subjective, on different days and in different ways she can offer views of the world and works, ideas, thoughts, that inform us about what a view, views, lines of thought, make of the world and, indeed, beyond. A programme of study is a subjective work of art that does not ‘have’ to represent a balanced selection of works. It can make me angry!

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

The Shield of Achilles
W. H. Auden

That the gatekeeper might be affected by geography, by tradition, by categories that are under scrutiny does not mean she should be stopped, argue with her by all means but don’t be destructive and demand she stop her stories – instead set up alternative curricula, telling alternative stories and become a gatekeeper yourself.

…how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.

(Prologue and Epilogue from Kafka: Before the Law)

10 thoughts on “The Gatekeepers

  1. teachwell

    Brilliantly put. The idea that one can be in Europe and want to study a different type of curriculum altogether seems a bit nonsensical. To take a scholarship to do so and complain (conveniently after the PhD was completed not during… wonder why?) that it was too eurocentric is downright bizarre.

    What they want is revolution and destruction of the old but that has never worked in the past so why should it work now? Look at the same with different perspectives. As you state create new narratives, or embed critique as part of existing ones.

    However, trying to ban a story does not work. It will surface again anyway. And while some do not find it convenient to say, not everything about western civilisation has either been bad or is not worth retaining. All of us who have benefitted need to remember this.

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  2. governingmatters

    When I was in Pakistan I studied a “Pakistan centric” curriculum. So, why shouldn’t my children who live here study a Euro centric curriculum? As far as removing Rhodes’ statue, French flags etc is concerned the less said the better!

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  3. dradcarroll

    As erudite & thought provoking, as ever. Interestingly (perhaps?) I think I acted as my own gatekeeper or filter, if you like, when reading. I took most meaning from your notion of the gatekeeper in terms of subject knowledge, skills & understanding. Involved, as I am, with science education, I am drawn to your idea of the teacher as a gatekeeper on the perimeter fence of the paradigms of science as suggested by Kuhn. Personally I feel it is important for all teachers to be grounded in the “paradigm” of their subject & also have an understanding of the epistemology of the constituents of that paradigm.
    Thank you Martin, as ever, for making me think

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  4. nickmiddleton2

    I think it’s all been very well said. It did strike a chord for me in that thinking back to my teaching days, I clearly remember consciously framing certain artistic pathways, influences and achievements, but with well placed openings to parallel and branching paths.

    As a Manager in FE these days, there is also a link here with the hoop jumping Ofsted requirement to include Diversity in lessons!

    Thanks again for a very thought provoking blog.

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  5. Leah K Stewart

    Thanks Martin. To add to this, I’m also looking forward to more gatekeepers working together. For example, one thing I could be doing is coaching students to get top marks. It’s something I could do myself and what I’ve done for friends. I’m not doing this because my experience of school is one where, without space, time or validation to think about what we want, school qualifications are held up as important. Sometimes they are important but, if we call on some imagination and belief in ourselves, they are mostly not important and a distraction for adolescents who would otherwise do wonderful things. So my role is to explore what good can be done from where we are, and to encourage learning and actions from there. Alongside this I’m proud to support a friend of mine who is coaching students to get top marks. For many, this seems a contradiction but it’s not because sometimes a person’s path requires they take exams and if they’re not as confident in their ability to perform in that environment as I was, or as organised as I was, then they could do with support which is what my friend offers. Win win, from gatekeeper collaboration: http://leahkstewart.com/university/

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  7. Chester Draws

    Ntokozo Qwabe, is a proto-politician, playing for a political audience. That audience in not in the UK. He wants to make a name for himself. Rhodes is a useful stick to wave if you are a South African.

    The problem is that the West have become so insecure in their defence of their own culture and history that they worry even when foreigners make comments intended for other audiences.

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