Wednesday, 10 February 2016

A Teacher In Babylon

Pieter Bruegel The Elder: The Tower of Babel (1563)

What fear can be left in a man who has been both Secretary of State and Learning Support Assistant, who has experienced the pride of being made special advisor and the ignominy of stress-related illness, I feel it now, as I set out to recount the part of my life spent as an educator in Babylon, in the knowledge that no audience can exist for such an account, neither here nor in Babylon itself. Here, Swift's work casts a pall over the endeavour from the start. A search for meaning will ignore the facts of the tale. A sifting for facts will lose its meanings. The rarefying atmosphere of debate will reduce any outcome to that emptiest of denominations: satire.  In Babylon, there can be no dichotomies. Satire is unimaginable, and an audience unconscionable.

Borges has described Babylon's arcane laws (they are all arcane) and heretical philosophies (they are all heretical)*. Less understood is Babylon's influence on all his writings. Bulgakov never confessed to visiting the place, though the world sensed its presence in his words, and warned him that "to publish [his] novel would cause terrible things."** I stand at the foot of these giants and will attempt only to avail myself of a description of the education system in that other place. Perhaps nothing will be learned from it.

As with all decisions in Babylon, a lottery draw determined that my fate would be to serve in education, and many more decided my promotions, demotions and periods of stability, my students, my colleagues and the subjects to be taught and learned. A career, in that other place, can not be conceived as a linear progression. Neither can learning. All is subject to the whims of chance, to the vicissitudes of fate. A lottery draw decreed when it was time for me to leave.

In Babylon, I have worked under the admonishing gaze of inspectors and laboured under the oppressive openness of professional freedom. Both filled me with terror, both with untold joy. In both I have failed, and in both succeeded.  Once tasked with re-writing the inspection framework, I failed to make a single edit. I was rewarded, or punished, with paid sabbatical leave. I have read inspection frameworks, before and since, that have been at turns liberatingly unfathomable, interestingly cryptic, and dizzyingly simple. I am uncertain how inspection has played any part in mine or anyone else's learning in Babylon. I know only that I can see no purpose in it here. I see value in it, but the idea of purpose fills me with dread.

In Babylon too, I have taught the sons and daughters of  poor communities, and those of powerful dynasties. What I taught was not always what was learned and what I learned was not always what I taught. My methods have been praised and pilloried by progressive pedagogues. Traditionalists have payed tribute to them and treated them with contempt in equal measures. No commentary on my teaching ever caused in me any emotion, nor any deliberate change in my practice. How could they, when the lottery determined my teaching as well as the judgements? No targets for improvement could be inferred from either. Some wisdom, perhaps, was to be gained by both.

How to communicate a Babylonian education? There, there is no education system. There is the lottery, of which education is an element of indeterminate size and value. There is education, of which teaching is an equally immeasurable aspect. Learning happens in accordance with the luck of a draw. Some have tried to find correlation between lesson plans and eventual outcomes. Others have proven that prayer and complete abandon, horoscopes and school improvement plans are equally ineffective predictors of the future. Yet, the lottery determines that all of these rituals continue to be observed, and that research into their effectiveness continue to be carried out.

Since coming home, I have been unable to return to the ways of my upbringing. I will make no secret of the fact that I have missed the mysteries and manifold destinies of each moment there, that part of me resents the monotony of life's manifest fate here. I had hoped that writing this would help me to make sense of my experience, to close the door once and for all on Babylon, but as the dread sense of loss leaves me, it is replaced with a new and more troubling thought, a creeping apprehension that Babylon has followed me home.

* Jorge Luis Borges. Collected Fictions. Tr. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin 1998
**Elena Bulgakova's diary, May 14th, 1939.

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