Never again. Again and again.

I have been prompted to write this by Brendan O’Neill’s editorial in Spiked. O’Neill argues that the Shoah should not be used as an analogy for every state-sponsored act of mass murder; that Hitler should not be the go-to analogy for every murderous or authoritarian leader; and that the unique and particular aim of the Final Solution should not be obscured by the deaths and suffering of others alongside Jews.

As my fingers type and I re-read my paraphrase of O’Neill’s editorial, I realise how unable I am to hold these arguments in my head. As a student of history, I have read and – from the safe and vicarious distance of the TV screen – watched accounts of almost inconceivable acts of inhumanity over millennia.  The effect is numbing.

A DAY IN DECEMBER

I don’t mean that my sensibility is dulled by my attempts to make sense of these atrocities. Let me use an analogy.

In December 2000, I fell from a ladder. I felt something break, with significant force. As I attempted to stand, I noticed that my left kneecap was half way up my thigh. I tried to push it back but failed. No wonder, as the tendon that attached my quadriceps to my lower leg had snapped. 

If you try to imagine what it feels like to have four quivering muscles, freed of their attachment to bone, suddenly clenched in a tight knot at the top of your leg, you are likely to do one or more of three things. Firstly, you may shudder and say, “I can’t imagine how that felt.” Secondly, you might shrug and say, “At least it wasn’t any worse” or that it’s only like many similar injuries you’ve heard of. Thirdly, you could compare it to a trauma of your own and say that, actually, you can imagine how it felt. But here is the particular. Here is my unique experience: immediately after the patellar tendon snapped, my leg went numb.

For me, in that situation, my body’s reaction to severe pain was to shut it out. My consciousness of the situation was also dulled. I was able to lie on the ground and cheerily chat to my neighbour while waiting for the ambulance. And my memory of the trauma has dimmed, even though I repeated the injury twice more.

So what? For me, recounting my experience does three things. Firstly, it helps me to better understand how my body and brain deal with extremely unpleasant sensations. Secondly, it shows me how quickly I lapse into analogy. And thirdly, it suggests to me that only by looking at the uniqueness of an event, a person or an experience can I hope to make sense of it.

WHY WE NEED ANALOGY

If I may now generalise from my own experience, it seems that humans have the ability to zoom out from the particular to our sense of ‘the universal’, to what is similar and to what is comparable. It allows us to give meaning to whatever we sense or recall. It may also enable us to empathise with someone whose experience we have not shared.  And it becomes possible to exercise judgement about these experiences.  All are necessary because they allow us to respond rationally, to feel appropriately and to learn. 

Let me offer another analogy. Eight years ago, the car I was driving was hit by another car at around 40 miles an hour. My car was stationary, in the middle of the road, as I prepared to make a right turn. I saw the other car approaching in my rear view mirror and I responded. 

Firstly, I judged its speed and likely impact. By comparing its approach with other cars I had seen racing towards me in the past, I was able to determine that this was going to hit us with considerable but survivable force. I knew that I had no time to take evasive action.

Secondly, I decided how to respond. Having been shunted before, having heard of others’ experiences and having discussed what to do in situations like these, I said nothing to my twelve year-old daughter, who was sitting beside me. I reasoned that her chances of an injury would be reduced if she didn’t tense up before the impact. I weighed that up against the shock she would experience when the car hit us and decided that the physical risk was greater than any mental harm. 

Thirdly, after our car had been forced along and off the road by the impact, after I had checked that my daughter was physically fine, I left the car and responded to the driver of the other car. The front of his car was smashed in, far more significantly than the back of ours. His airbags had gone off.  A boy, younger than my daughter, was crying hysterically in his car. He was very emotional as he approached me. Imagining the guilt he would be feeling, the pain and shock he would have experienced on impact and the concern he would have for the boy, I put my hands up and said, “We’re okay. Go and look after your son.”

All of this was within a minute; my first response probably took no more than a second. Not only could I rationalise, judge and empathise; I could do it at alarming speed.

We can do this because humans are amazing. We take in everything, make sense of it and make use of it. We couldn’t do that if we didn’t recapitulate and reorder these experiences in our own terms. Each time we do this, we reorder every other recorded experience, so that the next experience is seen (if this isn’t too reductive a metaphor) with new eyes. 

Or perhaps not. What I describe may only be the case in laboratory conditions, where one doesn’t refuse to learn from experience, one doesn’t negate the feelings of others, one doesn’t exercise flawed judgement. Which, of course, one does. I do. We cannot escape from the subjective (any more than I can recount my car crash objectively). But I would argue that this is matter of quality: however faulty our judgement, we still make sense, and use, of experience.

In short, everything is analogised. 

WHY THE PARTICULAR IS MORE POWERFUL

The danger of relying on our ability to make sense of everything is that we miss meaning. Returning to Brendan O’Neill’s argument, if we try to compare everyone’s suffering, every act of unspeakable evil, every authoritarian leader, to one nationality, one ideology, one man, we risk negating both sides of the analogy: each loses its unique power.

Firstly, numbers matter. “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”  I see validity in this statement; I do not need it to be incorrectly attributed to Josef Stalin (though it is interesting that people need a hook onto which to hang such an ugly observation). I cannot conceive of, say, the systematic starvation or mass execution of everyone in Chorleywood (all 11,286 of us), let alone hundreds of thousands or millions. Looking at the structure of my arguments, you will gather that I think in threes: after that, individual numbers seem to lose significance.

Secondly, meaning matters. Over history, each huge act of inhumanity has had its unique set of causes, even if the consequences may be similar and even if parallels may be drawn. In trying to understand why one of these acts occurred and to learn how not to repeat the act, there is a danger that we simply assimilate what we see, hear or read, in accordance with a set of preconceived ideas about such acts. History only repeats itself in our limited narratives; in fact, history is an endless set of unique sequels. All too often, those sequels feature a long-harboured grudge or suspicion from another time.

Thirdly, we matter. Each of us. That is perhaps the only universal truth in all of this. Faced with another human being, unless your view is distorted by prejudice, your sensibilities numbed by generalisation, your feelings overwhelmed by emotions not directly attributable to this person, you are likely to respond humanely.  In general, before we act inhumanly, we have to dehumanise the subject of our action.

So when I try to conceive of the Shoah, of what happened to innocent people in one specific period of history, I resort to the particular, as generalisation and imagination fail me. The film, Shoah, was a starting point, as it allowed the survivors to speak for themselves. Inviting Judy Benton into my class helped me better understand how a daughter responded to her humiliation at school, her parents’ arrest and deportation and to the risk to her own life. Listening to Zigi Shipper speak at a holocaust memorial event taught me how a man deals with his boyhood experiences of incarceration, forced labour, starvation, cruelty and ubiquitous death. 

Although it is the site of an act perpetrated against people who were not Jewish, a visit to Oradour-sur-Glâne showed me the impact on individual lives of one reprisal among tens of thousands. That wasn’t simply an act by a nation, according to an ideology or under the orders of a dictator; it was a series of acts by individual human beings who had lost sight of the humanity of their victims. Or, as I told my eight year-old daughter at the time, “This wasn’t just about the Germans or the Nazis. This was people forgetting that we need to love each other.”

Judge not lest you be judged? No: love one another

We cannot avoid making judgements. Returning to my car crash, things could have been different. I might have misjudged the speed of the oncoming car and the force of the impact, which might have caused us to career into opposing traffic. My daughter’s shock on impact might have caused her more distress than it did. The other driver might have seen the accident differently and come at me with a tyre iron or a lawsuit. There are times when we have to exercise judgement and we may not always get it right.

What I take from all this is that we need to treat each situation, each ideology, each authoritarian leader as unique. If we generalise or apply lessons from other situations, we should tread carefully, in case we misinterpret what we see.  And if we find ourselves called upon to judge and  respond to others, love and respect for the individual are probably good starting points.

In short, Trump is not Hitler (and Muslims aren’t terrorists).

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Discovery Learning: two teachers in Denmark

I only seem to think coherently when I’m ill, so it is both fortuitous and fortunate that Tom Bennett’s blog post about Sweden should come out just as I’m stuck in bed and bored.

His analogy strikes a chord. I won’t argue with it; I will try to add to the polyphony by examining my Autumn half term trip to Copenhagen.

An ignorant beginning?

Nyhavn, the name of which I loudly and confidently mispronounced for most of our visit.


When we decided to go to Copenhagen, my knowledge of Denmark was limited to:

  • a cursory exploration in the European History aspects of my A level studies in 1980;
  • a little more while I was studying medieval History at university;
  • ‘Music and Silence’ by Rose Tremain, which took me far further in fiction than I had gone in facts;
  • my friend Mette, a Dane, who spoke to me a lot and told me very little;
  • her former husband Paul, whose rambling, drunken anecdotes about Danish life intrigued me;
  • one episode of The Bridge (my wife isn’t a fan of subtitles);
  • images and impressions from The Danish Girl;
  • a scattering of half-read stories and partially heard programmes about Denmark in the second world war.

On the one hand, that’s not much to use as the basis for exploring a major European city; on the other, it shows the difficulty of using one’s own, adult experience as an analogy for children’s learning. Like Tom, I may be ignorant but I am far from naïf.  When do we cease to be tabulae rasae?

I am fairly sure that I knew next to nothing about Copenhagen itself, except that there’s a big government building, a bridge, a lot of water and a statue of a little mermaid.  In that sense, I think I was a pretty EYFS urban explorer.

Step One: talk to someone who knows

Lunch with my friend Liz and her niece Nikki helped enormously. Nikki works in Malmo and weekends in Copenhagen, so she had a fairly good idea about the city. Her starting point with us was, “What do you want to know? What do you want to do?”  These questions challenged me to think about my own learning intentions (as an obsessive learner, no trip is simply a holiday). I told her that I wanted to understand Danish culture and history, and to relax, eat real Danish pastries and drink decent coffee. Only then did Nikki pull out her iPad and start showing us the map of the city. I will try to recall how she did this. On the one hand, she showed the locations of various areas – ‘proper’ shopping, interesting food, museums and buildings of note; on the other hand, she related these to her own preferences and experiences. She gave us a short list of places we should visit. We wrote none of this down but came away from lunch with a better sense of what we wanted and where we might find it, now based on a mental map of the city.

Deliciously Danish: we knew what we wanted.


What might I deduce from this? That it is helpful, as an adult at least, to have a teacher whose instruction is guided by what I want to learn – or what I want to do with that learning.  But also that it is uncomfortable being asked those questions because it forces me to think and to acknowledge gaps in my supposedly coherent rationale for life. Ultimately, once I overcame that discomfort, it was a relief to acknowledge my lack of knowledge and direction and to say, “Apart from that, I haven’t got a clue. Just tell us what you’d do.”  So directed learning was useful and made more purposeful by my teacher’s initial questions about my own learning intentions.

Step Two: read a book

I then bought the Lonely Planet guide to Copenhagen and pored over it while my wife slept. I’d say that this is typical: when the going gets interesting, I disappear into a book. Every now and then I’d nudge my wife and bring her reluctant attention to this area or that, to Plan A or Plan B. She loathes maps and likes details, so my interruptions to her sleep had to be brief and purposeful. I like to think through possibilities, build overlapping and inter-related mental maps with alternative worlds. In this case, one in which we wore ourselves out with every cultural experience possible, and a few others in which I accepted the inevitable and we had a mixture of culture, coffee and cake. The book was bewildering: too many possibilities, too much information to absorb without tangible experience of the city, so I had to accept that this would only ever be a sketch-map. But by the time we boarded the plane, I had a better sense of where we might go, what we might do and why (this last one being the compromise between my own desires and my wife’s wishes).

Worthwhile words, pictures, maps, opinions


Once again, what can I infer from this?  That I, as a learner, need time to reflect quietly, to absorb more information, to make sense of it for myself, to make further sense of my thoughts by articulating them and asking for another’s opinion.  And that I prefer possibilities, broad outlines and directions of travel to tightly tied-down facts and plans. Unlike my wife. The conclusion here seems obvious: we desire, think and learn differently. Why should this be different in the classroom?

Step Three: explore

I am comical in strange cities. While trying to apply my thoroughly thought-through mental maps and strategies, I ignore details such as the fact that we’re on the wrong side of Copenhagen railway station, that we have crossed the same road twice and that I’m dangerous when entrusted with a map. In short, it took me a little while to relate my vivid virtual world to the rainy reality of Copenhagen. We headed for one area, one street and one place: the nicest looking cafe, without any coherent sense of what we were doing. That first afternoon, before we booked into our hotel, we just wandered through the rain and made more sense of things. Photographs, maps and descriptions, written or spoken, only made sense when seen in context. Context such as how tired we were when walking around; how much less crowded and easy the streets were to negotiate than our go-to model of London; what other interesting and unexpected things we saw and wanted to know better; how disappointing some of our desired places now seemed; how connected and blurred the carefully demarcated areas of my mental map now became.

Kafe Kys, Læderstræde 7, worth a visit


So what? I think it showed me how fraught with misconceptions a purely mental and written construct can be. It showed me that that in exploring what was actually there, I not only adjusted and calibrated my conceptions but also found other things I wanted to learn about.

Step Four: reflect

This took longest and seemed to contain least thought and action. Back in our hotel room, tired and wet, we talked about the afternoon, looked once more at the map and guide book, leafed through the brochures we’d picked up and reconsidered our plans for the following two days. It was clear to us that all we had taken in so far still left us lacking a meaningful and coherent view of the city. But we had a better idea of what we did and didn’t like. And we were clear about the best place to eat that night and our first steps for the next morning.

Thinking space: clean and simple.


That discussion, honest and pragmatic, was important. Misdirected or intrinsically purposeless learning can be boring, frustrating and tiring. Just because it’s in the lesson plan, it doesn’t mean it’s the best way to learn.

Step Five: big picture time

I’m quite smug about this bit because we’d always planned to go to the National Museum of Denmark. After all, with only the sketchiest idea of Denmark’s history and society, we were blundering around its capital with little sense of what was relevant and why. We walked around the museum with a group and an English-speaking tour guide, a student of archaeology. Now, not only am I smug; I’m also the irritating one who monopolises the guide. As we walked around, I was able to make even more sense of what we were seeing and being told by comparing what I had learnt elsewhere and by probing more deeply. Whether she was being diplomatic or genuinely appreciated my curiosity, she was very forthcoming. We left with a far more coherent and detailed view of Denmark and Copenhagen.

Bronze Age sun deity: the farmer who found it thought that it was a nineteenth century toy.


I can only speak for myself: I need a ‘big picture’ view at some point in any substantial learning. I crave information and instruction. I learn best dialogically. And I acquire knowledge and understanding associatively. Does everyone?

Step Six: free flow

Armed with information, equipped with experience and clearer about what we wanted and could tolerate, we were able to be ruthless in selecting what we saw, confident that it would satisfy us both. We sped around the city for the next two days. The places we visited, the artefacts we saw, the behaviour we observed, even the food we ate had greater meaning and relevance. 

The throne room at Rosenborg Castle. Denmark’s three silver lions guard the thrones.


To be honest, of course, it is still a superficial and subjective understanding. But it made every experience taste delicious and it left me hungry for more. Shouldn’t all learning be like that? 

Conclusion

So, as Tom says, sometimes we just need to be told stuff. Sometimes wandering around aimlessly is tiring and confusing. Purposeful stuff, in context, is valuable and tasty. And we need to make sense of what we have learnt, to associate and compare it with other things we know. We may also, at times, just want to be left to explore. But it is vastly more meaningful when we’re armed with the stuff. You know, knowledge.

Endnote: don’t trust a word

The author, in all seriousness.


As carefully as I have tried to recall my thoughts, actions and experiences, I cannot escape from my own subjectivity. I have constructed this out of memory and desire: what I think happened and what I wanted it to mean. Any anecdote or analogy is little more than a story, from which you can construct your own meaning.