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May 8, 2011

Herd of humans? (2)

teacher-student.jpgI grew up in Dorset, a fairly quiet area of Britain. When I was a teenager, I used to like going for walks, reading books, playing strategy games and things like that. About the noisiest thing I did was play football. Everything changed one day while I was going for a walk by the local lake. A strong thought came into my head that I couldn’t resist.

The next day, I felt compelled to go to the headmaster’s office. I’d never done this before and nobody around me had done it either, so the headmaster looked a bit bemused when I went into his office. He looked even more bemused when I told him I thought there was something fundamentally wrong at the school. I said the pupils in the school were receiving things from society all the time, but we were giving almost nothing back, and I felt this was wrong.

The headmaster asked what I thought we should be doing. I hadn’t got that far. All I had was a vague feeling that something was wrong, so I had to think on my feet. The first ideas that came to mind were helping with children’s playgroups, visiting old people in the town, and organizing events to raise money for people in developing countries. The headmaster, of course, couldn’t agree more, and said I should organize a charity group in the school. My first thought was ‘Me! You must be joking!’ I just liked to be quiet, and had no interest in organizing things or playing a leadership role. But, under the circumstances, I felt I should at least try.

To cut a long story short, within a short space of time, almost all the pupils in the school had joined the charity, and we were doing some pretty wonderful things both locally and internationally. There was a lot of cynicism at first, but this was quickly overcome.

Without the group/herd, I would still have been going for walks by myself, and many of those around me would have been focused on their cars, hair styles etc… By joining together into a group/herd, we could go far beyond what we could do as individuals.

When I went to university, the same kind of thing happened. I turned up at Cambridge wondering what on earth I was doing in a place like that, but within a couple of semesters was organising Bangla Desh concerts and had built up a successful charity network. The same pattern has repeated itself many times with other groups/herds since then.

In my last post to this column, I was criticizing the herd, but here I am saying that herds enable us to achieve much more than we can as individuals. As Vygotsky pointed out, we can only achieve so much by ourselves. We need to be social animals in order to reach a bit more of our potential.

By myself, I could kick a ball against a wall, but I couldn’t play football. I was a winger with limited abilities. All I could do was run and centre the ball, so needed to play with strikers, midfielders and defenders. Everybody has different skills, and when these combine well, we can be an effective team.

By myself, I probably would have never got a publishing contract and, even if I did, my books would only have been read or used by teachers who were pretty similar to me. In the early years of David English House, I was surrounded by some great teachers who were often critical of the materials I was developing. Finding Out, for example, endured ten years of trial and error in this environment before it was published. Would it have sold getting on for 2 million copies if it hadn’t been for the critical input of the professional team around me? Of course not.

So what kind of herd is a good herd? In some ways, it’s easier to say what I think a herd shouldn’t be. I think effective herds need leadership, but not hierarchies, and those who lead need deep humility not arrogance, and shouldn’t be ambitious for position or power. When I was running David English House, I generally found that the best managers were those that I had to persuade to be managers. Those who really wanted to be managers on some level considered themselves to be above those they were managing, and so had issues with them (and with me!).

Over the years, I have often been regarded as a communist. I used to think this was because I had long hair, rejected many aspects of capitalism and studied social science. But, it still happens even though the hair is disappearing. I certainly think that if we want to create a good herd, we can learn a lot from Marx, especially from his 1844 manuscript, and particularly from his views on alienation.

By accident more than design, when I started that charity group at school, it became a collection of individuals or small groups each doing their own thing. I didn’t micromanage people, but focused on encouraging things to happen, and only got involved when necessary. Other organizers were able to have ideas and follow them through to fruition with a sense of ownership. With a fair amount of trial and error, I have tended to work in the same way when building other herds since then.

In Marxist terms, I think it’s important that each of us doesn’t feel alienated from the product of our labour, from the act of production or from our essence as human beings. This applies to me as much as it applies to anybody else in the same herd.

I was very conscious of this when establishing ETJ (English Teachers in Japan). There were things that I wanted to do such as the ETJ discussion list, the owners group etc…. I didn’t see ETJ growing by getting others to replace me in the projects I had started, but, instead, by encouraging others to start their own projects and make them part of ETJ. In this way, we could all be village craftsmen and we could minimize Marxist alienation. There would need to be some general policies, but these would be the minimum necessary, and would be decided by the coordinators of each project getting together and voting.

I don’t pretend this is the perfect herd by any means. It is one type of herd. It has its pros and cons, like herds themselves, and it will appeal to some people, but not others.

In my last column, I was arguing that herds are dangerous because they create cultures that control us, and now I’m arguing that herds are necessary for each of us to achieve a bit more of that great potential that all of us have. Yet again, I’ve said nothing about the classroom, but this apparent contradiction clearly has very important implications in the classroom that I plan to look at next time.

Meanwhile, it’s time for a bit of fun. Here are some more Communicate dialogues:

Mrs. Shakespeare at the doctor - from Communicate level 4

(Language target: Time clauses)


Doctor: How did you burn your ears?
Mrs. Shakespeare: The telephone rang when I was doing the ironing.
Doctor: But why both your ears?
Mrs. Shakespeare: As soon as I hung up, the telephone rang again.
Doctor: Well, you'll have to keep these bandages on for about two weeks.
Mrs. Shakespeare: When my ears are better, will I be able to listen to rock music?
Doctor: Yes, of course.
Mrs. Shakespeare: That’s wonderful! I never could before.
My husband says it disturbs him when he’s writing.

Glug and Zork meet Mr. and Mrs. Shakespeare - from Communicate level 4.

(Language targets: Reported speech and Tell ... to ...)


Mrs. Shakespeare: How did that thing get into my kitchen?
Shakespeare: They said they turned left in the living room.
Mrs. Shakespeare: Well, tell them to park in the parking lot.
Anyway, who are they?
Shakespeare: They said they come from another planet.
Mrs. Shakespeare: Oh, they’re foreigners.
Zork: She said we are foreigners!
Do you think they’re intelligent?
Glug: I don’t think so.
Zork: Ask them a difficult question.
Glug: What’s 11 x 7 ÷ 2.5?
Mrs. Shakespeare: Are you crazy? William, tell them to stay here.
I’m going to get the police.

About May 2011

This page contains all entries posted to Nelson's Column in May 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

March 2011 is the previous archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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