‘But, Sir, what do you mean by that? What is critical analysis?’
‘I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not collecting disconnected scraps of information from Wikipedia because they sound good, then passing them off as your own beside a nice Google image of said subject matter.” (Editor’s note: that method is best kept for blogs).
Silence in the room. The unique silence that settles on the faces of bemusement and detachment.
No further questions.
When you analyse it, being the teacher can at times be almost as futile as the teaching itself. Promoting doubt in a room full of certainty is releasing the dove that barely gets off the ground before coming home to roost. Faced with the unwinnable war, the only defence left is to call up to the box the worst simile one can think of.
Call forth the witness…
‘Using language we can all understand, explain to the jury what it’s like to engineer learning through the introduction of abstract concepts, more commonly referred to as analysis?’
‘Well, it’s rather like sticking an SD memory card into a film camera. Spools, not slots, yeah? Or even like wiring an onboard computer system into the dashboard of a ’55 Karmann Ghia. Dials, not screens, if you catch my drift.’
‘Thank you, Mr Simile. The prosecution has no further questions.’
No doubt there are worst similes, but are there worse-equipped learners? Across the globe on isolated chairs, millions. Within a purely cultural context, it is harder to find a more disingenuous bunch than those from lands who do not like voicing doubts, who know fine well their elders are their betters and that truth is knowing what you like and liking what you know. Knowledge as fixed inheritance is the way to see it. Perhaps it pays not to think too deeply. In most of the world it pays neither to offer too much commentary nor court too much controversy. After all, who wants the emerge black and blue from the scrum of free thoughts? Or worse still, not emerge at all (from that place behind the sun).
When you are raised on rice, wisdom is not to sift through the grains with a fine tooth comb. When you are hatched on rock hot enough to fry eggs, flying too close to the sun can send you into an early tailspin. But what has egg-fried rice to do with analytical awareness? Diet is the the answer. Diets of learning are just as telling as the calorie diets we usually think of. Strictly-speaking, a diet is anything ingested and not all that is ingested is digested. Not all that glitters turns to shit either. Protein thinking leaves the learner lean and hungry, primed to hunt down and disembowel the mythical beasts in their canon of knowledge. But monounsaturated fats leave them flaccid, helpless to kill those mythic sloths that refuse to shift their lazy asses. That’s a narrative shorn of happiness. Recall happiness? That thing the Dalai Lama called the be all and end all? More to come on the marriage of knowing and being.
Globalisation:- the conjurer of the weird (Ebola – where does it disappear to for so long when it’s not busy making eyeballs bleed?), the wonderful (Bob Dylan, 74 and still touring the world), and the worrisome (Jihadis with padded abdomens lurking in your midst as we speak) delivers the whole package. Through it, new ideas are vectored as virulently as communicable disease. Exotic notions of going from an ignorant to an articulate society are imported by air, cable and sea on the back of exotic foodstuffs imported by air and sea (Side note to Les ancien regimes: you cannot always have your cake and eat it.) That’s what happens to the local gazette when the village becomes the world and the world the village.
In regions outside the Anglosphere where obesity and type-2 diabetes go unchecked, diets were not always so rich in calories. Nor were they so rich in heuristics (learning through trial and error; self discovery), nor in critical thinking, nor in the free exchange of ideas, all of which amounted to a kind of open-source software of philosophy to trump the jealously-guarded source code of truth that old elites held so stubbornly to for so long.
Through all the Jamie Oliveresque frustration at trying to convince the turkey-twizzling recalcitrants to switch to a diet of kale, goji berries and organic salmon, there is an electrical dialogue going on across hemispheres of the brain, as well as the planet. Some talk of divergent thinking about what constitutes thinking as a clash of civilisations. It’s as if the redoubtable Saladin himself had returned to meet Richard the Lionheart in the sequel to the Third Crusade. The battle for hearts and minds is more subtle than that and not always fought on the same front.
East is East and West is West, but in the classroom the twain has and shall continue to meet. When we consider the so-called civilising mission of the imperial British and French of the 19th century, their missionaries were the teaching task force. Then, as before and since, with trade and military intervention went the transmission and diffusion of the seller’s ideas into the buyer; the ruler’s weltanschauung onto the unwitting and often unenthusiastic subject. Preaching was teaching and teaching was the crucible of cultures. The philosophy of free trade went in lockstep with the philosophy of free thought although both had a chaining effect, as Gandhi beautifully exemplified by showing that Indian philosophy was every bit as enlightened and more as that of the British Raj. When delving into the dynamics of what happens when Western ways of critical reflection, relativism and self-awareness come flush against Arab absolutism or Chinese Confucianism, when we place the individualist against the collectivist, only then does indoctrination/ enlightenment/transmission, whatever you choose to call it, become apparent as a process. The process is both two-way and convoluted. Thinking across cultures therefore reveals more sequences than an improvised dance troupe, and more patterns than a thick book of carpet samples.
Can an old dog be taught new tricks? Why would he want to? Banging one’s head against a blank wall because others don’t see your point of turning truth in on itself brings a smile on the faces of the politely detached. The smiles, for all we know, could be inane grins revealing the tensions of smuggling critical and reflective intellectual practice through the back door while operating a strict autocratic code at the front. That polite detachment, for all we know, could be the embarrassment-cum-denial of farting on public transport. Inscrutable as that look is, inscrutable as these exotic creatures are, the critical thinker in there says, this has got to be cognitive dissonance in its manifest form. Look, they are thrown by the confusion of holding opposing values of tradition and modernity as simultaneously true. On their gormless faces is the priceless visage of someone whose left and right hemisphere has been cleaved in half. Surely, their culture is anoxic. Where is the oxygen of free, unhindered thinking? Have wings will fly; have knuckles, will drag.
And then the thought arrives: what if the reason these heavenly creatures are so joyful, the reason they laugh and smile with such sense of abandon, is because they are the ones whom knowledge has set free? Unlike the critical analyst, plagued by doubts, chained to uncertainty, floating aimlessly outside the box, maybe it is they who rejoice in the security of the box, and in the certainty of a knowledge that is immutable and unchanging as the book itself. Who needs doubters when everyone knows that when a tree falls in a forest it makes the sound of millions of hands clapping. There is solace is knowing what you know.
What the halal is going on? The tables have turned.
Who has the cognitive dissonance now?