Thursday, March 19, 2009

Layer 138 The Class, Unhealthy Preoccupations, Outbreaks of Common Sense, and Wabi Sabi.

Entre Les Murs

The Class (Between The Walls) takes place within the claustrophobic confines of a Parisian multi-cultural secondary school. It examines the dynamics within a very mixed ability class of 14 - 15 year olds, and their French language teacher, Francois, played by the author of the piece, based on his own experiences as a teacher. It also shows the dynamics within the staff of the school, including the school’s director.

It’s incredibly well written, acted, directed and edited, and won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Apparently the actors are all real teachers and pupils, not actors and drama students.

It’s a compelling account of what it’s really like to work with such adolescents, with their attitudes, issues and challenges. It’s a pretty overwhelming task - one that most of us are ill-equipped to take on.

The kids, for example, can’t see the point of being forced to learn the refined and grammatically correct versions, the ‘standard’ forms, of the French language, since they themselves don’t need them, use them, or even aspire to using them.

The kids and their families have backgrounds that include Algeria, Morocco, Mali, Ivory Coast, the Caribbean, China, Vietnam, and so on. The tensions between the groups are brought out through their support for the football teams of their ‘home’ countries, and indeed France.

Questions of identity, loyalty, self-image, culture clash and conflict are seriously explored.

The film raises serious questions about the purposes and methods of education. They’re essentially decent kids, but tough, hard-bitten and streetwise, and they resent a world that pays scant respect to them, or to their culture and community.

The teachers are portrayed as decent and sometimes heroic figures, though also with their limits - their weaknesses and biases.

There are also interesting explorations of the sanctions available to schools and teachers, and how they are applied. The sense of hopelessness and helplessness of some of the kids, and their parents, is palpable.

You can get a taster of the film through the trailers on the film’s website:


A Buddhist Thought for Today - on Radio 4 today.

This is maybe worth repeating - from my recollection and my notes, with apologies to the Buddhist gentleman who offered this thought - for forgetting his name:

Mr Brown now says the era of laissez-faire capitalism is at an end. Inequality has now been shown to be a major factor in human happiness and the breakdown of social cohesion.

Social policy is very important for wellbeing, and social policies that reduce equality between individuals have been shown to be necessary and important for everyone’s wellbeing - not just the less well-off.

Gaining self worth from comparisons with others seems to be endemic in humans.
It’s hard to be immune from such things. Human competitiveness and drive for ‘status’, wanting to keep up with the successes of others, seems to be pervasive.

But is this in any case a sound basis for our sense of self worth? We should consciously avoid comparing ourselves with others.

We need to focus on our inner dimension of heart & mind - not look externally for feelings of self-worth.

We need to discover our inner dimensions of honest communication, love of nature, love of music, and so on. This is where real happiness and self-worth are to be found.

Through a process of calm reflection and meditation we can cultivate patience, generosity and compassion.

We need to learn to love ourselves first. If we find ourselves unlovely, then we should reflect on how we can change in order to be more pleasing to ourselves.

We also need to respond to ourselves with greater kindness. We must cultivate an inner abundance that others can share.


An Unhealthy Preoccupation?

This week there was a Scots woman on Radio 4’s Today going on about what she sees as an unhealthy preoccupation in our schools with children’s ‘feelings’. She’s against using the ‘SEAL’ programme’s materials, (social & emotional aspects of learning), some of which try to cultivate ‘emotional literacy’ and the ability to identify ‘feeling states’. She thinks children whose feelings are ‘hurt’ should be told to pull themselves together and ‘just get on with it’. Very Scots. Very Presbyterian.

The woman’s a complete idiot, of course. The SEAL materials can be very badly used, and used in ways that simply create boredom and frustration because they’re dealt with in an almost academic way.

But it’s absolutely crucial that teachers, teaching assistants, heads of year, pupil mentors and headteachers use every opportunity that presents itself to help children develop a better understanding of human conflict, its causes and effects, and remedies. For heaven’s sake - the negative things that take place in schools are learning experiences, if they’re properly handled.

There’s no better time to learn individually about feelings and about real social and emotional intelligence than when someone’s personally or tangentially involved in some sort of crisis or conflict. Of course we must also ensure that children consider as whole classes, in the context of a planned curriculum, things like human values, anger management, loving kindness and non violence. But we must also use real-life situations to the full in order to help children learn better, more deeply and more quickly.

Giving angry, sad, aggressive, vengeful, frightened and tearful children opportunities to calm down and calmly reflect on whatever’s happened, and a chance to think about what went wrong, and what should happen next, are vital if children are to develop high levels of social, emotional and spiritual intelligence, which should be a priority in all our schools. This should be so bleeding obvious it’s unbelievable that anyone should need to say these things.

The lady in question is unhappy that schools take on this work, which she sees as an attempt to “supplant the family”. What an idiot. How can she not see that it’s vital that schools supplement the learning that goes on in families, not supplant it? How can she not see that precious little of such learning takes place within many families, even the materially well-off ones, and that the learning must therefore take place in schools, from Nursery onward, or else it won’t take place at all?

If skilled Nursery and Early Years practitioners fail to involve themselves is such learning then many children wouldn’t even be able to access the rest of the curriculum - the academic and intellectual core. Classrooms would be simply chaotic and totally unruly, unless she’s just proposing to expel children who don’t immediately conform to expectations, and to use that draconian form of punishment to frighten the rest into ‘good behaviour’. In which case you have a system of externally imposed classroom discipline which breaks down elsewhere, on the streets and in real life, because no-one has learnt the need for, and the skills of, self-discipline.

It’s also a simple fact that many families teach their children to be aggressive, to be selfish and to be bullies in order to get what they want in life. In which case schools do indeed need to supplant the learning that happens in those families. And in those cases it’s not helpful for the long run to simply suppress bullying and aggression. Children do indeed need to learn why these things damage themselves as well as others, and to change what’s in their hearts, their souls and their minds.

Learning to be patient, generous and compassionate, learning to cultivate an abundance that can be shared with others, is a long, long journey, especially for those who are already spiritually lame, crippled and blinded. As the Buddhist teacher would no doubt agree.


Wabi Sabi

As I was saying the other day, there was an interesting documentary on BBC4 about the elusive concept of wabi sabi. The presenter, a certain faux naïf called Theroux (Louis’s Brother?) was pretty irritating - but no matter. Better to consider wabi sabi in this imperfect way than not at all. After all, according to him, wabi sabi is the beauty of imperfect things.

As far as I can see, wabi sabi is an attitude or state of mind that’s engendered by an awareness of the impermanence of things, not their ‘imperfection’. From this comes an attitude, a Zen attitude, which can be characterised as ‘non-attachment’. Through living with this attitude we can more readily accept that everything is impermanent, and everything changes. Impermanence is neither good nor bad. It just IS.

My feeling is that the origins of this philosophy can be traced back to Taoism and the ancient Taoist book, the I Ching - the Book of Changes. The way of the Tao is described in the other classic text - the Tao Te Ching. Zen grew from Buddhism, which was assimilated into Taoist China from its origins in India. Discovery of The Way and one’s individual Tao, and following one’s proper course through life is essential to becoming the best we can be.

Attention to nature, and to the cultivation of gardens, shows us that everything has its season. A time to live and a time to die. A time to blossom and a time to bear fruit. A time for germination and a time to wither and disappear. Everything happens in cycles.

A life based on Zen and wabi sabi seeks simplicity and authenticity. Manifestations of this ideal can be found in pottery, music and gardens. The best examples of such art can arouse in us feelings of serene melancholy and spiritual fulfilment, or satori.

Having just listened to an hour and a half of David Gilmour and Rick Wright and co on Sky Arts 1, Remember That Night, performing Pink Floyd classics such as High Hopes and Comfortably Numb, cranked up loud through the hi fi, I’m Zenned and blissed out, and I’m off to bed. It’s been an incredibly beautiful Spring day, sunny and warm from start to end, with blossom and daffodils everywhere. Life doesn’t get any better than this. Remember That Day.

You can watch the BBC programme on iPlayer at


An Outbreak of Common Sense

Robert Peston reports that the Financial Services Authority is now proposing we abandon the prevailing dogma that the market always knows best and that the market should be left to regulate itself. The FSA now wants bank lending to be limited to avoid taking on too much risk, and wants banks to hold more liquidity in case money markets shrink or dry up.

The words stable, bolted, door, closing, after and horse come to mind.

Also stating, obvious, the and bleeding.

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