I was told these stories as a child. Looking back now I think they nearly summarise my approach to teaching.
The first tale was given to a group of us at junior school by the Bishop of Hereford.
A man wanted to become a connoisseur and collector of jade. One particular teacher came very highly recommended by his friend, so the man went to see him. He was welcomed, shown to a room and sat in front of a small piece of jade. The teacher left him there, returning an hour later to collect the piece of jade and his fee, and to bid our protagonist goodbye. This happened the next day and the next. Several weeks later the man bumped into his friend who asked how the lessons were going. “Appalling!” he replied, “He just leaves me alone in the room in front of a piece of jade for an hour. Doesn’t even say a word. And to add insult to injury, this morning it wasn’t even good quality jade!”
The other story my father liked to re-tell from the diaries of the diplomat Harold Nicholson. Nicholson was sat next to a Chinese official at a meal and was told, “In my country we have a proverb – Better a tile, intact, than a broken piece of jade.” “That is an excellent proverb” said Nicholson, writing it in his notebook. When he had done so he found his interlocutor frowning, “Or, maybe I have the proverb wrong. I think perhaps it is – Better a broken piece of jade than a tile intact.” “That, too, is an excellent proverb.” said the diplomat, “I shall write that down as well”.
I thought I should follow the example of the Bishop who, I can see now, was practising and preaching the same thing – at least on that occasion, but ending the blog at that point would no doubt results in a bemused reader, so here is my translation:
The Bishop’s point is that teaching is more effective if it is implicit. The man became an expert – he became something he had not been before. Had he been instructed by an explicit, content-based approach, he would have remained the same as before, just with some extra information. I did think I might do the same, and leave these stories suspended, but the required repetition and exposure (and in psychoanalytic terms the frustration tension) would have been missing; You would have had to sit with my blog for a few weeks.
The second story is, for me, about the nature of knowledge. Certainty is attractive but illusory, but the fact that the certainty is illusory does not make the information any less useful. In fact it makes it more useful by virtue of being more flexible. Secondly, apparently mutually exclusive opposites, far from being a problem, are what makes the world go around. The story is explicitly about whether it is substance or form that determines quality. That would be the explicit, content-based message – the substance, but it is the process, or form, that interests me more. Either that, or the flickering ambiguity that oscillates my attention between the two and leaves me suspended in a sort of pleasurable trance of unknowing.