How Not to Be Brilliant
“Don’t talk to me about heroes, most of these men seem like serfs’ (‘Kelly’s Heroes’, Black Grape, 1995)
Presentation to BrewEdFE at The Corner House, Huddersfield, October 12th2019
A presentation in 10 segments
- Be Brilliant
In discussion with a senior colleague in the not-to-distant past I was asked for my contributions in how to be brilliant, a series of hints and wisdoms that would be collected in a ‘be brilliant’ teacher’s guide. I recounted my own approach to recognising the world around us, taking time to reflect and meditate about the moments and the people in your orbit, introduced a few comments around Osho and Mooji, Eckhart Tolle, the virtuous universe of self-discovery of Antonia Darder, seeking beauty in the everyday and working together to realise a better world, how to embody the powerful mantra of Paulo Freire as a world of diversity in which we could find ourselves as purposeful and vital, the courage of Bell Hooks and the assertiveness of self in the face of adversity and marginalising compliance. Taking walks, smelling the fresh air and seeing again our world as it is presented – and knowing it is us, that we are shaping that presentation. Being absolutely clear, recognising the difficulties in seeking such clarity, seeking only to begin with the awareness that we are alive, we breath and we are beautiful.
A few moments passed, I had talked too long perhaps?
‘what’s that got to do with teaching?
2. Be Assertive
A little while after, in the even closer past, I was at an event for FE people of all views when the plenary at the end led to a question ‘what can we do to develop FE, what is needed to grow and be better?’ That question, after a few short comments but much silence ended up being directed at me specifically – I had sat at the back, in the corner, I was usually safe there, not today.
I began. “We need to be more assertive, an assertiveness that is….’
I never finished that sentence as a senior FE administrator , who had asked me that very questions, interrupted and said, ‘I am going to have to challenge you there, what we need is funding and nothing else can happen to will get that’ and off that went, down a funding stream. My assertiveness shot down in flames before I had even got into the full flow of the beauty of finding voice as a lecturer. That this was itself a beautiful example of why change is so hard to achieve, although one I doubt one seen by those that might most need to see it.
Today, I am going to frolic in the meandering spaces of the mind and the possibilities afforded by it being Saturday in a pub and not yet dinner time. While officially ‘not brilliant’, there is still as assertion here that being not brilliant is important, and I will tell you my thoughts why. An also some hints and tips that don’t fit in a neat guide but then, neither do we or the people we work with.
3. Be Conscious
I will at times drop in some ideas about meditation, or perhaps more accurately ideas I have taken from meditation.
I have an assertion too, about this.
What these people have in common:
Winny (the pooh)
Hannah Arendt (Dilectio proximi – neighbourly love; Amor Mundi – love the world)
active citizenship – the balance of rights and responsibilities.
I think it is a concept of a shared, interconnectedness being-ness. That we are consciousness connected to other consciousness’s, and that requires us – as a central goal – to be aware of our consciousness. And that this must come through active participation. And it requires Love as a bonding agent, driving principle. Created through being, not philosophical retreat, neither blissful solitude but active participation.
Matthew Carlin writing in a recent paper about the formation of social justice, its inception as a term that it came from an Italian Catholic in 1840, Antonio Rosmini – who describesla guizticia sociale
Matthew Carlin is writing about the necessity for a new Ethics in Higher (not mentioned but also Further) Education, one that is aware of the dissolution of a shared normative value (God, Goodness, Virtue) but also distancing itself from a reification of EUDEMONOLOGY (the science of happiness).
Carlin summarises Antonio Rosmini as thinking this
‘the idea of being is the first principle from which all forms of reasoning arise’
‘the idea of being is not a mental construction, but rather a reference to our natural access to a real order.
As Mooji says – isn’t consciousness marvellous?
You too may now be asking,
‘What’s this got to do with teaching?’
4. Be Yourself
Yet more developed from my not being inside the ‘being brilliant’ guide. I recognised that the seeking was of what later transpired to be readily accessible doand do notguidance.
5 brilliant ways to open your lesson
5 brilliant activities to include numeracy in your class
5 brilliant questions to encourage critical thinking in your sessions
5 brilliant technology apps that will amaze and inform
That kind of thing, you know the drill.
I said that each of these could start with a period of introspection and reflection, what the session is, how the relationships have formed, what might work based on what each has seen work before, the character of the class, the subject, the time of year, the weather, our experiences, individually and collectively– getting each of us to consider ourselves, our awareness, our being in the flow and responding with our creativity.
This time a seemingly inadvertent sabre cut
‘that’s not about being brilliant, that just about being yourself’
Now if we return and consider the possibility at the very roots of social justice, that BEING is central to our engagement with the real order of things, we might say
Being Yourselfis the ONLY way we can engage and educate, live and generate experiences, relationships ad change in the environment.
Talking about social justice – everyone does it – without recognising the significance of self, of awareness, of being – is nothing short of nonsense and deceit, deceit of the self, or a more maleficent deceit of others.
This assertion of mine today is that we need to rethink the fundamental models of education if we are genuinely interested in social justice.
5. Be Aware
It might be common now to see analysis of Greta Thunberg’s modes of transport to get to the UN, alongside criticism of royal family members taking private jets to fly to climate change emergency meetings. That contradiction seems ready for public consumption and understanding. We are encouraged to see contradiction, hypocrisy and seek out authenticity. Generally, that exists outside us in the world of celebrity culture in which we might take part, but have n part, be at no risk and easily flit from consumer to moral guardian. All while reading the news.
Individuals arriving at conferences in Land Rover 4 x 4s and arguing for increased funding for the vulnerable that live near their designated parking space is not so readily pursued. It is necessary we are all involved around the generation of a new order and I argue that these little contradictions are just that, little and expected, the obvious clashing of ideologies as we live in fluidity as mental construct.
- Social Justice can be interpreted in many ways
- Salvation from trickle-down economics works to assuage the conscience of many
- The language of journeysand best selvessuggests a genuine shift in focus
BUT none of this generates a systematic approach to social justice as a transformative shift AND INSTEAD is embedded as a necessary foil for the ferocious individualism and the dominance of competition that exists. This best-selfrhetoric is ideally suited to individualism, competition and tailoring ourselves to win, and win big. As the Situationists said, ‘you are sleeping for the boss’. Even our transformation is owned and serves to prepare us for better engagement with our fight against inequality. We know inequality is bad, but we are encouraged not to crush inequality but instead get on the ‘best side’ of the divide. So far, so blindingly obvious.
I suggest that it is not the blindingly obvious that is the issue. You know,
The Blindingly Obvious
We have customers not students
The market provides and our customers can act more strongly with qualifications
The financial imperatives of the institutions helps staff and students mirror the realities of the outside world
Increased bureaucracy and the disproportionate payment in education is reflective of the market and of efficiency as the driver for this model and to the value of all stakeholders.
Success and achievement must be measured purely on economic outputs of work and increased economic capital – individually and nationally.
These are what me might call a neoliberal reshaping of the educational mission.
They are blindingly obvious only in that we see them every day, how we define them may change depending on how we see ourselves, but they are not only mental constructs they are written, often on mission statements, and policy.
6. Be Deeply Aware
The Deeper problem
In my reflections, we have a deeper problem, equally as obvious but almost invisible because of this – a hidden in plain sight trick – a trick that might only ever be achieved so successfully by the creation of common sense
Gramsci, an Italian genius from the early – mid twentieth century, (died in 1937) asked us to reconsider and interrogate common sense and see it as not common or sense, but a carefully created logic by which we might all be expected to live.
When Gramsci was sent to prison, for criticising the fascists, the prosecutor said
“we must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years,”
They could not, though they did incarcerate him until he died – the Prison Notebooks help us glimpse the need to reconsider what we mean by common sense.
And we might think we have little to learn from Gramsci, considering ourselves entirely different form 1930s communists in a totalitarian fascist state riddled with forceful destruction of swathes of the working class and a creation of an aspirational middle class and a newly invigorated collectivism based in nationalism and far-right policies. We might.
But what about common sense. Can we see that as not common, nor sense?
My reflections are based not only on observations but also on experience, on knowing my responsibilities and rights have to always encounter the fundamentals of human nature.
We have built an educational system that is (at least) two things:
- A structure developed from the Victorian models of state schooling that were explicit in the design being to create economically viable units and generate a society able to be governed centrally
- hand-in-hand with this has been the assumption that human nature is based on capitalist-friendly consideration that ‘dog eat dog’ is part of the process and this is evidenced through competition, selectivity, pathways based on background and widening participation a false charity implementation of authentic justice, acting as a foil for unrest.
It is this second bit that I hear a lot, that competition Is good, that getting good grades, achieving, being at the Russell Group universities, being the First Class, A star, blue chip student reflects both a natural order and a perfect means of moulding a whole system around a natural condition we all share.
This common sense is evident in SATS, international league tables, PISA accords, GCSEs, A Levels, University League Tables, grades, unconditional and conditional offers, elitism and almost every aspect of measurement we can imagine. Competition is good, success is rewarded, failure is individualised, success is individualised, widening participation means all can succeed and if you fail, it is your fault – all the while encouraging us to see all things as competition, all things in terms of victory.
It is the basis of education and we have it reinforced in multiple eye-scapes, audio-scapes and encouraged to think and respond in this way to almost every facet of life:
The billion and one game shows
The dominance of sport
The prevalence of elite groups in media, government and culture
Socialising (Facebook likes, shares, Instagram followers)
Perpetual world cups
NHS postcode lottery (a more deadly version)
Britain’s got talent
Indeed it has. But only realised if it can first knock someone else of a perch and grind them into the dust. Think that’s a cake? That’s not a cake, THIS is a cake!
It is not surprising that we are ourselves drawn into the competition of the world as a natural order, not natural at all but created. Excluding most, generating a secured spot of righteousness for the very wealthy and justifying delusion and deceit as we tumble down the pyramid.
But its’ human nature.
Yet of course, it is not.
7. Be Marvellous
As we leave the poisonous world of fog and policy that is the mentally and ideologically constructed world of competitive capitalism, we see a new space.
It is easy to see, eventually when our eyes are attuned to it.
- Maybe it’s the sickness in the stomach you feel when you have someone describe your experiences s transformed, or your life turned around.
- Perhaps the realisation, seeing a First-class astrophysicist graduate stacking shelves at Amazon
- That uncomfortable feeling when you see someone (maybe yourself) paraded as a success story who turned your miserable life around because of someone else’s intervention.
We know that when we prioritise consciousness and see for real, we see a world that IS beautiful but that needs to be seen apart from the false consciousness of life journeys, transformation, best selves and those deficit models that see everyone as broken so that others can become the fixers.
We are always our best selves.
FE did not and does not transform us. We, collectively, fluidly and always transform it.
We are neither radiators, nor are we drains. Not winners, nor losers. Our selves need not find a standardised pattern of acceptance but instead need to be recognised as complete and requiring nothing more than increased, always increasing, consciousness. We might be sad, angry, frustrated, depressed, a whole host of human emotions and conditions are possible. We are not LESS because of these, we need to have these accepted as a natural state and encourage a collective response to what these conditions means – why they are there, reflection and action.
Remember Mooji – ‘isn’t consciousness marvellous?’
8. Be Confident
What I propose, this beautiful Saturday in Huddersfield, is a new confidence.
My Last anecdote:
About 11 months ago I was in a redundancy pool, just in time for Christmas, lots of unsettling stuff day one, by day 8 quite a lot of excitement about ‘what next’. What next included was a visit to a ‘back on track’ training event arranged by our employers. The goal of this event was to increase our confidence, give us ways of being that would raise our chances in the dog eat dog world we were about to be exposed to.
The session was bizarre, not least bizarre was the recognition our guide and confidence guru had done this many, many times before. The change process is well established. Amidst the SWOT analysis, goal setting diagrams, cartoon laden ladders of achievement, the common thread we could see developing was that of confidence.
Amongst our motley crew we numbered several PhDs, a senior administrator, all in professional roles and many decades of experience. Despite this once impressive back catalogue of relative success, here we were hunched, silent, not too dissimilar to Pauline’s Job Club on the League of Gentlemen TV show. The introduction of confidence was most acute as it came as we were moment-by-moment experiencing the slipping away of most of our own that we arrived with. Like sand in an hourglass, there was no stopping the downward slippage, no way to stop the inevitable drop into the abyss.
But our guru had the solution.
As she stood at the front, she widened her stance, held her head high and put her hands high on her hips. Like some socialist realist statue unveiled at a totalitarian state’s town square, this monstrous vision was accompanied by a commentary that described this perpendicular carriage of supreme confidence as a ‘stance of power‘ or alternatively ‘super power pose’. We were all encouraged to adopt this, feel the force and begin our tasks invigorated by our new found inner confidence.
We did not.
As we remained hunched, collectively we had shrunk further into our own frames, and though none of us were adorned in hoodies or parkas, we all seemed somehow drowned in these garments ample neck and head camouflage. Our guru strode now, the statue was mobile, slow and deliberate steps around the room as our new mantra was encouraged – “I am powerful, confident and capable of all things”. It would not be something we could countenance and that seemed to dawn on the supreme one, so much so that the mantra lost its power even for her as she concluded that, ‘well, that’s almost all, just the evaluation form and we can all get off home’.
The insistence was clear enough. We were likely to fail if we did not walk out head held high and, presumably, not head buried in employment tribunal literature.
9. Be Gonzo Confident
‘You are simply here,
It is not a journey
It has no name’
We all knew the game of confidence, this was a bizarre encounter but its intention was well-known. This old confidence trick was meant to remind us that if we failed, if things did not go well, the reason was us, ourselves and that was the only way to correct this perceived weakness of being in a redundancy pool (implicit already was the notion being in the pool was itself something we had somehow made happen).
But what an ugly confidence old confidence is.
Aspirational, individualistic, ego-driven, angry, arrogant, always seeking, always attaining something/ anything, the drive toward, the rewards of…hard work, high grades, self-discipline, being better, striving. The lifeblood of the Russel Group, the private school, the big car driver, the gated house resident, the well dressed, the connected, the respected, the unaffected, the strong and the sure. Old Confidence. You have it because you are worth it.
Old confidence. The way to make your mark. Of course, in the clamour to be heard, reach that goal, secure that place, plant that flag, win that race, top that tree THEN a whole other world must fall into place. Either through careful manipulation leading to compliance and recognition of lesser-being status, or crushed and defeated. Either that, or be prepared to engage in a race of wild ambition, destructive assertive desire to have and to own. It is here, at the top of some supposed pyramid that the most confident see their rightful place, and with diminishing confidence down the rickety stairways to the diminished and barely human at the foot.
But this noisy, smelly, class-ridden, grabbing approach has done too much damage, wrecked too much life and stripped too many environments. We must not promote this anymore. The world is sick and it is tired, depleted and shorn of its wealth to adorn the desires of old confidence.
AND we can do it differently.
What if we just ignored aspirational old confidence, always seeking, always wanting more? What if we started with ourselves and our own actions with others to create a collective confidence. If we don’t progress together, we are not progressing at all. Instead of seeking combatants, recognising collaborators, communities. Rather than the maniacal braggarts of The Apprenticeor X-Factor becoming some kind of clownish role models we might reject them, and the models they espouse. Instead of making efforts to recognise our own hidden talents, denied only by our (natural) resistance to acting like loudmouthed, self-obsessed strippers of the planet we might recognise Love, Beauty, Creativity, Trustworthiness that exists all around us.
New GONZO Confidence is one that recognises that we are our best selves always, in various states, and that we don’t need stances of power, firm handshakes and psychotic intensity in eye contact to be recognised as just that. Britain HAS got talent, so let’s get fracking on projects that include is all and start to ignore the egotistical mania of the last vestiges of twentieth century individualism.
The focus of gonzo is not that it is some off-the-wall, whimsical thing but that it begins from a position outside accepted common sense, because it must. In our practice, we have been using Art Brut, a raw art experience in which we each create on canvas or in sculpture or film by being in a room and making together. It is not ‘arty’ or using these semi-familiar practices to appropriate that sphere of artistic endeavour. Instead, it is a series of actions contributed to as both self and with others, reminding us of the processes of imagining and creating and the influence of our memories, our newness and the way we interact with each other. It is no abstract, the art may appear that way, but the actions are tangible and the engagement is experienced and influential. It is more than art work, it is collective discovery.
When we create technology projects we use a similar approach, we call it Tech-Brut and base all projects on dialogue. The mantra of the course is ‘Avoid Design in Isolation’. This experiential focus, collective responsiveness, learning through and with each other, is crucial and integral to projects that ask those who might use it what they want.
The brilliance of the projects that emerge – they are brilliant, they win awards, get interviews for students on national radio, generate conference presentations, lead to charities being created – is that they have purposefulness embedded from the very beginning.
It does not matter then if the initial purpose, the technology or the project has altered, faded, gone elsewhere. What has been learned, and taught to each other, is the necessity for dialogue and collective endeavour.
There is no being dragged across multiple platforms, finding pathways blocked as each tech start-up starts to impose paid for premium features. A resistance to ‘b here, do this, post here, add this, go here now’ – No, it is slower, more deliberate and decided through dialogue.
Mooji tells us, ‘don’t look for purpose, what purpose?’. The issue with purpose, finding a purpose, is that it is singular and individualised. It then requires others to be the recipient of the one with purpose being able to enact their new-found predilection for whatever it is on us all.
Instead, be human, humble, shared humility, collective – we can do what we need to do together. Be confident, not old confident, gonzo confident that what we will do has purposefulness. No need to ‘win’ here, you are perfect already.
Once we escape the arrogance of ‘a purpose’, the need to win and compete, display and defeat we can begin to build the word anew with what is left from the last millennia of maniacal old confidence.
We can start with purposefulness, not a purpose. Purposefulness is ever-changing, requires dialogue, has collective impact. It does not arrive on a white steed or a Mary Poppins bicycle, it is not VISITED UPON, but EMERGES FROM communities.
A new confidence is, then:
Inclusive of us all by necessity and does not seek ‘pearls amongst swine’
Reduces the individual ego rather than massage it and help it grow
Has purposefulness but requires no individual purpose
Is multiple and fluid, not individual and attaining
Is creative not compliant
Recognises our perfection and does not labour under nonsense ideals of cultural capital
The new confidence is what I have used to find space, to allow myself the courage to say to others we can do together. To avoid being a dominating self, but also discuss authority and power, who has it and why, to see the world as it is so we can change it. I find in new confidence the awareness that it is great to be NOT BRILLIANT, I can do that, and remain creative, inspired and inspiring, powerful as a collective without wielding power. In new confidence we can be active, resistant to old confidence that seeks to destroy, strip and reduce and find collective ways that uphold ethical and sustainable, inclusive ways to BE.
And it is Further Education where this can happen. We DO NEED A NEW ASSERTIVENESS. From this assertive new confidence we can do great things, involve multiple communities, evade the clamour to the singular notions of success. We are the crack where the light gets in, a light that illuminates that new world is continually emerging and we need just widen our awareness, our consciousness. We can just BE, even if we cannot BE BRILLIANT, we can BE BEAUTIFUL.