A lesson from the Year of the Cat – The hills have new places

Tet tree on a motorbike by C Campbell

Tet tree on a motorbike by C Campbell

It is New Year or TET here in Vietnam. A time characterised by panic buying, the burning of things, releasing fish into lakes and the precarious balancing of trees on motorbikes. (see left)

It is also a time to deal with, and reflect on, things from the year we are in the process of leaving and I am going to do just that in this blog post. For the title and to some extent the structure I have borrowed from Erroll Morris’s documentary, ‘The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara’. If you haven’t seen this film then I would suggest rectifying that as soon as you can. My lessons are less confessional than McNamara’s and as far as I know I haven’t started any wars – but I hope, like he does, to tease some wisdom from what has been an eventful 12 months.


“The hills have new places”

“Till day rose; then under an orange sky, The hills had new places, and wind wielded Blade-light, luminous black and emerald, Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.” from ‘Wind’ by Ted Hughes

I feel like we are in that place that Hughes describes – the storm after the storm. And as we look around the things we always thought couldn’t move have moved or might even have disappeared. An introduction to a collection of essays by David Graeber that was sent through to me by a friend explains this beautifully.

“At a moment when the old assumption about politics and power have been irrefutably broken the only real choice is to begin again: to create a new language, a new common sense, about what people basically are and what it is reasonable for them to expect from the world, and from each other.”

I am always wary of present time arrogance (see #6 on my notice board) or the dangers of misreading the significant movements of our times by forgetting the filters we use and the echo chamber of ideas we might be in. However, it is my experience that the landscape is changing in terms of what it is we are supposed to do and the opportunities to do it. Yes there are caveats to this and I will cover some of those in these lessons, but let me give a small but significant example of the shifts I am talking about from within my own field of education.

Below is an edited transcript of an exchange on the BBC Radio 4’s ‘Start the week’ programme between the presenter Andrew Marr and Neville Brody who had not long been appointed the Head of Visual Communications at London’s Royal College of Art, one of the UK’s most prodigious art schools.

Andrew Marr. A lot of trades that have become ingrained in our heads specific forms of trade have dissolved. So for somewhere like the Royal College where do the special new skills come in that you are going to transmit to the students? (Interesting use of the word transmit here…cc)

Neville Brody: In all honesty we don’t know. The old idea of teacher and pupil dissolves now and it’s much more a kind of collaborative research than anything else. We have to understand the world, what it needs and what the right tools are to deal with that.

AM: Well except that the students that are now paying lots of money to come to somewhere like the Royal College will want something special back. Well if it’s not pupil and teacher it’s possibly, I don’t know, master and atelier, or something like that. They’re going to want to come to someone like you for specific ideas and skills.

Gordon Gecko and the death of success culture

Gordon Gecko and the death of success culture

NB: Well we’re calling it an unfinishing school, so people may come with highly formed skills and ideas and we’re trying to break down the ideas, and then understand which are the most appropriate skills to apply to that… as the students come with a much greater investment in what is happening digitally in their everyday lives. It’s a multiple skillset space – it’s a partnership going forward…The internet is changing everything. Success culture – this has collapsed…Students are no longer guaranteed a job on leaving college… Students are therefore returning to ideas, how can we better serve society? The events of the past few years show this. Success culture collapsed…I think there is going to be an energetic explosion of new ideas, new risks and it is going to be the most exciting time.

I re-listened to this interview several times – nodding along and heartened to hear that progressive ideas about learning and pedagogy were coming into the mainstream. That out of the economic turmoil and the failings of what Brody labels ‘success culture’ a new way to learn is emerging. At the core of his ideas was an embracing of what he perceives to be a new digital landscape, a notion I hope to return to soon in a post on disruptive innovation.


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