I’m not really a big fan of hierarchies. I got quite out of the way of them when I was on my extended maternity leave. One minute, there I was, coffee and tea (or water in my case as I don’t really do hot drinks) in all sorts of houses, from the smallest terrace to the largest country home, cackling over the levellers that are birth and breast, and then, suddenly, a step back into the workplace and all is rigid, strictly defined; stepped. The difference is harsh, and confusing. I’ve never really got used to it.
In education, hierarchy is everywhere you look. It reaches deep into the bones of the school and it defines us, from the headteacher to the dinner lady, from third year finals to EYFS. Even knowledge itself is ranked according to its qualities, with subjects classified as hard and soft, and, in our time, dispassionate reason stands at first place.
Right now, like the Ancient Greeks, we are in love with Reason and the realm of ideas. It fires you up, the workings of the brain lifts you to the spiritual sphere. With it you can debate, move the knowledge it underpins on. Reason, and its close partner objectivity, stand at the gates to truth.
Emotion, on the other hand is such a loaded thing, so chaotic, so subjective. It shuts down debate and is painted in terms of opposites; earth to spirit, water to fire, female to male. Easily dismissed as not being relevant, or clouding judgement, emotion lurks underneath, one step above or away from instinct. It is the enemy of the tick box or the check sheet; the success criteria. ‘What works’ means reason and research; head, not heart.
Yet we teachers exist in a constant state of tension between the realms of knowledge. As members of an academic body we care deeply about the things we teach – and at the same time, we worry about the wellbeing of our charges, and guard our right to do so fiercely. We are, after all, in loco parentis. But when it comes to it, we dislike the idea that parents should have a say in policy or practice. Why should Mumsnet be going to the Department for Education, we ask? Why them and not us?
Parents and their emotions are the last people who should be making educational decisions, we mutter between ourselves in whispered conversations. They don’t get it, they can’t see how difficult it is, their judgement is clouded, they are over emotional, too close, hysterical; too female. They don’t see it the way we do. How easily we dismiss them and their subjectivity.
I do wonder whether it isn’t something to do with the hierarchies between different kinds of knowledge. My knowledge of children and special needs didn’t come from the pages of books or the journals that sit in academic libraries (although I know that my experience is echoed there). It isn’t guarded by academes. Anyone, from whatever kind of hierarchy you care to mention, can acquire it – although in many ways, when it comes, it does so randomly and through the chaos of life itself. Like birth or death, there is little, if any, control over its caprice.
Maybe that’s why we don’t like it, we look at it with distrust. Maybe that’s why we put emotional knowledge, our reactions and intuitions, those based on experience and the heart, at the bottom of the heap. In the same way that Aphrodite roamed the world causing all sorts of trouble, Athena, her sexless sister and goddess of wisdom, born not in the way of blood and tears, but leaping instead, fully formed, from her father’s head, did not. Two sisters; competitive and jealous. Powerful.
Perhaps we who are not goddesses but who find ourselves, despite our frail attempts, tossed on the spume spray of the sea as much as the ancients ever were, could turn the story of centuries around and escape the laddered trap.
I would like that.