Head and Heart (1)

A thought about therapy in relation to art and music struck me after listening to James Rhodes in a TV programme, Notes from the Inside, in which he – a classical pianist and former psychiatric patient – takes a grand piano into a psychiatric hospital to play pieces he hopes will resonate with patients:

calling art and music ‘therapy’ gets it the wrong way round – that is medicine, psychiatry, trying to ride on the back of art and subordinate it. Art works because it is art. It would work anyway, if the person happened on it in a museum or on the radio at home or in a book. It is a way that people can break out of the toils in which they have become ensnared and glimpse (as Rhodes himself said) a way out, the possibility of going to another place. It is not part of a ‘programme’; it does not work in conjunction with drugs or some other treatment; it works because it reaches people – regardless of their state of mental health – in a way that other means cannot. When other things do not make sense or seem crazy or pointless, art and music tell us something different – especially when they reconcile the terrible things, make us see that it is still possible to go on living in spite of everything.

If something is worthwhile, it stands on its own merits: it does not need to disparage potential ‘rivals’. You do not establish the worth of association football by disparaging golf or cricket; you do not establish the worth of classical music by disparaging popular music, or vice versa; and you do not establish the value of reason and science by relegating intuition and all other forms of thought to a sideshow, a sort of childish whimsy, pretty but not to be taken seriously.

Art, poetry, music are modes of thought – or at least, I am compelled to call them that to draw attention to their equal worth to reason. I would prefer to say that they are responses to life – to the fact of finding ourselves alive and engaging with that – but that is beyond the narrow pale we have drawn round ourselves, centred on reason and the head, and denying the heart.

The very dichotomy, ‘head and heart’ is suspect, and like so many of its kind, it is made from one side only – it is an instance of what I have referred to above, the error of thinking that you establish your cause the better by disparaging what you see as its rivals, instead of on its own merits. The head fears the heart and is always concerned to keep it in its place, but the heart has no such misgivings. Doubt and scepticism, distrust of the senses, are the very foundation of Reason in the West; trust and faith are the concern of the heart.

It had not struck me how strongly my introduction to philosophy – which was chiefly through Plato – began with this determination to discredit the senses, which is the same as discrediting intuition and one’s natural bent. The senses are not to be trusted – it is hammered home: there is the famous bent stick in water, which the mind (or head) knows is straight, but the foolish senses can only see as bent. Things are not as they seem; appearances are deceptive – that is what Western philosophy is built on (consider Descartes, in his determination to arrive at something of which he can be certain, his conviction that everything his senses tell him might be a lie).

And what do we arrive at? Man, the rational animal, the one creature whose head rules his heart, who can subordinate the passions to reason, who can remain cool and detached – it is our supreme piece of idolatry to imagine that it is in this that we are the image and likeness of God (think of Blake’s image of the Ancient of Days: Blake's Ancient of Days).

There is nothing wrong with reason – I am not going to fall into the trap of disparaging it – I hold with Aquinas that there can be no incompatibility between faith and reason, just as there is no true dichotomy between head and heart; but I do think we have got ourselves into a false position where we have, as it were, elected Reason as our dictator, and subordinated things to Reason which rightfully stand alongside it, equal in value – perhaps even greater – but quite different in operation.

As I have suggested elsewhere, much of this is reflected in our attitude to language and the way we teach it. When I was young and studying philosophy the thing that impressed me about language was that it was rule-governed – and if only we could spend a bit more time and exercise our reason on the matter, we could clarify those rules, make them truly effective, eliminate the idiosyncrasies that have arisen from generations of unreflecting use and arrive at a language that is purified, efficient, rational, and clear – the ideal instrument for thought.

Now, however, I see that as a mistaken perspective – what strikes me as important about language is not that it has rules and a structure but that it is intuitive – we acquire it instinctively: if every book was burned, every school demolished, our capacity to learn language would not be diminished one jot – because schools and books were established as a means of extending the use we make of language – they are not the primary means of instruction, they are secondary.

Now I am not for a moment advocating a Taliban-like reversal of education: I only want to remind you of its place in the order of things. Language is ancient, instinctive, coeval with our humanity* – it is part of the expression of our humanity, and in its ‘natural’ form – speech** – it is bound up with art and music: any separation we make is artificial – these are colours on a spectrum, different aspects of the same thing, different sort of human behaviour in response to life. Literacy is a good thing, books are a good thing, schools are a good thing – but they are not the only good thing, and we should be careful what we teach our children.

*I have modified my view since I wrote this, and now believe that what we think of as language is of relatively recent origin – about 2,500 years ago – and that it was preceded by a much more holistic mode of expression, which integrated expression, gesture, movement, rhythm, song, music and art
** speech, I now think, is not the ‘natural’ form of language, but simply a facet of the holistic mode of expression described above: its current importance arises with the emergence of Language (as we now think of it) which results from the impact of writing on human expression.

Education compared to a Penny-farthing Bicycle

‘A growing body of literature has linked the ability to delay gratification to a host of other positive outcomes, including academic success, physical health, psychological health, and social competence.’ – Wikipedia article

I don’t know about the rest, but I find the link with academic success interesting: I can see why it might be the case, but I wonder if it is an encouraging sign.

There was a time –  for roughly two decades, between 1870 and 1890 – when a man’s inside leg measurement was strongly linked with positive outcomes in cycling – the longer it was, the more likely he was to be successful. The reason was simple: on the bicycle of the day – now variously called the Ordinary, the Penny-farthing or the Hi(gh)-wheeler – the rider sat astride a huge directly-driven wheel of anything from from 55 to 60 inches (140-152 cm) in diameter, so that a single rotation of the cranks would propel him some five yards and more (4.7m) along the road; the hour record for these formidable machines (paced) is a remarkable 23.72 miles. A man called Tom Stevens rode one round the world between April 1884 and December 1886.


With the advent of the ‘safety’ bicycle and its geared chain drive, the fact of being long-legged ceased to be an advantage – on a six-speed Sunbeam (available in 1907) a rider of average leg could drive the equivalent of a 129” (328cm) wheel (the legacy of the penny farthing is that (in Britain, at least) bicycle gears are still measured in inches, as the equivalent of a directly-driven wheel of that diameter). If you were to turn such a gear at a modest sixty rotations per minute for an hour – no great feat on a level road – you would travel a shade over 23 miles. Thus a different way of doing things can bring feats once reserved to the few within the compass of the many.*

This might tell us something about education. Despite great advances in the way we understand teaching and learning, the high school system in this country is still – like the diamond-frame ‘safety’ bicycle that dethroned the Ordinary – essentially a Victorian design. While the diamond frame bicycle might be likened to the shark – having early evolved a form perfectly adapted to its purpose, there has been no need to alter it – I do not think the same can be said of our high school system.

That it is a system is perhaps the first point to note: it all hangs together, from the design of the buildings, the division and delivery of the curriculum, the staff structure, the central importance of texts – which is why it has been so difficult to change. It is, in essence, conceived as an economic method of knowledge transfer: large groups of students are taught by single teachers in rooms designed expressly for that purpose. The curriculum that is delivered is divided into separate subjects, each with its expert, and the content is ordered to allow a graded progress over a period of years. Language, mainly written language, is the principal vehicle of instruction. It is, in a word, rational. It is a system that works best (and it can work very well) when the students are grouped according to ability, literate, biddable and with a capacity for deferred gratification.

The deferred gratification is needed because learning in these conditions offers little in the way of enjoyment and requires a fair degree of self-denial: it is something of a slog, and although it is rational (indeed, perhaps because it is rational) the point of it is not always obvious, and to keep at it you must believe what your teachers and parents tell you when you complain, that ‘it will all be worth it in the end’ and ‘some day you’ll be grateful’.

Yet learning can be enjoyable and exciting in itself, when it rouses the curiosity and feeds the passions – but reason and logical progression are seldom key motivators: they facilitate learning for the experienced learner, i.e. the person who has already (through years of deferred gratification) learned how to play the game. The illuminating analogy here is to consider how we learn language, and indeed how language learning has changed.

The grammar I learned in primary school was largely derived from Latin grammar,  (which is the grammar for which Grammar schools are named) despite the very considerable differences in character between Latin, a highly inflected language where word-order is relatively unimportant, and English, a largely uninflected language where word order matters a lot. We did parsing and analysis – dividing sentences into the various parts of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc) clauses (main, co-ordinate and subordinate) and identifying their grammatical relations (subject and predicate, direct and indirect objects). 

All this gave me a command of written English and stood me in good stead when I went on to high school and actually learned a little Latin and rather more of its modern descendants, French and Italian – so I’m not complaining: it was an approach that served me well, though it has still left me a lot better at reading French and Italian (and writing them to some extent) than I am at speaking either and – particularly – understanding them when they are spoken. And even now, if I consider learning a language, my first impulse is to buy a grammar book: I feel safe with that, I know my way around. I shy away from speaking to people though: I’d rather acquire some degree of expertise first.

Yet I learned my own language when I was too young to be aware of doing it, without the aid of books and with no knowledge of grammar; and I learned it by talking to people who talked to me; and if my observation of young children since is anything to go by, I think the experience probably afforded me a great deal of enjoyment and even outright hilarity. Thankfully, language teaching now makes more use of these ‘natural’ methods than in my day.

Might it not be better if we devised an education system that was geared to our natural propensities for learning, rather than one which – however effective it might be for some (like me) – achieves its end by stifling those natural propensities, and with them, spontaneity and enjoyment? Must we defer gratification to learn?

*always provided you had the 19 guineas (£19-19s-0d or £19.95) that a Sunbeam A6 would cost you – the equivalent of about £1100 today.