That time I moved to Germany, and became critical of organised education


Two weeks ago I moved to Germany, but let me talk about something completely different and seemingly unrelated. (I get to Germany later on)

I love and hate my degree simultaneously. On one hand, it lets me be an explorer of sorts. That extends much further than literal travel, although that certainly plays a part! On the other hand, it gnaws away at my attempts to hold onto my other interests. Where can I find time to create, be it writing, drawing, painting or music; when essays and language practice watch over like vultures?

I’ve been acutely aware for months how draining it is to sacrifice everything in the name of a piece of paper. That piece of paper will in the end be the bearer of a number for others to nod at with disinterest before nodding with disinterest at another piece of paper bearing a similar number. For me it may symbolize four years of loving struggle; a pursuit of knowledge and skills. Hidden within that number will be stories, excitement and pain, friends many gained and a few lost along the way. For the disinterested nodders, I will be that number, and that number will carry as much depth as curved line can without context to explain it.

Yet us students keep on striving for that number.

For the past two years my main goal has been to work less hard. Yes, less hard. The problem is, I just can’t do it. Back in the UK I would wake up early so I could work a few hours before uni began, then between lectures I would work. Some of that work I would do in coffee shops – that was my break for the day. Back at the flat, I would cook, then work again. For the last few months before I moved to Germany, I did actually succeed in making time for guitar most evenings too, and occasionally writing articles for my student paper. Weekends? What’s a weekend.

A small number of my readers will know that I used to write fairly profusely before I began my degree, and since then something has appeared here maybe once every couple of months. In every post over that time of sparse writing, I’ve written about how rarely I write, then claim that this time I’ll be back to writing properly…and then I’m gone again for months. That comes down simply to not giving myself free time.

For me, it’s a testament to why the myth that hard work guarantees success is just that, a myth. What I gain from over-work is to sit at a slightly higher than average spot on my degree, but far from the ‘best’, whatever that may mean. What I lose is peace of mind, and my interests outside of my degree. There is a difference between hard work and efficient work.

The paradox lies in how much I actually love what I study. Language learning is practically a game. You learn the rules, and as you progress you open up new skills, stories and places. Further on your entire way of thinking changes. It is no hyperbole to say that language learning does change your world entirely. But neither is it my whole world.

To further that paradox, my other interests which I am ‘losing’ to my degree benefit so much from my degree. My writing now enjoys global influence. Musically I’m no longer restricted to the (relatively) limited approach to music of the English speaking world. Yet with no time dedicated to letting these rich influences grow into my own creations, I’m left wondering whether in the end I gain or lose more.

Ironically my first step to escaping the domination of my degree over my life was to do even more. At the start of this year I started reading at least a book a week outside of my degree, and what a decision that has been. Aside from forcing me take time out from university content, my learning has become so much richer over the space of a few months. One books in particular has ripped apart my view of learning and exposed a certain futility in the organised education system which practically encapsulates my life.

The book is relatively well known, a cult classic so to say: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To those unaware of this book, it is much more gripping that the title makes it sound. In fact, Earth shattering is how I would describe it.  I don’t want to give away too much about its story, but the book is extremely critical of modern organised education. The character Phaedrus is driven mad (ahem, got to be careful with words here) by university’s goal of good marks over accumulation of knowledge. As a professor he plays with removing grades entirely from his classes, which is met by opposition from students obsessed numbers on pieces of paper.

Phaedrus is also highly critical of modern education’s rationality. This may seem an odd criticism, but as he points out in the book modern society has rationalized the world to a point where all that cannot be empirically analysed. University sneers at any other approach, despite rationality’s interdependence on the irrational. What does a degree accumulate to? A number. What does self study result in? You choose. It doesn’t have to  result in anything other than the journey. The point is, when education is too structured and too rationalized, it becomes a means to an end. An abstract number is valued thousandfold over the road taken to get there.

In passing I’ll just say that this topic is just one of many within the book. Up to the last sentence (actually, especially the last sentence) I found personal philosophies and world views being teased and snapped into tiny pieces. But back to education.

Applied to my own university experience, I see parallels with both Phaedrus (extremely worrying given the events in the book) and his students. The striving for grades is strangely counter-productive. In order to give grades, a particular content must be fed to students. In offering a particular content, certain elements must be considered more important that others, and each student learns not what is most valuable to them, but instead what is plastered onto all.

But what other option is there? We all need to get our little number so we can be chosen to be a number in another organisation further along the people production line.

An interesting thing happens when Phaedrus abolishes grades. That course suddenly becomes about the journey. With no way of checking progress, the students have to go out of their way to learn. With no abstract goal to achieve, the goal becomes the road instead.

I think rich, meaningful education is to be found on the road, not the mountain top. Somehow we all forget that once you’ve climbed up to a peak, there’s another path to take on the way back.

These ideas where actually coming into my head before I read zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance but the book helped consolidate those views. The fact I read it in the first place was a result of trying to escape the abstract goal-oriented university approach. It was only after reading the book however that it became clearer where the standard university learning approach was leading: Eventual burnout imposed disinterest to my studies and the loss of all my other interests. That is not the place where I want to be.

This is the context in which I start my time in Germany. Yes, I am studying here and that makes everything I’ve written here look contradictory, but really this is about unhinging the dominance of university based study. I intend to write regularly about my life here over the next few months. Much of that will be in this context of my struggle with structure.

At the end of March I moved to Leipzig, a city in the east of Germany near the Czech republic. These days it’s known as a cultural hub, with a huge music scene, a plethora of museums, and numerous events throughout the year. I’ve heard that people from Europe’s city of Cool, Berlin, are even moving to Leipzig. Sure enough, there is plenty happening here. I only need to walk for a few minutes from my flat and I usually find something interesting happening. To impromptu street gigs to guys painting forests on buildings, this is a city living and breathing creativity.

Yet Leipzig is in the former east. Not so long ago, it was one of the major cities of the German Democratic Republic. Hints to that past are everywhere. The west of the city where I live is a region marked for redevelopment, highlighting its past as a factory district. What is now the cool cultural part of town in the near past was dominated by industry. The city is much more openly left wing than anywhere else I’ve ever lived before too, and by that mean most of the left spectrum is covered. Die Linke are the German political party with its roots in the communist past, and they have a meeting place just down my street. They’re rather popular in the city. There’s a definite presence of something a bit more anarchic too in my part of town. Some of the local graffiti reads for example “Capitalism kills; kill capitalism”, or “Burn all prisons! Solidarity for all Prisoners!” On a lighter end of the political spectrum, social initiatives are everywhere, and there is a feeling of strong local solidarity. I haven’t got out with my camera yet, but I’ll have some examples from the street for you all soon no doubt.

Seeing as I’m here in Leipzig for a few months I’ll keep everything simply to an overview tonight. I’ll write more in detail  as I have more to say!

Although my university course back in the UK is German and Chinese, that’s not what I study here. It would admittedly be a little odd studying German in Germany…as it’s best simply to live the language of a country where you live. As for Chinese, I get a much needed break. Instead, I study a mix of politics and German literature. I also chose a Swedish course as an opportunity to move forward a language that’s been in limbo for a while. Studying in a second language is quite the experience, so there will be plenty to write about there. The hours are unnaturally short in comparison to the course at Leeds, and this will hopefully be the perfect environment for working out my uni study and interest balance. I refuse to let Leipzig steal my writing time at the very least!

It was always my intention to get involved in the music scene here in Leipzig. One of the most exciting things for me, is that Leipzig is home to one of the world’s largest goth festivals. Now that’s something a bit different, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to it.

While I’m here I also need to be thinking about a dissertation topic. As it happens, as I was wondering around the streets near my flat, it suddenly struck me how much of the Leipzig vibe is dependent on it’s Communist history. There could well be a dissertation topic in there. ‘Ostalgie’ or nostalgia for East Germany is well documented, but most discussion of positive remnants left from the DDR are concerned with social elements and not culture. That needs more thought, but it could be really interesting.

So there we go. I’ll be writing as I explore Leipzig, but see this as an introduction of sorts. I just want to wrap this all up with a thought about my rant on education that makes up over half of this post. Although I am technically here to study, in many ways I am using my time in Leipzig as 1/ a break from the uphill fight that my degree has been, and 2/ an opportunity to balance the system with my drowned out interests. My time in Leipzig isn’t meant to be about goals, but about moving along a road and making that road a little bit wider.

 

 

 

 

 

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Disillusion. A new way.


The world seems helpless and it seems hopeless.

I find myself in total disillusionment with everything. The work of several years to better myself and to come to terms with myself, work which was going so very well, is collapsing.

I learned to trust and love my friends, my family even my enemies. I moulded the remnants of depression and confusion into a beautiful contentedness. It became an unshakable grounding from which I could approach each wonderful day with joy in my heart.

I learned to meditate each day, to foster only positive emotions and to discard all negativity from my life. We only curse the earth with our presence for so long; what madness would make us choose to spend it in sadness and suffering? My inspiration was calm. I lost my anger.

I lost something else too, something which took me years somehow to spot.

I lost my spark. I lost the inner fire that makes us fight to live and love each moment, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. I was at peace, but all passion was gone.

And what now?

In a matter of months, the world I see has changed for the worse. The leaders of the world have gone wild and their supporters wilder. Racism, nationalism, sexism; every imaginable form of baseless, weak-minded discrimination is on the rise. It becomes increasingly clear that we have pushed the earth to her limit and the environment is close to a point of collapse. All that is solid melts into air  and this time we are entirely to blame.

How can I then, in a time where it all is falling apart, possibly remain content? How can I hold firmly onto the contentedness  that I have fostered, even nourished in these past years?

I cannot.

That time is gone. It taught me much and I am thankful for a truly essential development in my self, but now is not a time where apathy serves. I have joined the disillusioned.

How can I sit in acceptance, as hate becomes the norm of society?

How can I sit in acceptance, as the people become divided over lies?

How can I sit in acceptance, as we burn nature to the ground in pure, brutal indifference?

I am a liberal, left-wing, environmentally-minded, vegetarian, bi-, non-binary, creative, introspective, radical human-being. In these times, the only element there I regret is the last.

In these times, where to sit in acceptance is as dangerous as to fight against the rising tides we face, my fostered neutrality has been smashed into tiny little insignificant pieces.

After years of purging pain and anger from my life in the name of breaking through my negativity, I am letting it all back in. Perhaps that seems like a truest form of madness, as if I were a monk jumping out of deep meditation to burn his temple in spite. I think however that this is a necessity.

Now?

Now I feel an uncontrollable rage at humanity’s encroaching madness. The world seems to me to be on the edge of a crumbling cliff: Past it is the void. The void is growing, in size and in strength. It can’t and won’t be stopped.

A curious feeling has grown however out of my new rage and this feeling is perhaps even stronger, or at the very least more striking. Out of the rage has grown an uncontrollable love. Suddenly I have so much joy to see the magpies each morning as I leave for university. Suddenly each falling leaf is a universe with its own story to tell. When I see my friends, they cannot possible know how thankful I am now to see them, and know that they are well, that they survive in the face of our world in flux.

I feel some of the other disillusioned are giving up. But no, why should helplessness mean giving up? Are we not still alive?  Are you not still breathing, thinking,  whilst you read my twisted  words so lacking hope?

Let me tell you then, that these words are of hope, at the very least for myself. With this development of new emotion – of conflicting love and rage – I realise: Our experience here, no matter how dark it turns, will always have glimmers of intense beauty. For each person who joins the ranks of mindless nationalism and discriminators, we can fight back with rage-fuelled love. As contrary as that seems, Love and anger are linked in impossible ways. The enemy here is apathy.

It has often been times of darkness where great writers have appeared from the shadows. I am not one of them, but I have learned from them how important the mighty pen becomes in such moments. Brecht attacked national-socialism. Lu xun gave up a medical career to take up the pen and challenge the early 20th century society of China. I am writing because although I sense a painful future, I see glimmers within its blinding darkness. I am one of the disillusioned, and it has made me see the beauty we will have until the last moment. It may hide in caves or under rocks at the very end, but it will always be there.

And so I throw away the work of years to become a content soul, thankful and accepting. I embrace now my new-found love and rage. I will stare into the encroaching void, and laugh with pure joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Identity – Do you know who you are?


I’m thinking currently about identity, more specifically what my identity is.

This is a word that carries much weight. It builds pride. It fuels hate. It’s formed communities. It’s caused wars.

It’s a very hard concept to define, seeing as an obvious description would almost certainly circle round an idea of what, or who you are. The problem lies in a wrenchingly difficult question –

Do we actually know what, or who we are?

In both more literal and more philosophical terms, I without a doubt don’t know who I am. I challenge anyone to honestly answer the above question.

Whatever answer one gives is innately affected by ones opinions or world view, which can dramatically turn a similar set of circumstances in physical terms into a completely different story. One could perhaps say that it is in fact these differences in opinion which make up our identities.  Perhaps our identities are a sum of our experiences in life.

But then we have no fixed identity. The sum of our experiences changes by the second. If our identity is defined by our experiences, then my Identity has changed since I started writing this article, and your’s has changed since you started reading it.

Given this concept – that Identity is never fixed – why has it on numerous occasions had such destructive power? Why is it that ‘identities’ such as white, black, woman, man, red guard, nationalist; has caused such painful divides and violence in the past? Where did this ability to feel so secure and ‘right’ come from such a transient concept?

My belief here stems from the understanding that the above questions actually regard collective identity and not personal identity. I would also go as far as saying that such group identities are not truly identity. I accept this is a difficult claim to make considering my inability to define identity contently, but hear me out.

The only way a collective identity can form is for it to be exerted on others and then for it to become accepted by the individual. One can prescribe to this collective identity, but they can always leave. You might join a political group, or be a fan of a particular sports team, but is that who you are?

I’ll put this into perspective with myself. I’m born in the UK, to parents from New Zealand. Do I need to consider myself part of the collective groups of British and New Zealand nationality? No, states are essentially areas of land held together by invisible lines that only exist in the minds of world leaders.  I’m a student of German and Chinese, so must I only speak those languages? No, I know a reasonable amount of a few others. I’m pretty left wing, so must I vote for the labour party? No, I can vote for whoever I want to.

But many will prescribe to supposed given collective identities. Born in the UK, must support England in the world cup. Family is athiest, must be athiest yourself. Friends listen only listen to metal, must listen to metal to fit in. Born a guy, can’t become an au pair. Born a girl, can’t become a professional footballer.

…really? Collective identities are more often than not external pressures to conform. They can trap you into thinking in a way that isn’t necessarily what you truly think. They can make you be what you aren’t.

And yet they offer security. to be part of something collective is to have a common aim, common joys, common pains. For many, it’s a beautiful thought and in a world where so much is illusion, a comforting illusion it must seem all the better.

And yet, it is truly a self-absorbed view to think that many don’t become parts of a collective identity because that is exactly how they identify rather than having that identity pushed onto them. The difficult thing to try and dissect is how much exactly is pushed onto a person, and how much identifies truly with the person.

But whatever the case, there is a huge divide between personal identity and collective identity, although most of us will take the sum of our collective identities as our personal identity.

Now, my personal problem with this, and where this article loses any momentum it had, is that I can’t agree that a personal identity, with it’s innately unfixed, ever-changing nature, can be a construction of ones numerous collective identities, with their fixed and exerted-on-others nature.

It leads me to only one possible (rather non-) conclusion, that we have no personal identity. At least, that is, until we find it independently of our collective identities, which seems near to impossible. The closest that seems possible, is a total acceptance that we are. This is something that I can only do in writing, and not yet in reality, and this is almost certainly the case with nearly everyone alive.

So now you have read this, I want you to go to the top of this page again and read the second line, with this question in mind. If personal identity is nearly impossible to know, and collective identity is exerted onto us, why does it carry that weight I mentioned at the start of this article?

Perhaps, given that knowledge, it is best to disown identity, and try to do independently what you think is closest to who you actually are. It might save the world a lot of pain.

On…Rhetoric


Rhetoric. The most often time we hear that word probably is in context to politicians. when a world leader makes a dramatically grand, yet sweeping statement, there will always bee someone around to exclaim grumpily (and it’s usually me, I admit) “Oh but it’s all rhetoric! Nothing was said there at all!”.

With an opening comment like that, I couldn’t possibly be a supporter of excessive exposure to special rhetorical twists of the tongue, could I?

Maybe that sentence shows where my allegiance really lies. I’m quite a fan of rhetoric and today I want to talk about it a fair bit. Here’s why…

I have a pretty hefty tome of a book stuffed with essays, quotes, speeches and such similar things of important figures from modern Chinese history. I was reading through this the other day, when I came across a quote on rhetoric from a fellow called Yang Xiong, a poet of the Han dynasty – in other words, not modern in the slightest. Here’s what he had to say on rhetoric:

“A woman has beauty; does writing have beauty also? The answer is yes. The worst thing for a woman is to have her inner beauty clouded by cosmetics; The worst thing for a piece of writing is to have its rules and proportions confounded by excessive rhetoric.”

Obviously one must take into account that this has been translated from traditional Chinese (not by me – I won’t take credit for that!) but Mr Yang Xiong seems to have not noticed just how much rhetoric he used on his attack on rhetoric. Even if you excuse that unbelievably obvious rhetorical question, there’s still all the slightly more subtle additions to his hypocrisy; usage of strong superlatives (the worst), repetition of phrases (The worst thing for a…), the comparison between a beautiful woman and literature…that’s a lot of rhetoric for someone that allegedly doesn’t like it very much.

Oh, and the translator hasn’t helped either, by adding alliteration (clouded by cosmetics).

The fact is, it’s pretty tricky to get away from rhetoric, as it’s essentially any element that makes writing catchy. If your text has no rhetoric, considering you would almost have to be a genius to avoid it in most types of writing, it’s probably your shopping list for the week.

And although your shopping habits may be genius, that is not me trying to insinuate that a shopping list is the greatest form of literature man has ever devised. That’s a bit out there even for me I’m afraid.

What might strike some as odd however – at least those who were paying close attention to Yang’s chosen profession – is that a poet who despises ‘excessive rhetoric’ is a rather singular poet. Poetry is the kind of writing where some readers could justifiably wave their arms up in despair, begging for mercy from the onslaught of hyperbole and hyperbaton..and apparently alliteration (that second one was unintentional, honest). Yet here is a poet declaring war on excessive rhetoric…strange man.

Now, the other reason I’m possibly writing on this particular topic today is the book i’m reading currently – “The Elements of Eloquence”, by Mark Forsyth. This lovely little book could be considered a crash course in the art of turning a phrase that makes people go ‘oooh’.

I recommend the book highly, but the main reason I’m mentioning it is that it makes something very clear: You will struggle to say anything at all without a certain element of rhetoric. It seems to me as if it were its own branch of semantics, as essential to why a sentence works as the main underlying rules.

Although the aim of Forsyth’s book doesn’t seem  to point out that almost everything is rhetoric (I haven’t finished it, so this is all supposition. It has more of an aestheticism feel to it currently.), that message shouts out of the pages. The sheer number of excellent terms to describe all these techniques you probably have never heard of really highlights just how many techniques there are that we all use unwittingly. Antithesis and assonance will be common to plenty of us, but anadiplosis and scesis onomaton will not only be all greek to most, but also send every word checker in the universe into a frenzy of red underlining.

So dear readers, don’t reject rhetoric like Mr Yang up there. Mr Yang Xiong was silly. You need it. It would put me out of a hobby, humble me typing away trying to fit in as many memorable bits as possible.

And anyway, You’re going to struggle to get away from rhetoric if you decide you don’t like it!…

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed it!

“Life is not the opposite of death. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal”


“Life is not the opposite of death. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal”
What do you think of this? I think it is profound genius. Although i’m certain they didn’t come up with the idea I stumbled upon this little quote through the lyrics of a band called ‘Anathema’; a band who started of as a doom metal band but have slowly morphed into a very deep, philosophical and hopeful prog rock band. I’m not here to talk about the music though…I can do that in a later post.

Resonance 2

Resonance 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just look at that quote. How does it make you feel? (without trying to sound too much like a physiatrist…) For me, it lifted my uncontrollable fear of death and changed it for something completely different. Now, i see it as a close to one story and the foundation for many others. We fear it because our death will be the end of  our contribution to life. Death is and end, the closing of a book, a change from a G chord to a C, a finishing point. We can’t say that Life is a starting point so is in no way death’s opposite. I guess you could argue that Life has not always existed, so cannot be eternal (no end or beginning), but I think that is contrary to the point being made in the quote.

We tend to see life as we live, then we die. In other words we see life in terms of ourselves rather than what life actually is. As Eckhart Tolle (possibly the man behind the quote, i’m not entirely sure) expands on the quote: If you walk through a forest completely untouched by man, you will be astounded by how much life surrounds you. But also in this unspoilt environment you will find death round every corner-for example a fallen tree, rotting away on the forest floor. This tree is however fuelling life. It’s death gives nutrients to the soil, a home to insects, a feeding ground for animals. Death in itself is essential to life.

English: Head-shot of Eckhart Tolle from direc...

English: Head-shot of Eckhart Tolle from directly in front by Kyle Hoobin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So whether you believe in any form of life after death or not, fear not. Life doesn’t end.

quick thought on ‘education’


What do we really learn from more?

Do we learn best when we are in schools or universities  being told what to believe and what work we should do in order to understand something; or do we learn best by following the subjects our hearts take us to in our spare time?

Is an institution filled with ‘experts’ really a learning environment or is maybe: a coffee shop, your house, a forest, at the top of a mountain; a better place to learn?

Do we learn from others or ourselves?

Is an hour in a classroom more informative than an hour with a piece of paper, a pen and your mind?

I’m not going to write answers. If i did, i would just be doing what the teachers or lecturers might do in the second question. Stop and think about the questions, even if you no longer attend any form of education-I include evening and weekend classes as education by the way.

I will write one statement though.

We are always learning.