On the paradox of “Trying Not to Try”

An interesting thing happened to me the last semester of my teaching career.  As I relaxed into a “what are they going to do, fire me?” mentality towards the whole education establishment, I started focusing on what I enjoyed about the profession.  And as I started focusing on what I enjoyed – the engaged students, my intense love for the subject matter, my relationships with colleagues I admired – I noticed something.  My students seemed to be learning more.  I don’t have any hard empirical evidence for this (well, other than the 100% pass rate and average 4.4 out of 5 score of my Advanced Placement students who took the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam), just a general feeling that the less I tried to force the process, the more successful the process seemed to be.

Which leads me to the book I’ve been reading and reflecting on for the past two weeks.  Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity (Crown Publishing Group, 2014) is written by Edward Slingerland, a Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia.  I was attracted to the premise of the book because, frankly, I’ve realized over the last year of retirement that maybe I’ve spent a good part of my life trying too hard, not just at teaching but at all sorts of endeavors.

Slingerland is an academic at his core, which means that this is more than just a trite “go with the flow” tome.  He examines ancient Chinese texts by Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, and Zhuangzi, all of whom proposed quite different ways to achieve wu-wei, or an “effortless way of being in the world”, what we might popularly call “being in the zone”.  While he has made complex thoughts and information accessible and understandable, it took me a bit longer to read this book than usual because I found myself needing more “processing” time between chapters and even sub-chapters.  What emerges from his analysis is a paradox that is at its core unresolvable:  if we don’t try, we accomplish little, but if we try too hard, we also end up accomplishing little.  Slingerland gives examples from various areas of pursuit, but my favorite illustration of this in action might be this one about tennis great John McEnroe:

When faced with an opponent whose forehand, for instance, was working smoothly and perfectly, McEnroe would supposedly compliment him on it as they changed sides:  “Wow, your forehand is really great today.” His opponent would then, of course, suddenly start botching easy shots in the next set.

Recent brain research reinforces what the ancient Chinese thinkers knew to be essential truths about humans, and many of the parallels Slingerland draws had me thinking back to the book I reviewed a few months ago, Just Babies:  The Origins of Good and Evil, by Paul Bloom.  It is this interlacing of ancient knowledge with modern science that makes this book so compelling, and ultimately helpful.  Slingerland argues that

…recent Western thought has been so obsessed with disembodied rationality that embodied spontaneity – along with the unique tensions it presents – has fallen off the radar.  Thinking of moral perfection as a matter of following rules or calculating utility certainly simplifies things.  Reason carefully, throw in a bit of willpower, and you’re done.  The problem is that this model is deeply wrong.  It’s psychologically unworkable, given what we know about the way the human body-mind operates.  Moreover, it completely fails to reflect how we actually experience our lives.

The last chapter, “Learning from Wu-wei”, gives some excellent suggestions about how to incorporate ancient knowledge and modern science into our own lives, and I found many things that I’ve intuited over the years reinforced here.  Yes, it turns out that literature does help people achieve better wu-wei! So does theater, film, art, music, meditation, and exercise.  Every person will have their particular path.  The important thing is to recognize that “We think in emotion-laden, embodied images, and as long as we remain oblivious to these ‘metaphors we live by’ we remain imprisoned by them.”

Which leads me back to my opening paragraph.  Could it be that a big part of the problem with education in this country today is that we’re trying too hard?  Perhaps the backlash against standardized testing is a subconscious reaction to precisely the over-emphasis on data, rules, and pure rationality that the ancients warned against.  Slingerland paraphrases an interesting Chinese story in the Mencius text:

“In the state of Song there was a man who, worried because his sprouts of grain were not growing fast enough, decided to go out to his field and pull on them.  Without any idea of what he’d done, he returned home and announced to his family, ‘I am really exhausted today.  I’ve been out in the fields helping the sprouts to grow!’  Alarmed, his sons rushed out to the field to take a look and saw that all the sprouts had shriveled and died.”  This episode is the basis of a modern Chinese saying, “pulling on the sprouts to help them grow,” which refers to any effort that has thoroughly counterproductive results.  Mencuis intends this to be a message about the proper way to attain morally correct wu-wei:  “You must put some work into it, but you can’t force it.”

I think about that phrase “pulling on the sprouts to help them grow” now whenever I hear about “value-added” metrics in teacher evaluations, the PARCC and other standardized testing, the emphasis on STEM to the detriment (if not outright exclusion) of the arts in our schools, and all the other reforms that I know from own my years in the classroom have only resulted in students who resent school.  Yes, there are bad teachers who are not moving their students ahead academically.  But frankly, not that many.  Most would be happier, more likely to stay in the profession, and – most importantly – more likely to bring out the best in their students if they were allowed to pursue their own wu-wei.  

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.





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