Assessment as Analogy

Photo by Dave Mullen on Unsplash


We teachers like to talk about teacher stuff, like assessment and curriculum. But shop talk can leave them yawning in the aisles, so sometimes I like to try using analogies. Analogies are great because, since they’re not exact, that can actually help shine more light on what your trying to understand.

Here’s an analogy: I walk into a theatre and sit down behind somebody. Seeing the back of his head, I now know what it looks like – his hairstyle, for instance, or the shape of his head. I have no idea what his face looks like since that I cannot see from behind. Something else I notice is his height – even sitting down, he’s obviously going to block my view of the screen and, since I’ve been waiting a long time to see this movie, I decide to change seats.

So I move ahead into his row. Now I sit almost beside this tall stranger, just a few seats away. Now, from the side, I can see the profile of his face – eyebrows, nose, chin. At one point, he turns to face me, looking out for his friend who went for popcorn, and I can fully take in his face. Now I know what he looks like from the front. Except it’s probably clearer to say, Now I’ve seen him from the front and remember what his face looks like – I make this distinction because it’s not like he turned to look for his friend, then stayed that way. He turned, briefly, then turned back toward the screen, facing forward again, and I’m left seeing his profile once more.

Sitting a few seats away, to say that I know what his profile looks like, side-on, or that I remember what his face looks like, just as I remember what the back of his head looks like – this is probably most accurate. In this theatre situation, nothing’s too hard to remember, anyway, since the whole experience only takes a minute or two and, besides, we’re sitting near enough to remind me of those other views, even though I can only see him from one of three perspectives at a time: either behind, or beside, or facing.

An analogy, remember? This one’s kind of dumb, I guess, but I think it gets the point across. The point I’m comparing is assessment, how we test for stuff we’ve learned.

As I understand the shift from traditional education (positivist knowledge-based curricula, teacher-led instruction, transactional testing) to what’s being called “the New Education” (constructivist student-centred curricula, self-directed students, transformational learning), I’d liken traditional testing to trying to remember what the back of his head looked like after I switched seats. As I say, I might get some clues from his profile while sitting beside him. But once I’m no longer actually sitting behind him, then all I can really do is remember. “What can you remember?” = assessment-of-learning (AoL)

In the New Education, I wouldn’t need to remember the back of his head because that’s probably not what I’d be asked. Where I sit, now, is beside him, so an assessment would account for where I now sit, beside him, not where I used to sit, behind. That makes the assessment task no longer about remembering but more in line with something immediate, something now as I sit beside him, seeing his profile, or during that moment when he turns and I fully see his face. A test might ask me to illustrate what I was thinking or how I was feeling right at that moment. “What are you thinking?” = assessment-for-learning (AfL)

There’s also assessment-as-learning (AaL), which could be me and my friend assessing each other’s reactions, say, as we both watch this tall stranger beside us. In the New Education, AaL is the most valued assessment of all because it places students into a pseudo-teaching role by getting them thinking about how and why assessment is helpful.

When proponents of the New Education talk about authentic learning and real-life problems, what I think they mean – by analogy – are those things staring us in the face. Making something meaningful of my current perspective doesn’t necessarily require me to remember something specific. I might well remember something, but that’s not the test. The New Education is all about now for the future.

In fact, both traditional education and the New Education favour a perspective that gives us some direction, heading into the future: traditional education is about the past perspective, what we remember from where we were then, while the New Education is about the present perspective, what we see now from where we are now. It’s a worthy side note that, traditional and contemporary alike, education is about perspective – where we are and where we focus.

By favouring the past, assessing what we remember, the result is that traditional education implies continuation of the past into the future. Sure, it might pay lip service to the future, but that’s not as potent as what comes about from stressing remembrance of the past. Meanwhile, lying in between, the present is little more than a vehicle or conveyance for getting from back then to later on. You’re only “in the moment,” as it were, as you work to reach that next place. But this is ironic because, as we perceive living and life chronologically, we’re always in the moment, looking back to the past and ahead to the future. So it must seem like the future never arrives – pretty frustrating.

The New Education looks to the future, too, asking us to speculate or imagine from someplace we might later be. But, by favouring the present, assessing what we think and feel, and what we imagine might be, the New Education trades away the frustration of awaiting the future for a more satisfying “living in the moment.” We seem to live in a cultural era right now that really values living in the moment, living for now – whether that’s cause or effect of the New Education, I don’t know. In any case, says the New Education, the future is where we’re headed, and the present is how we’re getting there, so sit back and let’s enjoy the ride.

As it regards the past, the New Education seems to pose at least two different attitudes. First, the New Education seems to embrace the past if that past meets the criterion that it was oppressive and is now in need of restoration. Maybe this is a coincidental occurrence of cultural change and curricular change that happen to suit each other. Or maybe this is what comes of living in the moment, focusing on the here-and-now: we’re able to take stock, assess for the future, and identify things, which have long been one way, that now we feel compelled to change. Second, the New Education seems dismissive of the past. Maybe this is also because of that past oppression, or maybe it’s leftover ill will for traditional education, which is kind of the same thing. What often swings a pendulum is vilification.

Whatever it is, we ought to remember that dismissing the past dismisses our plurality – we are all always only from the past, being ever-present as we are. We can’t time-travel. We are inescapably constrained by the past from the instant we’re born. What has happened is unalterable. The future arrives, and we take it each moment by moment. To dismiss the past is delusory because the past did happen – we exist as living proof.

For all its fondness and all its regret, the past is as undeniable as the future is unavoidable, for all its expectancy and all its anxiety. As we occupy the place we are, here, with the perspective it affords us, now, we need the courage to face the future along with the discipline to contextualise the past. As we live in the moment, we are bound and beholden to all three perspectives – past, present, future. Incidentally, that happens to be where my analogy broke down. In a theatre, we can only sit in one seat at a time. Let’s count our blessings that living and learning offer so much more.

That’s Your Opinion In My Opinion…

Playing soccer recently, my team grew more and more frustrated by what we felt was poor refereeing, as in calls that favoured the other team or else faulted us incorrectly, which amounted to the same thing. Granted, we’re none of us professional, so the only thing at stake was the satisfaction of winning. But, as the saying goes, that’s why we play the gamenobody plays to lose. So, on that basis, our team was frustrated, and it mattered.

Players on both teams knew each other fairly well, so there was plenty of on-field bickering and sharing of opinions. Finally, someone from their team – let’s call him Michel – said, “Instead of complaining about it, why not just try your best to help the team?” It’s a pretty common attitude, on account of being positive and constructive. How many coaches have encouraged their teams to take up the responsibility of controlling what’s in their control? I know I have – more on that below.

As soon as Michel said this, one of our more heated players – let’s call him Roy – aimed an outstretched finger towards the referee and shouted back, “What’s the point!” What he meant, of course, was that when the rules aren’t being enforced, striving to help the team is futile since any gains are ultimately clawed back or nullified. “It’s easy,” Roy added, “to say ‘Don’t complain’ when you have the advantage!” Michel said nothing, and this actually became the end of all the back-and-forth. As it happened, the game ended shortly after that, with one team – ours – and one referee each leaving the field feeling hard done by.

vs Wesburn at Pt Grey Secondary (11-0 W) - 17

People often say that sport teaches great lessons about life, and again, as a coach, I know I’ve said this to teams that I’ve coached. Yet we say such things under the assumption that the referee’s interpretation of players’ actions, when held up against the Laws of the Game, will match our own interpretation and, indeed, will match everybody else’s interpretations as well. The further we depart from this assumption, the heavier Roy’s outburst weighs upon us because, sure enough, the more futile it becomes trying to play a game by what amounts to a fluctuating set of rules.

As I say, I coached my teams to take up responsibility for what’s under their control, but I was always careful to elaborate my reason why: be responsible to control what you can control because the rest is out of your control. The other team, the field conditions, the ball, the weather, the referee – because any of these variables could work against us, we need to focus on playing well, score a lot, and put the game out of reach. That means beat the opponent, beat the field conditions, beat the equipment, beat the sideline supporters, beat the weather, and beat the referee.

How all that translates to ‘real life’ lessons could be construed as anarchy, beating everything under the sun, at any cost, which is not where I’m going with this. So I’ll reiterate: the way to beat all these things is to play well according to the rules as we understand them and put the game out of reach on the basis of our skill and teamwork. That goes for the ref, too: put criticism to rest by beating all questions of integrity with skill and teamwork. (For often having referees working alone, it’s a wonder that youth & amateur sport have any refs at all.)

And, I realise, this does assume that everyone else involved, besides us, shares – to some degree – our understanding of the rules. And I think it’s probably reasonable to assume that we all generally know the rules, even if we don’t precisely share their exact meaning. For that reason, I think it’s fair to assume that usually players will see the same things when they apply the rules to game play. There’s even one further consideration here, put so well by Spokesman-Review columnist, Norman Chad: “If you’re watching the games for the officiating, you’re not watching the games anymore.” There are always debates and such, but we don’t usually get a referee as poor as my team (thought we) did this last time. And on those rare days when all seems to work out, we’re as like to say, “Geez, I hardly even noticed the referee today.” Win or lose, that’s nearly always a good day.

But that’s sport, and sport is a self-contained world of rules, bounded by a playing field – in that respect, all is stable and predictable. Leaving aside physical fitness and training, the constraints posed in sport are rule-based, i.e. arbitrary, and out of fairness, we agree as players to abide by them – otherwise, we’d not be players but cheaters. To be clear, none of us in this recent game felt our opponents were cheating; this was strictly a case of feeling the referee was misinterpreting game play.

Matchday #2: INTER (5) vs New Westminster (0) (Warren Pitch, UBC)
“One more eye and he’d be a cyclops…”

For all this, how can sport possibly teach us about life? Maybe we can infer the law of the land as the Laws of the Game, but in life, who’s the referee, by analogy?

At soccer practice, you might argue that the referee is the coach although I can say, for me, when I’m coaching I prefer to be coaching. That leaves the players to collectively referee themselves, which boils down past 1v1 to each sole player bearing their share of the burden. Especially during some small-sided training game with modified rules, the players must each become a partial referee or else the arguments begin. This becomes a responsibility to the team by the players for the Game, which rings something akin to that statement about government “of the people by the people for the people.” Curious that we live for the Game in the one instance and the people in the other – makes you wonder about analogies as much as analogies make you wonder.

So how about in day-to-day living? Is the government our referee? Are the police a referee? In certain aspects of life, we’ve built a playing field with specified boundaries – out in traffic, for instance, are red and green lights, and “Stop” and “Yield” signs. Are these referees, of a sort? For me, they’re actually not. In these instances, while driving a car, we might feel the need to stay safe and not injure ourselves or anyone else. Or maybe we just want to keep our insurance rates as low as possible. But where the lights and signs are mere reminders of the law, we might say the referee is you, the driver, making decisions that have your vehicle propelling and halting down every street.

But traffic is hardly the only example, and those kinds of boundaries are more pragmatic, anyway, for safety. Other aspects of life and living are more, well, open to debate. How about your boss, your teacher, or your parents? How about a total stranger? There are lots of examples, but I’m reminded of that adult on the playground who takes it upon themselves to be parent, guardian, and disciplinarian to every child in sight. For some kids, somebody they’ve never met can still be a very effective referee. For some adults, too. So just who is in charge of enforcing as compared to laying down the law?

One might argue that the best candidate for referee as you make your way through life is you. Hmm… right, well, if the referee in life is our own self-conscience, then just how free do we feel to make our own decisions? Some would say we remain entirely free, which I think explains Michel’s esteem for striving to help the team against the odds: work hard and live up to your responsibility to others, as well as to yourself. Make society a better place. But not everyone is either so bold or else so enabled.

Buried in there, though, is one more subtle layer beneath this so-called esteem, and it’s this subtlety that I would characterise as the referee, this weight of social expectation to live up to your responsibilities – and here comes the unspoken part – just like everyone else. There’s a collective demand upon us, one we all feel but that is neither felt nor heeded equally by all. It’s the concept captured by the word conscience, a sense not simply of what you or I believe is correct and right but of what others believe is correct and right. It’s peer pressure and the source of contention in Roy’s retort to Michel: it’s a lot easier to say ‘Do what I do’ when you have an advantage of some kind. That said, you don’t always find someone like Roy on the other end of things, so maybe not everyone is as prone as their neighbour to the pressure of peer referees. If everyone else jumped off a bridge, Roy would simply be a little more lonely.

For different people under similar circumstances, rules might be interpreted differently or applied unevenly. Unlike sport, though, where the referee is a third party who might still get things right or wrong, the various arbiters we encounter in day-to-day living – just as prone to error – might not be parties of the third order but the first order, i.e. our own self. That might at least be reconcilable. But when they’re a party of the second order, i.e. someone else, perhaps face-to-face, we might more likely face dispute, especially if there’s advantage to be gained, one party over the other, which is why sport needs referees in the first place. In life, if we’re all soccer players, we all share the burden to be the referee. But surely some bear more of that share than others.

Well done to those people. Without the referee, there’s no game for players to play.


True North Strong… but Free?

True North Strong… but Free?

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These are all descriptors I’ve encountered for Canada, from one source or another. I can make of each one something contextual. Yet as each suggests a departure or break from something previous, that’s really just a subtle way of saying, “Here’s what we aren’t.”

Yet describing something with negative terminology is ultimately meaningless because it can end up becoming silly; for instance, “I am not a giant Godzilla-like dragon that breaths fire and enjoys sipping my iced coffee on Tuesdays.” We could literally imagine anything that isn’t the case and say as much, and we’re no further ahead knowing what actually is the case.

So when I see descriptors like these – for Canada but really for anything – I’m unclear and confused about what to think. It’s a concern for me, the citizen, because who I am and what I value have direct effect on you and everyone else, and me in return all over again.

In the vaunted year 2015, according to Canada’s newly elected PM, Justin Trudeau, “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.”

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Canada’s Parliament Building

Ignoring the post-modern fallacy, i.e. nothing is true other than the statement that confirms nothing is true, this description of Canadian identity also falls in line with the negative terminology and serves as the on-ramp to the freeway of silliness upon which no Godzillas sip their Tuesday coffee.

And where the link above was an American take on our Prime Minister’s interpretation of whom he leads, others have taken noted concern of his statement, too, among them some Canadians whom he leads…

On the other hand, and perhaps in response (?), the Government of Canada is now apparently reversing course, telling Canadians and would-be Canadians something awfully more specific about Canadian identity:

I admit, once more, to losing track as a “Canadian,” although at least this time the terminology is positive: “We are indeed ‘this’ and ‘that.’”

Some pretty specific stuff in this Global Affairs guide. For example…

“When lining up in a public place, the bank for instance, Canadians require at least 14 inches of space…”

Right down to the inch? Granted, I’m not the most social-media savvy citizen you could find, but I think a colloquial Canadian response to this – at least on-line – might be “WTF!!!”

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… anybody here still know that guy, Al Waxman?

Still, please don’t let me speak on your behalf. That said, the guide seems to have been compiled by one person in an interview format with a second person because it’s written with a first-person perspective: it’s uniquely Canadian, you might say.

Now, if your rejoinder is to excuse this guide as merely a helpful list of suggestions for what is “Canadian,” then I counter with the challenge to separate, in these suggestions, what are quintessential as compared to what are stereotypical descriptions. After all, what Canadian does NOT love beer and hockey and The Hip, just as they detest the gesturing of hands and public displays of affection?

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Beautiful British Columbia

We’re approaching another freeway on-ramp, this one a sloped and slippery freeway that circles and loops and arrives at no particular destination because at its terminus interminably works a construction crew, who build it out just a little further than before, apparently with no idea who they are, or what they do, or – perhaps worst of all – why they might want to reflect, with no small concern, upon the work they consider to be of national significance.

Seriously, am I the only one who’s concerned by this?



The Rhetorical Which

Should we maximise our capabilities, based on our limits?

Or maximise our limits, based on our capabilities?

As to the basic message, here, I actually don’t see too much hair-splitting. Both are aimed at action constrained by circumstance. The difference, I think a lot of people would propose, is the optimism or pessimism found between the two phrases although, even saying that, I think we blend within ourselves attitudes from both.

As for me, I feel more given to the second phrase, maximising our limits based on our capabilities, for its seeming more empirical, more driven by circumstance. Let’s take stock of our resources, and get on with it. Limits that exist will obviously present themselves as obstacles or else, well, they wouldn’t exist. And not only can those limits be reached, maybe they can even be stretched or overcome. This then becomes the task, and thank goodness for capabilities – and there’s the blending. Even empiricists have that esoteric side.

In the first phrase, similarly, something must exist – capabilities – or else they wouldn’t exist! So they must be maximisible (a word I just invented) in a way that hasn’t yet been, well, maximised. The first phrase is all about potential, what could be, if we just find a way to maximise our capabilities. Fist pump, exclamation point. In the culture I’m most familiar with, I suspect people – at least initially – would consider this first phrase a kind of optimism.

Okay, maybe not, since its basis is limitation, and that hardly sounds all warm and cozy. Still… in the first phrase, limits are a mystery to be solved, a challenge to overcome, an adventure: you can do or be anything you want, if you just believe in things. Set some goals, too, obviously – you can’t just go through life living on hope alone. Maybe I’m giving myself away; remember, I feel more given to the second phrase.

If the first phrase is optimism, the second could only be blunt, blanketing, clinical pessimism. But, like I said, I think we tend to blend, and I know I seldom feel satisfied with polarised options. So, even feeling more given to the second phrase, I won’t call myself a pessimist or even lean in that direction. And, yes, that means I won’t call myself an optimist either. Regardless, as I feel more given to the second phrase, I feel good about it for a couple reasons… relying on my capabilities means I have them and can use them, exclamation point, which means my limits can be pushed and stretched and even overcome. Fist pump! In neither phrase is there any lack of opportunity. In fact, each leaves room for the other.

For me, optimism and pessimism aren’t found in phrasing. Sure, we can play with words and come up with ways to objectify our capabilities or our limits. We can arrange syntax a certain way and suggest some interpretations, as I’ve just been doing. But, like I said, the basic message in both phrases is simply action constrained by circumstance. Attitude, tone – these are traits, and traits we find in people. Words describe, and tools are helpful. But it’s people who do the living.

Life has got to be about the verb.

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What it Was is What it Is: I Don’t Know What Else to Say

At the same school, in the same department, for so long… eventually I found what seemed to be some effective teaching strategies and stuck with those, but boy it took a while. There’s been more than one teacher to have offered something like an apology, half-joking, half rueful, to all those early students, who were basically guinea pigs while we figured ourselves out in the classroom. I mentioned this in a paper for a graduate course and earned the critique of “triumphalism” – feedback from the professor, which I took as a suggestion to go ahead and “problematize my assumptions,” to use the lingo. In the moment, I bristled, the new kid in town learning how to be part of the academy, wondering what exactly had prompted my professor to claim with such certainty the question of my certainty.

Maybe I’ll just mention, since I’ve brought it up… I’ve since found the academy has an endemic logical pitfall all its own, an oddly hypocritical veneer of uncertainty: “All knowledge is provisional.” Post-modernism at its finest? Indeed, who can really say.

In all seriousness, though, and fairness, I grant the aim of the sceptical outlook. Heck, I try to possess one – healthy scepticism, to guard against arrogance and narrow thinking (… and innovation too, come to think of it, although that one maybe for another time). I value Socratic humility, which I ultimately decided not to call Socratic ignorance, and try to model it although how successfully I can’t say – especially not *joking-slash-rueful* back in those early days. So when someone with expertise in curriculum and teaching theory lay triumphalism at my feet, I thought to myself, Well, at least I ought to consider it. And I did.

And I do, and I still am. That reflective side of critique, the side you get from being on the receiving end, it can help us spot our assumptions and our shortcomings. I suspect the whole point was simply to light a fire within me. And hey, I’ve gone and written this, haven’t I? And hey, if settling into some effective teaching strategies weren’t triumphalist and undesirable, that would probably encourage complacency among teachers, or possibly even stagnation. On the other hand, after so long teaching in the same department at the same school, I suspect there’s more than one teacher who’s ended up feeling like part of the woodwork. Certainly, for me, as I’m sure for the students, there was a marked difference between me, the new guy, and me five, ten, fifteen years later. Then again–

Looking back, now, at what I called “effective”… it rounds out as, well, effective because what happened happened that way – nothing’s perfect, but all considered, my students seemed broadly to have learned what they felt were some useful things. The classroom years I spent, developing as I did to reach the point I reached, came about from the feedback I received each day, each term, as students and I came together lesson upon lesson, class after class. Details along the way, course evaluations I asked students to complete each June, reports back from post-secondary adventuring… there are always issues to address along with encouragements to appreciate, and I admit: no grand theory did I have in mind, as though I were contributing to the historical record. I just wanted to make things better for kids the following year, which eventually I think I was able to do.

Where I gave thought to improving my teaching was (a) relative to myself, (b) on behalf of my students, (c) in the context of my school. At least, that was what I thought when I was teaching. In that respect, what can I possibly say now, looking back, as to what might have been apart from what did be? I had to do something. And my life was never going to be any less full or busy or complicated than it turned out to be, so in all sincerity I did what I could. Eventually, it seemed to work out pretty well. Effectively.

Look, if somebody did celebrate triumphantly, in the classroom, facing the students, day in day out… ? What an ass! As it was, for those students who did find my teaching effective in this way or that, or worse, for those who didn’t – did I leave them with some suggestion that I basked in triumphant glow? I hope not. Like I said, I eventually found and stuck with what I thought worked, and that took years. Meanwhile, that’s the job. Isn’t it?

For me, the professor’s criticism, in whatever light it was offered, reflects more upon her embrace of uncertainty (presumably the academic embrace I described above) than it does upon my curricular relationships when I was teaching. And I heed the lesson, not for the first time in my career, that sitting in judgment of others can be a difficult perch.

The Burden of Sacrifice

My students will recognize war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, and his accounts of World War II, including a series of three columns that describe with stark intimacy the aftermath of the Normandy invasion. This week, all three will be reprinted by members of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Also well worth reading is this article from The New York Times, a tribute by David Chrisinger to Pyle, the man who told America the truth about D-Day, and the soldiers he commemorated, whose sacrifices in war leave us all indebted.

Controversy arose over whether or not to publish a photo of Ernie Pyle in death. In this article, a different war correspondent named Pyle, the late Richard Pyle, quotes Ernie Pyle biographer, James E. Tobin…

“It’s a striking and painful image, but Ernie Pyle wanted people to see and understand the sacrifices that soldiers had to make, so it’s fitting, in a way, that this photo of his own death… drives home the reality and the finality of that sacrifice.”

Indiana University has a great repository of Ernie Pyle’s wartime stories – click here to see them

In addition to soldiers, I would add, casualties of war include the child with no parent, the home with an empty room, the people with nowhere to live and nobody willing who is able to help them. Families might live in separation as a consequence of war. Civilians can be caught or placed into the path of chilling technology and lethal weaponry. People left alive find themselves rudely displaced and nakedly vulnerable. We have seen pride and duty elapse into jingoism, internment, and genocide. War is fought and casualties suffer in many different ways.

Our historical record is clear for its brutality and the dispensing of lives, and any disdain for the politics that incite war might well be justified. We have so much to answer for. Yet flatly shaming war as foolhardy or inhumane is simplistic. By the same turn, dismissing observances of war as banal or romanticised might overlook the personal roots that inspired them. How do we reconcile this? Pyle is clear: despite its cruelty, war is sometimes necessary.

And when it is unnecessary? Well, we have the liberty to have our say. But no matter our opinions or our politics, to live “in the joyousness of high spirits it is so easy for us to forget the dead.” Is this the imposthume of wealth and peace or the world of rights and freedoms? I can’t cover it all, or know every angle. For people like me, removed from war, what compels us into political debate differently than those facing imminent threat?

Beyond what I think of each war, anguish is real to those for whom war has meant sacrifice. Separate to written accounts, troubling memories are not easily and often never shared, but they are memories because those things really happened. Certainty of loss, uncertainty of fate: each is frightening, and both leave scars. Pain does not necessarily subside for no longer being inflicted. To disregard the sacrifices of war is to risk dishonoring, and nullifying, the people who made them, even as they might already be dead and gone.

Particularly on an anniversary such as this, we carry the cost of their service to us. Yet their sacrifices will never amount to nothing because the debt we owe is one we can never repay. For this reason, let us value and earn our debt. As the sacrifices of war are permanent, the onus for us to honour them is everlasting.

Ernie Pyle's Gravestone
Ernie Pyle’s gravestone, at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu, HI

On July 23rd 2019, the Wright Museum of World War II hosted a symposium on D-Day – click here for more information

This post proved difficult to compose although, with reflection, I think the answer we need is somehow to be found in what we share, in our similarities, not our differences.

“… Whose the Forest of Them All?” See What I Did There?

Imagine somebody offers you a friendly smile, but you snarl back. What might be their next reaction? Would they be amused and take it as a friendly jibe, just typical “you”? I suppose that would depend on how well they knew you. Would they be bemused because they don’t know you so well? Really, snarling at a friendly smile…? We’re perfect strangers, for goodness’ sake! Would they be confused because they’re not from around here and just can’t reckon the response in any way? A person’s reaction to your snarl might conceivably be anything—it depends on so many factors, and even in these three suggestions, one can find how-many-more details, nuances, and possibilities that take things further. Any “next reaction,” you might finally conclude, just depends on the person.

That response, “it depends,” is often criticised as merely wishy-washy yet, apparently, there’s an ironic ring of absoluteness to it, like the postmodern clarion call that nothing is true except for this statement. The reason I pose the scenario at all is to consider who really provides us with our sense of self. Supposing this person smiled at me, I might snarl in the first way, as a jibe, because I’m sure they’ll get the joke. But what if they don’t get it? What if this person even knows me pretty well, and they just don’t get it, not this time? Or what if they feel this just wasn’t the time for joking around? Their next reaction will depend on these and / or plenty of other factors. But again, I raise the scenario to consider how we gather—or, no no, to consider who really provides us—with our sense of self.

And there you have it, the issue: do we each gather our own sense of self, internally, or do others provide us with our sense of self, externally?

I don’t want to revert simply to the nature-nurture argument or chicken-and-the-egg. We seem inescapably bound to considering these by degree—hence, the absolutism that it depends. So, then, to consider by degree… the metaphor I have in mind is that of a mirror. Something someone does induces a response from me, and subsequently, what I provoke in that other person can tell me something more about myself, so long as I’m willing (and able?) to discern my self—myself?—from what they reflect. Whatever next reaction of theirs follows my snarl, this other person’s reaction serves as a mirrored reflection of me, at least insofar as this other person is concerned. If they laugh at my snarl, then hey, I guess they affirm me as a friend with an appropriate sense of humour; the jibe is appreciated, and maybe we’re even a little closer friends than before. Their positive reaction is my feedback, like looking at myself in a mirror, and my sense of self is in some way provoked on account of them by what they reflect.

I suppose there’s room to discuss a lack of empathy, here, even sociopathic behaviour—these seem also to be part of that endless list of details, nuances, and possibilities. But in acknowledging them, let’s leave them for another day.

If my snarl induces a frown from the other person, or some kind of puzzlement or disapproval, then what they affirm for me is less friendly or wonderful, yet may be just as clear—maybe they snarl back, even more fiercely, or maybe they stomp away with clenched fists. Maybe now I feel worried, in which case my sense of self could suffer from insecurity or dismay—oh dear, they didn’t get the joke! Or maybe they are saddened, and I feel smug—take that, you deserve it—or hostile—get lost, I never liked you anyway—which reinforces my sense of superiority, some kind of self-importance. The list of possibilities goes on—it depends—but, in any case, I’m able to find myself reaffirmed by that other person’s reaction. “Able to” because my snarl clearly exposes my stake in how this other person influences the way I consider my sense of self: why would I even take notice of them in the first place, much less snarl, much less take concern of their next reaction, if they meant nothing to me?

The point is that the other person’s reaction provides me a measure, a reason, a reflection by which to gauge my self as myself. Basically, thank you, because I couldn’t do it without you and everybody else, and you’re welcome because neither could you without me, or everybody else.

Now, pretend there are no other people—you, alone, exist as the sole human being. You happen to be walking through a grove of, say, birch trees, obviously getting no reactions as we’ve just considered about smiles and snarls. But as the wind whishes by, fluttering leaves and swaying branches, you take in the world around you with a relative means of judgment that wades through various combinations of reactors provoking reactions from reactees: Are the trees reacting to me? Is the wind reacting to me, or the trees to the wind? and so forth. You can see all sorts of things happening, but how can you be sure what provokes or reflects what else? Some songbirds are flitting about, high up in the branches: Are they chirping at me? You might not even call them “song” birds (that is, if you even had language—what need for language, really, as one sole person?) For all we know, the birds would actually scare you, and you might rightly call them “scarebirds” or something—in this pretend scenario, with you the sole human being, we’re also pretending that you know nothing in the way of biology or flora or fauna. These are ways of understanding the world developed in the real life community of human beings, not in some pretend scenario of solo existence.

In that land of pretend, after weeks of sunshine, what might be your sense of self on the day it rained, or on the day the leaves yellowed and fell to the ground in heavier, colder winds? Would you even be considering your “self” apart from the entirety of what surrounds you? Here we are, again, at nature-nurture, only this time you might conceivably consider the two in synthesis: not as separately discrete influences—there is nature, and there is nurture—but as one-and-the-same, naturenurture, thereby placing you into the world of existence as part-of-a-greater-whole. Your sense of self could conceivably be more cosmic, in that literal sense of orderliness, and more holistic, in that sense of connectedness. To mix metaphors, you might feel a mere cog in the wheel, a mere wheel of the gears, yet entirely necessary, just the same. Or how about this: I wonder how imperative my right hand feels, as compared to my left, when I write with a pen, but they’re both pretty important when I play golf.

We can conceivably warrant our selves to ourselves, but—as we step back into the land of real life and other people—we cannot live in total oblivion of the people around us. I grant the possibility of living within ourselves as our selves, rendering the responses and reactions of any one, and those alongside, as nothing other than colliding self-interests, but still… That other people can authorize our sense of self—your sense, my sense—seems as inescapable, as definite, as did nature-nurture or chicken-and-the-egg.

In this little thought experiment, I’ve been wondering whether we each sense our self as reflective of the reactions we induce, e.g. the feedback we get after snarling at a friendly smile, seeing that other person as though staring at ourselves in a mirror. And, if so, whether that means we’re each of us necessarily, essentially, and thereby compellingly part of a greater whole, like trees of a forest, or cogs in a wheel, or limbs to a body. And, for all this, maybe it’s only an issue because we’re able to raise the question, to begin with.