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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

52 Words to Describe the Experience of School

In 2019, Poet and Philosopher David Whyte published Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, a remarkable series of short essays dedicated to 52 ordinary words, their meaning, and the way in which each one casts light upon the perplexities of human existence.

Maria Popova recently described Whyte's work as "an alternative dictionary inviting us to befriend words in their most dimensional sense by reawakening to the deeper and often counterintuitive meanings beneath semantic superficialities and grab-bag terms like pain, beauty, and solace."

Elsewhere, as author of the Introduction to Consolations, Popova writes:

Words belong to each other, and we to them.

And yet the commonest words in our lexicon – those tasked with containing and conveying the most elemental human truths and experiences – are slowly being shorn of meaning: assaulted by misuse, abraded by overuse, overthought and underconsidered, trampled of dimension and discoloured of nuance.

In Consolations, David Whyte repatriates us in the land of language by giving words back to themselves and, in this generous act, giving us back to ourselves – we, sensemaking creatures who navigate this old maze of a world through the mightiest figuring faculty we have: language itself.

I've written before on the impoverished and stale words we too often settle upon to describe the place that we call school. It was an attempt to suggest that our lexicon of learning is similarly "shorn of meaning" and "assaulted by misuse". What I am particularly drawn to in what Popova writes, however, is this beautiful and yet challenging idea of being "repatriated" by the author "in the land of language"; the rather hopeful idea that, in each consolation, the author is seeking to provide us with a moment of reflection, inviting us to go deeper in search of meaning beyond the immediate horizon of the superficial, perfunctory, and mundane.

It seems to be no coincidence that the number of ordinary words in Whyte's dictionary of life is 52. Is the Poet suggesting, with a wry smile on his face, that this is a complete deck for those of us who are given the chance to play the game of life? Or, perhaps, he just wants us to tackle one word a week?

Someone holding a deck of cards.

Whatever the answer, I do find myself wondering what words would make the cut if we tried to capture learning in our own deck of 52. What are the words that take us deeper towards the reality of what school should be for and, ultimately, what's worth learning? What are words that leave us trapped in the superficial, perfunctory, and mundane?

I haven't yet made my list, but flourishing, play, belonging, feedback, wisdom, growth, understanding, purpose, truth, confidence, and happiness immediately come to mind. Words like testing, classroom, schedules, and even the word school itself seem flat and one-dimensional by comparison.

What Whyte is really teaching us, however, is that just speaking, or writing the words, is not enough. It is our duty, as educators, to wrestle with them, to dissect them, to seek out patterns and meaning within them.

Only then, perhaps, will our words begin to resonate with those around us and illuminate the real purpose of school in the context of the human condition.

Photo by No Revisions on Unsplash.

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