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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

The Bind We're In: Learning to untie the knot

Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, was a master of what he called indirect communication. If you haven't read Kierkegaard before, bear with me on this one.

To get to the heart of an issue, Kierkegaard believed, you can't always tackle it head on.

A good communicator, he explained, knows this and is able to play with his readers by posing both sides of an argument, going deeper and deeper, until it's altogether unclear in what direction the argument is going and who believes what.

The point, says Kierkegaard, is that, in this way, a dialectical knot is formed that the reader is forced to untie.

A photograph of two ropes with knots in them
Untie the knot: A Kierkegaardian approach to education.

Looking around at how his contemporaries were teaching at the time, Kierkegaard, not surprisingly, was critical of rote learning for the way it disengaged the learner and led to shallow and simplistic conclusions.

Only by jesting, playing, and confusing his readers, literally tying them in academic knots, Kierkegaard concludes, will any good student of philosophy start to wrestle with the issues for themselves. Only then will the reader stop asking What would Kierkegaard say? and become his or her own teacher.

In short, Kierkegaard is difficult to read. But he is difficult by design.

If the work of educational Advancement is to support schools advance towards a better future, I can't help thinking about the bind we're currently in. We want to move forward and embrace the future of schools - we want parents to embrace this future - but we sometimes seem reluctant to spending time together wrestling with the complex educational issues that really matter.

In 1846, in his book The Present Age, Kierkegaard refers to what he saw as the shallowness and triviality of his day:

The present age is one of understanding, of reflection, devoid of passion, an age which flies into enthusiasm for a moment only to decline back into indolence.

Dare we say the same is sometimes true of us?

How often have we flown into enthusiasm for a moment, only to let things slide when the conversation starts to disrupt or takes too much time? How often have we glossed over important issues just to make our public-facing "story" appear more coherent or palatable?

Advancement, I believe, has a role to play in anticipating and narrating a story of learning that will sometimes be messy and is inherently complex; a story that has plenty of loose ends and doesn't always have a happy ending.

Don't get me wrong, I am hopeful about the future of our schools. I believe that we can find coherence and resolution to many of today's trickiest dilemmas. However, I also believe that we must commit ourselves to untying some knots along the way - and then encourage our students and their parents to do the same for themselves.

Looking at some of our school websites, our admissions tours, and other related communications, I'm left wondering how many of us have opted for simple "answers", which we happily hand out on a plate. I'm wondering how often we invite prospective students, parents and colleagues to join our community with a dilemma rather than an answer.

I'm also wondering what Kierkegaard might have said.

But I know he'll never tell.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash


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