Ego and The Swarm

“Everything, a bird, a tree, even a simple stone, and certainly a human being, is ultimately unknowable.  This because it has unfathomable depth.  All we can perceive, experience, think about, is the surface layer of reality, less than the tip of an iceberg.” Eckhart Tolle
I’m finding it impossible to escape the thread of ‘ego’ running through the last ten days.  Much has been happening to disrupt my thinking, from countless conversations with critical friends to the discussions of the uncourse #rhizo14, which were characterised in week two by dissent and (polite) disagreement.  My question to myself as the mists clear on a rainy afternoon is this:  what am I assuming that makes me so sure that I’m right?
The week’s topic is ‘enforced independence’ and my mind shied away from the paradox whilst at the same time embracing its truth.  Independent learning is tough.  Independent thinking even tougher.  I believe in the revolutionary power of education, it’s my life’s work; I’m ambitious for my students to change the world.  I’m robust in my expression of that.  And I encounter resistance.   But I stubbornly plough on.
What am I assuming that makes me so sure that I’m right?
I’ve thought a lot of late about dependency.  Big thinking about ideology and my own shifting politics and about the organisation I work for and the whole notion of ‘second chance’ education.  I’ve thought about ‘Benefits Street’ and victim identity and what diversity means and the way in which some people resist the Thinking Environment, try to subvert it, its promise of thinking for yourself – so intoxicating to me – feeling more like a threat to them.  I’ve thought about why students (and teachers) don’t make deadlines and the notion of the ‘silent runner’ (with thanks to Ros Ollin for that) – the one who just quietly disappears.  I’ve thought about what it is – and isn’t – to be an ‘academic’ and about the ever-present (for many of us) Impostor Syndrome.  I’ve thought about Tragic Life Stories (actually the name of a department in WH Smith) and the way in which they dominate not only TV and popular news media, but stories about adult learning too.
I’m not denying the strength of those who overcome sometimes eye-watering adversity to succeed and grow.  I have a mildly alarming back story myself – as have most adults – and I’ve the greatest respect for anyone who goes back into education and makes it work.  What concerns me is that some people become their back story and get stuck there; as my friend @lesleyawhiting says, they ‘dwell’. The education system creates aura and dependency around that, often unthinkingly, embodied for me in subtleties of articulation and the word, ‘learners’.  That is not, for me, empowerment.
A bee settling on a thistle
I’ve thought about how true encouragement means taking heart, (as Nancy Kline says) going beyond the cutting-edge of competition, letting go of the habit of comparing ourselves to others (toughest of all when we are reinforcing untrue limiting assumptions about ourselves).  I’ve reflected on the beauty and grace of people thinking together once that competitive edge is overcome:  community as curriculum, the ‘swarm’. Above all, at a time of pressing student deadlines, I’ve thought about excuses and lies – those that I tell and those that are told to me.
And I realise that I want to release my students from the pressure of having a tragic life event to tell me about when all they need is a little more time.  I want a dialogue that begins, “I can’t do this thing you asked me to do, in this timeframe,” and continues with, “What are you assuming, that is stopping you meeting the deadline?” – designed to search only for a strategy to get past whatever barrier has set itself in the way.  I want empathy and honesty.  No hinting or exaggeration.  I want to be liberated from the responsibility of making a judgement about the reasons people give; I want simply to trust them to tell me the truth.
I have finally realised that this means (both sides) getting beyond the ego.  Wow.  As easy as that.
So how is that done?
Well, I’m no expert.  But what I understand from my teacher in this, the fabulous Rachel Allwood, is that the ego is that part of us which makes us think we are separate from the whole (of humanity).  The less we’re aware of our ego, the more it pulls the strings of our thinking, so that we unwittingly allow it to dictate our actions, in the cause (of course) of ourselves, even when that means doing ourselves harm because we are holding onto our victim identity.  The power behind that Bernard Williams ‘fetish of assertion’ that I keep coming back to seems to be the unrecognised ego.  I do find myself thinking sometimes, “Why do I need to say that?” and I realise I am getting off on myself for some reason of self-aggrandisement or self-victimisation (“poor me”).   When I listen, generatively, with my full attention, the ego is present but settled, as sleek and well fed and self-ful as my cat.
Getting over the ego requires mental self-discipline.  And discipline can be practised.  It can be meditated away.  It can be grown.  It can be done.
When I talk about ‘the swarm’, when I long to belong, I’m not denying a power differential.  I will always have more power than my students.  Even in rhizomatic learning, where the community is the curriculum, someone needs to get the ball rolling.  My skills are honed over many years of reflexion and burnt-fingered messing-up.  I may have more knowledge too, if only because I spend 90% of my waking hours thinking about social purpose education (and the remaining 10% pondering Scandinavian TV or feeding the cat, naturally).    That doesn’t mean we can’t construct new knowledge, together.  Because in terms of what really matters – potential, thinking, diversity, transformational power – I’m an equal amongst equals.
I asked myself at the top of this blog, What am I assuming that makes me so sure that I’m right?
And I guess it’s a leap of faith.  Positive philosophical choice.  A sense of self-worth, tempered (I hope) with humility.  Values I believe in.  Something has to change in this world of ours and, together, we stand a better chance of figuring out what it is.  So, released from time to time from the imperative to obey my ego, I walk happily into the swarm.

Author: TeachNorthern

We are hard working educators with passionate interest in Teaching for a Social Purpose. Everything we've learned is through observing colleagues and students, all of whom are committed to changing the world. And reading interesting stuff. We work at The Northern College in Barnsley and its mission (and thirty-eight year history) of social transformation makes it an ideal base to face the challenges of teaching adults in 21st century England.

18 thoughts on “Ego and The Swarm”

  1. Excellent post and worth waiting for. It needs more reflection to let me apply it to what I thought before I read it. I’m fascinated by the ego element, and also see similarities to thoughts I’d had around the tendency toward structure/ familiarity as safety. This exploration highlights safety in victim status too – how complex, how unknowable – thanks for sharing

    1. Thank you. It’s stuff I’ve been agonising about saying for a long time now. I don’t want to be thought of as the sort of person who’d kick a puppy – but then, that’s the ego speaking again. Think I’m still a bit clumsy about how I am articulating this stuff but that’s OK. I’d Would love to hear your further thoughts.

  2. I wanted to respond to so much in this posi – it connected to many of my experiences – but let me just unpick one phrase that made me think.
    What am I assuming that makes me so sure that I’m right?
    I am right could relate what you know or to your values. I thought that in the rhizo14 swarm, if we were more open to changing the first than the second, then our connections could be rich.

    1. Frances, thanks for unpacking that “What am I assuming that makes me so sure that I’m right?” – will post it to fb on Penny’s post about uncertainty in science… That it is a question on both knowledge and values

      1. Someone said very kindly to me yesterday that I ask lots of really good questions. I think I only ever ask two: what do you think? and what are you assuming? They seem to do the trick! Many thanks to both of your for your thoughtful comments on the blog.

  3. Thank you, I look forward to reading your thinking, it always sets off a railway track of thoughts in my head – but then the train goes past the station without stopping! For the last 18 months, since starting my teacher training, I feel that I have pressed my nose up to the window of Teachnorthern without daring to enter… Why is this? 1. Lack of confidence 2. I’ll be found out syndrome 3. Will anyone be interested in what I have to say? 4. To write it down will mean it can be re-read. I think all these things and more. Someone said to me recently, ‘fortune favours the brave’ – I agree but what is being brave to one person is not necessarily the same for someone else.
    I remember being in someone’s classroom last year and they shared some of their ‘backstory’ and then talked about honesty in teaching. I am by nature, guarded about my own ‘backstory’ and interpreted this as “I need to be brave and do some of this”. A little bit of my ‘backstory’ trickled out and was shared, was this honesty, self -victimisation, ego or wanting to fit in? Self-victimisation for some, justifies why they aren’t where you (teacher) are, and I agree for others it is something to hide behind. I think what I am trying to say is that everyones reasoning and every story is different.
    I will try to stop at the station more often, the first time for anything is always the most difficult. I hope that this is the start of my thinking (and sharing it) journey.

    1. You are so welcome Michelle, it is wonderful indeed to hear your voice here. We are, amongst many rich and knowledge-creating things, an Impostor Syndrome support group too 🙂

      Yes. I am thinking now, we cannot know what motivations people carry into their learning. So how do we teach (and learn) SELF-awareness? How do we teach (and learn) independence?

      Welcome, friend.

  4. I have responded on this annotated Diigo link:

    To go a little further, I am also entranced by this idea of ego-restraint and choosing interdependence. I think, too, that the swarm can flip and become a mob. As a beginning beekeeper I am still a little daunted by the droning buzz of an active hive even though I am protected. I know that I will get stung on occasion.

    Thanks so much for extending your to hand to make this post and extending it to us to re-make it in the spirit of interdependence.

    1. Thank you so much. I wrote lots of comments using my iPad and managed to upload none of them, so many apologies for my slow reply.

      You are right about the mob. I am well aware of my own personal capacity for rabble-rousing and I have to keep a close check on my ego when the excitement starts to rise. (I have a separate worry about empowered educators putting themselves in unsafe situations in their excitement to change the world). When does independent thinking in a group tip over into a new kind of hegemonic groupthink? I don’t know. But I’m on my guard.

  5. I love your post, Lou
    I’ve nothing to say what you didn’t know already (was that English?). Ego is a part of me anf you have your own. And it is lovely to forget it today and try to dive in the rhizo14 swarm. See you there! Heli

    1. Thank you Heli for your lovely words! I enjoyed the swarm and the acknowledging of my ego has made me much better at connecting with others. Many thanks to #rhizo14 🙂

  6. I am a huge fan of your writing, Lou. I love how you’ve brought all these ideas together, and brought in this important “leap of faith” – now that is something I don’t imagine we can easily do for others, but when we do it for ourselves, oh, so liberating.

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