Carrot Cake

I don’t remember when I first tasted carrot cake, but I have known for a while that it is my favourite type of cake. It still surprises me that I like carrot cake so much. Carrots are not an especially preferred vegetable, although I do eat them in a variety of ways.

When I was eight years old I was sent to boarding school, a bit of a traumatic experience for any young child. One of the better memories of this four year experience was that each and every child in the school was given a small allotment plot in which we could grow whatever we wished. Amongst other things I grew carrots. Even if you are not keen on eating carrots, they are beautiful plants to watch grow. They have such lovely feathery foliage, magical for children, and even more magical when you pull them up to find a crop of carrots underneath, a crop that you can actually eat. Although I’m not a big fan of boarding schools for young children, looking back, I think it was very enlightened of the school to encourage children to tend gardens and grow their own crops.

But back to carrot cake. At eight years old I didn’t know there was such a thing as carrot cake. I was brought up on Victoria sponges and the like. Carrot cake only came into my life when I took up cycling about eight years ago. A frequent, local, flat, 20 mile ride involves a half way stop at a café which, up to today, I thought sold the best carrot cake ever, particularly delicious with cappuccino ten miles into a bike ride.

I have many a time told the café owners this, but after today will not be able to do so again, because today some friends came for lunch and brought with them really the best carrot cake ever. Evidently the recipe was a BBC Good Food one. My friend told me, ‘I’ll tell you that this is the recipe, even though I know you will never bake one.


From now on I will associate carrot cake with a really enjoyable lunch with good friends, but also with the query in my head about whether my friend knows me better than I know myself. Yes, it’s true that I haven’t baked a cake since our children grew up and ‘fled the nest’. I decided I had had enough of baking, but also just two of us simply cannot eat a whole cake these days, even over a few days. But will I really never bake another cake? And what is it that my friend knows about me that I don’t know about myself? It’s always intriguing to consider how others perceive you.

Who would have thought that carrot cake could lead to these memories. I have to put this down to the fact that the cake in itself was an especially memorable experience, invoked by the senses, which triggered off more memories, which in turn were invoked by the senses. I think even Descartes would have had to trust his senses that this was an absolutely delicious cake.

What did Socrates ever do for us?

‘What did the Greeks ever do for us?’ was the question discussed in a U3A philosophy group I joined last week, which turned out to be a very enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half – not really long enough to get to grips with the question, or even to get to the question at all, but certainly long enough to provoke some thinking, particularly about Socrates.

In preparation for this we were asked to read ‘Apology’ by Plato and translated by Benjamin Jowett . Apology is Plato’s account of Socrates’ self-defence against the charges of not recognizing the gods of the state and corrupting the youth of Athens. Plato of course was one of Socrates’ greatest admirers – a student of Socrates. And Aristotle was a ‘student’ of Plato. There was so much discussion around the Apology that there was little time to discuss Plato and Aristotle, apart from a brief discussion about Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, which can be seen in the Vatican museums. We were asked to consider what the fresco tells us about Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies.

There is so much information ‘out there’ about these three giants of philosophy, so many websites, so many articles, so many books, all of which are easy to find, that there is no need to repeat it all here and we only needed brief reference to it in our session.  Instead we focussed on these questions related to our reading of The Apology.

  1. What are the charges brought against Socrates?
  2. Why does Socrates think that the Athenians would be harming themselves rather than harming Socrates if they put him to death? What service has he provided the city of Athens by philosophizing there?
  3. Do you think Socrates is wise to disregard the possibility that he may die if he does not please the court?
  4. Why does Socrates think that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’?

For me the most interesting question was Q3, because when reading The Apology I found myself increasingly irritated by what I perceived to be Socrates’ arrogance. On the one hand he claims ‘the truth is that I have no knowledge’ and ‘I have no wisdom, small or great’, but that doesn’t stop him from claiming that the oracle at Delphi told him that there is no wiser man than he. Then he decided to test the oracle’s words by trying to find a man wiser than himself, but in discussion with various citizens considered to be the wisest in Athens, he decided they were not wiser than him and told them so, and then was surprised that they hated him. This he justified with the following words (according to Plato’s record):

Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.

In this vein Socrates went to politicians, poets and artisans and found himself to be superior to them all for the same reason. At this point I found myself questioning his wisdom. And at this point too I began to wonder at his complete lack of self-doubt and his unshakeable belief in his own virtue and worth. ‘I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times’. So convinced was he of his own worth that he told his accusers that if they killed him they would injure themselves more than they would injure him.

For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life.

Of course we have to remember that we only have Plato’s word that these statements actually came from Socrates. Socrates himself never wrote anything down. And we also have to try and think about the events in the context and culture of the time, for example the significance of the oracle’s statements.

Nevertheless, Socrates’ self-defence does raise the question of whether or not it is ‘wise’ to choose to die for your beliefs. For Socrates the difficulty was not in avoiding death but avoiding unrighteousness. He simply could not have lived with himself, had he not stuck to his principles. As such he could be said to have written his own death sentence.

Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you ashamed of this?

But maybe by signing his own death sentence Socrates scored the most important goal of his career and ensured that he would go down in history as the founder of moral philosophy, who established the method of trying to get at truth through persistent open questioning.

(With thanks to Lisa Lane for sending me this video, which made me laugh)

As Bryan Magee writes in his book (p.23): The Story of Philosophy. A Concise Introduction to the World’s Greatest Thinkers and Their Ideas,

It is doubtful whether any philosopher has had more influence than Socrates. He was the first to teach the priority of personal integrity in terms of a person’s duty to himself, and not to the gods, or the law, or any other authorities. This has had incalculable influence down the ages. Not only was he willing to die at the hands of the law rather than give up saying what he believed to be right, he actually chose to do so, when he could have escaped had he wished. It is a priority that has been reasserted by some of the greatest minds since – minds not necessarily under his influence. Jesus said: “What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self?” And Shakespeare said: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

It’s interesting to consider whether Socrates needed to die to be remembered for his philosophy and method. The consensus at the U3A group seemed to be that he did.

Tinkering with the system won’t help reinvent the purpose of education

In OLDaily this week, Stephen Downes, in a comment on a post by Sasha Thackaberry, makes what to me is an astute point – that the future of education is not the same thing as the future of colleges. This was the trap that the webinar hosted by Bryan Alexander, with invited speaker Cathy Davidson, fell into this week. The event was advertised as ‘reinventing education’, but for me (and I can’t find a recording of the webinar to check my perception and understanding), the discussion was more about how and what changes could be made to the existing education system (in this case the American education system).

Having followed Stephen’s e-learning 3.0 MOOC at the end of last year, I know that he has done a considerable amount of ‘out of the box’ thinking about the future of education, and has recently made at least two, that I know of, presentations about this. See:

This thinking is very much influenced by his knowledge of advancing technologies and how these might be used to ‘reinvent education’ but it is not only influenced by technology. For the e-learning 3.0 MOOC these are the questions that we discussed:I regard myself to be adequately proficient with technology, but I don’t have the skills, as things stand at the moment, to keep up with Stephen.  However, I am always interested in thinking about and discussing how our current education systems could be improved, and what we might need to do to change them. I am also particularly interested in the underlying concepts, systems and ethics, i.e. the philosophical perspective through which we view education. It seems to me essential that this should underpin any discussion around ‘reinventing education’.

Other ‘out of the box’ thinkers

Recently I find myself drawn to the thoughts of three well-known thinkers – two current and one from times past; Iain McGilchrist, Sir Ken Robinson, and Étienne de La Boétie (best friend of Michel de Montaigne).

Iain McGilchrist (in a nutshell) believes that our view of the world is dominated by the left hemisphere of the brain and that to save our civilisation from potential collapse we need more balance between the left and right hemisphere’s views of the world. I know this sounds melodramatic, but you would need to read his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, where he makes a very good case, backed up by loads of evidence, to find support for this claim. Later on this year, on a course offered by Field & Field here in the UK, I will be running a discussion group/workshop where I hope participants will share ideas about the possible implications of Iain’s work for rethinking education.

For those who are not familiar with the book, here is a Table* (click on it to enlarge) which briefly summarises some of the differences in the ways in which, according to McGilchrist, the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere view the world. The right hemisphere’s view of the world is presented in purple font; the left hemisphere’s view of the world in blue font. These statements have been culled from many hours of reading McGilchrist’s books and watching video presentations and interviews.

*I am aware that this Table is (necessarily) an over-simplistic, reductive representation of McGilchrist’s ideas. It cannot possibly reflect the depth of thinking presented in The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It is simply an introduction to some of McGilchrist’s ideas, which might provoke a fresh perspective on whether and how we need to ‘reinvent’ education.

In relation to McGilchrist’s work, my current questions are: Do we recognise our current education system in any of this? Do we need to change our thinking about education to achieve more balance between the left and right hemisphere perspectives?

Linked to McGilchrist’s ideas (and I will qualify this below, because it would be easy to get the wrong end of the stick), another ‘out of the box thinker, for me, is Sir Ken Robinson. Like many people, I first became aware of Sir Ken Robinson in 2006, when he recorded a TED Talk which has become the most viewed of all time ( 56,007,105 views at this time). The title of this talk was ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ and the thrust of the talk was that in our education system, we educate children out of creativity.

More recently in December of last year the question of whether schools kill creativity was revisited when Sir Ken Robinson was interviewed by Chris Anderson under the title ‘Sir Ken Robinson (still) wants an education revolution’. In this podcast the same question is being discussed more than ten years later and it seems that little progress has been made in ‘reinventing education’, at least in terms of creativity.

Just as McGilchrist is at pains to stress that both hemispheres of the brain do everything, but they do them differently, for example, they are both involved in creativity but differently, so Sir Ken Robinson says that we should not conflate creativity with the arts. The arts are not only important because of creativity; through the arts we can express deep issues of cultural value, the fabric of our relationship with other people, and connections with the world around us. Creativity is a function of intelligence not specific to a particular field and the arts can make a major contribution to this, but the arts are being pushed down in favour of subjects that are dominated by utility and their usefulness for getting a job. We are now locked into a factory-like efficiency model of education, dominated by testing and normative, competitive assessment.

In 2006 Robinson told us that education was a big political issue being driven by economics. He said that most governments had adopted education systems which promote:

  • Conformity (but people are not uniform; diversity is the hallmark of human existence)
  • Compliance (such that standardised testing is a multibillion-dollar business)
  • Competition (pitting teachers, schools and children against each other to rack up credit for limited resources)

I am recently retired, so a bit out of the loop, but from my perspective not a lot has changed between 2006 and 2019, in the sense that education has not been ‘reinvented’ – notably there hasn’t been, at government and policy-making level, a change in philosophy. McGilchrist believes that our current approach, where left hemisphere thinking dominates, has significant negative implications for education;  see The Divided Brain: Implications for Education,  a post that I wrote in 2014 after hearing McGilchrist speak for the first time. Robinson believes that although some schools are pushing back against the dominant culture there is a lot more room for innovation in schools than people believe, that we can break institutional habits, and we can make innovations within the system.

But can we? What would this take? Would students and teachers be willing to risk ‘bucking the system’ to embrace an alternative, non-utilitarian philosophy of education?

I am currently reading Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful book about Michel de Montaigne – How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.  In this she discusses the close relationship/friendship between Montaigne and Étienne de La Boétie and, in relation to this, refers to Boétie’s treatise ‘On Voluntary Servitude’. On p.94 she writes:

‘The subject of ‘Voluntary Servitude’ is the ease with which, throughout history, tyrants have dominated the masses, even though their power would evaporate instantly if those masses withdrew their support. There is no need for a revolution: the people need only stop co-operating ….’

Reading this immediately reminded me of the introduction in 2002 of the Key Stage 2 SATs (compulsory national Standard Assessment Tests) here in the UK – the testing of 11- year olds and the start of league tables pitting school against school. Key Stage 1 SATs (tests for 7-year olds) were introduced before Key Stage 2 SATs, so these teachers of 7-year old children had already been through the process. Therefore, by the time the Key Stage 2 SATs were introduced, schools and teachers had a very good idea of their likely impact, and Key Stage 2 teachers complained bitterly. I remember thinking at the time, if all the Key Stage 2 teachers in the country downed tools and refused to deliver the SATs, then there would have been nothing the government could do, but as Sarah Bakewell points out this type of collaborative, non-violent resistance rarely happens.

The power to change

Perhaps reinventing education will have to happen from the ground up, in individual classrooms/courses and institution by institution, rather than nationally. But how will this happen when the teachers and education leaders that we now have in place are themselves a product of an education system which has not: valued creativity as discussed by Sir Ken Robinson; a right hemisphere perspective on the world, as explained by Iain McGilchrist; or a rethinking of concepts, systems and ethics needed to take a new philosophical approach to education as envisaged by Stephen Downes?

This was the type of question that I had hoped would be discussed in the ‘reinventing education’ webinar that I attended earlier this week. It goes beyond tinkering – it’s more of a paradigm shift, or as McGilchrist says, it requires ‘a change of heart’. This is how McGilchrist sums it up:

… we focus on practical issues and expect practical solutions, but I think nothing less than a change of the way we conceive what a human being is, what the planet earth is, and how we relate to that planet, is going to help us. It’s no good putting in place a few actions that might be a fix for the time being. We need to have a completely radically different view of what we’re doing here.

Open University Innovating Pedagogy Report, 2019

Ferguson, R., Coughlan, T., Egelandsdal, K., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Hillaire, G., Jones, D., Jowers, I., Kukulska-Hulme, A., McAndrew, P., Misiejuk, K., Ness, I. J., Rienties, B., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., W., & B., Weller, M. and Whitelock, D. (2019). Innovating Pedagogy 2019: Open University Innovation Report 7. Retrieved from

Stephen Downes recently posted a link to this report on Innovating Pedagogy on OLDaily, together with this comment.

The introduction to this guide (45 page PDF) predisposes me to like it, though as I went through the ten pedagogical models presented (ranging from ‘playful learning’ to ‘learning with robots’ to ‘making thinking visible’) I found myself imagining about how these would be introduced and presented and instantiated (and a whole MOOC curriculum opened up in my mind, yet another project I’d love to undertake but just can’t). ‘ Place-based learning’, for example, speaks to me: I can easily imagine taking some students into a place, whatever it is, and asking them what they can infer from their surroundings. It’s just these sorts of activities that create the perspective and breadth of vision needed to do things like develop the sort of ethical sense I allude to in the next post. Good guide, with useful resources listed at the end of each section.

I agree with Stephen’s last two sentences. The report makes for interesting reading and suggests 10 innovations that the authors think have the potential to provoke major shifts in educational practice.

In the Introduction the authors group these into:

  • Pedagogies which have a long history, have proved to be powerful and engaging, and are now being developed further.
  • Pedagogies that are strongly linked to new technologies.
  • Pedagogies that provide ways of addressing challenges.
  • Pedagogies that respond to changes in society.

Pedagogies which have a long history

Playful learning to focus on motivation and process as opposed to memorisation and testing. The report states that: There are concerns that an emphasis on memorising and testing in education leaves no space for active exploration or playful learning. At the same time, playful learning doesn’t fit well in many current education systems. And that is the problem. Playful learning takes time. The whole system would need to be changed to allow for this time, as evidenced by the example included of a low tech, high play school in California. 

Learning through wonder – sparking curiosity, investigation and discovery. This is not new, but it is so important and so obvious that you have to ‘wonder’ why it has been lost. I’m not sure that wonder can be taught, but if teachers are aware of its significance in learning then their teaching will reflect this. The report claims that this is innovative as follows:

Philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato saw wonder as a spur for learning, when we confront our familiar conceptions and explore strange new idea……The innovative practice here is a curriculum design that builds upon and extends the heritage of wonder, encompassing virtual trips to wondrous places, digital cabinets of curiosities, and student-led object lessons.

Many philosophers have emphasised the importance of wonder, from Descartes (‘wonder [is] the first of all the passions’) to Wittgenstein (‘Man has to awaken to wonder – develop a sense of wonder at the very existence of the world’). And Einstein once said:

‘The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle’ (Einstein, 1940, p. 5). (Source: McGilchrist, I., 2010, The Master and his Emissary, p.491).

For wonder to be an innovative pedagogy in today’s schools, the school would need to adopt this as its principal mission, as in Rudolf Steiner schools. From the report p.24):

The educational philosopher Rudolph Steiner saw children’s early years as a period to stimulate their imagination though wonder at the beauty of nature, the elegance of numbers, the design of artworks, and the telling of a suspenseful story. He saw his Waldorf School as a place to foster a spirit of wonder that combines thinking, feeling, and doing.

But wonder is surely not confined to early years schooling.

Place-based learning. Location is a trigger for learning. As the report says: Place-based learning isn’t new, but mobile technologies have opened up new possibilities in this area. The report describes how a multi-disciplinary approach can be taken to learning when using location as a trigger for learning, i.e. the location can be used to apply learning from different subjects, for example, from history to mathematics. This reminds me of topic-based learning, which used to be the way children were taught in UK primary schools, pre-National Curriculum.

Pedagogies that are strongly linked to new technologies.

Learning with robots to free teachers’ time so that they can focus on more human tasks. This seems bizarre to me. My personal view is that teachers need less administrative tasks, i.e. we need to do away with the excessive focus on administrative tasks rather than replace them with robots.

Drone based learning – enabling and enriching exploration of physical spaces, so that students can visit inaccessible landscapes. The report claims that drone-based learning can extend what can be achieved in fieldwork, which seems fairly obvious. I’m not sure that this can be claimed as innovative pedagogy though – rather it’s good use of an advancing technology.

Pedagogies that provide ways of addressing challenges.

Action learning in teams – finding solutions to apply in daily life through problem solving and raising questions, with a focus on collaboration. Again, this is necessary but not new.

Virtual studios. Hubs of activity where learners develop creative processes. The focus is on developing creative processes. Linear ways of thinking are challenged, and uncertainty is embraced through practice. Time previously spent developing traditional skills of sketching and making is now spent on developing literacy with digital tools.

Virtual studios are all about online exchange of ideas, rapid feedback from tutors and peers, checks on progress against learning outcomes, and collaboration. They provide tools for recording, reflecting, and archiving. The aim is to support learning through inquiry and dialogue. Virtual studios enable students and tutors to work together even if they are in different places and working at different times.

As reported in the document, virtual studios follow similar principles to DS106, a digital storytelling MOOC/course, which started in 2013 , so it’s difficult to think of this as innovative, but maybe it is innovative for schools.

Making thinking visible – opening windows into student learning. Digital tools offer a wide range of opportunities for students to construct and express their understanding, alone or in collaboration with others. Again, this doesn’t feel particularly innovative and seems to relate to reflective learning.

Roots of empathy – social and emotional learning. Roots of Empathy is an award-winning classroom programme designed to teach children empathy so they can interact with others healthily and constructively. The intentions of the programme are to foster empathy and emotional literacy, reduce bullying, aggression and violence, and promote prosocial behaviour.

I think it’s a sign of times that this is considered as an innovative pedagogy. There is some evidence that children spend so much time on their machines (phones, ipads etc.) that they are losing the ability to read faces, and so are less able to empathise. – e.g. see 

Pedagogies that respond to changes in society

Decolonising learning – changing perspectives and opening up opportunities. The report says that we need a view of the world that is not white, male and European. We need a curriculum that explores multiple perspectives and promotes the ability to cope with change. Of course, but what will be removed from the current curriculum to allow space for this?

Decolonising Learning opens up the most exciting, and the most unsettling, possibilities. This is a pedagogy that could produce radical changes in education, leading to learning that not only supports and develops communities but is also strongly rooted within them p.7

The authors have explained what they mean by ‘innovative pedagogies’.  We mean novel or changing theories and practices of teaching, learning, and assessment for the modern, technology-enabled world. p.6

Whilst the report provides a valuable perspective on what might be needed in education to counter approaches which focus on learning as ‘something to be consumed, … a set of facts and skills that must be transferred from experts to learners’, I don’t see any of these ideas as being novel or innovative. I do not doubt that they are needed, but if, as the report admits, some of them have been around a long time, I have to wonder what has prevented them from being adopted more widely.

It seems to me that if we value these pedagogies, which for the most part I do, then the innovative approach would be to challenge the constraints that prevent them from being adopted, which I would see as an overloaded curriculum and excessive surveillance and measurement of teachers’ and students’/pupils’ performance. As it stands I would expect many teachers to feel that these are just more innovations which they should add to their already over-crowded teaching workload.

I can’t see that any major shifts in educational practice will occur unless the underlying constraints and approaches are tackled first. The Open University has published an Innovating Pedagogy Report each year since 2012.  It would be interesting to know what the impact of these reports is. How many teachers adopt these pedagogies? Is there any evidence of a shift in understanding of what constitutes quality teaching and learning?

Listening to and Learning from the ‘Other’

For a few months now I have been struggling to understand the idea of the ‘Other’, i.e. the capitalised Other. Why is it that so many people write about it and make such a big thing of it?

Having read around it a bit – not a lot, because, from my perspective, it’s hard to find anyone who writes about it with any clarity – I am beginning to wonder if, after all, it is a very simple idea. Basically each and every person who is not me is ‘Other’, which seems obvious, so what is the issue?

As I see it, and from my reading about the French/Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), in whose work a dominant theme was the ‘Other’, there are three significant issues which make the ‘Other’ worthy of being capitalised.

  1. No man is an island, as John Donne said.

We live in relationship with all things and all people. In an interview with Rebel Wisdom Iain McGilchrist says: ‘There is no way in which I exist independently of all of you and all of the planet and of all of the people who came before me, and indeed in a strange way I am part of something that is to come. That is all not in me or in them or in some sort of gaps between us but is in the betweenness’.

This is a significant idea because it means not only that we live in relation to all other people, but that our self cannot come into being without the ‘Other’, or as Gary Goldberg wrote in a comment on a previous post (‘Attending to the Invisible Other’),  ‘Being for the Other precedes Being for oneself’. Our identity depends on being in relation to the ‘Other’.

  1. This raises the second issue, that of responsibility for the ‘Other’.

Levinas was concerned with what it means to understand the world on the basis of the ‘Other’. He stressed that we must recognise our responsibility for others, but this responsibility can strain our sense of self, because if I always see myself in relation to others, then I cannot be separate from others.  This has been interpreted by one author as follows:

‘Whenever I see the face of another person, the fact that this is another human being and that I have a responsibility for them is instantly communicated. I can turn away from this responsibility, but I cannot escape it. This is why reason arises out of the face-to-face relationships we have with other people. It is because we are faced by the needs of other human beings that we must offer justifications for our actions. Even if you do not give your change to a beggar, you find yourself having to justify your choice.’ (DK Philosophy book)

And Young (1995) writes:

I am always and always have been in relation to the Other – meaning the other person. The presence of the Other calls me to service and responsibility. The Other brings myself into being, through my separation from the Other.

The face of the Other, makes it clear that ‘I am not everything – that everything does not belong to me and that my consciousness does not encompass everything’.  Everything also belongs to the Other.

We might ignore, but cannot escape our responsibility for the ‘Other’. But what does this mean in practice? I have just spent a month in India, where it was hard not to recognise the ‘Other’ and consider what my responsibility for the ‘Other’ is. Should I, or should I not give money to this family of beggars I saw on the streets? Would that fulfil my responsibility to them? And why do we tend to focus on ‘Others’ who are extremely different to us, when our immediate neighbour is also ‘Other’? How do I prioritise my responsibility? Should I prioritise responsibility? And what forms should my responsibility take? These are the sorts of questions that consideration of Levinas’ idea of responsibility for the ‘Other’ have raised for me.

  1. This leads to the third issue. How can the ‘Other’ enter into ‘my’ world without simply being reduced to that world?

I interpret this to mean, how do I see myself in relation to others as opposed to over and above others, and how do I maintain and respect difference?

On thinking about this, I realise that we probably try and dominate the ‘Other’, in the sense of hoping for a degree of sameness, more than we think we do. If you have children, think of the number of times you might have wished that your child will be like you, at least in your values. Or if we find ourselves in a different culture, how often do we look for and value ‘sameness’, for example, being able to laugh at the same things? How comfortable do we really feel with difference? How easy do we find it to fully embrace and respect difference, without trying to mould it into sameness?

Another common denial of the ‘Other’s’ difference is when we limit the ‘Other’ to a category, e.g. race, gender, age etc. In this sense the ‘Other’ is dominated and controlled by the same, which is what Levinas was warning against.

I have found myself wondering why Levinas’ thinking about the ‘Other’ and ‘Otherness’ continues to hold people’s attention.  I have come to the conclusion that it is not so much whether or not we recognise that the ‘Other’ exists. In fact I can’t see how anyone could be unaware of the ‘Other’. Every person is a unique individual, different to every other person, so every human encounter is with the ‘Other’. It’s more about how we respond to the ‘Other’. Do we try and dominate the ‘Other’? Do we accept responsibility for the ‘Other’? Do we try to listen and learn from the ‘Other’?

Levinas invites us to listen to the voice of the ‘Other’. This, he believes, is our moral and ethical responsibility.


Michael Barnes  Introduction to Levinas,

Beavers, A. (1990). Introducing Levinas to undergraduate philosophers. Colloquy Paper, Undergraduate Philosophy Association, 1–8.

Buddeberg, E. (2018). Thinking the other, thinking otherwise: Levinas’ conception of responsibility binnen de muren van een verpleegtehuis voor ouderen. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 43(2), 146–155.

Kader Düşgün, C. (2017). The Self and the Other in the Philosophy of Levinas. Mediterranean Journal of Humanities, 7(2), 243–250.

Nooteboom, B., Levinas, E., Levinas, F., & Bellow, S. (2012). Levinas, 1–8.

The Dorling Kindersley Philosophy Book

Walicki, M. (1996). Levinas for the Beginners, 1–9.

Young, B. (1995). An Introduction to Levinas.


Visiting Kolkata with a Wheelchair User

Visiting Kolkata with a wheelchair user is a challenge and certainly not for the faint-hearted. Hand-pulled rickshaws are being phased out, but there is little sign that facilities for wheelchair users are being phased in. I think it would be fair to say that Kolkata is the most inaccessible city for a wheelchair user that we have ever visited. We were there three days and in all that time of being out and about for eight hours each day, I didn’t see one other person in a wheelchair. Given the difficulties of getting about this is not surprising.

If you are a wheelchair user, and are thinking of visiting Kolkata, then here are some of the experiences we had that might inform your visit.

First, a little background so that you can compare your condition with ours. It is not me, the author of this blog post, who uses the wheelchair, but my husband, so I am writing from the perspective of the carer of a wheelchair user. I can’t imagine a wheelchair user travelling to Kolkata without a carer, although I do know that there are some extremely intrepid young wheelchair users who travel the world alone. We are not in that category.

My husband is in his 70s,  a quadriplegic, partially paralysed from a spinal chord injury. We are fortunate that he can still stand and, with support, bear his own weight, but he cannot walk. So he is permanently in a wheelchair and is not a user who, for example, needs a wheelchair at an airport because of the walking distance required. He simply cannot live or get about at all without a wheelchair.

We arrived in Kolkata from Kerala, travelling with Indigo airlines. Some airlines, in this case both Indigo and Etihad in Kolkata, don’t have a lot of experience with wheelchair users  (or at least not with wheelchair users who cannot walk and cannot get out of their chair without being lifted). And they have no experience of more active wheelchair users who travel with a bicycle attachment, as we did. Not surprisingly the lithium dry cell battery for this attachment caused great concern, despite the fact that we have a certificate showing that it is safe to travel with. And we also learned that the airport staff, whilst extremely polite and kind, do not know how to lift someone who is paralysed. It is essential to speak up and say exactly how it should be done, or demonstrate, or do it yourself. Everything at the airports therefore takes longer than expected, however much information you have provided before-hand. So be sure to allow time for this.

At Kolkata Airport

We had, of course, booked our hotel prior to travelling, making specific requests for a disabled friendly building, bedroom and bathroom. We arrived to find that there was a flight of steps into the hotel and a very steep ramp, too steep for me to push even this very light wheelchair user up and scarily steep for going down, but a group of the hotel staff did this very willingly. We also found, on arrival, that we had been allocated a room with the shower over a bath. We asked for a room change and finally were given a room with a walk in shower. However, when it came to it, and after we had unpacked, we found that the door to the bathroom was not wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through. We were told that all the doors in the hotel were the same width. We also met this problem in restaurants, when we asked for access to a bathroom. But it is amazing how with a bit of imagination it is possible to find ways round these sorts of problems and make things work. Sometimes we surprise even ourselves with our ingenuity.

For the three days we were in Kolkata, we had booked a car and a guide. The guide was wonderfully informative and the driver turned out to be an absolute gem. The car we used was a Toyota Innova, and the seats were too high for my husband to be able to get in. This meant that the driver and I between us had to lift him in and out several times a day. The guide wasn’t strong enough to do this. I always worry that willing, but inexperienced helpers, are going to end up pulling a muscle or damaging their backs. But the driver and I had this off to a fine art by the end of the three days. You might ask why we didn’t have a smaller car, where the seats would have been lower. The answer is that we needed a car big enough to take our wheelchair which doesn’t fold. A good driver is also essential because of the traffic. Kolkata is so crowded with traffic and people that suitable parking, to enable a wheelchair user to get into and out of the car safely, is very difficult to find. Our driver was a master at making this work, holding up traffic if necessary.

Although we were driven around Kolkata, we obviously had to get out to visit the sites. Most places were, in one way or another, inaccessible to a wheelchair user, but, as we have found elsewhere around the world, people are usually very willing to help, and, in a crowded city like Kolkata, it is fairly easy to find four strong people to lift the wheelchair and occupant up (or down) a few steps. Despite this most of the sites were inaccessible for a wheelchair user. There were often too many steps, so we either gave the site a miss, or my ever patient husband waited outside while I had a quick look inside. Leaving a vulnerable person alone on a pavement in a crowded city is not ideal, so I never lingered.

Outside the Indian Coffee House

These are the sites we visited, or rather, I visited; many of them my husband viewed from the outside. At least it was warm and didn’t rain while we were in Kolkata, so waiting outside was not as uncomfortable as it might have been.

Site Accessible Notes
Dalhousie Square, now known as Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh (B.B.D. Bagh) Yes No traffic on a Sunday morning so easy to wheel round.
St John’s Church Yes Accessible via a ramp.
Job Charnock’s Mausoleum Not inside Can only be seen from the outside.
Rabindranath Tagore’s house No Flight of steps to enter.
The Flower Market


No. Flight of steps to enter, but flower sellers can be seen along the pavements outside the market.
The Indian Museum Only in part Access difficult and very crowded. Steps into the Bharhut Gallery to see the famous railings, but the public helped to lift. No access to the first floor galleries for us, because our wheelchair was too wide to go down the corridor to the lift.
Walk along the Hooghly river starting at the Princep Ghat Monument Yes Good path once over the railway line.


Birla Mandir Hindu Temple No Long flight of steps to enter.
Mother House Yes One step to enter and a further step inside. The Sisters were very helpful. No access to Mother Teresa’s room which is up a flight of steps
Jain Temple Access to the grounds only No access to the temple. Flight of steps.
The Book Market Yes, but very difficult Pavements very crowded and uneven.
Indian Coffee House No Flight of steps.
South Park Cemetery Yes Some surfaces were difficult to wheel over.
St Paul’s Cathedral Yes Access round the back via a very steep ramp. Ask inside for the back door to be unlocked.
Kalighat Temple No Steps to enter. The surrounding area is very crowded. The number of people make it an unpleasant, if interesting, experience for a wheelchair user.
Victoria Memorial Yes Loose stones on the walk up to the memorial building makes wheeling very difficult. Entrance is via a ramp round the back, but at the top of the ramp is a flight of steps. Public needed to help lift. Very crowded inside.

A site that we didn’t have time to visit, but probably would have been accessible, is the Botanical Gardens. We were sorry to miss them.

So not only were many of the sites inaccessible, but the experience of the three days for my husband was of being bundled in and out of a car and up and down steps like a piece of baggage.  I asked him if, as a wheelchair user, it was worth visiting Kolkata. His response was that most things can be made to work, so it depends on what your motive is.

For us the motive was that Kolkata is where I was born and I wanted to see it once more, having not been there for 65 years. We both found that this was motive enough to make the visit interesting and worthwhile, but it will definitely be a one off.

Would I, as the carer of a wheelchair user, recommend Kolkata as a place for a person in a wheelchair to visit? The answer to this question would have to be ‘No’. Kolkata simply does not cater for people in wheelchairs and I think it will be a long time before this becomes a priority. It has too many other issues and problems to address.

But, as we have shown, with enough help, with a positive mental attitude, and under the right conditions, it can be done. These conditions, from our perspective, are that:

  • You can afford to stay in the best hotel possible, have a car permanently at your disposal, and have at least two people helping you.
  • You are small and light, and use a small and light wheelchair, ideally a folding wheelchair. The crowds of people, the steps everywhere, and the amount of lifting needed, make this very necessary.
  • You are not afraid to ask people for help. The people of Kolkata give their help very willingly.
  • You are scrupulous about keeping clean, particularly your hands, so wear gloves and use plenty of hand wipes or antiseptic gel.
  • You are careful where you eat. We relied on our guide to choose suitable restaurants and decide on the menu.
  • You have a patient, tolerant disposition and a sense of humour.
  • You have a motive for visiting Kolkata beyond tourism.

I took photos at all the sites we visited. You can see them here – Kolkata, 2019

I have also written posts about visiting Venice and Rome with a wheelchair user.

Revisiting Calcutta (now Kolkata) after 65 years

I was born in Calcutta in 1946 and lived there until I was eight years old, when my father decided that we must leave. India was no longer a comfortable place for the British – at least, in hindsight, I think that was what he thought. I was too young at the time to appreciate the problem. Leaving India was no easy decision. My mother cried for months after returning to the UK. My father who had been financial director of a well-known Calcutta firm, Shaw Wallace,  had to start again in the UK as a junior accountant, making tea for his seniors.

I do not remember a lot about my early childhood in India. I put this down to the trauma that the whole family suffered on our return to the UK. We were all grieving for India, and I, at the age of eight, was packed off to boarding school. I don’t think my mother could have coped any other way.

At the beginning of this week, 65 years later, I was in Calcutta again, only this time I was calling it Kolkata. (Many of India’s city names that I grew up with have been changed). I was only there three days, and on this occasion that was just the right amount of time – time enough to see many of the key tourist sites (see my Flickr album),  time enough to get a feel for the city of my birth, and time enough to listen for the ‘voices in the ground’. I learned this wonderful and so apt expression, which describes the sense of ‘deja vu’ experienced, or that history is speaking to you, from a blog post recently written by Lisa Lane.

It would be fair to say that I was fascinated, excited, stunned and appalled by Kolkata all at the same time and in equal measure. The first thing that hit me was the seeming chaos everywhere (although we didn’t visit new Kolkata, which we were told is calmer, cleaner and quite different to the old Kolkata that we were seeing). The difference from the tranquil Kerala backwaters we had just left, could not have been more stark.

When we asked our travel guide how he copes daily with the chaos, his reply was that since he was born and brought up in Kolkata he is ‘habituated’. The noise is incessant, with constant blaring of vehicle horns, despite the sign ‘No horns’ on taxis. The traffic is nose to tail all the time, with apparently no driving rules. It’s every man for himself. You cannot move for people, not only on the streets, but in all public places. I cannot see how Kolkata will ever surmount the problems which are obviously associated with being over-populated. But most troubling was the dirt. A clean place felt like a sanctum. The shame is that in old Kolkata all the original buildings with their wonderful balconies and shutters still exist, and could look amazing if they were cleaned up. We were told by our excellent guide, Manab, that this won’t happen because the owners have to pay higher taxes if the housing they are living in looks ‘smart’. Evidently these homes which look so grimy on the outside, are quite different on the inside, well maintained and cared for.

Manab also told us that the Kolkata we see today is not the same Kolkata that was home to my parents, my brother and myself in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In those days the population was much smaller and the streets and buildings were cleaner, he said. The problem started with partition and a massive increase in population for which Kolkata was not prepared and is still not prepared; immigrants are still arriving from Bangladesh, to sleep under tarpaulins and use standpipes for washing, along all the streets of old Kolkata. For me, this was a sight that could not be ignored. I wondered if I would become ‘habituated’ to this if I lived in Kolkata.

Despite all this, Kolkata is not a miserable place. Incredibly it seems to work, with people going about their daily business seemingly impervious to the chaotic hurly-burly around them. For Manab, an educated, well-read, knowledgeable and travelled man (a retired electrical engineer), Kolkata is truly a ‘City of Joy’. He had read Dominique Lapierre’s book of the same name, which he said he enjoyed, but thought it over-emphasised the problem of poverty in Kolkata. I found it hard to understand this perspective. Poverty on the streets of Kolkata seemed to me to be overwhelmingly in your face everywhere. But Manab also said, when we visited the Kalighat Temple to the goddess Kali, ‘All life is here’. With this I could and did agree, and it was this that made Kolkata such a rich and colourful experience. It was so alive – teeming with life.

My parents are no longer alive. I wish I had talked to them more about their 15 years in Kolkata. I wonder if they ever visited the Kalighat Temple. I somehow doubt it. I once asked my mother why she didn’t know more about Indian cookery. The answer of course was that she didn’t have to cook. I suspect that my parents, for the most part, lived in a British community bubble. I got an inkling of what that must have been like when we visited the Tollygunge Club, where my parents were members – an oasis of calm compared to the streets we had driven through to reach it. I can remember having weekly riding lessons there at 6.00 am before school, and also spending Christmas Days there.

In those days the Club was exclusively British, but Anil Mukerji, the current President of the Club, who kindly gave up an hour of his time to show us round, made it plain that there is no longer a place for anything exclusively British in India.

For the most part the impression I got is that the people of Kolkata are immensely proud of their city with its incredible buildings such as the Cathedral and Victoria Memorial, which they fully acknowledge are their inheritance from the time of British rule. As Anil Mukerji said, good and bad has been done on both sides and now the UK and India are friends. Whether or not this is true, it is the people of India that stand out for me. They are so wonderfully generous of spirit, so wonderfully tolerant, patient and kind.

So did I hear ‘the voices in the ground’ in Kolkata? I certainly walked a small way in the footsteps of my parents, even finding the address on my birth certificate, 10 Palace Court, Kyd Street, where I must have lived on first entering this world. I felt excited and happy to be in Kolkata again after so many years. Despite not recognising a single thing, it felt familiar.