The Beautiful Risk of Education

The second meeting of the Philosophy Of Education Reading Network discussed Gert Biesta’s book – The Beautiful Risk of Education.

A small group attended, probably about 15 or 16. At least 6 were not using their videos, so I can’t be sure. It’s a very pleasant group, many of whom are PhD students, with some drawing on Biesta’s work for their research. There’s no pressure in the group to speak (or be seen), although all contributions are welcomed.

I didn’t find Biesta’s book an easy read. I think I have heard Biesta say somewhere that if we don’t expect subjects like neuroscience to be easy, why should education be any different (or words to that effect). I suspect that there may have been some others in the group who didn’t find the book easy either, since whilst the discussion was good, it was sometimes difficult to follow and difficult to find satisfactory answers for the questions that were raised.

But I agree with a comment made by Eddie Playfair (one of the participants) on Twitter this morning –

Reading Biesta’s ‘Beautiful Risk…’ provides a good opportunity to question many of our assumptions about education and a wonderful antidote for many of the disorders of our time. I’m sure we’ll be returning to its themes often.

The Beautiful risk of Education is the third book in a trilogy, dating from 2006.

  • Beyond Learning. Democratic Education for a Human Future (2006)
  • Good Education in an Age of Measurement (2010)
  • The Beautiful Risk of Education (2013)

Biesta believes that these three books lead to a theory of learning which he outlines in the Appendix of The Beautiful Risk of Education.

Biesta starts by saying that there needs to be more focus on the purpose of education and its aims (I agree) and that there are three overlapping domains in which educational purposes and practices can be articulated:

  • Qualification (the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values and dispositions)
  • Socialization (ways of doing and being)
  • Subjectification (the subjectness of learners – emancipation, freedom and responsibility)

Each of these involves risk. Currently education is risk averse, but education always involves risk, because it is impossible to make education into a perfectly operating machine; education practices do not work in a machine-like way. There is no perfect match between input and output. This is the ‘weakness’ of education. It is easy to recognise the push for making education into a safe, risk-free space, but complexity reduction comes at the price of unjustifiable and un-educational suppression, where suppression becomes oppression. Education should establish a dialogue with what or who is ‘Other’, which means that the outcome will always be unpredictable.

The book explores the weakness of educational processes and practices in creativity, communication, teaching, learning, emancipation, democracy and virtuosity. In each chapter, Biesta takes inspiration from other thinkers, authors and philosophers to develop, clarify and substantiate his thinking. These include John Caputo, Emmanuel Levinas, John Dewey, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Ranciere, Hannah Arendt, William James and others. This engagement with other writers and thinkers nicely mirrors his belief that all education operates through communication and dialogue, rather than through transmission. Education is something that educators and students do together. Communication should be radically open, generative and creative, but it is not possible to determine what communication is – hence the risk.

For me, having had a career in teaching, the most interesting and stimulating chapter was the one on Teaching. Biesta’s ideas on teaching were not new to me. I have been familiar with them for some time, but it was good to be encouraged by the reading network to revisit them and consider them more closely and carefully.

In an age where there is so much informal learning and a belief in constructivism, the focus has shifted from teaching to learning, and teachers have been encouraged to think of themselves as facilitators whose job it is to create learning environments in which learners can learn from each other (what Biesta calls learnification). Biesta believes that constructivism is a theory of learning, not of teaching, and if we make teachers no more than facilitators of learning, we give up on the very idea of education. He says, ‘to learn from someone is a radically different experience from the experience of being taught be someone’ (p.53). This is something that I have always felt, but have not been able to articulate with the clarity that he does, i.e. that there is more to teaching than facilitation, or being a fellow learner, and that teaching is a necessary component of all education.

But teaching is not about authoritarianism. The power to teach is not in the power of the teacher. Teachers cannot understand the impact of their teaching on their students. But this does not mean that a teacher doesn’t teach. Teaching presents students with something that transcends what they know. We should think of teaching as transcendence (experience that goes past normal limits, or the ability to achieve this), as a gift that cannot be given, but is received. The experience of being taught, of receiving the gift of teaching cannot be produced by the teacher. What the teacher teaches lies beyond the control and power of the teacher. Teaching carries with it the idea of possibility and revelation, not just bringing out what is already there. Teachers should work on the distinction between what is desired and what is desirable.

All these points made by Biesta resonate with my experience and what I implicitly came to believe over my teaching career, but wasn’t able to articulate, the main principle being that teaching cannot be controlled by the teacher, it always involves risk.

As one of the reviewers of The Beautiful Risk of Education has written:

‘It aims to explore the weakness of education understood as the fact that education cannot be reduced to a machine-like process. As always, Biesta expressed this fundamental aspect and argument elegantly and with great insight demonstrates that this weakness is not a problem that needs to be overcome, but rather the very basis of the life of education and what makes it humanly important.’

There is, of course, a lot more to learn from this book and about Biesta and his work, not least that his name is pronounced ‘Beaster’ rather than ‘Be-esta’. Too much to write about here, so I’m glad to have the book on my bookshelf and the possibility of re-visiting it in the future, and I’m grateful that the Philosophy of Education Reading Network is an open network which welcomes all comers.

There will be another meeting of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network next month on October 20th, when we will discuss Mary Midgley’s book What is Philosophy For? I’m looking forward to reading this. It has been on my list for quite a while, so it’s good to be prompted to get on and read it.


Biesta, G.J.J. (2013). The Beautiful Risk of Education. Paradigm Publishers: Boulder, London

Finding different voices

In an OLDaily post this week, Stephen Downes has encouraged the authors of a recent publication ‘Open at the Margins’ to redouble their efforts to find the voices not being heard. I interpret this as a call by Stephen for greater diversity in the people who are being recognised as speaking for open education. I think all groups could and should aspire to this.

I’m not sure how I would go about finding voices not being heard. Perhaps it’s a question of being aware of the direction of our attention, and that what we choose to attend to determines not only what we see, but also what we don’t see. Rather than trying to find voices not being heard it might be easier to find different voices; this might require a cross or multi-disciplinary approach to seek different perspectives, which may or may not include minority voices.

On reflection I realise that I have spent most of this year seeking and listening to different voices. A positive outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic for me (and I realise how privileged I am to be in this position) has been to discover a wide range of different people who have made their work and thoughts available online (either freely or at minimum cost). Many organisations have supported this opening up of access to different voices. These are some that I have found interesting and enjoyed over the past few months, offering me new avenues for thought and/or exploration.

Channel McGilchrist

This is a new platform, which I joined in June. Membership requires paying a fee, but there is also access to some materials for non-paying members. Since Iain McGilchrist is a polymath, which is very evident from his book, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, this channel has attracted a wide diversity of thinkers from different disciplines, which has generated very varied discussion. Lots of different voices here.

The London School of Economics and Political Science

Being Human Festival of Humanities

How to Academy

I’m looking forward to:

The Weekend University

Philosophy of Education Reading Network on Twitter @PhilofEd

  • 18-08-20 Discussion of Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good

I’m looking forward to next month’s meeting of the network:

  • 15-09-20 Discussion of Gert Biesta’s The Beautiful Risk of Education

I have only just discovered (by chance, and most of these events/groups were discovered by chance) the Philosophy of Education Reading Network. Last night’s discussion was the first for this newly established group and was open to anyone. A few people in the zoom call clearly knew each other, but many, like me, were new to the network, and some were new to the philosophy of education. 17 people attended, a good mix of men and women, and of different ages, and the atmosphere was very inclusive without putting pressure on people to contribute. All contributions were welcomed and considered.

Returning to the point made at the beginning of this post about the need to encourage different voices to contribute to a group or collaborative endeavour, and in the light of my experience last night of a newly formed group, I wonder at what point does it become difficult for a group to recognise that some voices are not heard, or that critical perspectives are being narrowed and limited through group think and a lack of diversity? Is it inevitable that this happens in groups that share and enjoy a common interest?

This has reminded me of Stephen Downes work in 2007 on the difference between groups and networks, and his post Groups Vs Networks:The Class Struggle Continues, which I think speaks for itself and speaks to this topic of finding different voices.

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Immoderate Greatness. Why Civilizations Fail:  Time to build an ark?

Immoderate Greatness. Why Civilizations Fail, by William Ophuls (2012) – Notes

This short book, only 70 pages of well-spaced type and beautifully clear prose, packs a strong punch. It ends with the question of whether it is time to build an ark. Has our civilization declined to the extent that we should prepare for an uncertain future, in which humanity may survive, but civilization as we know it will not?

In a series of short chapters, Ophuls discusses six major factors which lead to the breakdown of a civilization. Rome is an example of this. Ophuls organises the six factors under the headings Biophysical Limits and Human Error.

Biophysical limits include ecological exhaustion, exponential growth, expedited entropy and excessive complexity.

Ophuls points out that we have consistently degraded and exhausted our natural resources, resources that are critical to our long-term survival. We have overlooked the consequences of continuous growth and failed to understand exponential growth, which is both insidious and explosive. The solution, he says, lies in controlling growth; we cannot flout or evade the laws of nature for ever.

Ophuls also points out that civilization expedites entropy. Through increasing technological advances the movement of energy from more useful to less useful increases. The greater civilization becomes, the more citizens produce and consume, and the more they produce and consume, the larger the increase in entropy (energy return on investment is negative). The only way out is strong checks on will and desire, i.e. powerful negative feedback.

But as civilization grows with associated excessive complexity, it becomes harder for the human brain to adapt and solve the problems. Linear minds cannot comprehend non-linear systems. Limited, fallible human beings are bound to bungle the job of managing complex systems.

The wise way forward would be to renounce ‘immoderate greatness’, but human error (moral decay and practical failure) prevents us from doing this.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the parallels of all this with our civilization today, which Ophuls believes is already in a state of well-advanced decline, due to moral decay and practical failure. Ophuls describes this as the age of decadence in which we want to hang on to what we’ve got and buy off our enemies; there is an increasing sense of entitlement and loss of responsibility; there is growth in civil dissension and argument; and a society that is increasingly value free and no longer believes in anything much or takes anything seriously. Such a society is governed by a force that we can call moral entropy, and becomes dysfunctional and ungovernable. Morale is gradually eroded, and discord increasingly fomented by a succession of practical defeats. What used to work no longer does and the social contract unravels.

Ophuls believes there is no viable way forward. Ecological problems, exponential pressures, thermodynamic losses, risky complexity, moral decay and human incapacity are evident everywhere. Biophysical limits with human fallibility lead to eventual and inevitable collapse of civilisation.

Evidently the natural lifespan of a civilization is about 250 years and our time is up, so the task is to salvage as much as possible and prepare for an uncertain future. This requires present sacrifice; renunciation of greatness in favour of simplicity, frugality and fraternity. Is it time to build an ark?

I can recommend this book, but it is a sobering read.

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The Master and His Emissary – Wiki Notes

This is an image of the front page of a wiki I have created to record my notes on Iain McGilchrist’s ‘ground breaking’ book, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. During this time of enforced lockdown, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to re-read and engage more slowly and deeply with this very long and dense text.

The wiki is open to the public for reading and comment. Here is the link –

Iain McGilchrist’s thinking and ideas seem even more relevant today than when his book was published ten years ago. He claims that we live in a world dominated by the left hemisphere. In the concluding chapter of his book he describes what the left hemisphere’s world would look like, if it managed to suppress the right hemisphere altogether. It is easy to recognise our world, the world we are living in now, in much of what he describes. For this reason, the book is an important one for our times.

If you are interested and would like to know more, but don’t have the time to engage with this long and dense book, or have tried it and find it over-whelming, the wiki notes might help, but I must stress that any errors are mine. In addition the selection of what to attend to is mine. Someone else’s notes might read differently, and no doubt the notes would be different if I myself wrote them again at another time. So these notes are no substitute for reading the book.


There are also other ways to access Iain’s ideas, which include a variety of articles and videos. I recently listed them in another post – Introducing the Work of Iain McGilchrist

I agree with Jonathan Rowson, who in his review of the book wrote:

‘[A] grand theory for our times. If properly understood and acted upon, it has the potential to transform our view of ourselves and our cultures, and prevent us from making a huge number of mistakes that might otherwise seem like sensible decisions  … a truly wonderful book.’

From Global to Local – the need for decentralisation

Two years ago, when attending a 4 day course on the divided brain, organised by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist, there was an informal discussion amongst a group of participants who were suggesting that one way of addressing the problems of our planet would be a return to living in small communities. If I remember correctly, 250 was suggested as a good size for these communities; why 250 I don’t know, but there was reference to Dunbar’s number which is 150, the number of relationships the average person can retain.

At the time I thought surely it will never be possible to return to living in small communities, when so many people now live in huge cities. Tokyo has a population of more than 38 million, and many people have claimed to love living in cities, with their hustle and bustle. I have lived in a village for 35 years, now with a population of around 1600, which is significantly more than when we moved in, but it has never, in this time, had a population as small as 250 or 150 people.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the World Localization Day conference and realised that it not so much a question of size of communities as of localization. It’s not that we try and go backwards, but that we try and hold globalisation and localisation in balance. This has become so evident during this COVID-19 pandemic. For some things we definitely need globalisation; for example, for the development of vaccines, and test and trace systems. But what we have seen is that it is in local communities and neighbourhoods that people have found the most support during this pandemic.

In my village, a group of volunteers was established within 72 hours of the lockdown. This group of about 35 people, take care of the vulnerable and isolated, doing their shopping, collecting their prescriptions and generally offering any help that is needed, even down to walking dogs. And whilst the local supermarkets (of which there are at least 10 within a 20 mile radius) have upped the number of online deliveries they offer, it is the local village shop, and the local farm shop, which have provided the individual service that anxious customers have needed.

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The World Localisation Day conference was organised by Local Futures, which has been ‘working for four decades to raise awareness about the need to shift direction – away from dependence on global monopolies, and towards decentralized, regional economies’ in order to ‘renew ecological, social, and spiritual well-being’. The conference highlighted the work of small groups all over the world who are working to strengthen their local communities, supporting the work of local businesses, and in particular promoting local growth of food.

I found the conference a very positive experience, full of hope and the real belief that localisation is a way forward. Interestingly, now that I have heard this message, I have realised that many people think in a similar way, but express their ideas in different contexts.

So, for example, I recently heard David Lammy (Labour MP for Tottenham and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice), an invited speaker for the Being Human in Conversation series, say that some challenges can only be addressed globally, but that cultures that don’t allow local powers are struggling. We have to attend to the local. We have to address the day to day concerns in our own neighbourhoods. (For the full talk see –

Similarly in an event organised by the London School of Economics and Political Science – Brexit and the Post-COVID-19 Options for the Economy – it was said that the UK should get serious about decentralised governance.

The need for decentralisation has been discussed for years. I first became very aware of it in 2008 when participating in Stephen Downes’ and George Siemens’ massive open online MOOC on Connectivism and Connected Knowledge, when they made it plain (when discussing how the internet functions) that distributing power, knowledge and control across decentralised systems will always be better than relying on the lynch pin in a centralised system. On his OLDaily newsletter Stephen Downes has listed a number of articles that discuss decentralisation (enter ‘decentralisation’ in Search).






And yesterday in a talk given to the Oxford Internet Institute – What Big Tech does to discourse, and the forgotten tech tool that can make tech less big, Cory Doctorow said that we must be in control of our own technology and be able to adapt our own tools to the circumstances we find ourselves in, rather than relying on the ‘big players’. Our resilience to future crises depends on this, he said.

The need for greater decentralisation and more localisation has been understood for years, but it seems that people have to see it in action to believe that it is possible. There have been signs during this pandemic that more people are beginning to think about and understand these ideas, but it remains to be seen whether enough people will support the movements to effect change over the long-term.

On Politics and Plagues. What can literature do for us?

Like many others during this time, I have turned to literature to try and gain deeper insights into the times we are living through and, in particular, the COVID-19 pandemic. I know I am not alone in reading Albert Camus’, The Plague. Early in the lockdown Stephen Downes linked to a post about it in his newsletter, OLDaily, which contained this video

The Plague was also the first fiction choice for the online platform Quillette’s Quarantine Book Club, where it generated a lot of interesting discussion.

Two other books that have informed my thinking at this time are Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (which I have slowly and carefully re-read, whilst making extensive notes), and William Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail.

The question of what can literature (in the broader context of the humanities) do for us at times like this, was discussed by Professor Sarah Churchwell, Dr Kate Kirkpatrick and Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge in an excellent online conversation ‘On Politics and Plagues’ at the end of last month. This was organised by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, as a precursor to the Being Human Festival, due to take place on November 12-22nd November.

Lindsey Stonebridge is currently writing a book about the relevance of Hannah Arendt for today. Arendt is known for her book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’. What did she mean by the banality of evil and how does it relate to the idea of infection? Lindsey Stonebridge told us that Arendt did not refer to the banality of evil as a plague, but as a fungus. By banality she did not mean ordinary. She talked of banality as meaning thoughtless (not thinking) and what happens when we are in a bureaucratic, over-socialised system which allows thoughtlessness to happen. The banality of evil is fearsome and thought-defying. In this sense, evil is not demonic, but banal. The problem of modern evil is that it’s not radical, not deep, not profound; it’s like fungus. Fungus is really contagious; it grows rampant all over a surface. In this sense thoughtless, policy-driven bureaucratic evil is like fungus. It is not a plague; it is a moral rot, which grows and rots at the same time, like a fungus.

Kate Kirkpatrick has recently published a well-received biography of Simone de Beauvoir, who was an associate of Camus. She suggested that Camus and Arendt thought in similar terms about moral contagion and the trivial wrongs that result in really morally significant actions. In Camus’ novel, the plague has agency and humans are passively reactive. Simone de Beauvoir thought that in Camus’ writing, the plague gave people an alibi for not being politically engaged and for not being morally responsible; it enabled evasion of individual accountability. de Beauvoir thought that although humans cannot make evil disappear, they can mitigate it. Arendt, in her reference to the banality of evil, wanted to cut it down to size (no matter what the scale, as in the holocaust), to make it recognisable.

Lynsey Stonebridge thought that Arendt and de Beauvoir would have agreed that there is no master plan. When you have a plague (e.g. political evil as a contagion and when politics is out of control) you feel helpless and people rush for the demonic (the big man), but to deal with the morality we need to analyse it. She believes that generally people are trying but failing to do this, because they are not thinking; we can’t think in the policy and administrative systems spaces we have set up, she says. Camus wrote that the plague never dies, you can’t defeat it. Kate Kirkpatrick thought that this might encourage apathy, or it might spur people to different political thought, but what do we do about the habits of thoughtlessness that have led to increased inequalities and oppression? A response to the banality of evil, according to Lynsey Stonebridge is thought, language and writing.

At this point the conversation moved on to a discussion about the relationship between fascism and patriarchy. Kate Kirkpatrick pointed out that this discussion depends on which fascism you are talking about, and that situations and freedoms are different and context dependent. For further information about this discussion see the video of the recording which I have linked to below.

Finally Sarah Churchwell (who hosted this conversation) asked Lindsey to discuss the political and moral question of the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to her recently published article in the New Stateman, What Hannah Arendt can teach us about Work in the Time of Covid-19. In this she argues that the metaphors we choose matter; they do political work. She writes:

The government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy, published on 11 May, states that people will be “eased back into work” as into a dentist chair: carefully, and with face masks.

The reason they need to be coaxed is, of course, the economy. At one point in the document, it reads as though it is the economy, not people, that has been sick: “The longer the virus affects the economy, the greater the risks of longterm scarring.” The economy needs ventilating, and people are its oxygen.

Lindsey Stonebridge’s argument is that the metaphors being used explicitly prevent us from being agents of the economy; we are not working for the economy, we are labouring for the economy, but according to Arendt action requires both labour and work, and it’s action that makes us human. Labouring is simply what we do to survive. Work, on the other hand, gives collective meaning to what we do. We labour by necessity; we work to create a human reality.

This is why debates and policies about how we get back to work matter so much: we are also talking about what kind of human society we are – or want to be.

If taking the human value of work more seriously is key to a better politics, we should also grasp this opportunity to think about what counts as valuable work.

This fascinating conversation ended by returning to the question, What can literature do for us?

As this conversation shows, it gives us ways to think about the world. It also gives us the opportunity to participate in human memory and consider what it means to be human, by listening to a plurality of voices, and aesthetically, it gives us pleasure.

For a recording of this event, where you can get the full details and not just the bits that interested me, here is the video.

Introducing the work of Iain McGilchrist

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Earlier this week, as I checked my online feeds early in the morning, I came upon this query on Twitter, from someone I don’t know either on or offline:

Should I be interested in the work of Iain McGilchrist (left and right brain stuff), what would I get from it and where should I start?


I was immediately interested in this question, because, not only have I spent the past nine years following Iain McGilchrist’s work, but I have also spent virtually every morning since the start of this COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, slowly and carefully re-reading, and making notes on his seminal text, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

Iain, who I have met on a number of occasions, once said that he was very surprised at how many people had told him they had read his book more than once. I am not surprised. It is a very long and very dense text. I am a very slow reader and it is taking me a week to read a chapter, which has turned out to be the perfect project for a lockdown! There are 13 chapters in the book. I said to Iain at the time, that since it took him 20 years to research and write the book, I fully expected it to take me quite a few years to read, re-read, and digest it in its entirety, which has proved to be the case.

In answer to the Twitter query, anyone who is concerned about the state of our world, will probably find something of interest in Iain’s work. In the The Master and His Emissary, Iain draws on extensive research to answer the question ‘Why is the brain divided?’ The book is in two parts.

Part I focusses on the brain itself, not on what the two hemispheres ‘do’, but on the ‘how’, i.e. the manner in which (not the means by which). The focus is on ways of being and ways of attending to the world. Each hemisphere offers a fundamentally different version of the human world and, as such, the two hemispheres are in conflict and stand in opposition to one another.

Part II focusses on the history of Western culture and how this relates to the divided brain. Both hemispheres have crucial roles to play. Iain believes that whilst science is integral to our understanding of the world and he does not want to undermine reason, we now live in a world dominated by left hemisphere thinking – mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised. Through bringing this to our attention, he would like us to consider how to redress the balance.

I know people who have started with reading Part 1, but have never got round to reading Part 2, and vice versa. This is not surprising. The book contains more than 500 pages of dense text, packed with information, inferences and references. It is not for the faint-hearted. It is not an easy read, but if you are prepared to give it the time, it contains something for everyone, no matter what your discipline. It is also a book that you can return to over and over again. You can skip sections, and return to the book later when you feel ready for them.

What did I get (and continue to get) from the book? I can’t speak for others, or tell the author of the tweet what he will get from it. Everyone will get something different. When I first came across the book in 2010, the idea that there are two ways of attending to the world immediately resonated. I could see this in my own life.  I was struck by the idea of the asymmetry of the two hemispheres, and the fact that although each hemisphere is in one way or another involved in everything we do, there is a power struggle between them. I recognised that I had felt/experienced this power struggle between the left hemisphere’s focus on language, and the right hemisphere’s focus on visual imagery, in my own life. As I got to know the book better, there were so many more ideas that resonated. I became interested in philosophy, and philosophers. As I continue to read the book and reflect on it, I sense a greater personal awareness and understanding of my approach to living in the world, and what is important to me. And of course, now, as we live through this global crisis, the idea that we are living in a left-hemisphere dominated world, seems so very evident and obvious.

So if you are interested in learning more about Iain McGilchrist’s work, where should you start? You can of course launch straight into the book, but maybe you would prefer a slow build up to it, which is now easier to do ten years after the book was published, because there are now many videos of Iain speaking about his work on YouTube. These are the steps I would take if you want a gentler introduction.

  1. Watch the RSA Animate Video which explains how our ‘divided brain’ has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society. (11.47 mins)

2. Watch The Divided Brain Documentary (I hour 18 mins). This is a beautifully produced and very informative documentary, well worth watching. It is not free, but you can rent it for 48 hours for only £4.99, or you can buy it for £14.99.

3. Read Ways of Attending. How our divided brain constructs the world. This was published in 2018. It is a short introduction to Iain McGilchrist’s ideas, only 30 pages long, and very accessible. For some reason I don’t understand it is expensive for such a short book – £14.99 in paperback, Kindle edition £8.67, but if you really want a brief introduction to the key concepts of Iain’s exploration of brain lateralization, and its impact on human culture, this is the book to buy.

4. If you are still unsure about whether you want to invest in a copy of The Master and his Emissary, then the Introduction to the book, is freely available online as a PDF

5. Hopefully, all this has been enough introduction to the full text: The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The paperback edition of this on Amazon Prime is cheaper than Ways of Attending! £13.63.

Update 03-07-20 – Since writing this post, I have created a wiki of the notes I made when reading The Master and His Emissary. See Wiki Notes

I could recommend many more articles, videos and podcasts, but I think five is enough to start with. You can find more on Iain McGilchrist’s own website.

You can also subscribe to a new platform, Channel McGilchrist for the most recent updates about Iain’s work. This platform is in development and will probably open fully in the summer, but currently if you subscribe, you will receive a monthly newsletter by email.









A daily bathe in Nature

In this time of almost global lockdown, there has been renewed recognition of the importance of Nature to mental health. The Earth is a source of life, and in a crisis people turn back to it.

Here in the UK, the public (excluding the vulnerable and those with underlying health issues) have been encouraged to leave their houses once a day, to exercise, to walk, or to cycle for a short time, in the vicinity of their homes. City dwellers have been astonished by the traffic-free streets, which now means they can hear the birds. Animals, such as deer, are beginning to wander the traffic-free streets of some towns. The decrease in pollution has led to clear skies and clean air. Spring has been experienced more vividly than usual, particularly since the UK has been bathed in glorious sunshine for about a week now. We have been reminded that the birds, trees, and plants, are completely unperturbed by what is going on.

I live in a very rural area, so the glory of Spring comes as no surprise, but I recognise that my relationship with nature and my garden has grown in recent years, more so since I retired, which has given me more time to work or sit in my garden, to keep watch over it, to become sensitive to its needs. But I think I understand the wonder that some are feeling this year at the beauty of Spring. I remember about 20 years ago getting a new job which required me to travel all over Cumbria, the particularly beautiful county I live in. Before this I had been working flat out as a schoolteacher, going to the same classroom every day for eight in the morning, and rushing home in the evening to my growing family. I scarcely lifted my head. I still remember clearly when I got my new job, which started in the autumn, and was driving all over the county; I was bowled over by the beauty of the countryside. I realised that I hadn’t seen the autumn colours for years. It was an eye-opener. In this current crisis the splendour of Nature is proving to be an eye opener for many.

In this week’s ‘Start the Week’ radio 4 programme, Andrew Marr discusses the hopefulness and beauty of nature with his guests Sue Stuart Smith, author of The Well-Gardened Mind: rediscovering Nature in the Modern World and Jonathan Bate, author of Radical Wordsworth: The Poet who Changed the World. It was Wordsworth who said that a daily bathe in Nature was necessary to his health; he recognised that his health had suffered after prolonged periods of city life. Wordsworth’s famous poem Tintern Abbey emphasises how important this relationship with Nature was to him, and how profoundly stabilising the memory of a place in nature can be. It restores the human spirit.

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Both Sue Stuart Smith and Jonathan Bate realised that despite their belief in the benefits of developing a relationship with Nature, particularly at this time of COVID-19 lockdown, many people will not have access to open spaces, or gardens. From her research Sue Stuart Smith suggested that even just listening to the sounds of nature, birdsong, or running water, or being able to smell damp earth, or particular plants such as lavender or rosemary, can have deeply calming physical effects on us. A lot of people can probably testify to this from tending their window boxes or balcony plants.

And failing this, Jonathan Bate suggested that we can read our way into Nature. Wordsworth’s poetry can transport us into Nature.

(For the full poem see The Poetry Foundation website)

I have now not left my house/garden for more than four weeks. We fall into the category of people who the Government has advised to self-isolate for 12 weeks. Although I have always loved my garden, I have never been so grateful for it as this year.

Man’s Search for Meaning

At the end of this month I am supposed to be going on a four-day course on The Mystique of Existentialism. I say ‘supposed’, because given the current fears around COVID-19, either the course will be cancelled, or I will opt out.

The course outline says that the intention is to discuss the human condition that thinkers the likes of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre dwelt upon.

Suggested reading for the course is At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. I was pleased about this because I have already read and blogged about the book which I thoroughly enjoyed. See Human Existence is Difficult. Existentialism and Phenomenology.

Serendipitously I also recently came across an article about an interview between Nigel Warburton and  Sarah Bakewell, in which he asked her to recommend five books on existentialism.

Of the five books that she recommends, I have only previously read Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre, again for a course, about five years ago – an introduction to philosophical literature. Sarah Bakewell starts her discussion with David Cooper’s book, but I jumped straight to Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.  Frankl wrote the book in 1945 in nine successive days.  I am late in discovering this book, but it still seems very pertinent for our times.

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, was a Holocaust survivor. In the book he describes his experience of the concentration camps, and questions whether a life of suffering can also have meaning. At one point he writes about how the memory of his wife, and conjuring up her image, sustained him and kept him going. He came to understand that ‘The salvation of man is through love and in love’. He also quotes Nietzsche’s words ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.

One of the strongest messages to come out of the book is that man has a choice of action, a choice of how to respond to the circumstances he finds himself in.

‘…. everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’

‘…. Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself.’

As Sarah Bakewell says; ‘…we always have the freedom to make of it [a given situation] what we will, according to our own choices, to impose our own meaning on it.’

This seems like a strong message for our times.

Travelling in Cambodia with a wheelchair user

This post is being written from my perspective as the wife of a wheelchair user, rather than the wheelchair user himself. I hope it will be helpful to other wheelchair users who are thinking of visiting Cambodia. Each disabled person is uniquely disabled and therefore has needs specific to their condition. In our case, the wheelchair user is an incomplete quadriplegic, who is permanently in a chair and cannot transfer unaided.

Angkor Wat

Cambodia is probably the most challenging place we have ever visited, from the perspective of access for wheelchair users. We didn’t see another wheelchair user in the two weeks we were there, during which we travelled between four places. We were told that Cambodian wheelchair users (because of course spinal and other catastrophic injuries occur in Cambodia just like anywhere else) stay at home and don’t go out, which is not surprising since there is virtually no provision for them. We were also told that Cambodians would not marry a disabled person, or stay married to a person who becomes disabled during the marriage; we were treated with curiosity, given that we have been married for more than 50 years!

Having said all this, in Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh we were able to make use of a mobilituk, a tuk-tuk adapted for wheelchair users. This made a huge difference to how easy it was for us to get around, and we certainly missed it when we visited Kep, where one wasn’t available.

It was so much easier and, more importantly, more comfortable, for our wheelchair user to be wheeled into the tuk-tuk, than be lifted (bundled!) into a car, boat or jeep. And, having left the winter in the UK, it was a treat to travel in the open air, despite the dust.

So travelling round Cambodia was hard, but also memorable, maybe because it was hard. This was our itinerary from January 12th to January 28th, 2020, organised by Cambodian Travel Partner.

Day Date Location Hotel Schedule
1 14-01-20 (we started a day late because of flight delays) Siem Reap Victoria Angkor Transfer from airport to hotel. Tuk-tuk tour of Siem Reap. Blessing from resident monk in the pagoda. Dinner and dance show in the evening.

Victoria Angkor Hotel

2 15-01-20 Siem Reap Visit Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (Bayon) and Ta Phrom temples by tuk-tuk.
3 16-01-20 Siem Reap Travel by open jeep through rural areas. Visit Rolous market before driving to Tonle Sap. Visit Kampong Khleang and the floating village, by boat. Phare Circus in the evening.
4 17-01-20 Battambang Battambang Resort Travel by car to Battambang

Battambang Resort Hotel

5 18-01-20 Battambang Take a tuk-tuk to visit cottage industries around Battambang. Visit Wat Ek Phnom Temple, Well of Shadows Memorial, and the bamboo train.
6 19-01-20 Battambang Visit Wat Banan Temple, Phnom Sampeau and Vineyard by tuk-tuk.
7 20-01-20 Phnom Penh Pavilion Travel by car to Phnom Penh. Tuk-tuk ride to the river. Sunset cruise on the Mekong river cancelled because of access difficulties. Offered a full body massage instead!

Pavilion Hotel

8 21-01-20 Phnom Penh Visit Wat Phnom and Royal Palace by cyclo. Take tuk-tuk to Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
9 22-01-20 Phnom Penh Free day. Visit Koh Dach Island by tuk-tuk.
10 23-01-20 Kep Villa Romonea Travel by car to Kep

Villa Romonea

11 24-01-20 Kep Villa Romonea Visit Kep Mangrove Forest by car and boat. Visit Kampot Pepper Farm by car.
12 25-01-20 Kep Villa Romonea Free Day
13 26-01-20 Kep Villa Romonea Free Day
14 27-01-20 Phnom Penn Travel from Kep to Phnom Penh Airport by car. Return to UK (Manchester) via Bangkok and Dubai.

Our itinerary didn’t work out exactly as originally planned because due to storms in Dubai all our outward  flights were delayed, and we arrived a day late. We flew with Emirates as far as Bangkok, and then Bangkok Airways to Siem Reap. Emirates were very helpful with the delays, putting us up, free of charge, in the Novotel Airport Hotel in Bangkok for a night. These delays meant that whilst Cambodia Travel Partner had scheduled a free day in each place (which is a really good idea), we missed the one in Siem Reap, because we were a day late, and we missed the one in Battambang because we decided to spread the itinerary over two days rather than cram it all in to one day. I think having some slower rest days for a wheelchair user is essential for an enjoyable, stress-free trip.

In terms of access – everywhere in Cambodia is difficult. This was our experience:

Despite a lot of communication with our travel agent when planning the trip, not one of the hotels had a room with an adapted bathroom. I loved all the hotels and was pleased that we stayed in such lovely places, but the rooms were not disabled friendly, which meant a lot of lifting.

Scarcely any of the sights we visited were adapted for wheelchair users, although the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum had ramps, one of which was so uneven and steep that we needed to ask for help. All the temples could only be accessed via flights of steps.

Wat Banan Temple, Battambang

Our wheelchair user saw a lot from the outside, but missed a lot of the inside, for example the exquisite bas reliefs in the Bayon Temple and Angkor Wat.

Bas Relief, Bayon Temple, Siem Reap

If we had travelled with a group of heavy lifters it would have been possible for him to see a lot more, but we travelled as a couple, so whilst lifting wheelchair plus occupant up a few steps was possible, with the help of the driver and guide, it was not possible for the flights of steps which often faced us. I am always conscious when asking people to help (and they almost always do – people all around the world are so amazingly kind and helpful), not only of the effort required, but also that it would be very easy for these untrained volunteer helpers to damage their backs or other muscles. But if you travel with a group of in-the-know friends or carers, then it would probably be possible to lift the wheelchair user up flights of stairs to see sights such as the bas reliefs.

But the Cambodian people are very kind and our travel agent couldn’t do enough for us, constantly checking that we were OK and making alternative arrangements if we needed them, such as arranging complementary full body massages for us when we found we couldn’t access the boat to go on the sunset cruise on the Mekong River in Phnom Penh.

Mekong River, Phnom Penh

So, on reflection, this was an ambitious trip to take on alone, as a couple – but we did it and had a memorable experience. From the perspective of our wheelchair user, he knew it would be a difficult trip so found it an adventure. The trip therefore met his criteria for an enjoyable holiday. I also knew it would be difficult, but it was harder than I expected.

Cambodia is unlike any other country I have ever visited and we have visited quite a few developing countries. The Angkor temples are truly wonderful to visit and rural Cambodia is fascinating. The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is stunning and Tonle Sap with its floating villages is unlike anything I have ever seen before, even if it brought back memories of Lake Titicaca which we visited in 1977! But it is impossible to avoid being affected by Cambodia’s recent history. The Cambodians want visitors to know about this terrible period in their history, and the horrific atrocities that were committed by the Pol Pot regime, but it is hard to take, and very sad.

Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning that we are both in our 70s, so any younger wheelchair user reading this should bear this in mind. Whilst you might not mind being bundled about like a piece of baggage in your younger days, it becomes a bit more of a trial as you get older, although if gaining access means being treated like a piece of baggage, it is usually worth it, no matter what age.

Having now had a chance to see quite a bit of Cambodia, for which I feel very privileged, if I were to go back, with or without my companion wheelchair user, I would want to spend more time in Siem Reap at the wonderful Victoria Hotel, taking full advantage of the hotel’s beautiful environment and leisurely visiting all the Angkor temple sites, although this probably wouldn’t be so appropriate for a wheelchair user.

For a complete photographic record of our trip see my Cambodia Flickr Album

Some references we explored when planning our trip