The beauty of bounded tasks: Olusoga and I

This is a one-off blog post in which I show how a book inspired me to improve my teaching practice. The post ends, as they all do, with a practical resource. Today I show how my reading of Olusoga’s book The World’s War, and the philosophy of Alain de Botton, helped me to diversify our Year 9 history curriculum – and helped me in the process. 

gravel 2

The wider world will always be bedlam. Work, however, can present us with a special opportunity: we can tackle a problem, and finally resolve it.

Relationships will always be complicated.  The economy will always be messy. My Victorian terraced house is always damp in some places and crumbling in others. With work however, we can bring order to chaos in a way that we seldom can in other parts of life.

Zen Buddhist monks in medieval Japan knew this. Philosopher Alain de Botton reminds us of their wisdom. To achieve calm, monks would regularly leave their studies and rake the gravel of their elaborate temple gardens. Here, they could bring symmetry, orderliness and beauty to fruition:

gravel

The lines are often small and the monks might inadvertently tread on a bit they’d done. It could be maddening. But it could – eventually – be put right. With time, a bit of careful correction and a well-trained hand, they could get everything just as it should be.

Bringing order to chaos

The problems were real – but they were bounded. They could be solved. Like doing a jigsaw, these tasks can be tricky, but eventually the pieces will find their home and the swirls and the circles will be complete.

My husband laughs at me, beer in hand, when I spend hours making a single history worksheet. I tell him that these worksheets provide me with a patch of gravel that I can rake, a bounded space that I can make ideally tidy. That my worksheets can fulfil my inner need for order and control.

In the time of coronavirus, the wider world appears to be even more of an intractable mess than it was before. My husband is working on the front line as an ICU consultant; I fret and I wash my hands.

With worksheets, however, I can be in control. From large chunks of historical scholarship,  I can create a harmonious, comprehensible story.  For example, after reading Olusoga’s The World’s War, I created a summary of some of the experiences of colonial armies. It took me several hours. For, like the Japanese monks, I didn’t just want order: I wanted beauty.

The beauty in the bounded task

In the time of Coronavirus, my worksheets obsess me like never before. Prevented from seeing nodding faces and curious puzzlement, I now try to bring history to life in my writing. And I luxuriate in it. In the creative act. I try to make the worksheets beautiful – lyrically, or visually. I could have begun my summary of the experience of an Indian soldier in 1914 with a list of bullet points, such as:

  • Indian regiments were thrown into battle early in the war to patch holes in British lines
  • Indian regiments were not equipped with cold weather gear and suffered from a lack of ammunition
  • Indian soldiers were often separated from their usual commanders, creating communication difficulties.

Instead, I spent hours crafting the setting, re-reading Olusoga’s book, thinking about where to begin the narrative. I ended up beginning my worksheet like this:

It is October 1914. Ganga Singh, of the 57th Rifles, crouches in a muddy ditch. Despite his awkward position, he feels comfortable in his thin tropical uniform. Looking up, he can see blue skies and green leaves.

Singh is quiet and watchful. His makeshift trench is within the range of German guns. There is no barbed wire to stop attackers. The Germans facing Singh have both artillery support and hand grenades. Singh’s regiment, meanwhile, has just two machine guns, and no grenades. Instead, Singh holds a jam jar filled with dynamite.

Singh looks around at the other men: a fragment of his battalion. The Indian army has been thrown hurriedly into battle to patch holes in British lines. Where are his friends? Who is the man at the other end of the ditch, shouting orders in an unintelligible language? Singh feels a sense of dislocation, of isolation, of loss.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote that: ‘Poetry is the best words, in the best order.’ I will not be so pretentious or self-admiring to think that I have written poetry here. I have, however, tried to write my best words in my best order. I have raked the gravel in a way that is pleasing to me.

Admiring our patterns

I also enjoy going to history conferences, looking at beautiful worksheets on Twitter and reading Teaching History because here I admire other patches of gravel. ‘Look at yours!’ my heart sings, ‘what beautiful raking! Look at the exquisite pattern you have made!’

I’ll end with another monk. The Venerable Bede, an English monk, once wrote that we live as ‘moments of brightness engulfed in the vast unknown.’ Sometimes this unknown presses against us more horribly than other times. It is at these times that I make my worksheets. I write my history. I bring a little order, a little precision, a little resolution. And then I wash my hands.

Download the experience of Ganga Singh in World War I: 11 Ganga Singh

Key references:

de Botton, A. (2012) Religion for Atheists, London: Penguin.

Olusoga, D. (2014) The World’s War, London: Head of Zeus.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Matthew Elliott says:

    Thank you for writing and sharing this. You have inspired me this morning to create my own little bit of order.

    Like

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