‘Some differences which seem obvious to me are invisible to my grandchildren.’

Thought for the week: Deborah Jane spots the difference

'Maybe children understand that categories can be applied to things but not people. That gives me hope for the future.' | Photo: by Eric Prouzet on Unsplash.

I have been thinking about Catherine Henderson’s article on classifying things (31 July), which I loved. Yes, artificial, culturally-created divisions are the source of much world conflict, encouraging us to see difference negatively. No one could deny the need for classifications in science and medicine but it’s nonsensical to believe we can separate ourselves from nature. Equally, mind and spirit cannot be understood as separate from the body. Meanwhile our education system seems designed to restrict opportunities rather than open them up. Children are taught English, Maths, Science, Art, Sport, Humanities and so on, as if these were separate subjects rather than simply different ways of understanding. Worse still, subjects are ranked in a hierarchy of value and students are required to choose between them in their early teens.

And yet, as a primary school teacher in the 1970s, I also remember using a much-loved set of Snowmen that we sorted into sets – tall, short, with and without scarves and so on. Recently, chatting to my one-year-old grandson as he played with fridge magnets, I said ‘this one is blue, this red, this yellow, this green’ and found other objects to demonstrate what the words meant. In learning language we must label things as distinct from each other – this is a cat, that is a dog – otherwise, how can we acquire and use words, despite all their limitations, to communicate with each other?

Like Catherine, I think everything overlaps. Arguments may arise through people having different understandings of a word. Sometimes ‘What you heard is not what I meant!’ Words perceived as absolutes, like ‘truth’ or ‘goodness’, can turn out to be changeable, conditional on context, history or intention. The question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ is asked of Jesus by a lawyer in the Bible. People may choose to live among others who look, speak and worship like themselves. But ghettoising neighbourhoods was and is a mechanism for entrenching discrimination and denying opportunities to people from another group.

Almost 400 years ago John Donne wrote ‘No man is an island entire of itself’. As Catherine says ‘Learning happens when we wander across borders, refusing to be contained within them’. Liminal spaces are now seen as places of potential growth and change, ‘embracing the mystery and power of transition from what has been to what will be’, rather than ‘neither one thing nor the other’. A pandemic has made us change our ways. We’ve started to do things differently in terms of routines and activities great and small. Previously inconceivable things are accepted as new normality.

Observing my grandchildren, I have discovered that some differences which seem obvious to me are invisible to them. They inhabit a diverse, multicultural world of infinite possibility. Maybe children understand that categories can be applied to things but not people. That gives me hope for the future.

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