James Joyce and the Death of the Keynote Speaker

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
– James Joyce

Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake begins with the end of the book’s last sentence. To think of it simply, this effectively makes it a never-ending novel. Regarded by many as a literary masterpiece, despite its complexity, I once recall watching a TV discussion featuring four experts on this work. After about ten minutes of heated disagreement, one of the panelists admitted not having read the book, whereupon the presenter asked each of the experts to declare their reading status. I was gobsmacked. A highly-respected broadcaster and venerated arts program had assembled a team of academics and authors to discuss a seminal work of fiction and not one of them had actually read the novel.

I was initially flattered, recently, to be invited to deliver a keynote address at a conference on the future of learning. The invitation came, courtesy of the generosity of Scott McLeod and his recommendation of my blog to the event organisers. I declined the invitation, despite knowing intuitively that I think I would have done a decent job and have something worth saying. The Finnegan’s Wake panel came to mind. I have become disillusioned with experts in this context. The keynote is an anachronism. I would feel like a fraud delivering my opinions – regardless of my experience or knowledge – to people giving their time and money in the hope of being granted “answers”. That model of learning is defunct.

What do I know about the future of learning? I have thoughts, ideas, dreams and fears, just like every educator I know. I understand that a keynote speaker is not necessarily expected to be an expert, rather than a thought provoker, but the field of education is dismally strewn with proselytisers espousing revolution who have either never attempted to implement the ideas they are fulminating or have pointedly failed to do so. The keynote at education conferences is frequently delivered by someone who rails against static, traditional learning, expounding the need for dramatic changes in teaching on behalf of unknown, reportedly bored students, while lecturing the audience into tormented submission.

The keynote is a symptom of malaise. There just isn’t enough meaningful, engaging conversation about learning these days. It seems you can’t have an opinion about education without adopting a fixed position and taking a stand. More and more, it seems, the narrative around schooling is fraught with rigid, black-and-white thinking, outraged voices, and people trying to reduce learning to a controlled, formulaic, delivery process. Growth mindset is nothing more than a fashion statement. Hargreaves and Shirley capture this aspect of the narrative succinctly: “Too many issues in education are polarized—direct instruction versus group-based methods, process over product, unstructured play against structured literacy, and whole language in opposition to phonics. It is important not to fall into this trap and divide into … [factions] who are unable to communicate or work with each other.” As a vehicle for this polarized narrative, the keynote speaker is as dead as a dodo. Unlike Finnegan, his return from the dead is unlikely.

I’ll never know enough about the future of education to lecture others on the subject, not because I don’t know anything about the topic, but because I have the good fortune to be grounded in the actual work of learning with students and teachers who grapple with the idea on a daily basis. That’s my work. Much like Joyce’s elusive novel, it’s a never-ending story.

Joyce, James. Finnegan’s Wake. Paris, 1939.
Hargreaves, Andy & Shirley, Dennis. The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence. Corwin, 2012.

Image: James Joyce, around 1918 via Wikimedia Commons