Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Creativity Crisis

Chapter 4

BEING NICE

We enjoy the thought of teaching which is effective; that is, it delivers on the learning outcomes or, perhaps more generously, it yields learning. Effective teaching, of course, has a good effect. But does the effectiveness include creativity and, if so, what might that entail? Normally, we recognize that effective teaching is conditioned by many factors of a tangible nature. Themes such as the alignment of learning outcomes, delivery and assessment, feedback, syllabus progression, learning management systems and even learning spaces have received understandable attention in building up a picture of the necessary elements of effective educational practice. These stalwarts in the scholarship of teaching and learning have two characteristics that make them rewarding to study: first, they are to some extent measurable and second, they are manageable: you can do something about them if they are skew or untimely or contradictory.

Behind this positivistic discourse of items that are in our control lies another grid of highly subjective variables which are at times unrewarding to contemplate and perhaps even attract the suspicion of serious researchers. They too have become topics for scholarship but the outcome is harder to embrace. These include relationship issues between teacher and student, personal presentation, engagement, appearance, even fashion sense, items easily dismissed as unacademic and frivolous, and which seem unlikely to contribute to long-term benefits in learning, though they are quite likely to show up in surveys. They are harder to measure and may or may not be something that a given individual can do much about or might want to alter, and with good reason.

Among these subjective indices, however, lies a substantial group with potential credibility for the scholarship of teaching and learning. Sometimes described in survey instruments with terms like ‘approachability’ or ‘enthusiasm’, the lecturer has appeal to students according to his or her personality. But being approachable or enthusiastic is only one of the wider aspects of personality that we could describe more generally as personal characteristics of the teacher that engender delight in the learning subject (the person who learns). Vague but nevertheless compelling, these qualities can be summed up in common language with words like ‘nice’ or ‘kind’ or ‘sweet’ or ‘lovely’. Not all teachers display these qualities, but disparate levels of educational niceness throw the issue into relief. When such differences are seen in relief, it seems likely that niceness may have an effect on learning but especially when it involves the creative. Our assumption from the outset is that the creative is easily suppressed by an unsympathetic environment and is fostered by encouragement. A part of this encouragement is the personal niceness of the teacher, whose characteristic benignity creates a safe place for imaginative expression. From personal observation for thirty-five years, I am inclined to think that the niceness of the teacher has an overwhelming effect on the confidence, empathy and productive creativity of the student.

It is difficult to broach the topic, because niceness does not fit in any learning and teaching taxonomy. Survey designers prefer adjectives like ‘approachable’ or ‘enthusiastic’, first because they are somewhat identifiable and hence measurable on a Likert scale and second because a given teacher might still be able to do something about them. You can resolve to take mechanical steps to become more approachable (more or less by insisting that you are approachable and advertising your consultation-times, even if you are fundamentally unapproachable by any individual’s feeling) and you can demonstrate more enthusiasm by remembering to quicken your voice and become excited at key points in a presentation.

To the extent that these qualities may be controlled or manipulated or falsified, they are not the theme of this chapter. I mean ‘nice’ as in how lovely a person is, not how much he or she can become energized over his or her topic or how diligent he or she is in consistently having an open door and inviting students in. Niceness in the familiar sense that I invoke is a feeling that the teacher is well disposed to the students and enjoys time spent with them, that he or she wants the best time for each of them and warmly responds to their presence. In essence, the quality of the teacher being nice lies in the experience of the student and is not demonstrable in a strategic sense.

How nice the teacher may be is a powerful part of the student learning experience and seems especially likely to have a relationship with learning whenever the student is invited to take risks, where the challenge is bracing and the assurances are treacherous. With creative work, the student needs to feel comfortable with some degree of faith in the teacher; and what one person calls faith another may consider niceness. We are not up to proving this link between creativity and niceness because, as will become clear, the definition of nice is obscure and warped, as are its near but inadequate synonyms like ‘kind’ or ‘generous’ or translations in other languages, like gentil in French. At base, these ideas are embarrassingly convoluted, bizarrely empty or full of archaic prejudice with counterintuitive negative connotations.

From a methodological point of view, we have every reason to ignore such factors. They cannot even be defined, much less measured or controlled. At the same time, however, one might entertain reasonable suspicions that the niceness of the teacher is a powerful force (indeed the most powerful force) in most student’s experience and that it would bear considerably on learning, especially in fields where the intuitive faculties of the student are drawn from the privacy of imagination to the eyes of the classroom and the rigours of assessment. Unlike charisma—that leaderly confidence that encourages belief in an illustrious authority—niceness is (a) modest and humble and (b) likely to be good for learning on an axiomatic basis. Whereas charisma, for example, could fulfil a delusional or needy motive on the part of either teacher or student, niceness is seldom part of an unwholesome power structure and has no psychopathology that annuls curiosity and criticism.

The niceness of the teacher instead contributes to the comfort of the student to learn. The student has no fears of a social barrier that might in turn symbolize an intellectual barrier. If so, the encouragement to follow the teacher can only be good: there is no down-side to niceness, unless it degenerates into indulgence; but then in a sense that is no longer nice but lazy educational practice. In this chapter, I will indeed describe the preconditions of niceness and the limits to niceness, which in many ways grow logically out of the troubled heart of this simple yet strangely fraught concept. Our first task, however, is to explain how and why niceness has such a crazy history that even the world’s finest lexicographers are baffled by its vicissitudes.

*

The origin of ‘nice’ is the Latin nescius, to be ignorant. It is not an encouraging start. Because of its historical character, the Oxford English Dictionary dwells much on the legacy of this derivation, because pre-industrial usage greatly reveals its influence. When applied to a person, it meant foolish, silly, simple, ignorant.1 When said of an action or utterance, it meant displaying foolishness or silliness, something absurd or senseless; and in relation to conduct or behaviour, it meant encouraging wantonness or lasciviousness. In relation to dress, it might be extravagant, showy or ostentatious. Perhaps hinging on the motif of costume—with many layers of sartorial accuracy as well as fashionable perversity—the word turned slowly toward the positive, sometimes describing a person as finely dressed and elegant; and so too with arrangements, where it might mean precise or particular in matters of reputation or conduct, scrupulous, punctilious. Still contrary to modern usage, the word could mean ‘fastidious, fussy, difficult to please, especially with regard to food or cleanliness; of refined or dainty tastes’.2

Toward the end of the sixteenth century, the adjective ‘nice’ could mean ‘refined, cultured, associated with polite society’; though as applied to persons, the development is more toward the end of the eighteenth century. The lexicographers dwell a great deal on usages that we find remote from current acceptation and describe, almost with exasperation, the unusual twist in the etymology:

The semantic development of this word from ‘foolish, silly’ to ‘pleasing’ is unparalleled in Latin or in the Romance languages. The precise sense development in English is unclear. N.E.D. (1906) s.v. notes that ‘in many examples from the 16th and 17th cent. it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken’.

While the development might be unprecedented in Latin or in the Romance languages, it is not completely unparalleled. The development was mirrored in reverse, say, in the word ‘cretin’. In French, this term for imbecile arose from the most unlikely adjective, namely Christian. The descent from a good believer into a dolt seems linguistically impious but it is also not without a vein of theological probity. The children in the asylum needed to be protected, were good Christians, harmless souls who needed experienced Christian instructors to protect them and help them in the world. To appeal to the spirit of Christian charity, one might have referred to the poor delinquents as Christians in order to identify them as worthy of benevolence.

Be that as it may, the turn from foolish to lovely in the word ‘nice’ suggests a deep equivocation in the idea itself, as if the benign field that it now describes is structurally unstable. How much do we really know what it is to be nice? At school, children used to be taught not to use the term nice because it says too little and seems too general and, above all, seems too common. Worse, however, the quality of niceness seems to harbour a risk, as if by calling someone nice we lessen his or her authority; and so the unconscious, on a large public scale, folds niceness into its contrary. Fatefully, the negative origins of the word seem to persist. Even when we speak of a person being benign, there may be a subtext that he or she is ‘harmless’, that is, somewhat lacking in vigour, a bit weak, unable to stand up for things, powerless, incapable of causing a disturbance. It is a bit like the French expression belle âme, beautiful and decent soul, perhaps not very animated, without a malicious spark and perhaps therefore a bit dull and not at all sexy.

The situation is perplexing because, since early times, European languages have been rich in words that describe goodness, benignity, niceness in our terms. Ancient Greek language, for example, is laden with adjectives for mild or gentle (ἀγανός), with substantive forms (ἀγανοφροσύνη), gentleness, kindliness (ἀγαθωσύνη). So too with adjectives for kind and gentle (ἐνηής, ἤπιος, μείλιχος) with respective substantive forms (e.g. ἐνηείη). One spoke of kindness in the sense of courtesy (ἐπητύς) and there are many conceptions of goodwill or favour (εὔνοια) with adjectival form (εὔνοος, εὔνους) or kind and generous (εὔθυμος). There is beneficence (εὐεργεσία) as well as being of good feeling, considerate, reasonable (εὐγνώμων) with substantive form (εὐγνωμοσύνη) which also has connotations of courtesy. One could be gracious, kindly (εὐμενής) or refined, gentlemanly or kindly (κομψός) and well-disposed (εὐνοητικός, εὐνοϊκός) before we get to expressions for tender-hearted or people-friendly (φιλάνθρωπος, προπρεών, πρόφρασσα) or words like benevolence or kind-heartedness (φιλανθρωπία, our philanthropy) or the genius of friendliness (φιλοφροσύνη).

They are all impressive but not exactly what we mean by nice or niceness; they all err to the gallant or generous, slightly institutional in flavour, for which there were further vocabularies, like good-giving (εὔδωρος), readily imparting (μεταδότης, εὐμετάδοτος), liberal with resources (κοινωνατικός), high-mindedly generous (μεγαλόφρων), great of soul (μεγαλόψυχος, that magnanimity that would be used of every noble in the renaissance with any show of largesse) or rich-souled (πλουσιόψυχος). These grandiloquent conceptions are remote from the peculiar intimacy that tickles our heart when we think of a person being nice. When we speak of a person being nice, it involves a similar judgement to the spaghetti being nice or a comfortable chair being nice; it is not specific to an altruistic propensity to act magnanimously, to extending grace, to sacrifice one’s interests in favour of someone else. Being nice, as noted, can equally apply to a person’s appearance, where it would be translated with words like bello in Italian or nett in German. It is an extremely convenient term that slips in and out of metaphor without a trace of where it began or where it might end.

To define nice, we often resort to kind and generous, two words of the most telling structure in their derivation. Though one is Germanic and the other Latin, they both refer to class and birth, by the same metaphor of nobility or gentleness, being of noble birth and hence—by the fateful extension that chauvinism operates through language—nobility of action and thought. In its origins, ‘kind’ is related to kin, like the German word for child (Kind). Remembering that the very word for nature also has ‘birth’ in it, the term ‘kind’ indicated a type of nature, what one was innately pre-disposed to from birth, giving you a certain character or condition, as the OED suggests. Effectively, this quality makes you a certain kind of person. Your kindness signals your belonging to a class or race. You are genetically distinguished, possessing innate characteristics of a positive kind. In the same way that good birth is noble and hence gives onto psychological nobility, so—if you are of the right kind—you are well-born or well-bred; and it follows by the same principle that you are courteous, gentle, benevolent, well-disposed by nature to extending kindness.

Every sweet thought turns out to be self-flattery according to the great historical perversity of language. When we are kind, we are of the right kind, illustrious, privileged, better than others, higher up, from which social perch we can look down on our lessers and sometimes extend favours. The same is true of the generous. As noted, it is a Latin root (generosus) from stock or race (genus) and refers ultimately to the act of begetting (gener-are). Because of the primacy of breeding in preindustrial cultures, the word immediately turned by chauvinistic metaphor to mean noble and magnanimous. As richly documented in the OED, the English ‘generous’ long retained the value and connotation of noble birth, hence courageous and magnanimous, rather institutional forms of being not mean. The pattern in fact has its roots not just in Latin—observed by all lexicographers—but Greek, where the word for birth or breeding (γεννάδας) meant both noble and generous, as in Aristophanes’ useful and generous or noble3 or Plato’s noble and meek,4 and also highly bred, especially as applied to horses.5

This motif of breeding runs directly into modern languages, as with the prolific sixteenth-century writer of novelle, Bandello, who describes a spirited and most generous racer (animoso e generosissimo corsiero).6 In a letter to Isabella da Este, he notes that if you want to nourish a good stable of horses, go look for generous mares produced by good and noble mares7 and the same goes for dogs. Generous in this circumstance means well bred, of the right genes, as with the ‘fierce and generous steeds’ used in joust-ing8 or ‘generous horses’ that one might parade upon around the Brera for leisure,9 meaning one’s thoroughbreds. In another novella, Bandello imputes the same quality to ferocious lions, the most generous among the beasts.10 In no other context would the bloodlust of this zealous killer be considered generous.

In most circumstances, Bandello uses the word generous in a way that is congruent with its acceptation in modern Italian and English, like generosity of heart;11 but peppered throughout the vast corpus of stories, one finds telling regressions to the earlier genetic usage. An example is when he refers to people’s name as generous12 meaning noble by birth. Another is when he specifically refers to people by their ‘generous and most noble lineage’ (di generosa e di nobilissima schiatta)13 or a gentleman of noble and generous ancestry,14 which admittedly entails liberality. Similarly, one can be of generous blood15 which, in Bandello’s narration, turns out to be no proof of good character. These usages are never completely remote from the modern idea of generosity as a preparedness to lavish kindness on others16 but nor are they far from the archaic root of congenital privilege.

It helps to know this backdrop to the term generosity, because it discourages identifying niceness too closely with a quality whose origins and deeper associations are linked with privilege. It is a constant temptation, because generosity in the modern sense is impeccable, positive and universally recommended, as if—as suggested already of niceness—there is no downside. But generosity is not exactly niceness and contains a germ (or seed) of stress in an economy of favours, transacted among people, some of whom are superior to others and are therefore in a position to dispense favours. They thereby exercise their generosity, their privilege, in the same way that Derrida observed of giving, where the giver is at a great moral advantage over the receiver, rendering the gift a kind of diplomatic hook, akin to poison for which it shares etymologies.17

Generosity, alas, does have a downside. Essentialized by its roots, it resembles a gesture of the socially elevated, akin to magnanimity and liberality with which it is frequently coupled in renaissance authors;18 but when it is practiced by ordinary people—like teachers who have few resources beyond their education and good will and an allocated amount of time—it is exhausting. As a person who cannot be a patron, you are not quite of the right kind (or social genus) to extend largesse in anything except your time and encouragement; but these cherished qualities are finite and depleting them to satisfy your own expectations for generosity rapidly reaches painful limits. It has to be managed as a grid of compromises, mindful of equity and fairness to all the other students to whom you have to extend equal generosity. Your generosity will soon make you anxious.

Generosity in the unconscious is indivisible, an archetypal quality of great integrity, like greatness of soul. But in practice, it is highly divisible, almost divisive, because its grace is invidiously accorded to some but not to others. One has built up this concept of generosity throughout many centuries of Christian belief, fertilized by trade and industry, in which love (ἀγάπη) turned by degrees into dearness (caritas) or loving kindness—as of Christ’s love (caritas Christi)—which finally makes a touching but also a somewhat dismal mechanistic turn into institutional charity.19 Charity as an institution is an altruistic system of giving pro bono, making payments with money or time or goods (in kind). It is to a large extent quantifiable, even though we might be more touched on a sentimental level when poor people give a small amount as opposed to rich people giving a large amount.

As a model for social adjustment, sweetly mediating between rich and poor, charity is beautiful and affecting. We are moved that people, irrespective of their personal wealth, give when they do not need to, when they will be less well off as a result of helping others. The $100 given to a charity is $100 that cannot be spent on themselves or their kin; it is forgone and counts as a deficit, even though in many countries it is rewarded with the encouragement of tax deductions. For all that, the kindness once extended cannot easily be extended again, because the $100 once given cannot be claimed back in order to regenerate the same kindness. It is to some extent unsustainable; and to have enduring life, it depends upon memory. Above all, however, the $100 cannot be spent on an investment that yields further money or opportunity or comfort or security; so the giver’s capacity to earn—as well as enjoy or feel secure—is also to some extent dented in the same way that the money, once given, cannot benefit anyone else in the family. Unless there are benefits of reputation, you have possibly acted outside your own interest and probably against the interest of your family; and if the generosity is paid back by return favours (even in producing goodwill), it may have been strategically calculated for the purpose and therefore not really very generous. If one might acknowledge the self-interest and still claim charity—because charity is edifying, as the apostle Paul notes: ‘Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifi-eth’20—it is in the ancient sense of love.

As in the core motif of Christian redemption, the ideal of kindness involves sacrifice. One is generous to the extent that one sacrifices something. If nothing is deleted in your capacity or wealth or opportunities, nothing is enormously generous, except perhaps words; but even they, if they mean something, cost something. For example, if you say: I love you, it is meant to be somewhat exclusive and cannot be squandered on just anyone, else your kindness will be devalued. If the words are thrown around liberally to all kinds of would-be lovers, there is a double cost, first to your credibility (because you are sounding like a slut of either sex) and second to the confused prospective lovers who will have to be disabused at some point of the illusion that you love them to the degree that only one person jealously experiences. You have cost them their hopes.

The cost of kindness may be offset by many psychological benefits; and whole books have argued that we gain much more by giving or helping than by not giving or helping21 which is, after all, the basis of voluntary work as well as every other kind of charity. But it is not necessarily a sustainable model for education because it belongs to a single-use economy that depletes the resources of the giver with every favour. And when the dynamic is expressed with words like ‘favour’, one might already detect a less than professional aspect to the equation that ties it into archaic patterns of patronage.

Potentially, Christian providence allows the believer to transcend material welfare and absorb an infinity of God’s grace through belief. Even so, the basis of receiving this grace is a sacrifice made on your behalf by God, namely the blood of Christ. This holiest death on the cross was supremely generous, because it was occasioned on our behalf against the personal interest of Jesus the man and the immortal God whose only son would die. The sentiment is echoed in countless instances where the word generous is used of sacrifice, as when Lucretia stabs herself as a kind of pagan martyr. In Bandello’s narration—remembering that he was a Catholic priest— the chaste Lucretia’s generous and unconquered soul gave in to be raped by Tarquin, lest he carry out his threat to kill her and an innocent servant whom he would represent as her assailant.22 Her suicide, though clearly destructive, is also somehow generous.

‘No stalwart and generous soldier’, Bandello says in the next story, ‘ever died in retreat’.23 The act of generosity is in dying willingly, where there might perchance be a hope of survival by fleeing. It is everyone’s nightmare in battle, where honour indicates death and one might select the generous option, as the sixteenth-century philosopher Montaigne puts it, choosing to die generously.24 As with Christ, one’s blood is generous or generously spilled. The term generous blood arises in seventeenth-century literature25 with a poetic frisson: it means both generous in the sense of noble, of high- born blood, but also in the sense of giving, spilling it in sacrifice. Racine pursues the more archaic side of generosity to the point of paradox. Thus he talks about a generous scorn that promotes fury,26 just like the ‘generous disdain’ of a fierce horse in the poet Tasso from the previous century.27 It means that the scorn is high-born, justly arrogant, like the generous pride (orgueil généreux)28 or noble or generous envy,29 which, if you think only of modern usage, you would flatly consider a contradiction in terms. But these bizarre usages are clinched for their poetic resonance just because the word is in telling transition: the movement of generosity from haughty privilege to touching kindness involves a confluence of meanings where, as we have seen, a horse is considered generous. And of course a horse may well be generous, may risk its spindly limbs for a passionate race and display all the bravery of its heroic rider with the lance.

Even charity (ἀγάπη) shares in some of this paradox. In his famous letters in the New testament, Paul describes how various gifts, even when angelic, are nothing without charity; if you lack charity, both you and your offices amount to nothing, even when they are about giving, that is, when they approach the contemporary meaning of charity: ‘And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing’.30 In other words, you can do great sacrificial kindnesses and burn yourself up; but these gestures of philanthropy are not equated with charity. Charity or loving kindness (ἀγάπη) is not the gesture; it is not even the substance of relinquishing your assets for someone else. Charity, for Paul, is beyond the material world; it is an affection akin to a blessing.

A blessing is also how one might characterize someone who is nice: that person is blessed with a happy nature. But charity in anyone’s definition, including Paul’s, is not that kind of blessing. It carries a colossal theological sense of sharing with divinity. So close to the apex of spiritual aspirations is charity that at the end of the chapter, Paul places it above faith itself: ‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity’.31 Faith, we suppose, is about accepting a truth, whereas charity is about what the human subject does with it: it is not passive but activates desires in a positive way.

So keen is Paul to extol this virtue that he even personifies it as a kind of exemplary citizen: ‘Charity suffereth long, and is kind (or useful χρηστεύεται ἡ ἀγάπη); charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil’.32 In many ways, this vigorous rhetoric sets up the institutional brand of charity with which individuals may identify: it is saintly and admirable, long-suffering, a construct of pure goodness whose open-heart seeks no reward and has no malice. If we do as Paul exhorts—‘Follow after charity (Διώκετε τὴν ἀγάπην), and desire spiritual gifts’ (ζηλοῦτε δὲ τὰ πνευματικά, literally spiritual things or the spiritual)33—we would do so in order to prophesy, as Paul says, that is, give witness and spread the Gospel. In an ideal theological world, belief in God would make people selfless. The centrality of charity to Paul’s universe makes a lot of sense. In this equation, faith is almost given; but charity, loving kindness, is the virtue that clinches everything: ‘Let all your things be done with charity’;34 it is ‘the bond of perfectness’.35 One could add, for special relevance in an educational context where many chaotic impulses prevail, what Peter ingenuously confesses, namely that ‘charity shall cover a multitude of sins’36 which should also hold for the internal operations of the early church.

It is not hard to see why any spiritual leader would exhort a community to charity. Aside from the intrinsic benefits of the term, it helps build solidarity and trust, in the same way that the opposite rhetoric can foment jealousy and strife. Be well disposed to one another. Show your virtues and an open heart. Be generous. The fact that acts of charity are sometimes quantifiable (and are so exclusively from the point of view of the Tax Office) does not in any way discredit the profound and uplifting dimensions of the concept. For the same reasons, it could be commended to teachers, many of whom labour in extra hours with no paid reward in order to do the students and fellow teachers a good turn. With this giving spirit, organizations function better and enjoy a richer confidence in mutual support. It is one of the most essential, if indefinable, ingredients of a warm work environment: the opposite of a mean work culture where everyone is resentful about anyone else’s gifts, opportunities or achievements.

At base, however, these concepts sit within a psychological reality and only induce their benefits in a social reality when they are genuinely harboured in personal affinities. We are most likely to do someone a good turn because we like that person; we are happy for that person to have the benefit, whatever it is, and to prosper. He or she is nice, a shade of which is to be found in an unusual Greek word suggesting good to talk to (εὐπροσόμιλος),37 pleasant, nice to deal with. It is a quality of soul, according to old language, which recognizes a cluster of qualities. It is often expressed in the renaissance language examined earlier, as in Bandello, where liberality and courtesy are put together with a lovely and generous soul,38 or generous and virile soul,39 which is said of a young woman.

The twin appeal of the word nice, this maverick of the English language that has no decent ancestry but foolishness, is that (a) it escapes the economy of nobleness, gentility and magnanimity and (b) it is sufficiently vague to owe no debt to an image but musters several unspecified qualities in the general service of benignity. Even the term gentle, which is one of the most popular in renaissance literature from the time of the Dolce stil novo, is aristocratic both by derivation and usage, as in Petrarch’s ‘gentleness of blood’40 or the somewhat chauvinistic ‘gentle Roman blood’;41 though Petrarch does concede elsewhere that a low-life soul can be made gentle.42 The gentleness of blood of course has no physical dimension. It is a property of genetics. The same is true of a beautiful gentle name.43 A name cannot be gentle in its agency—even if some are hard to pronounce and others are mellifluous—because the name in this sense designates the noble family or genetic stock. Petrarch enjoyed the concept of a gentle spirit, but it might be associated with valour, astuteness and wisdom,44 even though religious qualities may also be attached to it, like a gentle spirit of paradise,45 or a gentle piety,46 or lofty piety that seizes a gentle heart47 or that is gentle beyond all others, holy, wise, graceful, honest and beautiful.48 Like ‘kind’ and ‘generous’, a gentle spirit is also linked to ‘a magnanimous undertaking’.49

Notwithstanding this quality attributed to the most lordly, there is already evidence in Petrarch of a modern, post-aristocratic gentleness, where the poet applies the term not to a person but to nature. It seems rather modern when he speaks of a tree being gentle,50 or a gentle branch,51 or even a gentle breeze,52 which remains current diction today. In what sense could the breeze be considered noble? It is, at a stretch, possessed of the ease, the privilege of free movement, the liberality of gentility (or aristocracy) but it is in no sense ‘lordly’. Perhaps one takes from the ‘better people’, gentle folk, the metaphoric adequacy, sensuality, bounty, a lack of meanness. In all events, the moment is reached for the metaphor to slide into a change of meaning, to become, in effect, a dead metaphor. But not so fast! The quality of gentle is in certain respects agonized and oxymoronic, as in your gentle scorn,53 which anticipates Racine above, or the gentle fire whence I totally burn up,54 a gentle longing that flares up in me.55

These artful tropes that depend upon ambiguities between the archaic and the modern have a long afterlife. We have ‘the gentle condition of blood’ in Shakespeare56 and the telling person ‘of a gentle kind and noble stock’,57 just as we have paradoxes like ‘our gentle flame’58 or ‘gentle knave’.59 And then we have the physical and natural world, as with a gentle current,60 of livestock which is not necessarily well bred but passive as a victim: ‘as gentle as a lamb’61 or ‘to worry lambs and lap their gentle blood’,62 ‘The tiger now hath seiz’d the gentle hind’,63 of atmospheric behaviour ‘with gentle breath, calm look’,64 ‘gentle night’,65 ‘the sweet infant breath of gentle sleep’66 or ‘gentle gusts’.67 Thus ‘gentle’ passes from chivalry to a low state of energy without an intervening period of happiness. The condition is either formal or tranquillizing, a birthright or sedation; and in the former, there is no guarantee even of benignity, as when Queen Margaret calls the butcher Gloster a ‘gentle villain’,68 an oxymoron calculated to express the lack of correlation between nobility and decency.

The more we look at these options, the more appeal we see in ‘nice’, which is ignorant of this aristocratic hang-up. It is a quality accruing to people who are decent but not just in a moral sense. There is something reassuring in their presence and they somehow radiate good will. They are not necessarily generous in the sense of self-sacrificing. It is perfectly conceivable to be nice without magnanimity, just as it is possible to be noble without being sympathetic. The peculiar radiance of people who are nice is not transactional. It is in their benign bearing, their communication of joy in your presence, their humility, their contentment with other people’s pleasure.

There is no need to have other graces to be nice. A person can be awkward, unskilled in making a good impression; one can be unambitious, unsexy and lack zeal or eagerness. There is no narcissism in being nice, where there might be much in generosity; and nobility, true to its origins, will easily accommodate a swollen head. There are no conceits in niceness. There is no necessary social appeal and certainly no status, which one might assume more by arrogance; but at the same time, niceness does not equate with humility, because a person with a good opinion of himself or herself is still capable of being awfully nice. Certainly, if you are nice, you are unlikely to be arrogant, because that would clearly not be nice. To have no malice at all is perhaps unachievable; so nice people manage to be nice in spite of their occasional snicker, their peccadillo, their rude joke.

As with kindness, we cannot be nice to everyone in exactly the same way. For example, we do not like certain people; and we cannot easily be so nice to them. But then not even Christ was so nice on each occasion. Sometimes he said threatening and reproachful things: he was, after all, a teacher. If we cannot be infinitely generous to each and every comer, similar things can be said of niceness. There are limits. Niceness is not universal or consistent in the person who evinces it: niceness waxes and wanes and is produced or suppressed by responses to others. But what distinguishes niceness is that it is capable of responding to another person’s presence alone, rather than responding to his or her behaviour. Its structure may be no less reciprocal than that of kindness or generosity; but by functioning on the presence of others rather than their actions, it more easily covers the multitude of sins and is stimulated more quickly and less discriminatingly, with low stakes and little fear that it may be mistaken or poorly invested.

If you are nice to a person who proves to be a bit nasty, nothing much is lost. It was only a smile, an encouragement. Yes, it would have been better if in that moment the radiance could have been directed to someone worthier; but fate did not ordain it so. The gesture was perhaps lost but perhaps it will generate a degree of niceness in the world at some later stage and, in all events, the cost to me is negligible. In the classroom, however, there are often disruptive or inattentive students, a challenge which calls for a special balance between niceness and firmness. With this combination that all talented educators possess, a teacher can be nice, possessed of a lovely spirit, without having to be less nice to any of the students, including the unwilling and the cheeky. They can all be handled in a nice way; though many will experience maintaining this joyful disposition as taxing their patience and sometimes inviting severity. For many teachers niceness equates with patience; though if they have niceness by nature, it may cost them relatively little to sustain it.

As a rich correlate of niceness, patience also has a tellingly spiritual history. It is a quality associated with Jesus, the proverbial patience of Christ. But the theology behind this beautiful quality places patience alongside suffering. We too have to prove ourselves ‘as the ministers of God, in much patience (ἐν ὑπομονῇ πολλῇ), in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings’.69 And then in the next line, Paul says how we achieve this by pureness, by knowledge, by longsuffering (ἐν μακροθυμίᾳ), by … unfeigned loving kindness (ἐν ἀγάπῃ ἀνυποκρίτῳ).

It is fateful that the Latin word under our term patience (patientia) means suffering, what one undergoes by way of endurance. Teachers, it must be acknowledged, are called to suffering; but let us not recommend the condition as a route to virtue. There is no need for education to depend upon martyrdom, for the teacher to feel imprisoned or bear the stripes (ἐν πληγαῖς) of the lash, as Paul has it. The Greek word for patience (ὑπομονη) is not directly linked to suffering; but Biblical usage makes the connexion anyway, because what one is patient with is affliction.

Patience today is gratefully experienced through less stressful stimuli. It is more about putting up with people—and many teachers will say other staff rather than students—wasting our time, getting things wrong, misunderstanding us, being a bit misbehaved or rude or ungrateful and arrogant.

No teacher is without the experience of slow or lazy or contrary pupils; and admittedly, a quality of forbearance is required to contain the reflex of reproach or even anger. University lecturers have double reason to require patience, because as well as any tedium in having to explain things tactfully and repeatedly to students who do not even show up for class, our lecturers sacrifice their precious time for research through the extra labours of kindness. Their reputation, prospects and livelihood depend on their research output. It is not a trivial problem to fit enough of it in; and most academics feel under pressure over it.

This pressure is not nice and it may well have a corrosive effect on the niceness of the lecturer. We can only imagine; but in all events, the quality of patience moves into striking relief. To maintain the niceness that makes for a pleasant learning environment, a teacher who is extensively assessed on his or her research—which is seldom without frustrations—is a considerable challenge. An anxious teacher has anxious students; and it is hard to imagine that anxiety would not harm learning, in the same way that impatience, either on the student’s part or the teacher’s, would also not harm learning; and both are catastrophic for creativity.

My aim in this chapter has not been to prove that niceness is more important than anything else or even that it has an absolute importance. Many students would rather be taught by a severe expert than a benign ditherer. But all things being equal, the nicer teacher will be better for my learning, especially when it intersects with creativity, because I will feel safe and encouraged in my learning and in exercising my imagination, without fearing my mistakes or premature comment. To me, a creative learning space should be a haven, so it makes no sense to install a wolf in it. But niceness, which we have discovered always has a twist in it, is not as fragile as kindness and generosity and is rather more renewable than the act of giving. In the end, the learner may not need to be given very much; because the character of learning is also ideally sustainable. The imaginative ability to see oneself in the material yet to be learned is, up to a point, self-generating; so the critical moment is to set it in motion and guide it, not so much to push it along. In this critical phase, the niceness of the teacher is crucial, though it does not require the teacher’s generosity or preparedness to sacrifice hours of research time. This warm quality of fondness that we are identifying as niceness has no cost to anyone and may well be worth more to learning and creativity than all the mechanistic processes of anxious syllabus design in fussy constructivist lockdown, not nice to work within and unlikely to inspire niceness in others.


1 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v.

2 ibid. s.v.

3 χρηστὸς καὶ γεννάδας, Frogs 179.

4 γεννάδας καὶ πρᾷος, Phaedros 243c; cf. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1100b32.

5 ἐπὶ τῶν γενναδῶν ἵππων, Polemo the Physiognomist 78.

6 Matteo Bandello, Novelle 1.2.

7 1.3.

8 ‘feroci e generosi cavalli’, 2.18, and again 2.44.

9 ‘sovra generosi cavalli’, 2.31.

10 ‘con la ferocitá è il piú generoso tra le bestie’, 2.48.

11 ‘quella generositá di core’, 2.35.

12 ‘generoso vostro nome’ in a letter to Cesare Fregoso, 2.13, or to Anna di Polignac with ‘quel generoso nome vostro’, 2.39, signora Antonia Bauzia, 4.4, or Guglielmo Lurio, 4.26.

13 1.2.

14 ‘gentiluomo di nobilissima e generosa stirpe’, 1.49 and again 2.27.

15 3.52.

16 2.10, 2.14, 2.19, 2.58, 3.24.

17 Jacques Derrida, Donner le temps, Galilée, Paris 1991.

18 as in ‘generoso e magnanimo eroe’, Bandello 4.12, or of Galeazzo Sforza, ‘generoso e liberale prencipe’, 4.13.

19 See my argument against Peter Singer’s case that charity morally trumps cultural investment, ‘Culture is not a luxury any more than education’, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, 29 April 2009 (www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/culture-is-not-a-luxury-any-more-than-education-20090428-am3t.html).

20 1 Corinthians 8.1.

21 Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor, On kindness, London, Hamish Hamilton, 2009.

22 ‘il generoso ed invitto animo de la castissima Lucrezia si piegò’, 2.21.

23 2.22.

24 ‘choisissant de mourir genereusement’, Montaigne, Essais 2.3.

25 ‘généreux sang’, Racine, Phèdre 5.6.

26 ‘un généreux dépit succède à sa fureur’, Bérénice 5.2.

27 ‘generoso sdegno’, Rime 569.59; cf. 723.

28 Phèdre 2.1.

29 Athalie 4.2.

30 1 Corinthians 13.1–3.

31 1 Corinthians 13.13.

32 ibid. 13.4–5.

33 1 Corinthians 14.1.

34 16.14.

35 Colossians 3.14.

36 1 Peter 4.8.

37 Phrynichus, Sophistic preparations 68B.

38 ‘animo grato e generoso’, Novelle 3.67.

39 4.18.

40 Canzoniere 263.9.

41 ‘Latin sangue gentile’, 128.73.

42 270.83.

43 ‘bel nome gentile’, 297.13.

44 53.1 –7.

45 109.12.

46 157.5.

47 158.6.

48 247.3–4.

49 ‘gentile spirto, / non lassar la magnanima tua impresa’, Petrarch, Canzoniere 7.13–14.

50 60.1–4.

51 126.4.

52 194.1 and 270.31.

53 ‘vostro gentile sdegno’, 71.25.

54 ‘foco gentil ond’ io tutto ardo’, 72.66.

55 ‘d’ un gentil desire avampo’, 98.12; cf. gentil foco accese, 224.3.

56 As you like it 1.1.

57 Pericles 5.1.

58 Timon of Athens 1.1.

59 Julius Caesar 4.3.

60 Two gentlemen of Verona 2.7, later the same act ‘gentle stream’.

61 Romeo and Juliet 2.5.

62 Richard III 4.4.

63 Richard III 2.4.

64 Romeo and Juliet 3.1.

65 Romeo and Juliet 3.2.

66 Richard II 1.3.

67 2 Henry VI 3.2.

68 Richard III 1.3.

69 2 Corinthians 6.4–5.

Creativity Crisis

   by Robert Nelson