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Creativity Crisis

Chapter 5

TELLING

Today we enjoy the dynamic of socialized learning. We are ready to abandon the lecture theatre, because the experience of listening to a professor is considered passive; and there is no doubt that lecturers who challenge the students with lots of questions and opportunities to speak may have a superior buzz than the run-of-the-mill lecturers who labour their way through boring slides and barely acknowledge the audience. They are, in fact, the reason for the slow but certain falling from grace of the lecture theatre, where students are lined up in tiers with a single orientation, all together but alienated—at least in a bad lecture—as silent individual cells without agency.

To socialize learning, then, we love to construct classes with conversation, group work, tasks and activities where students contribute jointly, sometimes collaborating with the assistance of the teacher, interacting energetically and filling the room with conversation. As a part of ‘active learning’, it is a healthy change, entirely sympathetic to the student voice and student- centredness, where the energetic activity of students who are involved in a job aggregates to produce the buzz that sounds a lot like learning. It is admirable and lecturers have found the arguments in favour of active learning compelling. It is unlikely that we will go back on this trend, even if we discovered that the learning that takes place through group activities is superficial, an echo-chamber that either makes students complacent or anxious.

One possible shortfall of the active paradigm is creativity. Any individual student can still act imaginatively within a group context; and in fact the diplomatic negotiation among strong-willed students requires much imagination to transact. But for all that, there is a precondition of creative work that is compromised by a highly socialized context, because there is no intimacy with thought, no privacy, no space of contemplation where the mind can race in its own exponential registers, free of noise and contention. Paradoxically, the creative mind may be more stimulated by the so-called passivity of a lecture, where the content is delivered from one source down the front and the student in the middle of the theatre, silently ensconced in the anonymous pew, enjoys whatever intimacy in the idea is worthy or enjoins the fancy. In a world of listening, half-listening, doodling, remembering, connecting with preoccupations and projects already surging in the imagination from earlier in the morning, the student is able to entertain rhapsodic thoughts that are conducive to creative growth.

If I am in a participatory lecture with a teacher who throws out challenges to the audience at regular intervals, my imaginative safety is broken. Essentially, I have to do what the lecturer wants me to do and think what he or she has challenged me to respond to, not what I want to think. I am railroaded by busy activities and feel threatened by falling behind if my mind wanders. Instead of enjoying the liberties of speculation, I am dragooned into service. I experience the active learning as glorified drill, a cheerful bootcamp, where I am marshalled into duty, because I am no longer free to wonder but must comply with the terms that are set by the lecturer. Actually, I would much rather be passive—if that is how we are now forced to describe listening to a lecture—where I can also be sceptical, where I can entertain doubts about the validity of the discourse, the teacher’s grasp of it, my own capacity to master it and any number of connexions with my imagination.

If I am allowed to enjoy time with texts and presentations in the intimacy of my imagination, I have scope to be creative. Creativity calls for the privacy of learning, where an idea can establish synapses with other ideas under no pressure beyond the rhapsodic stitching-power of the imagination itself.1 However, education is not the romantic artist’s garret, the poet in a dressing gown, the scholar in the loft, like Nietzsche at the Waldhaus Hotel in Sils-Maria or the solitary Wittgenstein who felt a need to escape from the gregarious cafés of Vienna to philosophize in a hut by a Norwegian fjord. Students are not so autonomous and need the help of teachers for their thinking, creative or otherwise; and the necessary conversations call for a social context, such as we know from tutorials, seminars, labs and studios. If a creative dimension is fostered, it requires neither active learning nor isolation in a cell but rather a voluntary oscillation between the communal and the hermitage, a ready slippage between the social and the monastic and back again. During the monastic phase, however, when reading for an extended essay, a social dimension is also necessary: we need to be able to tell someone about what we find so interesting. It is not enough just to write, because we might not yet know how to begin. We have to tell someone about our enthusiasm.

Around creative work, there are creative conversations. Any artist or essayist with a creative project is desperate to tell someone about it. When I have been learning something, I have gained a new identification with some wonderful material. First, it may not have been so wonderful: incomprehensible, more likely! Slowly, the obscurities lifted and I was able to peer into the unfathomable and see myself in it. My view of myself changed. I gained a dimension of myself as someone who could, say, read Portuguese or understand the inverse square law and relate it to sound as well as gravity. Ahead of my knowledge expanding, my identity grew: it began to subtend the previously unmanageable. As I grappled to understand, I was morally assisted by a burgeoning hope not just that my comprehension would extend to new realms but that my very identity would assume new entitlements. If so, I am in a mad rush to tell someone about it, because it is not just that I have learned something new but that I have become more of an Iberian or a physicist or whatever the passion involves. To tell someone is to reinforce this new identity, to confirm a status that I sense myself having arrived at. To tell someone about my learning is to consolidate the new person that I am becoming, to clinch the very ontology of learning.

The act of telling miniaturizes the social because, while a commitment to sharing, telling someone is still intimate: telling someone does not mean socializing the ideas in the sense of a seminar or a publication but a kind of personal release, a rush of happy belief in the ideas, which is also a toehold on the next stage of finding language for the project. If I am thinking and investigating, trying to make connexions within opaque domains, I benefit by being able to relay some of the thrill. It does not mean that I want to be interrogated about what I have found so interesting. That process might only introduce anxiety into the development of ideas, which is also fragile if it is genuinely creative. I just want to be able to tell someone, partly to reinforce my personal stake in the solitude but also as that first step in reaching out in order to fulfil the eventual creative destiny, which is to produce a creative outcome for an audience to engage with. Telling has the blessings of the social on the terms of the intimate.

In the act of telling, which the creative hermitage requires for relief and refreshment, I do not want to negotiate with anyone and engage with protocols in a collaborative process; I just want to tell someone spontaneously about how my thoughts have developed, to relish my new ownership of knowledge and especially the imaginative trajectory that I can now consider following further. To think creatively is to have a project; and a person in possession of a project wants to tell you about it if you are any kind of friend. In existential terms, the excitement is only as good as it can be prospectively shared; and at any point in the development of a project, the motif of the sharing ear is decisively encouraging.

But telling is also important for learning. Among the many activities that help us learn is the act of telling, telling somebody about what we have just read or learned. It may seem marginal—a condiment rather than a necessity—when compared to verifiable learning activities or tasks that require discipline and rigour, such as reading, looking up, working out, doing examples, swatting verbs, engaging in group work, learning on the job or work integrated learning, repeating mnemonics before going to sleep, writing summaries under dot points or tabulating information or ranking its importance for recall under pressure. But what appears of minor importance relative to these orthodox forms of strain and investigation may have equal importance if ever it were possible to measure the benefits, because telling someone about your learning translates those fragile and delicate imaginative projections—I would argue inherent in all learning—into the expressed reality of one’s identity, rehearsed intimately to a forgiving person.

Reading and various forms of exercise belong to the canon of study methods: they are almost mechanically equated with techniques of absorption and could be recognized in pious traditions of monastic practice (ἄσκησις), in which the devout rehearse and embed the verities of faith with repetition and reverence. Telling, on the other hand, does not enjoy this venerable authority as a study method and is scarcely recognized as any kind of cornerstone or foundation of education. It is informal, often spontaneous and opportunity-based. It depends on the availability of listeners. They have to be sympathetic listeners, which means friends or prospective friends. It may also have the limitation of benefiting those with a ready propensity to communicate, who are perhaps already enthusiasts and only crave an outlet for their passion. Alternatively, the practice may be understood as cultivating enthusiasm where it is only nascent and needs to be socialized to grow. Little is known and contemporary interest and inquiry in the field are not conspicuous.

There are grounds to rethink this neglect, because academics themselves depend greatly on the act of telling which goes beyond the altruistic framework of sharing new knowledge in order that others build upon our findings. As scholars, we wither psychologically if we cannot tell someone about our research in learned forums and sometimes informal contexts as well; research graduates feel isolated and uninspired if they cannot tell their supervisors and maybe fellow research graduates—or sympathetic flatmates or partners or parents or children—about what they are reading and what ideas they are encountering. Even in informal contexts, a person reading a book may experience much more incentive to continue or to read in a more penetrating and invested spirit if he or she has someone to tell about it (which would partly explain the virtue of reading groups, given that reading itself is largely private). An undergraduate student gains greatly from the ability to tell another student about his or her learning; and likewise, school children have a huge advantage if they can tell someone in the family about the ideas that they have come up against in a class or a book. It seems as if the act of telling is a significant catalyst to depth and sustainability in the learning process.

It stands to reason and not just because the imaginative projections in learning are consolidated through a kind of intimate performance of identity. There is also the issue of language. To tell someone about some topic, you merge the language of your discipline with the language that belongs to you as an individual. It is more than just a translation exercise; it is about ownership too. A process of assimilation takes place, where language once outside your immediate familiarity becomes appropriated to the degree that you pass it on. The academic calibre of the person you tell may be less important than the fact that he or she is receptive. When young students take their learnings out of the classroom and tell some family member or carer, they own the knowledge and they are empowered by a feeling of proprietorship and generosity in sharing the knowledge with them. In fact, the motif calls for reciprocal generosity on the part of the listener, who may well have other business to attend to.

This dynamic is integral to peer learning initiatives: the more knowledgeable student benefits by operating at a higher level than just being a learner; and the less knowledgeable student also gets to learn by the assistance that is proffered for the purpose. As suggested, the motif mirrors—albeit in a naïve way—the method by which research is extended when it is transacted in a learned forum, which is so much more than merely dumping knowledge in a publication. The act of scholarship, after so many resources have been collected and subjected to scrutiny, is effectively an act of telling someone about the research. It presupposes another act, that of listening; and we as scholars might well feel flattered and encouraged that an audience welcomes our thoughts.

In higher education, we already work hard training students to do the listening when they are introduced to material through lectures or some other interface. But if we want our students one day to become scholars, our goal should be that they can tell someone about it. We have very little knowledge of the processes or benefits of educational telling and it seems counterintuitive, if not irresponsible, to engage it as an official technique when it is uncontrolled, largely independent of a teacher, unassessable and academically unreliable as a genre that has no bookish or refereed authority. Students can easily become fantastically excited about an idea that is misunderstood or mistaken; and the person whom they tell is likely to be in no position to correct the error. They deepen their illusions as they rehearse their misconceptions.

Telling, however, cannot really be blamed for reinforcing inaccuracies. It is never a substitute for learning or instruction or accurate input. Telling is something else, an instrument of enthusiasm, a method not so much for the refinement of learning or for consolidating knowledge but for establishing an identity as a scholar, a means of consolidating interest by projecting ownership. It also has a remarkable history which richly reveals the many senses in which the concept is useful and, one might argue, structurally necessary to learning. The way in which we use the word today is slightly different from that of former epochs; and in fact precise equivalents are sometimes hard to find.

In ancient Greek, from which we get words like pedagogy, logic and empathy, the act of telling is rendered by a plethora of words, which are, however, somewhat instrumental. For example, there are verbs that can sometimes be translated as to tell or to speak of (αἰνέω)2 but the term in most instances is formal, meaning approve, advise, recommend, give counsel, sometimes even to be content with something or acquiesce in some matter. There is a group of verbs, nouns and adjectives with a root in the motif of leading (ἀγω) related to narrative3 but the meanings range from declaration, announcement and rehearsal to betrayal. They lack the intimacy of our simple verb to tell.

A further group takes its shape from the motif of utterance or the phrase or speaking out (διαφράζω, ἐκφράζω, προφράζω) which ends up meaning proclaim or even show plainly, which has its agent in the form of a teller or expounder (φραστήρ). Another group again can be identified with saying or speaking4 in one form or another.5 Insofar as they are intimate, they are the same as saying. Some of the forms also have negative counterparts with the sense of hard to tell or hard to say.6 Some forms are highly institutional (ἐξαγγέλλω, ἐπαγγέλλω), to tell in the sense of announce, to be the messenger or to proclaim, an idea that has great biblical resonance. In ancient Greek, there are conceptions of telling that reach such cultish grandiloquence that they are sometimes hard for us to relate to, a telling unique to heroes or those worthy of fame, to celebrate (κλέω) or clarion, to tell of in the sense of make famous, just as one can declare as an oracle (ἐκχράω) or, of course, tell the stories (μυθηγορέω) that are the patrimony of myth.

In the common Greek of the New Testament, it is normal to use the word ‘say’ where the English, since the seventeenth century, have been tempted to translate the word as ‘tell’. Thus the King James translators write: ‘Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?’ But the Greek text does not say ‘tell us’ but reads ‘say then’ (εἰπὲ οὖν),7 a pattern which is repeated many times.8 Jerome’s translation into Latin accurately uses the verb ‘to say’ (dicere). However, Greek language does have other expressions for telling, which remind us that ‘to tell’ is slightly different from the verb ‘to say’. One can say anything, like ‘I am bored’. ‘To tell’, on the other hand, somehow registers the pre-existence of a fact or sentiment, which one then conveys to another person. For example, we would tell someone our name. We would not ‘say’ our name to somebody. The name already exists and for one reason or another, we want to convey this intelligence which is already known to us. So we tell that person some information which belongs to us intimately but which has not yet been shared. If you say ‘I am bored’, technically I could come back at you and say: ‘you seem to be having a lot of fun; why did you tell me that you are bored?’ In this case, the telling is a subject of interrogation. Suddenly, we are talking of bearing witness, not just saying something coincidental.

Greek has two expressions which come closer to the motif of telling and which are sometimes translated as telling. One is telling in the sense of talking (λαλεω), though this word often had connotations of idle chatter, in spite of being used in some grave contexts.9 The other brace of verbs expresses the idea of ‘to convey’: tell no man (παρήγγειλεν μηδενὶ) that thing10 but more commonly ‘announce’, as in they kept it close, and told no man (οὐδενὶ ἀπήγγειλαν).11 Both have the same root, which is the messenger (ἀγγελος), and is also the word angel, an emissary of god. In translating the verbs into Latin, Jerome uses a counterpart (nuntiare) which similarly contains the image of the messenger (nuntius) and is the root of our ‘announce’.

These ancient forms can all be translated by our verb ‘to tell’ but in their original context they all lack something. The motif of the messenger reveals a mechanistic process, in which the message is transferred faithfully from one who generates it—and takes responsibility for it—and the recipient. The messenger neither generates nor owns the message but is a passive intermediary who travels. It is qualitatively different from the concept of telling, which may have a confessional dimension and may come from deep within oneself. In one form, the idea of passing on the message may indeed involve personal investment (to evangelize) which is akin to broadcast-ing, with propagandistic overtones, a form of proclamation which already existed in common Greek before Christ.

It is really the prehistory of telling, where we announce, proclaim, relay, convey. One bears a message but as a messenger one is not the owner or originator; otherwise why would we need an envoy? There is no necessary stage of assimilated intelligence, where the thought, by virtue of being relayed through an urge to speak, is formulated and owned by its communicator. There is no phase of interpretation or reflexion, where the utterance is intellectually fondled to yield a kind of glee for its further potential. To tell in antiquity pushes back the provenance of the thought to an anterior authority, some pre-existing stock or superintending power.

To tell in antiquity is to report; and to this, one could add the idea of explaining or narrating, which we already noted in the words with a root in leading (ἀγω). ‘And the apostles, when they were returned, told him (διηγήσαντο αὐτῷ) all that they had done.12 Again, in the Vulgate the verb is rendered as ‘they narrated’ (narraverunt). And because the assimilated or confessional dimension of telling is missing, it is also very far from the concept of ‘revealing’ against our will, as when we say that a feature or a situation is telling, meaning that it gives away information that might be construed critically. There is no similar connotation in the verb ‘saying’ or ‘narrating’, neither of which suggests a revealing element or informing or divulging significance.

The more one explores alternatives in the ancient world to our idea of telling, the more one notices two elements of our own idea that cannot be found. One is the intimacy of telling and the other is the ownership, the responsibility for the thought. If we want to convince ourselves of something, we might say: I tell myself, we tell ourselves; that is, we get into our own ear and strengthen our resolve. As fugitive as it may sound, the element of accountability sits structurally within the root of telling, and for very logical reasons. In its origins, to tell is to count. It comes from the same word as the German, to pay (zahlen), whence the word teller, the clerk at the bank who counts the money for you; and further, the same origins of telling take us to the German word for counting (zählen) or number (Zahl). The motif in English emerges most hauntingly in the toll, the way that the bell counts and which survives most horribly in the disaster toll, the road toll, the deaths which are told or counted.

The link between telling and counting is not coincidental and nor is the intellectual implication that the process involves the calibration of value or significance. The German word for explaining (erzählen) also contains the root of counting—shadowed by our idea of explanation as accounting for something—as noted above; and most notably, the Romance languages all express the idea of telling through the motif of counting, namely recounting (Italian conto, racconto, Spanish cuento, Portuguese conto and the French conte). In the Mediterranean lands, from Boccaccio onward, the practice of telling stories was a wonderful sign of courtly accomplishment in which the narrator would relay and adapt inherited stock to the great enjoyment of the company or brigata. The ritual is all about assimilating an older story, owning it and being accountable to its content, its emotional power and the effect that it has on the listeners, who are specifically mentioned as part of the genre, even till Bandello’s age in the sixteenth century.

In telling a story, one is accountable for two elements: first, the truth of the narrative or some honourable substitute, like the poetic coherence or integrity of the narrative. Second, one is accountable for the importance of the story. It is a story worth telling, as the Greeks used to say (ἀξιαφήγητος).13 To express this idea of importance, we also use the verb to count. If something counts, it is important or valuable in some way. It cannot be discounted. People themselves want to count. To count in that sense does not mean to keep a tally but to have a tally kept of yourself, where the unit measures esteem or love or importance or some other admirable value: you do not do the counting yourself but someone else considers you to be—or counts you as—someone worthwhile. To count means to be influential, to have sway; your opinion is sought. If you are both competent and benign, other people will count on you, meaning that you are reliable but also responsible, in a position where others are somewhat dependent upon you and probably have expectations of you, for which you are assumed to be responsible.

It makes sense, then, that to tell or to count in modern languages also means to be considered, to be judged or to ascertain. If we do something wrong, we are called upon to account for ourselves.14 It belongs to the psychological side of estimation that a person can be ‘counted wise’,15 perhaps technically to be numbered among the wise but perhaps more practically just thought of as wise. Numeracy is a cue but more a metaphor which sits behind accounting. An activity could be considered unfortunate or ‘accounted ill’16 or ‘but a trifle’. A person could be ‘accounted a merciful man’17 or a good actor18 or a woman ‘accounted beautiful’. Hermione’s integrity is ‘counted falsehood’19 and Lady Macduff proposes that sometimes doing good must be ‘accounted dangerous folly’.20

Even before Shakespeare’s time, it was common to invoke counting to express the idea that some phenomena, like love, are beyond our ken. In the poetic language of early Italian verse, the idea of telling or counting is often phrased in the negative: I would not know how to tell or account for something (non saccio contare),21 which persists into the sixteenth century, as in Tasso, where the poet cannot enumerate the ineffable in the same way that one cannot count the stars or the grains of sand on the beach,22 summed up in Shakespeare’s: ‘No thought can think nor tongue of mortal tell’.23 And this indisposition could also characterize any kind of puzzlement, as in Shakespeare: ‘What I should think of this I cannot tell’,24 where telling could either be saying or knowing or judging, as in ‘What then became of them I cannot tell’.25 When things have slightly mysterious origins, it is more curious to tell. Portia cannot quite know but says: ‘There’s something tells me, but it is not love… ’26 So far from merely relaying information, telling is what one does in a condition of doubt, as if one tries to tell what is so and what is not. Elsewhere Portia calls upon us to interpret: ‘Tell me where is fancy bred, / Or in the heart or in the head’.27

In no part of the early modern period, therefore, is the verb ‘to tell’ restricted to a passive rehearsal of a story that has been received. It is not merely transmission, as if a person is charged with a message which is dutifully delivered as if the envelope has scarcely been opened. Telling involves a whole interpretative and possessive process that goes beyond the mechanical act of relaying: it is integral to the faculty of judgement, evaluation, interpretation and assimilation. That is the reason that we say ‘you can tell that someone is sad’, meaning observe, divine or detect: it registers and we understand what we perceive. It is subjective. And because the act of telling lets the teller appropriate the material, the communicative process is relished.

Telling is a genre of subjective communication. The high subjectivity of telling is acknowledged by La Bruyère in the seventeenth century who notes that no amount of epithets and praises speaks as glowingly as facts and, he adds, the ‘manner of telling them’.28 Writing toward the end of the baroque, La Bruyère is a keen observer of the way people tell things to one another. It forms a large part of his subject matter. He notes, for example, how there are certain bombastic people who occupy a lot of room. They tell stories in a way that takes no account of anyone entering the room. If someone else tells a story, they feel a need to take over and tell it in their own way. They will distort certain details of a story so that they appear to be the origin of it. They abstract the content to avoid the scrutiny of the expert in the room. In short, the author depicts a game of manipulation to hold forth.29 La Bruyère details a great economy of self-love, the psychopathology of the know-all. He identifies a pompous lust for telling with a perverse motivation: it is not to instruct or help the listener but to gain the merit of telling it30 and it follows that such people are often very loud.31 One is left to imagine that perhaps La Bruyère is thinking of such presumptuous characters in a power-game. Their interest is to feel more important and powerful than anyone else in the room and, as with the leader of the pack, the other dogs have to follow.

Another scandal in the economy of telling is a failure to connect with the capacity of the listener. Thus, for example, there are people who will hold forth on the archaeology of Egypt or the battle history of Mesopotamia, who will enumerate all the kings and generals in various Babylonian wars while paying no regard to common interests among company.32 Finally, La Bruyère gives a chilling material insight into the economic basis for these various obnoxious positions in conversation, suggesting that one occupies a lot of room if one is rich; but if one is poor, one tells things very briefly and possibly in a confused and apologetic way.33 One has no power and is even embarrassed to open the mouth in rich and confident company. It follows that imposing people often tell you anecdotes about how much money they spend.34 There is no sensual extravagance (volupté) that they have not tried out and which they have not been able to tell about (rendre compte).35

Telling can thus be helpful but also competitive and diminishing. If ever you have the feeling in talking to an incurious braggart that you have lost a pint of blood, it seems that the demoralized feeling is centuries old. But telling can also be downright malicious, as with gossip. The management of social knowledge was already a big part of the comic stage in the eighteenth century. In one of Goldoni’s plays, for example, one character does not want to give another the satisfaction of boasting and ‘telling his friends about my desperation, as if a triumph of his perfidy’.36 In Goldoni’s play Crazes for country holidays, a gossip is under suspicion ‘lest he tell about our miseries’.37 It matters a great deal to know the purpose and the recipient of anything that one tells. It is a very different motif if we tell a friend or we tell the Police; and even when one acts out of indignation—as Shakespeare says, ‘with an outstretch’d throat, I’ll tell the world / Aloud what man thou art’38—there is a problem in credibility, because people may not believe you. And certainly few forms of telling are without some danger and therefore adrenaline.39 Even when benign, they tend to be full of eagerness and enjoin much energy in social participation.

Today, in a benignly self-stimulating culture, we are witnessing an epidemic of telling. Social media are largely organized around the motif of telling people. The key window in facebook says ‘what’s on your mind?’, which implicitly says: ‘tell us’. The robot facebook speaks for your friends. The implication of the phrase ‘tell us’ is that we are already talking to you and asking you to tell us things. However, the digital communicative structure is supremely telling-oriented in Twitter, where each of the millions of tweets represents someone telling something to his or her followers. If we read something interesting, we have an incentive to tell people through a tweet; and sending another tweet also ensures that we remain in currency, that people continue to think of us. Telling people via Twitter then gives us an incentive to learn or at least to gather more resources to tell people about. It seems marvellously self-generating, where interest in current affairs is propagated as a result of the desire for another tweet.

In relation to learning practice, there are difficult but necessary questions to be faced in this telling-rich environment. For a long time, education has assumed a structure where the teacher or lecturer tells the class, and the class-members do their best to absorb what they are told. How much this assumption needs to keep up with the times is a curious question. The proselytes of active learning assure us that students learn when they do things rather than when they are told about them. When they are told, they try hard to concentrate and grab what they can, but it requires much discipline which not everyone is up to all the time. Just the same, doing things can be impractical, as when students might be learning about Homer. But when they tell (assuming that they have cottoned onto something pertinent at some stage), they are already highly invested in the utterance; and the pedagogical benefit may even be greater than doing.

In the age of Twitter, telling is a sign of being stimulated. If nothing is happening, no ideas are worth telling and the person’s world, if not the person himself or herself, might be considered null and boring. Rightly or wrongly, we more and more unconsciously measure interest according to telling. To have nothing to tell someone about is a sign of being understimulated. To tell someone something is automatically to be energized, to have access to adrenaline, to be on the point. One almost establishes through the act of telling that there is a use for the knowledge that has been so recently acquired. We like to share not necessarily to enrich others and make for progress—which would be the traditional view of research publications—but to build reassurance within ourselves and enrich our nascent self-perception as a scholar.

In a traditional educational context, there is a shade of resistance to the motif of telling, as suggested, at least for the sake of learning. If we are learning about a topic, we are still relatively ignorant; clearly we cannot already be an authority because we are just setting out. An urge to tell someone about this learning may seem premature, precocious, immature, embarrassing. Any quiet student in a class that is full of loquacious students, all competing to tell about their encounters with science or culture, may be put off. With classes constructed around the student voice, the more introspective student hears the tutor too little and the other students too much—given that they are still assimilating material—to be of great educational use. So the humbler student may want to hear the expert rather than fellow students guessing and bluffing and scoring nods and winks and jockeying for a position of merit in the class.

The situation is delicate by the same dynamic that La Bruyère noticed in seventeenth-century conversation. Often we do not enjoy the prospect of being instructed by a relative novice on his or her new enthusiasm. If we ever had cause for anxiety in tutorials by our attention being flooded by neophytes, the risks are constantly refreshed in the digital age. Virtual classrooms are awash with chaotic disinhibited contributions from enthusiastic but often misguided students. And in any case, real classrooms are never terribly good for the more introspective students when they are so easily dominated by socially confident students. A class can still be very good and valuable, even if the student dynamics could be more inclusive. Whether a culture of telling, either in the class or in parallel by more intimate circumstances, can achieve greater inclusivity as well as all the other benefits described remains a tricky question.

An arrangement contrived to get students to tell about their enthusiasm would fail if it lacks trust on both sides. It is a condiment to study but also a product of friendship. As often happens, the students who most take advantage of willing listeners are possibly the ones who need the benefit least. They may be the students whose private study already has a delightful intimacy which is capable of transfer through telling, relaying the content to some sympathetic friend or family member. Friendship, the precondition of authentic telling, is perhaps the ‘elephant in the room’, which writers on student success somewhat avoid recognizing.40 It is a difficult theme, because it is not quite friendship in general but academic friendship. If students gain as much from telling as being told, there is a further question of how much it needs to be reciprocal (as friendships usually are). But Twitter reminds us that there is no need always to respond to telling. The need is to be able to tell, whereupon an unspecified number of people will hear or listen. Occasionally, someone might retweet or favourite your tweet; but this kindness or vote of sympathy depends to a statistical degree on the size of your followship.

Twitter reminds us of the formula that we figured out from antiquity. To tell ≠ to talk. Telling is different to conversation, where the response to the last utterance is imaginative and entertaining. When we tell, we only need to focus on our own narrative, our own reasons for fathoming, for loving, for becoming enthusiastic. We do not strictly need to gain reciprocation. Telling has an energy all of its own, which may flow in and out of a conversation of which telling is a component. The historical development of telling is far from a conclusion and one might sense that social media are not only the cause of exponentially greater participation but also fragmentation of demographics and headspace, all with greatly differing styles and assumptions. Exactly what telling is always requires a historical perspective, because it evolves and is not absolute, just like learning and teaching. In tracing its remarkable history, however, it seems clear that the educational potential of telling is far from exhausted and that it deserves to have a much larger profile in the future than it has at present. With its roots in counting and recounting, it is a timely helpmate between imaginative projections that arise with learning foreign material and the new identification that we gain by taking it on. It uniquely includes both the zeal to socialize your learning and your desire to hold onto the privacy of your enthusiasm, which collaborative work does not afford. It is part of the necessary noise of creative thinking and it pays to hear it out.


1 Stitched together in the Greek sense of ‘rhapsodized’ (ῥαπτός, stitched), Odyssey 24.228,229, already metaphoric in Greek, as in strung together, continuous, Pindar, Nemean odes 2.2; hence ῥαψῳδός.

2 Aeschylus, Agamemnon 98,1482, Libation Bearers 192.

3 ἀφήγησις, ἀνηγέομαι ἐξαγόρευσις, ἐξαγορεύω, ἐξαγορευτικός, ἐκδιηγέομαι, εὐδιήγητος, καταγορεύω, προαγορεύω, στοιχηγορέω.

4 ἀπεῖπον, διεῖπον, ἐξεῖπον, ἔσπον, προεῖπον.

5 ἐξενέπω ἐνέπω, παρεννέπω.

6 δύσφραστος, δύσλεκτος.

7 Matthew 22.17.

8 24.3–4, 26.63, 28.7–10, Mark 7.36, 8.26, 11.29 and 33; cf. λέγω.

9 Acts 9.6, 22.10.

10 Luke 9.21.

11 Luke 9.36.

12 Luke 9.10.

13 Herodotus 1.16, 177.

14 ‘avendo nella patria lassato tanta aspettazion di sé ed avendo ancor a rendere cunto a giudici severissimi, i quali spesso castigavano non solamente i grandi ma i piccolissimi errori’, Baldassare Castiglione, Il libro del corteggiano 3.44.

15 Shakespeare, Love’s labours lost 2.1.18.

16 Love’s labours lost 4.1.25.

17 Measure for measure 3.2.203.

18 Hamlet 3.2.105.

19 Winter’s tale 3.2.28.

20 Macbeth 4.2.77.

21 Guido Cavalcanti, Rime 1.27–21, cf. 4.6.

22 ‘contar non possiam’, Rime 1348.52–54; cf. 1424.5–6.

23 Love’s labour’s lost 4.3.

24 Comedy of errors 3.2.184.

25 Comedy of errors 5.1.354.

26 Merchant of Venice 3.2.4.

27 Merchant of Venice 3.2.63.

28 Jean de La Bruyère, ‘Des ouvrages de l’esprit’, Les caractères 2.13.

29 ‘De la société et de la conversation’, Les caractères 6.8–9.

30 ‘c’est moins pour l’apprendre à ceux qui l’écoutent, que pour avoir le mérite de la dire’, ibid. 6.11.

31 Les caractères 6.12.

32 Les caractères 6.74.

33 Les caractères 7.83.

34 Les caractères 8.10.

35 Les caractères 9.18.

36 Gl’innamorati 3.8.

37 Le smanie della villeggiatura 1.4.

38 Measure for measure 2.4.153.

39 Measure for measure 4.3.175.

40 For example, George D. Kuh, Jillian Kinzie, John H Schuh, Elizabeth J. Whitt, Student success in college: creating conditions that matter, American Association for Higher Education, Washington, Jossey-Bass (Wiley) 2011, especially ch. 9 ‘Active and collaborative learning’, with its sections ‘Learning to learn actively’ and ‘Learning from peers’.

Creativity Crisis

   by Robert Nelson