Kazuo Ishiguro is no Michael Crichton. Lying at the heart of his dystopian world in the novel Never Let Me Go, where human clones are raised as organ donors, is not futuristic speculation about biotechnology, but a metaphor for how awareness of the finitude of life influences ordinary people’s treatment of love and friendship. What also intrigues him are the stories we manufacture and share among ourselves to come to terms with mortality and accept our fate. Hauntingly, some of these stories and storytelling habits, together with constraints on human potential, may be propagated right in our education machines.
Hailsham, the book’s invented boarding school, prides itself on many things: ensouling clones through aesthetic education, demonstrating to outsiders the presence of their souls through student artworks, and providing comfortable lives clones elsewhere cannot dream of. It does not shy away altogether from discussing with them the topic of donations either. Yet the institution is itself still so much bounded by society’s desired fate for clones that it believes it can go no further than these. The idea of ensouling in the first place suggests its own doubts about their humanity. To prevent breeding of what it regards as useless discontentment, Hailsham employs euphemisms and accustoms students to their donation mission before they develop the capability to ponder the deeper implications for them. In place of conversations on difficult issues, rumors and fantasies spun to make reality more palatable spread around the compound. Meanwhile, the heavy emphasis on humanistic education belies insufficient teaching of reasoning skills and knowledge about the wider world that would probably challenge those practices. Art lessons are thus part political instruments, part products of prejudice, and part diversions. In the 2016 Japanese drama adaptation, in which Hailsham is renamed “Sunlight Academy,” an instructor describes the subject as a channel for self-expression that “does not give anyone trouble.”
Sociologists may read Ishiguro’s novel as a discourse on how industrial and post-industrial ethos, coupled with pedagogical heavy-handedness, create educational regimes that simultaneously enrich and incapacitate individuals. It can also be viewed as reflections on how educational reformers who try to do better than the rest of society yet cannot fully detach themselves from its mindset carry over class bias into school halls. To the extent that educational systems are creations of (flawed) societies and mold students according to standards dictated by economy needs and limited imaginations of adults at the helm, there are potential limits to the cognitive exploration and personal development they can stimulate. And as far as the relevance of teaching here boils down to transmission of ideas and information, the same criticism may apply to social thought and exchange in general.
What Never Let Me Go has not fully delved into, meanwhile, is that education is not necessarily an outcome or the only outcome when you give a learned person an audience. The tale does identify the impressionability of learners as their vulnerability, even as it is such impressionability that leaves room for growth. Beyond the scope of the novel, one would notice that classrooms sometimes become battlegrounds for ideologies, or at least podiums for an educator’s potentially biased views. On the flip side, however, campuses have been weeding grounds as well, where educated elites decide who are fit or unfit to pursue a discipline further. In the flurry of evaluation activities and experience of intellectual thrill from interactions with brilliant students, instructors may forget that the greater meaning of their jobs lies in adding value to students, not judging them.
In an ideal world, the advice to prescribe to floundering students should be to work harder. Arguably, pragmatism sometimes calls for instructors to direct students to academic programs they can thrive better in or have more vacancies. Yet, even in such situations, it is within one’s capacity to encourage people to retain an interest in the subject and read up on it in their spare time. That is an approach more in line with the spirit of teaching. Outside of classrooms, the same can be argued for interactions between experts and non-experts of a subject—experts may have grounds to criticize non-experts for not researching a topic well enough, but never for stepping outside their own “territories.” In fact, in the current political climates in various countries, where stakeholders in both humanities and the sciences complain of being sidelined, external allies can be a huge boon for a discipline.
Notwithstanding the adverse effects, power relationships between instructors and learners are probably unavoidable in many formal education settings, although consumerism seems to be reversing the dynamics in disturbing ways. The consolation is that parents and/or students usually accept the necessity of education and theoretically have the option of switching schools. In certain informal settings, though, the feeling of relative power is what motivates education. Gender relations may be one example—both genders sometimes have the tendency to infantilize and perceive a need to teach the other. 18th-century polymath Francesco Algarotti, for one, believed that women had interest in only romance, so he wrapped up the law of gravitational attraction in flirty verbal exchanges in his physics textbook for ladies. Among nations, some developed countries similarly promote their models of success and/or Western-style democracy to less developed countries, never mind that the latter may actually value and score higher in other aspects of social well-being. Hence, when teaching is unsolicited, the thin line between innocuous education and patronization seems especially worrying.
Nevertheless, this discussion is by no means intended to incite hatred against the teaching profession and other parties who engage in knowledge sharing. Professionals in other sectors likely face ethical pitfalls too. As it is, educators are often underpaid for the painstaking and occasionally thankless work in spite of their overall beneficial impact. Those who do not leave for more lucrative vocations even though they have the choice particularly deserve respect. Parties who give unsolicited advice, too, can be well-meaning. In either case, individuals may have more to lose if they reject learning because of human failings on the part of the instructors. Still, there are times when it probably would not hurt for educators, both formal and informal, to exercise a little more humility. After all, they are also learners in, if nothing else, the art of teaching.