Fearful learning

Fear…is an inconstant sadness, which has also arisen from the image of a doubtful thing (pp. 81, P18, Schol. 2)

Fear is an inconstant sadness, born of the idea of a future or past thing whose outcome we to some extent doubt. (pp. 106, D. XIII)

P63: He who is guided by fear, and does good to avoid evil, is not guided by reason. (pp. 149, IV. P63)

I would like to argue that schools have increasingly become institutions which have nurtured “fear” in the Spinozist definition of the word.

The Student’s Perspective of Fear

Let’s start with the students’ experience of school. Many students become quickly aware that they are being judged when they enter the school environment, often by measures which they don’t fully understand. In their very early schooling, many children are simply unaware that school is a place where “work” or, as it less commonly labelled by teachers, “learning”, happens. They are told to behave very differently in school from the ways in which they behave at home; the way they are grouped with other children is naturally very different, as are things like going to the toilet and eating. The school regulates the child in different ways from that of the home environment. Gradually, the child becomes aware that what he/she is doing is being “ranked” or “judged” in a number of different ways which he/she will inevitably not adequately understand and which, unlike many situations outside school, do not have consequences. For example, if a child laughs or talks in a way which is deemed “inappropriate” for the school setting, he/she may well be told off. The child quickly learns to internalise these rules, but I would like to argue that much of the time this process of internalisation produces an “inconstant sadness” because the child inevitably will not have a definite “idea” of what the consequences of obeying or disobeying these rules will be; the “outcome” of one’s education is always, to a certain extent, “in doubt”. Education is necessarily a “meritocratic” exercise, whereby learners “discover” or “construct” their talents, inclinations, desires within the given parameters of the system and the whole point of it is that once starting out, you never quite know where it will “end”. The learner never quite knows what he/she will “become”. There is inevitably a “vacillation of mind” which will produce “an inconstant sadness, born of the idea of a future…thing whose outcome we to some extent doubt.” The learner never quite knows that he/she will succeed in the way he/she might wish. This seems to me to be the “very ground” of education and there is nothing that can done about this.

However, piled on top of this fundamental fear are many others which “local conditions” produce. Let’s start with the institutional structures which produce fear. If a learner is in a system which is insistently “testing” a child’s abilities, this will inevitably create fear, particularly if these tests are deemed to be very important. Many students quickly learn to find self-esteem in how well they do at school and will feel fear if they worry that they will do badly in a test. If students are being tested all the time in many different ways, then the system will inevitably produce the affect of fear on a more or less constant basis.

But is this a good or a bad thing? There are a few points to be made here.

First, a Spinozist pedagogue might argue that one would want to create a system which nurtured adequate ideas about “fear” in order to increase students’ powers of action. So, in this sense, it is not so much that a child is being tested, but it is the way the child learns to think adequately about the “fear” which is important. In my experience as a teacher, I have not felt I have encouraged my students to adequately think about their “fears”. In fact, I have probably only discussed students’ fears about the outcomes of their education on a handful of occasions. A Spinozist pedagogy I think would insist that all learners think in depth about the nature of their fears: the forces which have produced it.

Second, with so many “fear” being generated, a Spinozist pedagogue might well argue that overall such a system is more likely to produce “passionate” modes of thinking rather than active ones. Learners are constantly being buffeted around by the affect of fear which is enshrined in the system.

The above diagram attempts to show a Spinozist critique of the education system viewing it from the affect of “fear”. At the bottom is the fundamental point that the notion of education in a modern society creates “doubtful outcomes”; few learners know what will happen both in the long-term and short-term. Assessment regimes which are high-stakes will inevitably produce more fear because outcomes will become even more doubtful. This testing will affect self-esteem because many learner’s sense of themselves will be entwined with how they are being assessed. Narrow assessment regimes which, in the minds of the learners, arbitrarily attach a number to someone’s “achievements” will pile on more fear and “aversion” in the Spinozist sense of the word.


My Own Experiences as a Pupil


I have a distinct memory of not being aware that the spelling tests I was doing at school carried with them any affect of fear. I was not doing “too well” in them, and not being worried about this, until one day I told my mother that my score in a test. She was furious, and told me that I had to learn the spellings at home, which I began to do. You could argue that my mother gave me an adequate idea of what it meant not to be a good “speller” in our culture. Provoked by fear, I “increased my powers of action” and learnt the spellings, doing much better in the future tests, and began to gain a real sense of self-esteem from doing well in them. This lesson never left me; motivated initially by fear and a desire to please my mother, and then myself, I continued to revise hard for future tests. But the tests at secondary school often had outcomes which were much more doubtful than the spelling tests, and, as a result, my fear was greater about doing badly in them. I began so habituated to feelings of fear being attached to the tests that I learnt to live with my fear, expecting it as a matter of course, and worrying if I did not feel fear. I saw, incorrectly I think, as a “key motivator” to do well. However, when I analyse my success at school, I realise that I began revising well before I started to feel fear about how I might do in a test. The memory of the fear motivated me to revise well ahead of time; I wanted to gain mastery over this affect and therefore revised hard. The affect I did not want to feel was that of “failure” but possibly more powerfully, I wanted to feel the affect of success. Having achieved success with my spelling tests after revising, this positive feeling ultimately motivated me to revise for my other tests. So while I may have felt that fear motivated me, it did not. Rather it was the memory of the fear, the avoidance of the affect of failure, and most importantly a striving for the joyful affect of success which motivated me, in part, to work hard. This said, the subjects I did best in were those I had an intrinsic intellectual interest in; my striving to know some form of truth made me work above and beyond that which I would have done if I had only been motivated by these affects. From this, I would say that “fear of failure” did motivate me to work, but only partially, and it certainly was not enough to motivate me to do my very best.

A Teacher’s Perspective of Fear


One thing that struck me as I progressed with my teaching career was that fear seemed to dog me at every corner. I couldn’t really work out why this was? Was it something inherent in me? Or was it the school I was in? Or was it the actual system itself that was producing this affect? Having been a full-time lecturer at a university for over six months, I realise now that it was the system. I don’t have the feelings of fear that I used to have when in school. Why is this?

In a Spinozist sense, there was still the issue of “doubtful outcomes” in my professional life, and quite serious ones. In particular, my job security is not 100%; at the moment of writing, the government seem to want to shut down the course I teach on. But weirdly, I don’t feel the kind of fear I felt in school when my job was more secure.

I think the reason is that I feel much the victim of forces which are more or less totally out of my control. The English school system currently tries to make teachers directly accountable for their students’ results. But I found that the results my classes have got have varied very wildly from year to year, from class to class, from pupil to pupil. While there are always your “sure-fire winners” – students who obviously will do well in an exam – these are few and far between, and the vast majority of students can do exceptionally well or quite badly in a test depending upon the time of day they’ve taken it, what has been happening before they’ve taken the test, how much they’ve been supported at home, how they are feeling etc. etc.. In other words, a teacher’s results are often very unpredictable. It is this issue combined with the fact that such emphasis is put on test results at all levels which generates the “affect of fear” in the system for me. And this fear infects every part of the institution, buffeting teachers in all sorts of hidden ways. The reason why I feel I know this is because I am now in a job where there is much less emphasis upon judging whether I am an adequate teacher or not based on very unpredictable outcomes. The feeling is really quite striking. The fear has gone, and now I am surprised that I lived with it for so many years.