Last night I stumbled upon a programme called Blindsight on BBC4. I was only half watching but found myself captivated. (It turned out to be 3 years old but I’d not heard of it before.) It followed a group of Tibetan blind children from a school set up by a remarkable young blind German woman called Sabriye Tenberken. The kids and two teachers including Sabriye were climbing Mount Everest with a celebrated blind mountaineer called Eric Weihenmayer, plus some other guides and some yaks and, we have to suppose, a camera crew. The young people were amazing. They had nearly made it to the summit when they were flaking out with altitude sickness. The guides insisted they press on because the yaks couldn’t stay up too long. For some time the kids were saying that they were happy to turn round and go down now. I thought ‘They’ve so nearly made it, they can surely turn round now’. But the male mountaineers, especially the Australian leader, said ‘we’re so nearly there, we can’t turn round now.’ There was a fraught meeting. Sabriye explained that the kids felt they had already made it, that what they wanted was to walk with people they liked and the yaks and to imagine the beauty around them. For them, exploring a great chunk of ice and imagining it as an ice palace was their ‘blind summit’. They had plainly said they didn’t want to reach the top. Two of them were scared of dying. The guides were adamant because their pleas diverged from their normal way of thinking which is that not to reach the top is to fail. At this point, I felt, they were more blind than the children. They did relent when Sabriye insisted that the reasoning was emotional and that emotion mattered. I guessed that most people watching would feel that the children had failed, and later read Sam Wollaston’s Guardian TV review in which he said their failure was disappointing.
I was fascinated by how this tense discussion illuminated the difficulties for progressive educators in negotiating the achievement culture dominant in education and society. Sabriye ran the school on the key principle from her own schooling, which was that each child should find their own ways of overcoming their disability and find their ‘element’. In turn, she encouraged their individual ambitions, in very practical ways, challenging and guiding, whether they wanted to be translators or run massage clinics. She didn’t encourage them to buy into extrinsic goals. They were all intrinsically motivated to go on the Everest expedition but at a point not far from the summit, when two children were at risk of death, the goal of getting to the top was clearly seen as extrinsic, or imposed by external forces.
The education system in the USA and UK (and spreading) prepares young people for a world in which we are driven by extrinsic goals, whether imposed by superstructures or lured by materialism. We can see the mental illness, aggression and inequality that result from this culture but we persist in supporting it because we believe we won’t survive without it. Sabriye’s school for blind children showed that achievement takes many forms and is not just about ‘making it to the top’, and that schools can still help children achieve and thrive while still presenting an alternative to the dominant culture.