The Swimmer and the Sea

A teacher is teaching a boy how to swim. The boy lies on the ground and the teacher moves the boy’s arms up and over, to show him how they should go. The teacher lifts the boy’s feet and moves them up and down to show him how to kick. Then the teacher lets the boy practice. When the boy is ready, he calls the teacher to come back. The boy moves his own arms and kicks his own legs. The teacher claps and gives him an A.

Is there a problem here?

What has the boy earned the A for? He did what the teacher told him to do, didn’t he? Maybe there is no problem.

Some people would say that the problem is that he is not in the water, he is on the ground. He is not swimming. He is not swimming because he is not in the water.

But what if swimming is not the point? Maybe doing what the teacher says is the point. But then, why call it swimming?

What would happen if the boy had to take his A, walk over to the water and jump in and swim? Maybe he would drown. If he did, whose fault is it? The teacher? You can always punish the teacher, that’s easy. Or maybe the water is shallow and he doesn’t drown, he just stands up and paddles while he walks. In that case, no one will ever know if he can swim or not and the teacher will not be criticized, and there is no problem.

However, the water is just a figure of speech. It stands for something else. The student is not really learning to swim, he is learning to be a real person who can think and act intelligently. He is getting an education. I am thinking about our students at Ton Duc Thang, who are students at a big university that has ambitions to become one of the top 100 universities in the world, or perhaps one of the top 26 universities in ASEAN.

The ground is a metaphor for the classroom. It is an artificial situation shaped by a curriculum through which students are supposed to learn something that has value. In the classroom, the teacher tells the students what they are expected to do (swim) and shows them how to do it (moves their arms and legs). Then she gives them an exam to see if they have learned what they are supposed to have learned.

As far as I can tell, from my experience at this university in Vietnam, they do not go near the water. Maybe I only see a narrow slice of what is really out there. But what I see forces me to ask, what does the water represent? The water is a metaphor for what?

First, I want to call it the sea, not the water, because what I have in mind for “sea” is the real world, with all its chaos and complexity, history and danger and power and beauty. This is where the real swimming will happen. The students who are learning to swim are going to have to do their swimming in the sea, whether they like it or not. Sometimes they will be able to avoid the sea, but today in this world of rising temperatures and melting ice, the sea will come to them and they will have to swim in it or drown.

Pool at night

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

2 thoughts on “The Swimmer and the Sea

  1. Ironically, no, not that I can see. But I can’t see everything, and I can’t see the past. Perhaps it survives in the teamwork. Students do everything in teams of 5-7 and seem to be very quick to divide up the work and get it done. However, once it’s done, each student seems to only know the part he or she was responsible for, which might be just making the powerpoints.

  2. Good metaphor, Helena (good teacher that you are). Sounds like most traditional, formal ‘education’ I know of. Must be somewhat frustrating. Any evidence of Dewey-esque education, or attaempt to develop a socialist practice (whatever that might look like)?


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