Dr. William Bernhardt - Gattegno's Aphorisms

Anyone who ever had the opportunity to listen to Caleb Gattegno speak noticed his slow, deliberate, manner of talking. In common with many others who spent time with him, I adopted some of his characteristic inflections and mannerisms of speech with the result that I sounded slightly ridiculous talking in the measured cadencies of the master. His own voice, however, always carried conviction and sounded perfectly in accord with his presence. Listening to him speak was an act of discovery, even though it could be difficult to follow the exact thread of his discourse.

As he often remarked,

“Language is for expression rather than for communication. Communication, when it occurs, is a miracle.”

It was always striking to me that I could never anticipate what the next word in a phrase was going to be. It was as if he were inventing the language (whatever language he happened to be speaking at any particular moment) as he went along. He often told stories — personal reminiscences, historical synopses or summaries were characteristic — but never the same story twice. I can’t recall a single story that he told more than once in my hearing over a 20-year period. Nor can I remember ever encountering in print any story that I had heard him utter previously.

His stories were usually quite short, often humorous. One that springs to mind at the moment is about a young man who wrote job application letters for two different positions in colonial, Anglophone Africa. Each position had a different age requirement, so when the young man came for an interview, he was asked, “How old are you?” His answer was, “Which position am I being considered for?” In contrast with his singular use of stories, Gattegno had many aphorisms that he often repeated, in a variety of different contexts. When I say “aphorisms,” I am thinking, above all, of phrases that provide short, concise statements of principle, such as “the Silent Way,” “working on oneself,” “surrendering to the problem,” “taking the time it takes,” “the subordination of teaching to learning,” and so on.

In many cases, a Gattegno aphorism of this type gains some of its richness of meaning from what is not said — that is, words or concepts to which the aphorism provides an implicit contrast or challenge. To take an example, the Silent Way implies a comparison and contrast to the noisy, talkative manner of most teachers. And the second term in the expression (way) suggests a relative orientation or approach rather than an absolute prescription. The teacher is trying to move herself/himself in the direction of quietness, of letting the learners do as much of the talking as possible, but there is no prohibition against speaking. “Silence” is an approach rather than a method. Another type of aphorism favored by Gattegno consists of short, pointed sentences expressing wise or clever observations or general truths. Examples that come to mind include,

“The students are working on the material, and the teacher is working on the students;”

“The problem of reading is solved;”

“I don’t prepare a lesson — I prepare myself;”

“When you write a note, the paper remembers — you forget.”

Originally coined in workshops and seminars, many of Gattegno’s aphorisms later appeared in print on the pages of his many publications. Some of them struck me forcibly at the moment when I heard them for the first time, but it was only when I encountered them again, in one of his books, or the Educational Solutions Newsletter, that they truly became memorable and a permanent part of my own repertoire.

The aphoristic dimension of Gattegno’s speech seemed to some hearers to contrast with his description of himself as a “scientist” and put him more in the company of philosophers and sages. I find that understandable, but also misleading. There really is no necessary contradiction between the pursuit of scientific truth on the one hand, and a gift for aphoristic utterance on the other.

Dr. William Bernhardt

Sima Gandhi