Silk Purses and Pig’s Ears

There’s an old saying “You can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s (or sow’s) ear”. It’s the old chestnut that you can’t make something good out of something bad and, when you’re talking about bad grapes or rotten wood, then it has some validity (but even then, not much, as I’ll note later). When it’s applied to people, for any of a large range of reasons, it tends to become an excuse to give up on people or a reason why a lack of success on somebody’s part cannot be traced back to you.

I’m doing a lot of reading in the medical and general ethics as part of my preparation for one of the Grand Challenge lectures. The usual names and experiments show up, of course, when you start looking at questionable or non-existent ethics: Milgram, the Nazis, Stanford Prison Experiment, Unit 731, Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Little Albert and David Reimer. What starts to come through from this study is that, in many of these cases, the people being experimented upon have reached a point in the experimenter’s eyes where they are not people, but merely ‘subjects’ – and all too often in the feudal sense as serfs, without rights or ability to challenge what is happening.

But even where the intention is, ostensibly, therapeutic, there is always the question of who is at fault when a therapeutic procedure fails to succeed. In the case of surgical malpractice or negligence, the cause is clear – the surgeon or a member of her or his team at some point made a poor decision or acted incorrectly and thus the fault lies with them. I have been reading up on early psychiatric techniques, as these are full of stories of questionable approaches that have been later discredited, and it is interesting in how easy it is for some practitioners to wash their hands of their subject because they had a lack of “good previous personality” – you can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear. In many cases, with this damning judgement, people with psychiatric problems would often be shunted off to the wards of mental hospitals.

I refer, in this case, to William Sargant (1907-1988), a British psychiatrist who had an ‘evangelical zeal’ for psychosurgery, deep sleep treatment, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and insulin shock therapy. Sargant used narcosis extensively, drug induced deep sleep, as he could then carry out a range of procedures on the semi- and unconscious patients that they would have possibly learned to dread if they have received them while conscious. Sargant believed that anyone with psychological problems should be treated early and intensively with all available methods and, where possible, all these methods should be combined and applied as necessary. I am not a psychiatrist and I leave it to the psychiatric and psychotherapy community to assess the efficacy and suitability of Sargant’s methods (they disavow them, for the most part, for what it’s worth) but I mention him here because he did not regard failures as being his fault. It is his words that I am quoting in the previous paragraph. People for whom his radical, often discredited, zealous and occasionally lethal experimentation did not work were their own problem because they lacked a “good previous personality”. You cannot, as he was often quoted to have said, make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear.

How often I have heard similar ideas being expressed within the halls of academia and the corridors of schools. How easy a thing it is to say. Well, one might say, we’ve done all that we can with this particular pupil, but… They’re just not very bright. They daydream in class rather than filling out their worksheets. They sleep at their desks. They never do the reading. They show up too late. They won’t hang around after class. They ask too many questions. They don’t ask enough questions. They won’t use a pencil. They only use a pencil. They talk back. They don’t talk. They think they’re so special. Their kind never amounts to anything. They’re just like their parents. They’re just like the rest of them.

“We’ve done all we can but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

As always, we can look at each and every one of those problems and ask “Why?” and, maybe, we’ll get an answer that we can do something about. I realise that resources and time are both scarce commodities but, even if we can’t offer these students the pastoral care that they need (and most of those issues listed above are more likely to be social/behavioural than academic anyway), let us stop pretending that we can walk away, blameless, as Sargant did because these students are fundamentally unsalvageable.

Yeah, sorry, I know that I go on about this but it’s really important to keep on hammering away at this point, every time that I see how my own students could be exposed to it. They need to know that the man that they’re working with expects them to do things but that he understands how much of his job is turning complex things into knowledge forms that they can work with – even if all he does is start the process and then he hands it to them to finish.

Do you want to know how to make great wine? Start with really, really good grapes and then don’t mess it up. Want to know how to make good wine? Well, as someone who used to be a reasonable wine maker, you can give me just about anything – good fruit, ok fruit, bad fruit, mouldy fruit – and I could turn it into wine that you would happily drink. I hasten to point out that I worked for good wineries and the vast quantity of what I did was making good wine from good grapes, but there were always the moments where you had something that, from someone else’s lack of care or inattention, had got into a difficult spot. Understanding the chemical processes, the nature of wine and working out how we could recover  the wine? That is a challenge. It’s time consuming, it takes effort, it takes a great deal of scholarly knowledge and you have to try things to see if they work.

In the case of wine, while I could produce perfectly reasonable wine from bad grapes, simple chemistry prevents me from leaving in enough of the components that could make a wine great. That is because wine recovery is all about taking bad things out. I see our challenge in education as very different. When we find someone who is need of our help, it is what we can put in that changes them. Because we are adding, mentoring, assisting and developing, we are not under the same restrictions as we are with wine – starting from anywhere, I should be able to help someone to become a great someone.

The pig’s ears are safe because I think that we can make silk purses out of just about anything that we set our minds to.

2 Comments on “Silk Purses and Pig’s Ears”

  1. lizphillips says:

    So, we can help every student under our care move closer to becoming an excellent wine. It’s a good thing we both believe that right down to the soul. We spend too much time and passion on the futures of our students for it to be otherwise. The fruits of that labor, especially when we care to help those others have given up on, is priceless. It is appreciated, never forgotten by the student (who usually knows that others didn’t see their value in the scheme of things).


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