International College Hong Kong
Oct 14, 2019

The good enough school and the good enough student

The ‘good enough’ school is a primary school and not a secondary school; while the good enough student is a secondary student and not a primary student.

Embedded in this only apparently gnomic statement is a vital lesson in how to promote the conditions under which children can hope to enjoy a successful apprenticeship in the art and craft of being human. Crucial to it is the understanding that the meaning of ‘good enough’ in respect to schools is quite different from the meaning of good enough in respect to students - or should be. In recognising the difference one apprehends something important about both schools and students.

In the case of school, the term ‘good enough’ applies in the sense explored by British paediatrician and psychoanalyst DW Winnicott, which is not the sense that the phrase is commonly used in everyday conversation.

In the case of the student, the term is applied in exactly the way it is used in everyday conversation.

The 'good enough' school attempts to manage something that no child should be asked to manage, while the good enough student manages something no more than which can healthily be asked of any human being: to live a rewarding, productive, sustainable life.

The 'good enough' primary school is an analogue of the ‘good enough’ mother, as conceptualised by Winnicott. The 'good enough' mother has an extremely difficult job to do - one that rests on the achievement of a delicate balance. Initially, she is tasked with supporting the sustenance and growth of a newborn creature with insistent needs and wants, but which has few means either of making these needs clear or of knowing actually what they ‘are’. The needs are not yet known to the newborn: they are sensed or experienced or undergone - but they are too novel, too unexplored, too inchoate to be nailed down. The neonate grasps in their direction, reaches some, misses others, feels replete and satisfied, only gradually to grow needy again. The saviour sent to support this cyclical boom and bust is the mother. All this is managed not only without shared language but without conventional 'ideas' - no one who speaks can conceive of how the neonate thinks.

How can the mother prove 'good enough' to meet this task? In Winnicott’s formulation, the answer is phasal: initially she must be flawlessly attuned to the neonate’s needs to the point where its felt experience is one of magical sufficiency. Magical because sufficiency here is nothing less than everything. The neonate’s existential striving for survival requires the mother’s omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence: the 'good enough' mother is, initially, a god. In fact, not a god but God. The neonate is, initially, a monotheist.

This, needless to say, is unsustainable. The mother cannot possibly maintain this illusion of divinity and nor, stresses Winnicott, should she try. Her second job, once the infant is thoroughly at ease and reassured, is to let him down gently. Weaning the infant off the impossible illusion of the divine mother is the next step. This is a no less monumental and potentially fraught experience. How to waylay these illusions without incurring fatal or disabling disenchantment?

It is the work of many years - and this is where the 'good enough' primary school comes in.

The 'good enough' primary school supports the mother in this hard to pull off enterprise. In the infant’s newly experienced sphere of wider social engagement, the school provides further evidence of a benign, protective sanctuary - a safe-fail environment; but one populated now by other adults additional to the family, yet just as supportive of the infant’s interests. More than anything the school understands the fragility of the infant’s emerging ego, the tightrope act that the child and the mother are undertaking. It is alive to the child’s already extreme potential anxiety, kept at bay by two dynamics: the child’s residual faith in his long-term memories of the omnipotent mother, and the new joy and excitement that the child finds in the emerging world of wonder, risk, and activity that the child realises is now available, provided he can muster the wherewithal not to remain at the mother’s side.

This, then, is the environment that the 'good enough' primary school will provide. One that is carefully calibrated to offer just the right amount of novelty, challenge, reassurance, familiarity, encouragement, excitement, rest, and reward. There can be no timetable placed on such a space or such an experience: it will be unique for each child, in terms both of the progressive development through the entire primary ‘programme’, but also to progress through each of the elements within the programme. The idea that there is anything other than the sketchiest normative schedule for ‘progress’ is psychologically naive and humanly dangerous. If this recognition seems like a recipe for an extremely expensive model of primary schooling, it would be an investment well worth making.

What of the good enough student who emerges from this primary experience, ready for secondary school? She no longer needs the same institutional reassurance to function, so that the secondary school can dispense with its responsibility to be 'good enough' and pick up another responsibility, instead: that of providing an apprenticeship in the art and craft of life.

The onus of being good enough now falls on the student, but here we are with the everyday usage of the term. The good enough student aged 11 to 18 is an apprentice, at best a journeyman.  She does well enough, does perfectly OK, finds her level, gets gradually better and more self-directing, grows, does what is sustainable, healthy, and, finally, given there is a whole life of learning ahead of her, wise. She is supported in understanding that it is just not possible to be all things to all people all of the time, least of all to oneself. The art and craft of being a good human involves, at its foundation, a developed sense of self-regard and self-maintenance, and as a part of that, a sense of moderation and realistic expectations of self and others.

The process of becoming and remaining who one wants to be is a mindful one and revolves around the extent to which one comes to terms with one’s abilities, with their relative importance to one’s sense of self-contentment, with one’s dynamic and shifting capacity to express and explore them, and with the capabilities or technologies at one’s disposal to make the attempt. The good enough student, her efforts carefully managed and orchestrated by herself and others at her side, embraces that process, critically.

To end, three notes:

The primary school child’s responsibility is to play.

The secondary school, freed of the responsibility to be 'good enough', must be excellent.

The mother need not be a woman.


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