Counting and Thinking

T. E. Hulme was an English thinker who achieved some notice during the decade before the First World  War, the conflict that would take his life. Though his positions would change over his short career (he was 34 when he died), Hulme was driven by the tensions between the individual and the community and between the chaos of the world and the human need for order.

In a new book from Bloomsbury Academic, T. E. Hulme and the Ideological Politics of Early Modernism, Henry Mead effectively places Hulme as an important figure in the development of Modernism. He also places him, though without the specific intent, squarely within our contemporary debate about the value of assessment through quantification. Mead writes that Hulme:

identifies ‘modern prose’ with ‘the type of reasoning [that] arrang[es] counters on the flat, where they can be moved about, without the mind having to think in any involved way.’ This is ‘the ideal of modern prose… to be all counters… to pass to conclusions without thinking.’ In contrast, he describes a ‘Visual Poetry’, in which ‘each word must be an image seen, not a counter.’ (29)

The same, today, could be said of education: Contemporary schools arrange counters on a board where they can be moved according to established rules and then calls the mastery of that movement and those rules “education.” Yet the mind needn’t have been involved in any way. This is the ideal of contemporary education, to be all counters, to pass to conclusions without thinking. To make everyone reach the same conclusion in the same way according to an unquestioned pattern established at a distance.

In contrast, we could follow Hulme and posit an imagistic education, where the learning must be seen, not counted.

Hulme may have died two years shy of a century ago, but that makes his thoughts no less appropriate to our own obsessions.

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