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An emphasis on hearing skills would give our children a better education

By Stephen Crabbe - posted Wednesday, 3 March 2004

“Pin him to the wall with a silent stare!” Mac would snarl. To us impressionable young students in teachers’ college long ago he could be mesmerising in his lectures on classroom methodology.

“Eye-contact is one of your most deadly weapons. When you walk into your first class for the first time, pick on a miscreant and make an example of him. Just stop talking and pin him. The rest of the class will come on side, believe me.”

The advice exemplified the approach of most teachers of the day. Today’s practitioners may not be as blatant but the “weapon” is definitely still there in our armoury and, bound by the national culture, we use it. Vision is aggressive, potentially predatory.


In our civilisation, the visual sense is the way to get a grip on objective reality, to identify practical solutions, to gain certainty. Hearing, however, is a means of relating to ourselves and others on a feeling level, of coming to know their values, joys, fears and desires. Of the five human senses vision and hearing are the most valued in our civilisation, and the former dominates mightily.

The bias was apparent even before the Ancient Greeks. “The eyes are more exact witnesses than the ears,” wrote Heraclitus. To Aristotle the greatest of the senses was vision “because it approximates the intellect most closely by virtue of the relative immateriality of its knowing”. The Judaeo-Christian heritage which underpins our civilisation features a distinct reverence for light, the realm of truth, life, and salvation. Darkness is the Satanic lair of deceit, ignorance, suffering and all that is sinful. Christianity exhorts the faithful to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God, not to hide their light under a bushel. The metaphors and the sensory preference they convey still reverberate in our public language, customs and institutions.

Hearing is the sensory function that we associate with the darkness we fear. Whereas “seeing is believing”, news by word of mouth is “hearsay”. Don’t keep whispering your promises to me: put it in writing. “I hear where you’re coming from,” we say, “but I don’t see the logic.” Our world accepts that vision is the final arbiter, the basis of civilised consciousness.

To the eye the main concern is straight ahead. Peripheral vision is useful but attention is forward and linear, seeking a bull’s eye. This goal-orientation in space has led us to construct time as linear and forward-bound. Behind is unseeable and so does not exist. Since Zoroaster or before, the dictum has steadily entrenched its despotism: the past is illusion; the present is but a moment; the future is all. Our modern concept of “progress” is the result. It harnesses the assertiveness of vision, along with its destructive aspect.

Yet, deny it though we will, we have also inherited a cognitive conflict. Being is not only existence. What to the eye does not exist may still to the ear insist. The battle of the two senses has continued through the centuries, but vision has prevailed. While admittedly many good things have emanated from oculo-centric culture, by allowing aural consciousness to be so trammelled may we not have also denied ourselves many benefits?

Vision rules the mass media. In popular culture, where sound is given an important part it is rarely in its own right but rather as an accompaniment or background. Among the media, radio has a lowly status, yet its potential in areas like sophisticated documentaries, features and drama has not been fully explored. Anyone who has seriously attended to radio dramas knows that the experience is radically different from viewing a movie. To a degree that film and television cannot achieve, good radiophonic production can awaken memory, create intimacy and help us to probe our own and others’ inner lives.


The architecture and design of our public, working and domestic spaces should also pay far more attention to the non-visual factors, especially aural experience. Tyrannised by vision we tend to sense acoustics of place only unconsciously, yet, as Juhani Pallasmaa reminds us, “a space is conceived and appreciated through its echo as much as through its visual shape”. Narrower, more enclosed city spaces, for instance, free from piped music and other amplified sound, would help. We also need some places in which the outside world is silenced. A more aurally based philosophy of architecture would help us to relate more effectively to each other and our world. The receptive ear, unlike the objectifying eye, centres us in the cosmos, and architecture should, in Pallasmaa’s words, “create existential metaphors that concretise and structure man’s being in the world”.

The ear helps us to relate more deeply, not only to space but also to time. The hegemony of vision impedes us here too by dictating the criteria for legitimacy of historical information. Like Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, historians have traditionally accepted that they should study only people with written records and that “the rest is darkness. . . and darkness is not the subject of history”. Lately this belief has been challenged with some success, with oral history gaining status. True, oral history may often be ambiguous in its presentation of facts but perhaps this is because it tends to emphasise equally important aspects of people of the past – symbols, values and feelings, for instance. The group’s beliefs about their history – and the history of their beliefs – have as much importance as the bare facts of their lives and times.

The incremental change in our civilisation’s view of oral history also poses challenges to our legal and justice systems. As we have seen in most clearly in cases concerning aboriginal land rights, courts are faced with the question of whether to admit history transmitted by mouths across generations. And if a court admits such evidence how can it be assessed and what weight should it have relative to conventional evidence derived from written documents? Some fallacies have already been demonstrated in the conventional argument that oral historical evidence is per se unreliable. The problem presents an opportunity for a very healthy questioning of assumptions about vision and hearing that underlie our civilisation.

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About the Author

Stephen Crabbe is a teacher, writer, musician and practising member of the Anglican Church. He has had many years of active involvement in community and political issues.

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