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The common third

Read this article in danish: Det fælles tredje

By Michael Husen, 2022

A teacher makes kites with a bunch of kids. They start with simple diamond shapes, but the kites gradually become more advanced. They borrow books on kite-building from the local library and try out different models. One day, they try to make a new kind – a particularly large and intricate design. None of them has built this type before, but they are now experienced kite-builders and know the skills and techniques required: how to prepare the bamboo sticks, cut the paper or plastic sheets, tie knots and glue it all together. Not to mention measuring and adapting all the parts.

A social worker in a project for parents with mental health issues  takes the fathers to a bowling alley once a week to give them something to do together. Often, while they are bowling, the conversation starts to flow. The social worker does not push them. The focus is on bowling. These men do not like to talk about their personal and family problems. They are more comfortable when engaged in an activity – preferably something physical.

A social worker  goes out in a fishing boat in bad weather with a handful of young offenders. Their conversation usually has a tone of aggression and suspicion. These young people do not trust adults – and especially not social workers. But the fishing boat is a challenge to them all. The net, the fish, the sea and the weather demand all their attention. They work together and communicate properly, without the usual reservations and negative expectations.

When two or more people share an experience or work on a task together, something emerges that is not part of them and their mutual interrelationships. It is something outside of them, something external: I call it ‘the common third’.

The pedagogical dimension

Doing something collectively has value per se. But it can also have pedagogical value if the situation also involves pedagogical responsibility– in other words, if one of the parties has some form of responsibility for educating the others.

Pedagogical responsibility is the joint responsibility some people have now and then for other people’s education and personal development.

A therapist or doctor and the patient who consults them [TM4] may both share the same goal: to explore the options for a healthy and desirable future for the patient.

In a pedagogical relationship, the situation is more complicated, mainly because the child rarely, if ever, enters into it voluntarily. Children or young people have not asked for an educator to interfere in or share responsibility for their personal development. They are thrust into it, for better or worse, by adults who have authority over them. However, it is precisely the fact that the situation is not voluntary that places extra ethical demands on the educator. On the one hand, they must stand firm and use their position of power, which stems from their pedagogical responsibility. On the other hand, they must respect the child in their care as an independent person with its own free will and dignity. The educator must maintain a subject-subject relationship within the constraints set by the given framework.

They do this by focusing on something other than the power relationship and the pedagogical relationship or other interpersonal relationships – by focusing on a worthwhile cause or a project that those involved can truly share.

The joy of sharing

The common third is central to authentic ways of spending time together – not only for people of the same age but also for adults and children spending time in each other’s company. Whether one participant is 35 and the other is 3, 8 or 17 years old, it is always possible to share something. It does not matter that one party has more skills, knowledge or experience. The important thing is that there is something external, a common matter, about which they are both concerned and about which they are concerned together.

It could be the plot of a book they are reading together, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Lord of the Rings. Or painting a room in a house, unblocking a clogged drain, solving a crossword or making a pizza. It could be setting up an association, a clubhouse, a school or a kindergarten in their local area.

Joint activities are usually done with someone you like, or you will most likely begin to like someone because you are doing something together. This is because we are essentially social beings. We like to spend time together and do things together.

The best parties are those with something to celebrate, when the participants have something to do together. Parties are also better when they are well organised, with rituals to be observed – these settings provide a common framework.

A party can be as simple as the organiser bringing a beer and turning on a music system. But such occasions rarely feel particularly festive. On the other hand, when you have come together for some other reason – maybe a sports match, a housewarming, painting a new flat, the end of exams – the chances of the party being joyous and memorable are much greater.

Productivity through working together

Many tasks could never be performed by a single person alone. No one can build a railway or a power plant single-handedly. A musical requires an orchestra, actors and stage crew. But involving more people can also improve the quality of the outcome. Having someone to talk to promotes better problem-solving. Creativity is enhanced when more people provide input.

An example: The local authority daycare institutions in Reggio Emilia, Italy, are known for their outstanding pedagogical work and for their extensive degree of working together. Teachers and children work together on projects; teachers work with their colleagues to a great extent; the institutions work with the parents and with the local authority’s educational consultants.

In Reggio Emilia, pedagogy is the common third – something that teachers and consultants develop together. They do so by means of extensive documentation, discussion and deliberation. Developing the pedagogy becomes a work process that they take seriously and in which they invest their time. It becomes a matter of common concern and receives everyone’s attention.

The investment of time is highly important in this context and reflects the true importance of the work. The parents’ council meets once a week, and each teacher sets aside six working hours per week for documentation and continued further education.

The result is a body of teachers who constantly expand their knowledge and competencies. They are engaged, they like their jobs, and their commitment spreads to the children. Parents and local politicians alike greatly appreciate this pedagogical work.

All phases of the work process

The common third can be an experience you share with someone, or it can be a work process – an activity in which you accomplish something together. This is the most powerful form of interaction.

The work process has value not only in terms of the end result but as a process in itself. A work process is a fundamental form of human behaviour – maybe the most fundamental. It defines us as human beings. It is related to our unique ability, unlike other creatures, to plan something that will happen in the future. We have the ability to intervene in the future and shape it, to shape the world – even if only slightly – according to our own ideas, notions and values.

We are not only capable of this – as human beings, we have to do it. With this ability comes responsibility. As soon as I learn that the future is, at least to some extent, my responsibility, there is no way back. Whether I like it or not, my life and the lives of other people, and the content and terms of these lives, depend upon the actions I choose to perform here and now and the work processes I choose to adopt.

The work process is also an opportunity for self-realisation and creativity that enriches your own life. This can take many forms: making a beautiful floral decoration, a delicious meal, a lifelike portrait, building a house, a boat, a production hall, writing a poem or mastering a musical instrument.

If a collaborative work process is to be enriching, everyone must participate in the entirety of the process. A work process is not a joint project if someone makes the decisions and others just have to carry them out. It is only a collaborative process if everyone involved participates in all of the phases, i.e. participates in the decision-making, planning, execution and evaluation of the work process.

One of the most common management mistakes is that the senior executive or management team initiates a collaborative work process or project to which they think that all of their staff are committed. They are then surprised when this is not the case.

An example: A newly formed committee in a local authority’s social department is trying to start a development project. They hold a conference involving social workers, teachers from nurseries and kindergartens, and professionals working in home care, health care, etc. A healthy debate ensues, groups are formed, and the discussion eventually crystallises in the topic “early intervention”, which is to be further elaborated. The next step is to set up working groups that will focus on this topic. After that, another conference will be held, at which the working groups’ proposals will be debated and inform a range of subsequent projects and initiatives. From the committee’s point of view, this is a coherent process that should lead to a progressive and increasingly qualified debate. However, the second stage has barely begun when it all starts to go wrong. The members appointed to the working groups are not the same as those who attended the conference. They have not participated in pinning down and formulating what exactly is meant by “early intervention”. They are left to plan and execute something decided by others. External consultants are called in to assist the working groups, but these consultants have not attended the conference either. As such, there is no real joint work process. Only the committee members who follow and coordinate the entire process have a sense of the coherence and continuity necessary for a work process to be experienced as a holistic one. The others involved do not. Their participation is isolated and compartmentalised, and they see only fragments of the overall process. The common third does not emerge. The whole project goes off the rails.

What the committee members do not understand is that for something to become a common concern, those involved must be involved in all phases of the work process, from start to finish – from the identification, formulation and decision-making on the topic at hand, through the planning and implementation, and right up to the finished result and subsequent evaluation. Only those who participate in all the phases will feel a sense of ownership of the project.

Contagious commitment

It is not enough that the matter is a third – it must also be common. How can more people be brought together around a goal? What does it really mean to share a goal?

It is not enough to agree or to join in. Each individual must embrace and own the goal – just as football fans feel with every fibre of their being that their team simply has to win.

It is possible to convey commitment to others. If a teacher or social worker is really engaged in something, the goal can be contagious. This engagement does not arise from their words alone but from what lies beneath and between the words – their tone of voice, posture, zeal, joy, and desire to be involved with this particular activity, this specific product.

It is like when music hits its groove, when a group of musicians are in full flow, swinging together. They are collectively seized by the music, which becomes something alive, something magical and seductive, which carries them away. Both the musicians with their instruments and the dancers on the dance floor surrender to the music, which flows over and through them. This is not something they create through will alone – the music has its own power, which captivates the body and soul.

In a pedagogical situation, it is not the educator’s commitment to the pedagogical matter (the processes involved in a child’s education and learning) that is contagious. Rather, it is his commitment to a common third. For example, if a teacher in a biology class is so intensely preoccupied with his subject that he forgets the students when examining an animal or performing an experiment, there is a high probability that his commitment will spread to many of the students.

The objective value

Some work processes are private, others shared. In a sense, the value of a work product is always shared. If I have cooked a good meal, it is good not only for me but also for others. If my poem has no value to others, it is unlikely to have much value for me. If the music I play is not well received, its appeal to me may diminish (we might add some caveats to this, but it is pretty much the way it is).

The point is that value is something that lies outside of the self. Value is real and is recognised by multiple people at once. The feeling that something is good is one that I share with others.

To create is to put something out into the world that you claim has value. You are personally responsible for this assessment. This can feel like a major responsibility and give rise to uncertainty. We all want to share in the responsibility and credit for a good product. But we also need to have someone with whom we can share the responsibility. We need relief and confidence. To rely on something outside oneself is confidence.

When the common third is something that is valuable and meaningful to multiple people at the same time, its value does not depend on me alone. I am not solely responsible for the assessment. The responsibility is shared, which lessens my potential insecurity.

That we share a community of values is attributable, among other things, to the fact that we live in the same society at the same moment in history – in other words, we share the same culture.

Culture as a common third

Culture is the set of norms, values, habits and rules for living that make up our daily life and social environment. Every human being is born into a culture, and within an overarching culture, there are endless permutations. For example, the culture in a fishing village by the sea differs in crucial ways from the culture in a wealthy urban neighbourhood, which differs from the culture in a middle-class suburb. However, many aspects of culture are shared more widely: schools and educational institutions, holidays, traffic rules, food and drinks, the use of telephones, sporting events, popular TV shows, films and so on.

These and many other cultural values are something we are all born into and with which we have grown up. We have adopted them and incorporated them into our own values. Although we have many individual values and preferences, most of our values are communal. Despite different environments and individual variations, culture is a common third for all of us. (I am aware of the variations associated with immigrants and different ethnic cultures, but the same principles apply within these cultures. Also, a blending of cultures often occurs over time, which increases the common elements.)

Each of us helps maintain and develop this culture. So, for example, every time I make some delicious meatballs or pizza (dishes that, although originally Italian, have become part of our culture), I help consolidate and strengthen this value, this cultural element.

If I succeed in making a new product – a new recipe, a new greenhouse design or a new form of pedagogy – I contribute creatively, i.e. in an innovative way, to the development of the culture. My contribution is (hopefully) seen and appreciated by others and provides inspiration. The best innovations spread like ripples across a pond until they become part of the shared culture.

Our relationship with culture is therefore interactive. The culture is created and continues to be developed and changed by individual human achievements – and in turn it acts upon us as a factor that shapes our thoughts and values, i.e. our cultural identity.

The above is a broad concept of culture. According to this concept, “culture” encompasses all aspects of our lives. However, in everyday language, the term “culture” is often used in a different and narrower sense to refer to things like art, music, literature, etc.

Cultural studies and pedagogy

Something about “art” makes it special, including in colleges of education, which set aside lessons for cultural subjects such as languages, music, drama and workshop subjects. There is a kind of aesthetic concept of culture at play here. Students learn about cultural modes of expression and creative techniques and acquire qualifications based on assessing their artistic expression.

What special educational benefits do we expect to derive from such cultural activities? Why do we consider artistic activities as something beneficial for children, students or clients in social welfare systems?

The answer may be that artistic activities provide special opportunities to experience meaning. Art always has an immediate value that is not instrumental, “useful” or “rational”.

Perhaps art, due to its aesthetic qualities, speaks more directly to us than other cultural phenomena. The senses are closer to our emotions than the intellect. The sensory (aesthetically) perceived value is immediate and direct.

Music speaks directly to the emotions, as it resonates with the body’s internal rhythms. Yet, at the same time, it is characterised by form, convention and culture. It is highly suitable for communal activity. Playing together creates mutual vibrations and shared values. Music is a form of communication that directly links our bodies and emotions to other bodies and their emotions. It is a kind of communication that bypasses our reservations, expectations, power struggles and jockeying for position – and directly touches those areas of life in which we share something bodily and sensual.

Dramatic art also expresses something universally human, via the language of the body. But here, the communication takes place on several levels, usually at both the sensory and the intellectual level.

In the case of writing, a joint project could be a letter to the editor, a feature article or a whole magazine. To communicate with words – particularly in a familiar, established manner – is to send a message out into the world. The content may be new, but the form should be recognisable and conventional. Adherence to a strict form often offers the greatest freedom. It is easier to compose fairy tales or limericks than write in a completely freeform style. (However, writing together can be difficult. Writing is usually a solitary process, even though some writing courses try to make it more collaborative. In such “process-oriented writing”, the authors show half-finished texts to each other to receive and give criticism and comments.)

In colleges of education, a “workshop subject” refers to something done in a workshop. In pedagogical terminology, the workshop has evolved from once referring only to woodwork, to something that now includes all kinds of cultural activity (including mathematics, music and imagining visions of the future). The very concept of a “workshop” is interesting. It is defined as a place in which work processes occur – a place that, by its very design, is both functional and inspirational. It is a place where the tools are ready and waiting to be used. In a good workshop, you can hardly wait to get started. The processes and methods are largely self-evident in the nature of the workshop itself and the tools available. The workshop exists as something objectively present, which has a history. It is where those who preceded us carried out their own work. We are not the first. All of the methods, products, standards and values are pre-existing. A workshop provides a powerful form of “common third” by connecting us to the culture and the past.

Relief from personal relationships

What do people really have in common?

There can be many things at stake when people get together, and they are not always positive: power struggles, mutual negative expectations, humiliation, self-assertion, the desire for recognition. The relationship between social workers and young people in a residential institution may reach a deadlock due to negative expectations.

It is hard to repair personal relationships and feelings that have gone awry. It is much easier to have shared feelings about something external, a common third – a football match, a work project, a journey. Something that exists outside of us as individuals, something that does not (at least not in advance) relate to our interpersonal relationships. It allows us to relax, to forget our power struggles, mutual expectations, conflicts and mistrust.

The common third can harness collective energy and release it in a way that engenders a positive sense of community.

Wilhelm Reich wrote about the “natural work democracy”. People with widely differing political views and ideologies, people who, in a discussion, a meeting or a political assembly, strongly disagree – and maybe even hate each other – can often work well together when faced with a specific concrete task. In such a situation, ideological differences disappear, and ideology loses its significance.

Ethics and the common third

To share something is to be equal. It means two or more individuals are on an equal footing, with equal rights and dignity (a subject-subject relationship). In such a community, one party does not use or exploit the other (a subject-object relationship).

It is distressing to discover that your trust in another human being has been abused, that you have been treated as a thing, as a means used by someone else to achieve their own aims, rather than as an independent individual with your own freedom and dignity.

One example of a subject-object relationship is a salesperson who tries every trick in the book to sell something to a customer while at the same time pretending that he and the customer are jointly assessing the product’s qualities in relation to the customer’s needs. Another is when a doctor unilaterally makes decisions about a patient’s treatment without ever considering the patient’s thoughts and feelings. Or when a schoolteacher pretends to enter into an open conversation with his students about an important topic while clearly intending to control their thoughts and manipulate them. The salesperson makes the customer an object for a sale; the doctor turns the patient into an item on a checklist, and the teacher turns the students into material to be shaped. In all of these cases, one party pretends to have common cause with the other. But the other party is inevitably disappointed to discover that this is not the case. However, their situations are not the same. The buyer may become angry and refuse to buy or find another salesperson. The patient could seek out another doctor. But the child is often at the mercy of their teacher or educator and has no opportunity to escape.

According to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, humans must never treat others merely as a means to an end, but always as ends in themselves.

This is the ethics that results from our recognition of each other as independent beings – as free-thinking, feeling, judging and acting individuals. I myself have this freedom of thought and dignity, and so does the person next to me with whom I am communicating. I must respect that other people are independent with their own unique claims to dignity and respect.

When we talk to each other, we should expect to do so with a shared understanding of the matter at hand. We should expect to have a common cause and let it guide our conversation. The seller and the buyer must have a shared interest in assessing whether the product’s qualities meet the customer’s needs (although some might argue this idea is naïve). The client and the advisor must jointly find the right solution to the client’s problem. The teacher and the child must work together to solve any problems encountered when building kites.

Notes:

This article is a slightly abbreviated translation from the original Danish of the chapter “Det fælles tredje”, in Benedicta Pésceli, ed.: Kultur & pædagogik, Copenhagen 1996, p. 218-232.