The world according to Potter Part 2 -- Opposites Attract

In this brief series I am looking at the concept of "one-upmanship", as developed by Stephen Potter, and exploring how the observations he made 50 years ago might still be applicable in the world of educational technology today.


As I said in the first article in the series (which contains much more background information), his books are concerned with the study of how to be "one up" on other people. Although they are written very much tongue-in-cheek, they are clearly based on real-life observation. I first came across them 40 years ago, and have read and re-read them over the years for their humour. However, I find myself more and more discovering that a number of aspects of modern life may be found in these books, despite the elapsing of half a century, a fact which I believe puts them on a par with other classics such as Parkinson's Law and The Peter Principle.

To summarise, the 4 main books he wrote on the subject were:

  • Gamesmanship, or the art of winning games without actually cheating

  • Lifemanship, which was concerned with the application of the principles of gamesmanship to everyday life

  • One-upmanship, which was a further extension of Lifemanship, and

  • Supermanship, or the art of staying on top without falling apart.

In Potter's world, the practitioner of one-upmanship, or Lifeman as he or she is known having completed the Lifemanship Correspondence course, has one overarching thought: that if you are not one up then you are, by definition, one down.

Looked at in the cold light of day it sounds ridiculous, I know. But Potter very accurately described people and practices that you and I see almost every day of our lives. So suspend your disbelief and bear with me, as today I look at the law of opposites.

Presentational dissonance and self-contradictory names

As I have said in the past, in describing activities for which I coined the term "presentational dissonance", some practices are inherently conttradictory. Examples that spring to mind immediately are:

  • Authors who write books about self-publishing -- for a publishing company, and

  • A lecture I attended once which lasted well over an hour -- on the importance of participatory learning techniques.

  • More recently, one might add those globe-trotters who visit different parts of the world to deliver lectures on the benefits of e-learning and the interactivity of Web 2.0.

But there is a far more powerful manifestation of this sort of thing: the conjuring up of names for initiatives which are really the precise converse of what the initiatives are actually about.

For example, three or four years ago in the UK there was a welfare initiative called "Supporting People". Under this initiative, the hours of work of wardens in sheltered accommodation were cut, and sometimes reduced to zero, thereby placing at risk some of the most vulnerable people in our society. When I enquired why this was being done, I was told that the organisation concerned had chosen to do it: apparently, it was not an inherent part of the policy itself. Well, maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't, but the point is that once Supporting People came on the scene, some people stopped being supported.

A more recent initiative, this time in the Health Service, is called Fit for the Future. Note the clever play on the word "fit", which in this context means fit as in healthy, and fit as in suitable. Apparently, in the future there will not be traffic jams, and there may not even be accidents and emergencies. Why else would my local Health Trust be using Fit for the Future as a means by which to axe perfectly good locally-based Accident and Emergency units in hospitals, and force people to travel to a modern hospital that can barely cope now, let alone when that happens? In other words, like "Supporting People", "Fit for the Future" seems to me to mean the exact opposite of what it sounds like it was supposed to mean.

But the prize must go to "Building Schools for the Future". I am not referring to the programme itself, which has achieved some success, but the name. If you think about it, it contains the seeds of its own failure, making success that much more difficult to achieve. After all, if one were to really start to think futuristically about education, one might hesitate to think in terms of schools at all. And as for building, would that even merit a mention, except perhaps as a footnote?

The Potter dimension

So where does Potter fit in with all this? Well, before I tell you, here is a little more background information which will prove useful to you. Potter's "day job" was English lecturer in the University of Oxford. So there is a kind of in joke running throughout the books whereby Potter gives spurious academic-sounding names to types of behaviour. I'll go more into this in another article, but to give you an idea of what I mean, he came up with such immortal terms as "Trojan Horsemanship", "Book Reviewership" and "Derby and Joanmanship" (with its associated phenomenon of "still-ridiculously-in-love-with-each-othering"). It will therefore come as no surprise to learn that Potter came up with a very apposite term for what I've just been describing.

In the Supermanship book, there is a riotous exposition of the natural one-upness of babies, and how to counteract it. In one paragraph, he says that as well as being undermined by the baby itself, parents will also start to be got at by external forces in various guises. He writes:

"Baby Literature makes itself felt first, and Baby Instruction. Many prettily got-up booklets start with the dictum 'Enjoy your baby'."

To this last point is appended a footnote which states:

"This is known in Yeovil [where the Lifemanship Correspondence College is based] as 'The Petrification of the Implied Opposite'."

If the term "Building Schools for the Future" is not a superb example of the petrification of the implied opposite, I don't know what is. Another example we might cite is "e-learning credits" which, when this form of funding first appeared at least, had everything to do with digital content and nothing to do with e-learning, and involved no type of credit in the usually-understood meaning of the term.

Implications for educational technology

So what does all this mean for the educational technology subject leader? I'm not interested in having a dig at the names of initiatives just for its own sake. After all, things have to have names, and the pithier and more evocative the better. But from the point of view of, if you like, the consumer (ie us), we have a responsibility to try and tease out exactly what any new initiative entails. Does it really mean what we took it to mean at first glance? What does the small print say? Is it deliverable? And is it even worth delivering? Can we deliver it with our existing policies rather than spending time and energy setting up new structures?

And let's be clear about this: some initiatives really do do what it says on the tin. Harnessing Technology is about finding ways of harnessing technology in the service of learning. The Hands-On Support funding of a few years ago was very much concerned with providing practical, in-class, support for teachers using educational technology. It's only by scrutinising the various policies, strategies and initiatives that we can get behind the soundbite of the title to determine what it's really all about, and sometimes what we discover is actually good!

And if it does turn out to be an example of the petrification of the implied opposite, it is our responsibility to try to ensure that the initiative lives up to its promise, rather than down to our lowest expectations.

This article was first published on 31 October 2007.