Gulliver’s levels

gulliver-morten16Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, first published in 1726, mocks the travel journals of its day with their increasingly fantastical adventures. It is also brilliant social satire, mercilessly tearing through contemporary conventions and pretentions.


It can also be read as a thought experiment about levels of analysis and explanation; a kind of philosophical enquiry into different perspectives on human society. Each of the worlds Gulliver visits requires us to question some of our assumptions, to look at ourselves with different eyes.

So in Lilliput we ‘see the world small’ with Gulliver. In a world whose people are so much smaller than him and where he could easily harm many of them at once, he is able to view social activity from a distance; to take a more sociological perspective. In Brobdingnag where people are much bigger than him and where even a child could easily harm him, he has a different perspective; getting up close and personal with individuals and understanding their psychological motives; he is ‘seeing the world big’.

In the other adventures, we are asked to imagine dramatically different societies which have enough in common with our own to be recognisable while requiring very different ways of living. What if music and mathematics were the most valued social goods? What if the apparently immutable laws of physics could be reversed and islands could fly (Laputa)? What if immortality was possible (Luggnagg)? What if there are more advanced beings who see us in a similar way as we see ‘lower’ life forms (The country of the Houyhnhnms)?

In each new adventure, Swift radically shifts the assumptions or the level of analysis. We are looking at societies that have something in common with ours but through a different lens each time. By changing our spectacles we are able to see the utopian, dystopian and ridiculous elements of our own society.

All of this serves to remind us that viewing our world from different perspectives helps us to make more sense of it and that complex systems need to be studied both at the level of the parts and their properties; reductionism – as well as at the level of the wholes and their properties; emergence.

In education, ‘seeing the world big’ offers many examples of the parts connecting to wholes: facts or units of knowledge which need to be connected to others into meaningful structures or schemas over time, individual learning ‘moments’ which need to be connected in long-term learning projects or curricula in disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) frameworks, ideas and values which need to be tested and connected to each other to inform real-life actions, individual people with human desires and motivations who need to connect to other people to realise the potential of working collectively to achieve great things.

At the ultimate level of ‘seeing the world small’ we have human civilization as a whole with all the insights and capabilities it offers us and we also have certain enduring cultural and educational practices and institutions which aim to help us pass all this on.

If we add all of this together we get the possibility of becoming educated – an emergent property of all this learning work. We experience it at our own, human, level in the here and now. But we will understand the things we study better if, like Gulliver, we see them from different perspectives and at different levels. All our questioning and all our learning will take place somewhere between the big and the small, the actual and the possible, the known and the unknown. And it’s from there that wiser, better educated individuals and a wiser, better educated society emerges.

See also: Learning is dialectical (April 2015)

Maxine Greene: resisting one-dimensionality (June 2014)


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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