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‘Shall we take a look and see if we can find our favourite painting?’: A primary school art class

  • Note: the transcript below is of in-classroom dialogue between three children, aged 8-9, and their teacher. It was presented to me in one of Professor Jan Derry's classes on Philosophy of Education at the UCL Institute of Education in early 2016, and is cited in her paper 'Dewey’s Philosophy of Education: Representing and Intervening'.

Teacher: Ok, shall we take a look and see if we can find our favourite painting?

Teacher: Which one do you like Layla, which on is your favourite [Teacher points to paintings]

Layla: Oh mine? I always like that one [points to Monet]

Teacher: You still like that one? Which one would you choose Jay?

Jay: I like that one [points to Monet too]

Teacher: Which one is your favourite Jessie?

Jessie: Well... er... er… that one [points to the same picture as everyone else, the Monet]

Teacher: Great, that’s very good because we have decided, we have agreed that this is our favourite, so all three of us [points at children] have agreed that this is our favourite painting, so let’s put it there so we know that we have agreed [puts at the end of the table].

Jay: Teacher which one is your own favourite?

Teacher: A good question, that is [laughs]

Teacher: I like this one best [points to the Kandinsky]

Jay: Ah

Teacher: I also like this one because of all the shapes on it…

Jay: Yes

Teacher: I like the circles and the all the colours too … they are bright

Jessie: Teacher which one do you like least?

Teacher: Umm, I think that one [points to Monet] is the one I like the least because I don’t like the colours, too much green and blue. I prefer the brighter colours.

Teacher: You see you like that one best [the Monet] and I like that one the least!

Jay: Yes

Teacher: So, different ideas, is it ok to have different ideas?

Jay: Yes, it is fine too.

Jessie: so you would put that one [pointing to Monet] last?

Teacher: Yes, if it was my choice then I would put it last.

Teacher: As you three think it is the best, shall we put it as first?

Jay: Yes.

Teacher: Ok, that’s great so we’ll put that as number 1.

Teacher: Which do you think will turn out to be our least favourite painting? [lines up the remaining paintings]

Jay: I think that one. [pointing to the Van Gogh]

Jessie: I think that one as well [pointing to the Van Gogh]

Jay: Layla, which one do you think…?

Layla: That one [pointing to the Van Gogh] erh, no I mean that one. [points to the Lowry and children talk together]

Jessie: Ok, that needs to go there then [pushes Van Gogh to the other end of the table]

Teacher: Hang on, Layla thinks that this is her least favourite [points to the Lowry] and you think this one [points to the Van Gogh] is your least favourite.

Layla: That one is my least favourite. [points to the Lowry]

Teacher: So let’s put the Klee and Kandinsky to one side for the moment.

Teacher: So these, these two, these are our least favourite [points to the Lowry and the Van Gogh] Let’s think again about the reasons why you don’t like them again.

Teacher: So Layla, why don’t you like this one? [points to the Lowry]

Layla: Because they might, they might make me do lots it so busy, rushing, busy, too busy

Teacher: So you don’t like what’s happening in the painting?

Layla: No!

Teacher: Why don’t you like this one Jay?

Jay: It hasn’t been watered, ouch it’s got prickles it’s not ok, people haven’t looked after it

Teacher: Jessie, why don’t you like this one?

Jessie: It just looks a bit dead, those yellow bits it looks a bit like dead that’s why.

Jay: That’s true!!

Jessie: So, yes, that’s why I don’t like that about it.

What I want to do here is simply look at this lesson transcript, not as an appropriate springboard for a discussion of some particular theory or set of theories but because it strikes me as, in some fairly common-sense ways, interesting. I start by offering readings of the text, by trying, in other words, to work out in some detail what might be going on in the lesson. Then I assess the quality of the lesson, as I understand it. I offer the readings I do aware that, especially in an essay of this length, I can’t hope to articulate all plausible readings, let alone capture the full complexity of what’s going on in the lesson; nevertheless, I do hope to give a sense of the range of interpretive possibilities and to do adequate interpretative work to pre-empt any interpretation-based objections to my verdicts on the lesson. One more caveat: I’m just going on what’s given. Details about the class – about the teacher, the children, the social and educational background – would, if they were given, surely alter my views, as would information about the body language and intonations used and about any discussion after the point at which the transcript ends. What I undertake here is, as I see it, not necessarily anything more than an interesting but essentially artificial exercise. Perhaps I could also reasonably call it an assessment of one instance of early formal, discussion-based aesthetic education, even a very representative one, but I don’t know about that. Textual Analysis On the nature of the children’s stated preferences… Each of the three children quickly states a preference for the Monet. Why? (The teacher doesn’t ask.) I can think of two likely reasons. First, what we see depicted in the Monet is a scene of a kind quite widely recognised as ‘beautiful’. Nothing depicted in any of the other paintings is of a kind typically declared or recognised as good to look at. Suppose one of the children had spent happy years in a busy setting that resembled the one depicted in the Lowry and was now, with some regret, somewhere entirely different. That child might then have opted for the Lowry, and for a reason of the same basic sort. This certainly is the sort of reason the children give for disliking the Van Gogh and the Lowry. As the teacher summarises: ‘so you don’t like what’s happening in the painting?’ Another reason the children could easily have for favouring the Monet is that, unlike the Kandinsky and the Klee, certainly to a greater extent than the Lowry, and probably to a greater extent than the Van Gogh as well, the Monet obviously took great technical skill to paint – by which I mean only that the children are probably aware on some level that they could not themselves paint a picture like this one, with all its realistic detail; of all the paintings, this is the one they’d probably feel least able to imitate. And that in itself is arguably one measure of the admirableness of a painting, and a measure surely very familiar to children of this age – they look at the paintings of other children in their class and think ‘wow, I couldn’t do a painting like that; she’s so good at painting’. Conceivably something like peer pressure or herd mentality plays a role in their consensus… Jessie, the third and last of the children to say which painting he likes most, does hesitate briefly before going for the same one as the other two children. And conceivably some or all of the children say they like the Monet best because they believe that this is, in some sense, the right thing to say, the thing their teacher, and maybe anyone behind the camera, will be most impressed to hear – just as any adult would be, they might think. If they do think this, they quite possibly suppose, consciously or not, that adults would prefer the Monet for exactly the reasons just outlined. They could recognise a kind of technical skill involved in creating any given painting as something generally declared to be a virtue of that painting without feeling it to be one – without experiencing it as one – themselves. Whether judging the paintings on the basis of (1) the independent appeal of the things they depict, (2) the technical skill apparently involved in creating them, or both, the children’s stated preference for the Monet is easy to understand, and predictable. However, there are two entirely distinct measures here and, whereas you might well expect the Monet to score highest on both of them for these children, there are two obvious contenders for which will score lowest on each of them. On measure (2) it’s surely the Kandinsky vs the Klee. Possibly though, this measure is knocked out of play by the teacher’s announcement that his favourite is the Kandinsky, and the reason he gives for liking it, which is a reason of a sort that could equally be given for liking the Klee – namely that he likes the basic shapes and colours. If the teacher doesn’t mark paintings down because of how little technical skill seems to have been involved in painting them, neither should they, or they shouldn’t be seen to, anyway. This could be why the children only explicitly judge which their least favourite painting is on the basis of how much they dislike what’s depicted. It might however be that the second measure I mentioned is never in play, or that both measures are in play even after the teacher has expressed his preferences and when the children are judging which painting they like least, only the negative impression made on the children by what’s depicted in the Van Gogh and the Lowry is strong enough to trump all other considerations. An alternative possibility is that the children have no idea how they might think critically about and evaluate abstract paintings like the Kandinsky and the Klee, and so basically ignore them. None of the children at any point in the discussion refer to either of those two paintings, and the only reasons they give for their preferences apparently couldn’t apply to either of them. In any case, the reasons the children give for judging the Van Gogh and the Lowry their least favourite seem heartfelt, and so it seems very unlikely they’re saying those are their least favourite simply or mainly in the hope of impressing. Also they no longer all absolutely agree with each other, which suggests that, if there was something like peer pressure or herd mentality in play, there now isn’t to the same degree. If there are, over the course of the discussion, these changes in the children’s thinking, the teacher’s expression of preferences very different from those the children have expressed may be crucial to them. On the teacher’s hesitation before answering which his favourite is… When asked which his favourite of the paintings is, the teacher first replies ‘good question, that is’ and laughs. Here are some possible interpretations of this response: - By asking the teacher which is his favourite, Jay is, the teacher thinks, doing something he very much wants these children to do – he’s recognising the legitimacy of and taking an interest in the opinion of another. Hence the remark, ‘good question, that is’. What’s more, Jay’s doing this early in the conversation, unprompted. The teacher is pleased and surprised, hence the laugh. - Jay, like many students, is always looking for the approval of his teacher, and asks the question expecting the teacher to express the same preference as the three children – to, in other words, tell everyone that he, Jay, and the others too of course, have given the right answer. (Jay’s ‘Ah’ in response to the teacher’s eventual answer may well be an expression of slight surprise, even deflation.) The teacher laughs because it’s precisely this mentality he wants to educate against. He hesitates in part because he realises he’s going to have to disappoint Jay now, and considers whether there are better and worse ways of doing this. - When the teacher says ‘good question, that is’, what he’s doing is buying himself time, as, at the point when the question is asked, he doesn’t in fact have an answer to it. He laughs because, as he realises this is the case, he thinks it funny, odd, maybe even a little unprofessional, certainly a kind of oversight that he hasn’t asked himself, or at least hasn’t answered to his satisfaction, this simple question that he’s been asking his pupils, or else he’s reminded that it’s not necessarily as simple a question as his discussion with these children has up until now implied it to be. And maybe he laughs also partly because it hadn’t actually occurred to him the tables might be turned like this – silly as it may seem, he just hadn’t envisaged the lesson taking this particular turn. It’s like a reversal of roles – a comedy staple, of course. That he doesn’t expect to be included in the discussion of favourites is perhaps indicated by the fact that, after the three children have each expressed their preference for the Monet, he says ‘we have decided, we have agreed that this is our favourite, all three of us’ – so, he excludes himself from the ‘we’ who are deciding; he implicitly says I am not relevant here; pretend I don’t exist, and I’m just speaking for the three of you who do. (He does do this after he’s stated his own opinions as well, but that does not prove anything about the original significance of his doing it.) Another possible explanation of his laughter is that he’s suddenly feeling slightly awkward, slightly self-aware, not having a ready answer to this question that’s just, to his surprise, been put to him – especially as the camera’s on him. - His laugh and his time-buying remark – in short, his momentary uncertainty and awkwardness – actually speak of his typical adult anxiety about being judged, and judged disapprovingly perhaps, on the basis of what artistic preferences he expresses. This anxiety arises instinctively when the question is put to him and/or he’s keenly aware of the camera. It takes some quick but probably fairly conscious thoughts – that it’s a child who’s posed the question, that hardly anyone is going see this footage, that no one who does see it could reasonably assume he wasn’t saying what he was purely for pedagogical purposes, that it is in fact OK to have any artistic preferences whatever – before he can overcome the anxiety. And maybe he laughs partly because he realises he himself hasn’t fully learnt something he’s trying to teach these children. - He buys himself time by saying ‘good question, that is’ because he wants to work out what answer will most help him push the objectives he has – or is finding he has – for the lesson.

On the teacher’s stated preferences… After his hesitation, the teacher says he likes the Kandinsky most, because of the shapes and the bright colours. It’s possible that, in the moment he is hesitating, the teacher is reaching the conclusion that an answer along these lines will serve the purposes of the lesson best. He’s not only not choosing the painting the children have agreed they like best, he’s choosing one as unlike that one as possible. Then, when asked which of the paintings he likes least, he goes, with less hesitation, for the one unanimously favoured by the children. The teacher takes the trouble to spell out and emphasise what’s happened here: ‘You see you like that one best and I like that one the least!’ He follows this up with the question: ‘So, different ideas, is it ok to have different ideas?’ The children all went quickly for the Monet; it’s quite plausible that the teacher, in expressing the preferences he does, is looking to indicate to the children that a) disagreeing about something like this is perfectly OK, and b) favouring a painting of a kind very different from the Monet is perfectly OK, and not evidence of any lack of cleverness or understanding (he, after all, is the teacher). Of course, when he says ‘different ideas’, he likely means not only the different choices, but also the different sorts of reason for the different choices. The teacher explains that he likes the Kandinsky most because he likes the circles and the bright colours, and then he says he likes the Monet least because he doesn’t like all the green and blue. When I first read the transcript, these remarks struck me as like parodies of what a child might say, and that impression hasn’t entirely left me. The teacher perhaps guesses the kinds of reasons for which the children have opted for the Monet, and guesses it hasn’t occurred to them that they could evaluate a painting on the basis simply of the pleasingness for them of colours and simple shapes it features prominently – and that doing so wouldn’t count as failing in any way. He maybe even suspects that some or all of the children have said they like the Monet most because they think that this is the right thing to say, and that, if they weren’t anxious to say the right thing, they would express preferences more like those he does, and, if asked to explain their preferences, give reasons like those he does. In other words, the teacher is perhaps seeking to reassure the children that what he thinks might well be their normal way of thinking about and judging these paintings is as good as any. He may even be to some extent projecting onto these children the above-mentioned typical adult anxiety of his. Another possibility is that the Kandinsky actually most resembles the kinds of paintings these children paint, and the teacher wants, by expressing a preference for the Kandinsky, to be encouraging to them, and consistent, if he’s lavished praise on such paintings of theirs in the past. On the children’s explicit response to the teacher’s stated preferences… Jay’s ‘Ah’ is perhaps an expression of surprise, and even disappointment at the teacher’s lack of agreement. Jessie’s question, ‘so you would put that one last?’, could also be an expression of surprise and doubt. Certainly it’s easy to see how the children could be surprised by the teacher’s stated preferences, and not be able to articulate the reasons for this surprise. Also worth noting is that none of the children then express doubt about their own answer to the initial question of which painting their favourite is – although the teacher does kind of invite them to, saying, in answer to Jessie’s question, ‘Yes, if it was my choice then I would put it last. As you three think it is the best, shall we put it as first?’ It seems to me that, if they had chosen the Monet because they’d thought this the correct thing to do, they would be more likely to hesitate here. That they accept that the teacher has a very different preference from them, without apparently doubting their own verdict or further questioning him, and move on, probably implies one of two things: either they’re doubtful of the teacher’s verdict but haven’t the ability to express the nature of their doubt, or they do, as the teacher seems to want them to, believe that one person can prefer the Monet and another the Kandinsky, and neither be in any way wrong or failing or misunderstanding. If their possible surprise gives credence to the former interpretation, one or two other things support the latter – specifically, Jay’s unhesitant answer to the teacher’s question whether it’s OK to have different ideas, and Jay and Jessie’s asking the teacher and Layla which their favourites and least favourites are. These details suggest that if the lesson is to take an interest in and accept other people’s opinions on such things, it’s already well-learnt, by two of these children at least. It’s even possible that Jay agrees with the teacher’s statement about it being OK to have different ideas because he believes this is the correct/impressive thing to do, and that none of the children object to or question the teacher’s preferences because they believe it would be incorrect/unimpressive to do so. Of course it’s also possible the children are confused here, or have conflicting thoughts, possibly without realising they’re conflicting. They could have learnt that it’s OK to have different ideas, as the teacher puts it, or at least they could have learnt to agree with statements like that made in contexts like this, and genuinely believe something of what’s meant in such cases, while still struggling to understand how a person could reasonably prefer the Kandinsky to the Monet. It is, if you think about it, an extraordinarily vague question: ‘is it OK to have different ideas?’ Assessment Commenting on this lesson in her paper on Dewey, Jan Derry says ‘there is a problem of low expectations here’, and this certainly seems true, no matter how you look at it. If the teacher is, as he seems to be, trying to teach these children to be accepting of the different opinions others have on works of art, he’s apparently preaching to the converted. The only thing that maybe challenges the children on this front is the teacher’s own ranking of the Kandinsky first and the Monet last. As said, it’s possible the children don’t understand this, or even doubt that it’s reasonable, but don’t know how to explain as much and/or fear that, by trying to, they’d be displeasing the teacher. I think for a lot of people, including many mature, educated people, it’s very difficult to understand how, or even believe that, someone could reasonably prefer a painting such as this Kandinsky one, which does look a lot like something any 4-year-old could churn out in half an hour (even if it in fact isn’t), to a painting such as this Monet one. To my mind, it’s shocking that the teacher either doesn’t consider the possibility that these children share this very common incredulity and of course doesn’t accept it as reasonable himself, or, even if he thinks they might share it, isn’t concerned to address it with counter-reasons and is instead content to implicitly dismiss it out-of-hand. Indeed, the teacher’s unduly and unhelpfully low expectations are perhaps most in evidence in his very limited discussion with the children of the reasons he and they have for the opinions they express. The children show themselves to be very responsive to the one broad sort of reason that is discussed, and the teacher identifies this sort of reason – ‘So you don’t like what’s happening in the painting?’ – but that’s all he does with it. Surely he could fruitfully have at least questioned the children on their interpretation of what’s happening in the painting – ‘yes, these people are busy,’ he might have said, ‘but you can be happy and busy at the same time, can’t you? What makes you think they’re not?’ And a question like this could have prompted in the children not only a drive to further explore the paintings but also some basic meta-thinking and increased self-awareness: ‘why did I respond like that?’, he could effectively have encouraged the children to ask themselves. Throughout the discussion, the teacher seems to pass up good opportunities to push the children’s thinking like this. Here are a few examples: - He doesn’t even ask the children why they like the Monet most. - When Layla confirms that she dislikes the Lowry because she doesn’t like what’s happening in it, or later, after Jay and Jessie have indicated that they dislike the Van Gogh for the same sort of reason, he could say ‘OK, so if you don’t like this one [pointing to the Lowry/Van Gogh] because you don’t like what’s happening in it, how do you decide whether or not you like this one [pointing to the Kandinsky/Klee]?’ - He could also here ask the children whether they can see a difference between disliking a painting and disliking what’s happening in it. To make the question a bit less abstract, he could ask whether any of them have ever seen a painting and liked it a lot despite not liking what’s happening in it, or whether they can imagine doing so. He could even widen the discussion by asking: what about films or books? – have they ever liked a film in which something happened that they didn’t like? - Or he could ask them what, if anything, they do like about the Van Gogh, and whether they can imagine somebody else actually liking the Van Gogh most. If they said yes, he could ask what they think that person’s reasons for liking it so much would be. If they said no, he could ask why they think it was ever painted. - Or, after the children have spoken with distress about the Van Gogh and the Lowry, he could ask whether they think they could paint a picture that could make them feel like that. If they answered no, he could say: ‘is that a reason to think this painting is good, in a way?’ My fear is that the teacher doesn’t ask questions like these less because he believes the children couldn’t benefit from being asked them than because he is not himself sufficiently engaging with the paintings and does not himself have sufficient understanding in this area for such questions to occur to him, and, if he does think the children wouldn’t benefit from deeper questioning, that’s partly because he doesn’t really appreciate the level of engagement and maturity in the children’s attempts to explain what they dislike about the Van Gogh and the Lowry. He not only doesn’t question and work with these attempts of theirs, he doesn’t even applaud them. At the very start of the discussion, he gets super-excited about the fact the children have decided which of the paintings their favourite is. Surely this critical engagement and eloquent self-expression is more worth getting excited about. Instead the children’s comments are, as Derry puts it, ‘dropped like stones’. And, incidentally, doubt about which painting to favour, and longer contemplation, would surely be at least as propitious as a swift decision. What’s more, the teacher’s own stated reasons for liking the Kandinsky most and the Monet least don’t suggest a great deal of engagement with the paintings. Clearly some kinds of reasons for liking a painting entail limited engagement with that painting. Suppose that, of a bunch of paintings, you like best one of a crowd scene because there is in the crowd a person wearing an Arsenal shirt, and you happen to be an Arsenal fan. The teacher says he likes the Monet least because he doesn’t like all the green and blue, and likes the Kandinsky most because he likes the circles and bright colours – is this really much better? Would the teacher get great aesthetic satisfaction from looking at any configuration of bright colours and circles? Greater anyhow than he would from looking at this Van Gogh or this Monet or this Lowry, purely because these are all less bright and circle-dominated? Note that equivalent criticisms could not be made of the children’s stated reasons for disliking the Van Gogh and Lowry. This weakness in the reasons the teacher gives for his stated preferences is not, it’s worth stressing, vindicated if his stated preferences are not his genuine preferences and are instead intended to serve some pedagogical purpose. If that is the case, what he indicates to the children with his explanation of his preferences is, most fundamentally, that reasons for liking or disliking a painting are not in any way to be judged negatively for arising from a very limited kind of engagement with that painting. Related to all this, the teacher does not seem to believe there could be such a thing as an enlightened preference here. Roger Scruton, in his book Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, observes that:

‘In a democratic culture people are inclined to believe that it is presumptuous to claim to have better taste than your neighbour. By doing so you are implicitly denying his right to be the thing that he is. You like Bach, she likes U2; you like Leonardo, he likes Mucha; she likes Jane Austen, you like Danielle Steele. Each of you exists in his own enclosed aesthetic world, and so long as neither harms the other, and each says good morning over the fence, there is nothing further to be said.’

This dialogue seems to me to capture perfectly a moment of formal initiation in this ‘democratic’ and atomistic approach to art appreciation. ‘You see you like that one best [the Monet] and I like that one the least! So, different ideas, is it ok to have different ideas?’ One of the children answers in the affirmative, but there is no discussion of this point. Is it always OK? Are we talking only about art here, or about other things? Is it OK to have different ideas about whether or not it’s OK to murder, or about things like whether 2+2=4 or 5? If it’s in some sense not OK to have different ideas about these things, what makes it unequivocally OK to have different ideas about art? I don’t say that the children could answer such questions, but they might well be capable of some understanding of them, and it wouldn’t do any harm to have a go at prompting them to start thinking about them. At any rate, the teacher glosses over all of this – I think largely or wholly unconsciously – and does so in a way that suggests he is very much in the grip of the ‘democratic’ concerns Scruton speaks of, and eager to pass them on to these children. This could even be essentially why he does not question the reasons the children state for their preferences, or ask the children how compelling they find his or each other’s reasons.

I can imagine someone defending the teacher by saying that he does get the children engaging with the paintings, he does get them all talking, and about equally, and he does not bias their thinking.

Yes, he does get the children engaging with paintings, possibly to a greater extent than he himself is. I don’t know whether this is at all difficult though, and, for the reasons listed above, I believe he could get them engaging a lot more. That said, I think I approve of his decision to start by asking the children which their favourites are, as it’s an easy question to get them all going, and enables him to draw on the children’s enthusiasm – he’s asking them to see what appeals to them, after all. Then again, I am concerned that he speaks of artworks as if they’re purely and simply things to like to a greater or lesser extent. That’s the limited engagement again.

And yes, he gets them all talking about equally, but it doesn’t strike me as all that important that children in such a lesson all talk, let alone about equally. Certainly it strikes me as a lot less important than that there’s something to learn, rather than nothing. To be specific, when, rather than say anything in response to Layla or Jay’s explanations of why they dislike the Lowry and the Van Gogh respectively, he asks another student why they like least the one they do, that seems a mistake. He is passing up the opportunity to push all of their thinking so that he can give another of them a say.

As for the point about not biasing the children in any way, it seems to me he effectively is. He is, as said, promoting that characteristically ‘democratic’, relativistic view of art appreciation, which many, including Scruton, take issue with. He is implicitly telling them that all possible opinions here are equally reasonable or enlightened, or that it’s having your say that matters, not what you say.

I’ve three times now put the word democratic in scare quotes because it seems to me – and, furthermore, it seems to me uncontroversial – that one very important democratic value is quality of public debate. Government by the people can surely only be at anything like its best when the people are engaged in high quality debate about how to govern. Scruton’s picture of everyone ‘in his own enclosed aesthetic world’ is then, in an important sense, non-democratic. It might at this point be interjected that aesthetic evaluations and the dictates of government are in many ways very different things. Scruton clearly doesn’t think they are so very different though. He says: ‘Criticism is not aiming to show that you must like Hamlet, for example: it is aiming to expose the vision of human life which the play contains, and the forms of belonging which it endorses, and to persuade you of their value.’ While I realise I’m now raising important questions that it would take whole other essays to really go into, I just want to say that something like this seems right to me, and no less so when ‘Hamlet’ is replaced with the name of any one of the paintings discussed in the lesson I’ve been looking at, and also suggestively point out that the characteristics of this class discussion about paintings are not so very different from characteristics of the public debate that occurred in the run-up to recent referenda I experienced from close-up in the UK – I mean of course the ones on Scottish independence and on Brexit. In particular, politicians’ and mainstream media’s fairly unanimous lauding of high voter turnout and apparent lack of concern about the substantive nature of voters’ engagement were eerily recalled to me by this text.



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