Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
In 1993 John Guare's hit Broadway play Six Degrees of Separation was made into a movie starring Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland and Will Smith. It is the story of two complacent NYC art dealers who are taken in by a young man who shows up at their door claiming to be a friend of their children's from college. This turns out not to be true, but it forces Ouisa Kittredge to look at the way she has lived her life in a way that she had never done before. At the very end of the play she utters these lines,
And we turn him into an anecdote, with no teeth, and a punch line you'll tell for years to come: "Oh, that reminds me of the time the imposter came into our house." "Oh! Tell the one about that boy." And we become these human jukeboxes spitting out these anecdotes to dine out on like we're doing right now. Well I will not turn him into an anecdote; it was an experience. How do hold onto the experience?
We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.This is what I struggled to do in Israel for the past two weeks, to try to make connections between events, people, ideas, conversations that were all happening around me, but I did not want them to be simply a collection of funny anecdotes I could relate to people when they got home. And so I kept looking to see what event might be leading me somewhere, if only I could discern the direction. Why were the German Templars showing up everywhere? Why did I keep thinking about "hospitality" all the time? I know that the Teaching for Experience workshop I help facilitate in the summer really understands and practices hospitality on that level, but I do that in my classes or in my home? To paraphrase Jean Paul Sartre, "Life is where you get to be both the main character and the author at the same time." I had to be in the story but write it at the same time. And frankly, it makes the whole enterprise challenging, but in such a fun way, and you end up with so many odd connections that would never have happened, if you hadn't been paying attention.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. We come across a cascade of light, and there is eternity. This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure.
New York fell away around me. It disappeared. Poof. The city I had tried to set to the page in three novels and counting, the hideously outmoded boulevardier aspect of noticing societal change in the gray asphalt prism of Manhattan’s eye, noticing how the clothes are draping the leg this season, how backsides are getting smaller above 59th Street and larger east of the Bowery, how the singsong of the city is turning slightly less Albanian on this corner and slightly more Fujianese on this one — all of it, finished.But what does he get in exchange--certainty. He knows where things are, and he knows how to get there the fastest way possible. It is a Faustian bargain, to be sure. The I-phone has removed all the fear of something unexpected, something indeterminate, something surprising from happening.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
To those of us interested in how events become experiences in our lives, this effect triggers, as it did for Dunning, the profundity of the Donald Rumsfeld quote from our previous blog post. Remember this piece? Rumsfeld commented at a Pentagon briefing, “As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say that we know there are some things that we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Here is a clip of Rumsfeld’s quote set to music.
To flip things on their head, the problem is that we are obsessed with knowing things, but there will always be things we just “don’t know we don’t know.” One solution might be to try to figure out how to get into that zone of unknown unknowns—the DKDK zone. In other words, don’t avoid the DKDK--actively seek it out. Being there might just provide the necessary confusion or disequilibrium (key precursors of insight and experience) that would force us to create new paradigms? Remember back to the first blog post when we were discovering how important un-learning is to Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shifts? Once we were “in the zone,” perhaps some meta-cognitive piece would kick in and we could see how clueless we had been in the past? And we could possibly uncover whether our cluelessness was denial, rationalization or some other form of self-deception? What would someone who actively did this look like? How would they move through the world?
Schools, however, seem to be set up in a way that rewards knowing things and punishes not-knowing things. Ask most high school students, and they will tell you that they spend a fair amount of time protecting their ignorance and trying to make sure that no one knows, especially the teacher, that they don’t know something. Imagine a huge pie cut into two parts—one very skinny portion of what you know and one enormous slice of what you don’t know. Your job in school is to make the “know” part bigger and the “don’t know” part smaller.
From an experience-based education point of view, this dichotomy causes huge problems and chokes off learning. An experience-based epistemological pie begins with three parts—one even skinnier part representing what we know, another slightly largely slice representing what we don’t know, and a HUGE piece representing what we don’t even know we don’t even know. Adding the DKDK fundamentally changes the nature of the learning that takes place in an experience-based classroom in part because you can exclaim, “Wow, I didn’t know that” and have it be the jumping off point for exploration rather than a failing grade.
Think about some of the most profound “learning experiences” you have had—do you notice any patterns? How many of them are times where you did NOT know something, where you were in the DKDK zone, and then you somehow worked your way out into a place where you leaned back and said, “Wow, I didn’t even know I didn’t even know that. Now, I clearly see that I don’t understand.” The effect was probably that you didn’t look at the world, or yourself, the same way again.
One corollary that emphasizes just how crucial the DKDK zone is to what Swedish researchers called “deep learning” is that it shifts the emphasis away from only providing answers and onto creating questions. If schools were really, truly about “life-long learning and focusing on the questions we need to ask for the 21st century” as so many claim, then the DKDK would be a staple idea of every class. Living with the “unknown unknown” means that we must try to figure out what the questions themselves are, not just how to answer questions. And now you are into another area of experience-based learning—why do some people seem to ask great questions that open up dialogue and increase understanding? And, if you inhabited the DKDK zone regularly, would you learn how to ask those kinds of questions?
Just out of curiosity, how many of those instances where you entered the DKDK zone occurred while you were travelling somewhere away from home? My bet is that a number of them did. Exploring why that is true will give us some clues about how we can make “travelling to new lands” a part of our daily lives at home. Proust gives us a clue when he writes, “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes, in seeing the universe with the eyes of another, of hundreds of others, in seeing the hundreds of universes that each of them sees.”
That said, I am off to travel for two weeks—looking to get into the DKDK zone in a big way.
Monday, July 5, 2010
“If learning is the coupling of the previously unexperienced to the examination and reinvention of ones assumptions, there is no better place to pursue an education than in New York.”
Okay, I have come to the realization that I am obsessed. I was talking to Lee Stringer (many of you remember him as the former crackhead turned author of Grand Central Winter) the other morning- I guess it takes one obsessed person to know another- and he made the following remark; “The world must look like an intellectual and emotional Barnum and Bailey three ring circus to you every morning.” If you want to listen to Lee talk about writing (and how writers are familiar with the DKDK zone), here is an interview of a book talk he did a few years ago. I think Lee is right about me; and I think I know why. Turns out I am obsessed with exploring that epistemological zone characterized by the things I “didn’t even know I didn’t even know.”
One Saturday night I found myself crammed into a Honda Accord with four CITYterm students and our “guide,” Professor Karen McCarthy Brown, hurtling down the BQE deep into the heart of Flatbush, Brooklyn to go to a “birthday party” for the Voodoo spirit Gede. We are on one those classic CITYterm “non-field trips” where you have to invest part of your ‘self” rather than just come along for the ride. (The characteristics of “field trips” as opposed to “expeditions” will the topic of a later post.) Some of what we are investing this night is all of our assumptions about Voodoo. Try this for yourself right now- free associate the word “voodoo.” Did you come up with anything positive? Did you come up with a lot of things that were pretty scary, dark and foreign? Welcome to the stepping off point for the DKDK zone.
And that’s where the five of us are. Karen isn’t because she is a Voodoo priestess herself and author of Mama Lola, the story of another Voodoo priestess and also our choice of “assimilation and diversity” small group reading book for the previous two weeks of classes. We are about to spend much of the night (the 11:20 p.m. to Dobbs Ferry is not on the itinerary this evening) in Mama Lola’s Brooklyn basement where she will lead a ceremony (though really the altar looks more like a child’s birthday table littered with trinkets, presents and cakes) that will end up with her, and some other priestesses, being “possessed” by the Voodoo spirit Gede.
And during those rather fantastical hours, we will be engaged in the act of coupling our experience of something so unique, novel and previously unexperienced to the rather jarring and embarrassing realization that many of our assumptions about East Flatbush, Voodoo, Haiti and blackness have got to go. The mental models we held in our heads about all these concepts are no longer sufficient to explain what we have just witnessed. And as we emerge to the sedate, darkened street, in stark and heady contrast to the candle-filled festivities we have been immersed in, we are a strange mixture of people who want to babble incessantly and be quiet at the same time.
Another way to look at how to enter the DKDK zone was explored by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He posited that what happens when we sit in a theater is that we engage in a “willing suspension of disbelief, which constitutes poetic faith.” In short, we all have assumptions that, if examined and reinvented, would open up new worlds to us. But what if we see New York City (or wherever we live) as the theater where we can engage in that suspension? And even though the epigraph above comes from Empire City, the book Ken Jackson and I wrote specifically about what makes New York City distinctively New York City, think through some of the moments from your own life that you would characterize as “entering the DKDK zone.” What are those? And how did you get into that zone? What characterized that moment? What characterized your own learning state at that time? If we collectively can figure out how to access the DKDK zone, we could achieve our purpose of making our lives more experiential.
Recently, I got a postcard from a former CITYterm student with the following quote, “As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say that we know there are some things that we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” (From a Pentagon briefing conducted by Donald Rumsfeld)
Her only comment? “I didn’t know Rumsfeld had gone to CITYterm.”
Sunday, July 4, 2010
It turns out that a survey of translators picked the ten most difficult words to translate in the world but also the top ten ENGLISH words that were hardest to translate. The word that interests me right now is number three—Serendipity. My intuition tells me that there is more to this than the conventional definition. (As a quick side note, there will be many words that we will go back to explore the etymologies of in future blogs. Societies tend not to be very interested in increasing the experiential part of their members, though the universe and individual people are very interested. One easy way to access the experiential component of almost anything is to look for it origins, before it got socialized. Etymologies are good that way for words. One thing we can do in this “dialogic blog” is to share words and their etymologies that we think increase experience. I will address the idea of “dialogue” as a tool for generating new ideas in an upcoming post; in the meantime, please share any thoughts and experiences that these posts generate.)
Serendipity, by the dictionary, is “the luck some people have in finding or creating interesting or valuable things by chance.” When I first came to New York City to help start an experience-based learning program called CITYterm, I lived in the head of school’s rambling house with a few other teachers who were teaching summer school. Each day I would take the train into the city with my two young sons to explore and to figure out how I was going to have a curriculum in August based on a city I knew nothing about. And each night we would return with tales of the things that had happened to us. It felt a bit like a Dr. Seuss book, but for grown-ups. We would regale other people living in the house with people we had met and things we had discovered, and one woman, a music teacher, would say every night, “You are so lucky; that is so serendipitous. Things like that used to happen to me when I moved to the city ten years ago, but they don’t happen as much anymore.”
What had, in fact, happened was that this woman had lost (as we all do to greater and lesser degrees) the capacity for what the Zen masters call “beginner’s mind” or Shoshin. The tag line for some people for this concept is that “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” I, myself, prefer the Niels Bohr definition of an expert as “someone who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field,” but I agree with the Zen masters that it our preconceptions and our tendency to slide new data into old cognitive ruts that had doomed this woman to being an expert on New York City.
In fact, “Serendipity” was actually invented by Sir Horace Walpole in a letter on January 28th, 1754. He wrote, “This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called "The Three Princes of Serendip;" as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right--now do you understand Serendipity?”
What the tutors of the three princes are entrusted with is to teach their charges to be “serendipitous.” But look back to the dictionary definition of the word. But how does one teach “luck” or “chance?” But what if it is not chance or luck at all? What if being serendipitous is a skill? What then would cultivate it? Could you exacerbate the skill of “discovering things by accident that you were not in quest of?” What a skill to master, if I could. And then, could it be taught, as it was to the three princes of Serendip? What do you think? And what do you propose?
I have always wondered about the idea of “playfulness” as a strategy for increasing serendipity. I will follow that more on that in another blog post. In the meantime, here is a website out of Bryn Mawr that explores what the author John Barth does in narrative in his novel, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor.
There are various games on this site that will allow you to experience “serendipity”—enjoy and be playful. And remember that tourists only see “sights,” but travelers and people on pilgrimages see “sites.” As Barth proposes, “Go in good faith, and prepare to lose your bearings.”
Thursday, July 1, 2010
Like the fundamental tension that partially defines New York City, “creative destruction” is a key component to understand in order to understand the nature of experience. Joseph Schumpeter popularized this idea in the 1940’s as an economic concept that related transformation to extreme innovation. But what are the particular innovations you would need in order to effect transformations in your own learning? Creation involves destruction; learning demands un-learning. Shiva, the Hindu god of ambiguity and paradox, is another representation that captures the dynamism of this kind of transformation. Perhaps the very first piece of learning you have to do in order to make what you learn transformative is actually, ironically, an act of un-learning.
My office at school is next to the “learning specialist.” There is a kind of frantic quality to the people who come to her office—they are almost always in some kind of panic. The panic comes, in part, from the fact that they are working from a position of scarcity, they are always short of something, and a feeling of inadequacy permeates their interactions. It is an overwhelming feeling that something is lacking, and something needs to be done about it right away. Urgency and scarcity—those are the feelings that one hears when they walk up to her door. And that is the first thing she has to work really hard to un-do in order to move forward with their learning.
Being an “un-learning specialist” has a different tone to it, not initially, but after you become a steady practitioner. When one is in the throes of unlearning there is a feeling of abundance and plenty. This is, however, not the initial feeling one gets when one is engaged in un-learning. That initial feeling is one of uncertainty and insecurity, as though the world has become a bit unmoored or unhinged. Both of those words evoke a solid feeling—like an anchor or a deep connection. But un-learning produces the opposite effect—adrift and alone. I am reminded of a former headmaster of mine who once told me that his favorite book was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and his favorite line from that book was, “We live as we dream—alone.” He had been a former ice hockey goalie in college, and it always appeared to me that feeling of having hockey pucks shot at him at high speed was a metaphor for the way he dealt with his job. Objects came at him fast and furious, and he used any part of his being to deflect them away. He had a remarkable calm which I think came from being alone so much of the time. Goalies in most sports, and certainly in hockey, have a quality of being isolated. In hockey, in particular, there is a masked quality that does not allow you to see anything but the eyes of the goalie. My headmaster had a kind of mask-like quality, inscrutable might be a way to describe it, that was a kind of protection from what was coming at him. And at that school, at that time, he was well advised to put on that mask. Someone once complained that he seemed to be a bit paranoid. Someone else responded buy quoting then National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “If everybody hated you, you’d be paranoid too.” And while it is a massive “guerilla irony” (more on that in a later post) that this line came from the National Security Advisor, it also makes sense in that a sense of isolation can provoke paranoia.
The profound un-learning that must occur is the rejection of the idea that experience is something that happens to us, that we are passive vessels into which life pours experience. But Huxley’s genius is to create a Copernican Revolution, and to change our view of experience from something we receive to something we create. I first came across this idea when I was reading Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions . I was reading this book because I had failed to take any science courses in either high school or college (a long story that I will not recount here), but had realized that I needed to have grounding in scientific thought in order to makes sense of all the history and literature I was teaching and learning. But the operative concept in that book for me was the “paradigm shift.” Copernicus’ replacing of the Ptolemaic geocentric universe with a heliocentric one was the example that Kuhn used to really unhinge my world at the time, and send me into a life-long exploration for assumptions that I held that I was unaware of but accepted primarily because they were un-examined. I remember thinking (or perhaps Kuhn actually wrote this and I have stolen it) that each morning I awoke thinking that the sun had risen, just as I had thought the sun had set the evening before. But all that descriptive language of “sunrise and sunset” was just a holdover from the Ptolemaic universe of epicycles in a planetary model where everything revolved around the earth. How tricky these old models are in the way they inhabit our language and shape the world we live in, I thought. And ever since then I have had an amateur’s fascination with the way our world is constructed by our language.
Purpose. A few years ago, I actually started a workshop session by playing a song from the musical Avenue Q called “Purpose.” The purpose of this blog then is not so much to be the ”flame under your ass” or to be “the car with a full tank of gas, “ but to provide a place where we can explore why certain times become experiences while other times remain as simply events. The former transforms us, and makes life more dynamic and beautiful. However, that exploration is always more exciting when done with other people, regardless of how we dream.
So, here are some initial questions to get us started—what are the most powerful pieces of un-learning that you have had lately, or even not so lately? And, on a larger scale, what are some of things, cognitively and behaviorally, that we DO to make something an experience? How do the events of our lives become transformed into experiences?