Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How can we create Experience-based History?


Being a good historian is like being a long-standing traveler. Going back into the past frequently resembles arriving in a foreign country. Sometimes that country may look familiar--they speak the same language, they dress like you, they seem to have similar ideas about how people live in groups together. But sometimes you feel like this is a distant land--the language is unfamiliar, the customs alien, and the basic foundations of daily life simply don't make sense.

As the Wall Street Journal headline announced, "Lost in Translation: New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world." I think we already knew this, but it is always nice to have research. I met a man in Israel who works for Intel and is going to Phoenix for a year to work. He had a cultural exchange teacher who prepped him on "Common American/Israeli Cross Cultural Communication Mis-understandings." She gave him a crib sheet listing the most common miscommunications. My favorite was this one-- "When an American says, 'You obviously put a lot of work into this.' they mean 'This is terrible.' but an Israeli hears 'They really appreciate my work.' " I cringed on the truth of that one and vowed never to use that phrase again with anyone--Israeli or American. The better you get at learning how to travel, however, the better you get at understanding the different people you find yourself around, and, surprisingly, yourself, if you pay attention. That is one of the reasons history, and travel, is such a valuable resource to an experience-based learner.

But what is history? I remember asking my then four year old son this question decades ago. His response, "Sure, History, you know. Ba Ba Ba Boom--You're History." At this point I realized that he had been watching Arnold Schwarzenegger in the The Terminator way too much, but I also realized that one of the problems with doing history is that historians have different mental models about what history is than do non-historians. In order for a non-historian to really do experience-based history, they would have to change their mental models. This concept of mental models is famously portrayed in the video called "A Private Universe" where college graduates are asked to explain basic science principles but still hold onto their common sense, though incorrect, beliefs. But we all hold outdated mental models. One of my favorites just happened to me a few moments ago while I was watching New York 1 cable news--the sunset was announced for a certain time tonight. Except, the sun doesn't "set," and we all know that. Our language is a hold over from the geocentric, Ptolemaic universe where it appears to our senses (as it does to mine still, by the way) that the sun goes around the earth.
I find changing the mental model that someone holds is one of the most powerful forms of experience-based learning; I feel like my world has expanded when this happens. The universe gets larger for me because I have a new, and valid, premise at the base of my understanding which forces me to reevaluate what I thought I knew. And then--I am into the DKDK zone through yet another avenue.

So, I have been trying to figure out what are the most common misconceptions of the mental model called "history." What I will offer here is three that I think I see regularly in hopes that I can open a dialogue that everyone can add to. I think we can then start to look at some of the implications of how we teach history now, and how we might make it more experience-based.

1) History is NOT the past; it is the stories we tell ourselves about the past.

If you listen to people talk, they use the word history as being synonymous with the past. But historians do not. For us, there is always a person telling the history. History, therefore, is about who the teller is as much as it is about what they are telling. The problem history teachers face that historians do not is that they have to "cover" a lot of material in order to have it be considered a history course. Historians, on the other hand, know that much of the really great "un-covering" that can happen only occurs when you consider the source as much as the content.

Next, we are story-telling animals. Some anthropologists think that is one of the most significant characteristics that makes us human. One of my all time favorite essays is Robert Coles' "Stories and Theories" from his collection The Call of Stories. In this essay Coles recounts his days as an intern in a hospital and how he comes to learn the power of stories, as well as theories, to help us explore our most basic humanity. History is the stories being told about the events, not the events themselves.

2) History, therefore, occurs in the PRESENT not in the past; history is our "authoring" of the past.

Doing history literally creates the past, as much as records it. We cannot help but put our imprint on the stories we tell. Doing history operates kind of like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle where the act of measuring something puts limits on what you can know. As history teachers, however, we are often inclined toward the expository rather than the exploratory. But historians are more like artists with a lump of clay exploring what they can create from that mass than they are like record-keepers trying to figure out "what really happened" in the past. Historians assume subjectivity in their craft; we do not think that what we are creating is objective fact. Oftentimes, however, students are working on a very different mental model than that one.

The implications of this particular mental model are huge. History is now no longer passive; it is active. You don't "study" history as much as you "do" history. History is verb, not a noun. In a weird way, you "history" something. This changes the dynamic between you and the past. "Doing" history is always an act of empowerment because it is a creative act in which you can use the techniques from every other discipline to un-cover and shape the raw material. Some people have argued that this is why history is the "queen of the disciplines"--it is the only one defined solely by time and not by content. In short, you are now the author of your past as much as the product. And not only that, over time, you can, and will, change history. History, like experience, is not what happens to you, it is what you DO with what happens to you.

3) "The past isn't dead, it isn't even past." William Faulkner

How many times do you hear, "That was then, this is now."? As you can infer, to an historian this is nonsense. The present contains the past, you just have to un-cover it. The idea that we are not influenced by the past makes no sense. This is why, by the way, novelists like Faulkner and Toni Morrison and many others are fabulous historians. If you think about it in a reverse manner it makes sense as well. Who doesn't have a past? An amnesiac. Look at the problems that causes.

Now my friend Ken Jackson often says, "History is for losers." He uses this to explain why New York City has had such a disinterest in its past until quite recently. Cities that play on their "historical past"--say Charleston, Savannah, maybe even Boston--do so because they use it as a money generating draw to come to the city. They are cities that have "lost" in the present day economy, and therefore have to compensate by using the past.

I confess there are moments where I feel like I am teaching the most ahistorical group (adolescents) in the most ahistorical city (New York) in the most ahistorical country (USA) in the world. But then I see CITYtermers start to read the built environment of Harlem, the Dutch influence in lower Manhattan, the abundant ecological clues of Brooklyn, or the immigration patterns of Queens in order to see the intersection of the past and the present, and I start to realize that for individuals, if not for cities, being an historian opens up a whole new present, as well as a past.

What do you think are some of the other mental models that we hold that don't allow us to make history....or other disciplines...experience-based?

And, if you believe that these are the models that need to be exposed, then what are the implications for how we should teach people how to be historians? If we are going to be committed to teaching people to be "deep learners" and to being ones ourselves, we need to figure out how to incorporate experience-based principles into our our teaching and our learning. Sounds like a fun project we can do together, right?





Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Stories and Anecdotes: Traveling and Tourism: Metaphors and Cliches



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?

It is a poignant line, and Stockard Channing is brilliant delivering it, but it has resonated in my head for almost two decades because it makes a distinction that I find frightening. As Ouisa demands of Flan just after this scene, "How much of your life can you account for?" By this I think Ouisa means to have us look at how much of our lives have we spent traveling, and how much have we been tourists?
(I would like to note that making distinctions (like traveler and tourist) is useful because it gives us finer delineations of clarity about certain ideas, but it always runs the risk of creating a dichotomy. Dichotomies are notoriously the enemy of experience-based learning because they work on an "either/or" basis rather than a "both/and" foundation. The cardinal rule for experience-based learners is to be wary when someone offers you a choice of two things; the idea has almost always been over-simplified and denied it true richness. Follow this in your daily life--it is remarkable how often we do this to ourselves, not to mention people we care about. Think about this in as basic a concept as gender; doesn't it makes sense now why "trans-gendered" is such a difficult idea for people who set up a binary world? So, I realize that this distinction between traveller and tourist is a dichotomy, so our goal is to avoid the classic Manichaean split into good and evil that results in debilitating judgment. We are not always one thing or the other; we are both. I am trying to use the dichotomy to make a useful fine distinction.)

Ouisa has had one of the epiphanies that travelers (in this case her travel is internal and she never leaves her apartment) seek out or have thrust upon them where they are forced to see themselves in a wider or a sharper light. In experience-based language, she "self-implicates." By this I mean she turns the window that she has been seeing Will Smith through into a mirror where she sees herself--and is horrified. Flan, being more of a tourist in that moment, wants to make the incident into a cocktail party anecdote. Ouisa is worried that her life has become too much of just that. What is the way out of this problem? How do we make ourselves less tourists and more travelers, less cliched and more metaphoric, less anecdotal and more....more what?

I think if we go back to the idea that writers are familiar with the kind of uncertainty that we are identifying, we may get some clues. For me the person I go to for all these kinds of questions is Joan Didion. In this case, Didion's answer would be "story-tellers." Simply perhaps too simply, when we are touristy we tell anecdotes (often amusing ones), when we are travelers we tell stories. But what is the difference. In The White Album, Didion writes,
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.

To adopt the mind of the traveler, I knew I had to be willing to enter into the uncertainty of Donald Barthelme's "not-knowing" (see previous post) and try to impose a narrative line (or at least make some connections) that made sense while I was in the middle of it all. I played hunches on what I ought to do next, I tapped my intuition to plan the next day. This is a far cry from the movies that made American tourism famous in the 1960's-- If It's Tuesday, This Must be Belgium or The Ugly American. The itinerary has to be constructed by you, it cannot be handed to you to follow; and you have to be courageous enough to self-implicate along the way. To be a traveler is to be willing to author one's own learning in an unfamiliar setting, and to use the tools that authors use to make meaning through stories and not settle for anecdotes. That was what I was doing for the past two weeks, and it gave a mindfulness to the whole time that was paradoxically relaxing and exhilarating. I think this is why Dorothy doesn't want to leave Oz--she has created a story that make sense of the disparate characters in her life. That might be a pretty interesting definition of "home" right there. No wonder she wants to stay.

Of course, you must look to the last line of The White Album to realize that this does not always work, ""Quite often I reflect on (all that had happened), but writing has not yet helped me see what it means." It doesn't always work out--I have lots of anecdotes from Israel-- but the attempt is so wonderful as attempt at making events mean something lasting.

I'd love to hear if this makes sense to people as they put this construct on some of the more successful "travels" they have taken. True, or not? And what are some of the other tools we use to make ourselves travelers? As a teaser to that end, I would put forth the idea of "design thinking." But more on that another time.

Lastly, if I were trying to make sure that I designed a course that helped students with how to be travelers and not only tourists, what would I make sure to do? What would I try to minimize?

(Steph, make sure you come back with some stories, ok? Travel safe.)


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Travel and Uncertainty



My senior year in college Paul Fussell published a mind-bending book entitled The Great War in Modern Memory. It was life-changing for me, I now realize, because it ushered into my consciousness the idea of a psycho-emotional world so different than my own and yet one that I could understand. Not only that, the book forced me to start asking questions about how I wanted to live my life that I hadn't thought about before. The book did that fabulous trick of making the strange familiar while simultaneously mystifying the familiar. To do this, is to enter a new world--or to create one yourself. Novelist Toni Morrison and sociologist Peter Berger are two of my favorites in putting this concept to work in powerful ways. The metaphor that I think of is of a window and mirror. If I can clear the pane of glass cleanly enough, I can see into a new world that is a form of the DKDK zone (as a side thought, what do you think are the greatest inhibitors to seeing through that glass? or, put another way, what causes the greatest smudge marks that don't allow us to see through the glass?). But the real trick is to take that window and turn it into a mirror. If you can do that, then you start to see yourself in new ways that you had not before. The tool of "familiarizing the strange and mystifying the familiar" is more directly available to us when we travel, but we sometimes do not take it on--and we settle for pleasant, but not transformative, excursions to foreign lands.

It was not surprising then that only a few years later Fussell published another volume that took up a similar idea in a very different context in a travel book, Abroad. It was this volume, to my knowledge, that sparked the now familiar distinction between the "traveller and the tourist" that one sees in countless travel magazines. Students at CITYterm often obsess about not looking like tourists while they are exploring New York City. But it often takes quite awhile to dispel those fears and replace them with a more authentic "fear"--that they might not be travellers. This kind of fear is what Albert Camus wrote about in his Notebooks,

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.

and while I confess that I do not actively push my students to take on the kind of existential "high stakes fear" that Camus describes, I do love talking with those who stumble into it themselves. You can offer the risk, but you can't make people take it. But Camus is right, part of travel should be about fear, and it is learning to live with the particular kinds of fears that travels induces that makes it experiential. To alleviate the fear is to risk being a tourist.

Being in Jerusalem (perhaps the city that more people have travelled to than any other in world history), I found myself wondering about travel and how it fits into creating an experience-based life. I happened to be at the Kotel with Israeli friends on the day of Tisha B'av (here is another "Americanized" version--though I am not sure where the wall is in this one, other than the wall of the King Solomon hotel) and could not help but be moved by overwhelming sense of how many people have travelled to this place over the millennia. And it led me to wonder about what travel meant to them.

We have a very different conception of travel than people who lived before us. Look at the etymology of the word: Middle English travailen "torment, labor, strive, journe," from the early French travailler "torment, labor" from an unrecorded Latin verb tripaliare "to torture," from Latin tripalium "an instrument of torture." literally "three stakes." Torture--travel is literally an instrument of torture in its earliest forms. If nothing else, this should alert us to the fact that real travel is serious business. Henry David Thoreau, one of my favorite travelers, meant it to be serious business in a different way; he thought "we need travel enough to give our intellects an airing."

So, the question--Why do we not travel very much in the way that Camus and Thoreau are suggesting? What inhibits us? And are the ways we could travel differently that would make our excursions into expeditions of deep discovery? And, lastly, as Thoreau "traveled extensively in Concord," can we travel extensively in our hometowns?

I am wondering whether a major cause of all of this is a fear of uncertainty. We crave certainty on a level that has roots that go back to Descartes mechanistic view of the mind but manifest themselves in our willingness to divorce ourselves from the indeterminacy of primary experiences in exchange the certainty of a secondary experience. (For those of you interested in an interesting philosophical exploration of this you might enjoy Edward S. Reed's The Necessity of Experience.) This detaching from the details of life is precisely what happens to writer Gary Shteyngart (author of Absurdistan and other novels) in his op-ed piece about his new connection to his "i-Telephone." The first thing that happens to him after making his purchase is that
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.

How has it done this? Writers know the answer to this because real traveling feels a lot like writing. (Most of us don't write, so we don't know what this feels like either, but you may have other things that you do that would give you a clue. I would be curious to know what some of those are.) The wonderful writer Donald Barthelme puts it best for me when he writes, "Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. At best there is a slender intuition, not much greater than an itch. The anxiety attached to this situation is not inconsiderable." If you are adverse to uncertainty you had better not try to be a writer, or a traveller. How could one learn how to increase one's capacity for not-knowing? What would that curriculum look like?

Enough for right now, I think. One last thought, there is one group that is supremely devoted to certainty, however. It is the foundation of their existence as John Haylock explores in his book, Absolute Certainty: How to Give Your Clients Exactly What They Want.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Importance of the DKDK Zone

Every now and then, a friend sends me an article or a photo or some kind of artifact with a note attached that just says, “Entering the DKDK zone?” One such article arrived just the other week from a couple of different people living in different parts of the world. The article was Errol Morris’ series about “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma.” In this series, Morris is exploring the implications of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which demonstrates how often we are unable to acknowledge and correct our incompetence. This effect is reminiscent of Garrison Keeler’s fictional town, Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average.” In fact, one rather famous study of college professors showed that a whopping 94% of them thought of themselves as “above average in comparison to their peers.” The Times itself ran another story while it was running the Morris series about the Lake Wobegon effect on law schools.

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

The DKDK Zone

One of the most compelling concepts in turning events into experiences is to cultivate a willingness to enter the DKDK zone. We have chances to do this almost every day. It is analogous to what John Updike explores in his short story A and P. The world offers us choices every day; simple—but defining—choices that we can either pursue or avoid. Most of the time we employ a variety of mechanisms to resist these choices. But when we embrace the un-known, when we are eager to un-learn, then magical, transformative moments can happen. Here is a recounting of one of those moments for me from a few years ago. In the next blog, I will talk about why this concept is so vital to facilitating experiences.

“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.”
-Empire City

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

The Princes of Serendip

Translation of one idea to a totally different medium—be it in language or in a cognitive domain—is one of the most difficult, but one of the most creative, feats of understanding. When I was in Japan a few years ago, I came across such a word—Wabi-Sabi. In fact a friend of mine has been so taken by the word that he spent a decade writing a children’s book that became a Caldecott medal nominee. We will explore Wabi-Sabi—“beauty in imperfection”—in a later blog post because it is such a useful idea when you are trying to become an experience-based learner, but for now, I am interested in translation.

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

What you DO with what happens to you


The title of this post comes from a quote by Aldous Huxley taken from his volume, Texts and Pretexts, written in 1932, the same year that he wrote Brave New World. Huxley wrote, “Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.” Leaving aside for the moment the gendered nature of Huxley’s observation, there is a profound piece of “un-learning” that must be internalized in order to understand what he is talking about—and that seems as good a place as any to start talking about the purpose of this blog. James De La Vega, the East Harlem political activist and philosopher has tried to bring this message of “un-learning” (and many others) to the people of New York City in provocative street graffiti art.

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?