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.”

1 comment:

  1. That game is great! I really dig on the idea that, "In the situation of an unknown movement pattern which may be either orderly or random, the only search strategy which can assure success is one that is itself random." Talk about breaking down paradigms! I need to think more on how to incorporate this into my students' learning experiences, but I really like it. Thanks for the tip!

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