Monday, August 9, 2010

Loss and Learning

My first night in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I awakened early in the morning with an overwhelming excitement that I was going to get lost. Now, normally, or perhaps to most people, this might appear to be a problem, but I have practiced getting lost for so many years now that I am not only resigned to it, I anticipate it. Decades ago, when I first started thinking about what loss was about, I began to notice that men and women talked differently about loss. So, I started doing a little experiment where I would ask people one quick question and then see if I could see any patterns in their responses. Here is the question, "what is the opposite of lost?" What I began to notice was that men tended to respond, "won," while women responded, "found." While this particular blog post is not going to delve into the implications of possible gender differences relating to loss, for me loss has become inextricably bound up with being found. It is like the old song, Amazing Grace, "I once was lost, but now I'm found." Getting lost is a powerful technique for learning. Hence, my excitement about the prospect of being lost in Jerusalem.

Loss seems to be such a problem for good reasons--it causes confusion, it is de-stabilizing, it forces one into a state of disequilibrium. Our assumptions are revealed, our paradigms are exposed, and we feel that somehow everything we have taken for granted is up for grabs. Loss is, at its heart, a challenge to our concept of ourself. Loss is something one never really masters, only mitigates--or embraces. One of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop, wrote a poem, "One Art," where she struggles to make losing into an art, and, through that, be able to survive it,

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

The practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And Look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Loss as impermanence is so much a part of life that it is unavoidable. Loss also has so many different levels, timbers, cadences and textures that it means so many different things to different people. It seems to be something we would want to avoid; but Bishop gives us another way. If we can only bear up under the discomfort and pain of loss, we will gain the possibility of finding something in our loss. What is it that we might find?

Loss sometimes seems to feel like a kind of homelessness, and certainly there is no city in the world where one has to confront idea of spiritual exile as in Jerusalem. The lesson often seems to be that the exile oftentimes allows us to learn something about out deepest self. The loss of a physical home forces people to re-define their emotional, communal and spiritual sense of themselves. Kenwyn Smith explores this in his book Yearning for Home In Troubled Times as does an old professor of mine, Henri Nouwen in a number of different writings.

If being lost--the act of wandering in the wilderness--is so deeply linked to feeling ultimately at home then how does one cultivate the capacity for embracing loss? What should one practice losing first? Is there a taxonomy of loss that would acclimate us in the most developmentally sound way? Or is that just folly?

Perhaps we should begin, as I do when I make way out into the Old City that morning, by carrying and creating maps? We would learn then how much maps are about changing perspective (something Bishop wrote about as well in her poem, "The Map") and naming things. What do you think we might learn to lose in order to cultivate the experience of being lost, and later, found? This is my question for this blog post--what should we practice losing, and how might we best do it?

When I climbed Masada in an earlier trip to Israel, I found myself matching steps with an Argentine philologist who was in Jerusalem for a conference but felt the same need to gaze over the desert from the perspective of that ancient mountain fortress. I tried to explain what I thought experience-based learning was about and how I took students to New York City, that I was not a guide really, but couldn't explain what I was. At one point he looked over and said, "You all must be great teachers." I demurred, but he explained, "In Buenos Aries we have a saying that a good teacher teaches his students to find their way in the city; a great teacher teaches them how to get lost in the city." That, I thought, that I could try to get better at.

Practicing getting lost in a city seems a good start, but ultimately we will come up against a sense of our conception of our selves that will be unsettled, and potentially transformed. In those moments I hope try to remember the words of the psychologist Thomas Szasz, "Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all."

Any thoughts on how we make losing a part of the way we move about in the world?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Indeterminacy, The World Cup and Narrative

Last night I went to see a documentary, Killing in the Name, directed by a friend of mine, Jed. Besides being a compelling and thoughtful film, it forced me in a new direction about something else I had been thinking about for a few weeks. The film is about a man, Ashraf, whose wedding is targeted for a devastating suicide bombing in Amman, Jordan. The film follows his dedication to making sure the stories of the victims are heard, and that people speak up in response to this tragedy. There is one scene, however, where the filmmakers interview a recruiter of suicide-bombers about why he does what he does and how he does it. Besides being chilling, he describes how it takes about a month to get the potential bomber to convert to his side. But the part that was unstated, but obvious, is the certainty that the recruiter has. There is no sense of doubt. The suicide-bomber recruiter doesn't seem to have a story to tell as much as set of propositions to expound. Ashraf's goal in life is to engage fellow Muslims in an examination of the Koran, and to force them to confront the parts of the Koran that are counter to the position of jihad as they interpret it. The film, in fact, tries to make the story of this bombing more complete by creating a penetrating narrative.

One of the great problems with narrative, as my friend Gina pointed out in a letter to the New York Times after the failure of referees to see Frank Lampard's goal for England in the World Cut, is indeterminacy. Narratives always contain uncertainty and indeterminacy to be part of the story for a variety of reasons. They always contain a degree of doubt that is part of the process of creating a narrative. Now England's exit from the World Cup was comic (we knew it was coming), and the bombings are heart-breakingly tragic, but they both hinged on the limitations of human perception. In the case of the suicide bombers it is a set of beliefs founded on a certainty that removes all doubt. In the case of the referees, it is founded on the problem of literally not being in a position to see. Jed's film made me even more afraid of all proponents of certainty, and even more convinced that living with indeterminacy is, as Gina puts it, a "primal" part of the human condition.

These days I am talking with lots of former students who are asking about college recommendations, and as I listen to them I hear a desire for certainty either for some universal truth about the process or the equivalent of some "goal line technology" (the college
process has already tried to incorporate its own
in Naviance scattergrams) that will settle the truth of the matter beyond all doubt. What I find myself contemplating is how to encourage people to live with indeterminacy.

One answer, I think, may be in the idea of doing what Jed is doing in his film and what Gina is advocating in her letter--learning how to create a story, a narrative. Creating an argument and telling a story require different forms of thinking, and what passes for a solid logical argument and what determines a good story require accessing different cognitive functions. Michael White and David Epston build on the ideas of Jerome Bruner in his 1986 work Actual Minds, Possible Worlds when they rightly posit that stories
are not concerned with the procedures and conventions for the generation of abstract and general theories but with particulars of experience. They do not establish universal truth conditions but a connectedness of events across time. The narrative mode leads not to certainties, but to varying perspectives.

Stories are not about certainties but about possibilities. But with that process comes indeterminacy and an embracing of the multiple perspectives. So, it matters what cognitive process we choose to explain ourselves. That is what Jed is trying to explore in his film, and it is why soccer is not football. Both Jed's film and the game of soccer are about the creation of a narrative. George Carlin realized this was not true about football in his famous stand up comedy routine. Soccer is about the creation of a narrative story line that is literary in its essence. This is why it resists employing statistics as a standard of measurement.
Religion, soccer, college admissions--they should all be about using narratives to create possibilities, not logical modes to create certainties. With that choice of cognitive functioning, however, comes doubt and indeterminacy. Paul Tillich understood this when he wrote,
this element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed, it must be accepted. And the element in faith which accepts this is courage. Faith includes an element of immediate awareness which gives certainty and an element of uncertainty. To accept this is courage.

How one keeps the faith is always about realizing that doubt is part of the equation, or, rather, the story.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tangents and Divergent Thinking

Late in J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield meets up with his favorite teacher, "old Mr. Antolini." Holden has just flunked out of school, again, and Mr. Antolini starts to question him about why that is happening. Revealingly, Holden starts to tell a story about his "Oral Expression" class
"where each boy in class has to get up in class and make a speech. You know. Spontaneous and all. And if the boy digresses at all, you're supposed to yell 'Digression!' at him as fast as you can. It just about drive me crazy. I got an F in it... That digression business got on my nerves. I don't know. The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It's more interesting and all."
Holden tries to explain to Mr. Antolini that his teacher, Mr. Vinson,
would keep telling you to unify and simplify all the time. Some things you just can't do that to. I mean you can't hardly ever simplify and unify something just because somebody wants you to. You don't know this guy, Mr. Vinson. I mean he was very intelligent and all, but you could tell he didn't have too much brains.
At the same time that I was first teaching Catcher, I was team-teaching a course with two friends, Ted and Rick, called "Utopias." (I usually took this opportunity to work on designing what I thought would be a Utopian school, called, of course, "Noplace.") But after constructing this wonderful syllabus with great readings that needed to be un-packed and discussed and synthesized we found that our classes started to run amuck. The problem was that there were too many ideas being put forth, and too much chaos resulted. We weren't covering all the material we were supposed to cover. So, we invented a structure I still use to this day, "The Tangent Board." The tangent board was where ideas that were not exactly on topic went to reside.

Tangents are woefully misunderstood in our culture, and there are solid cultural reasons for this. Free associate tangent in your mind for a second. What did you come up with? Probably not what is drawn here--unless you teach mathematics.

What you might have thought would have been closer to what the dictionary uses, "divergent or digressive, as from a subject under consideration" or "tending to digress or to reply to questions obliquely." I worry that when I start covering material that I am actually being a bit like Mr. Vinson--I mean I am intelligent and all, but I don't have too many brains. The "tangent board" helps because it allows for lots of "divergent thinking." I worry that I am too biased toward convergent thinking, and that I force my students to get to some solutions that are "on point." But if you look at a tangent like the on above it isn't really off topic, it is lightly touching it and connecting it to some other point that we can't see. The challenge seems to me to be how to combine convergent and divergent thinking into one process. How do you think that might be done? How do you do it in your classrooms or in your life? I think we are well-equipped to teach techniques of convergence, I want to open up this space up to look for techniques of divergence. What do you think?

I will offer one idea that might lead to some others--metaphor. The root of the word, "to transfer," gives a clue as to why it is so important for experience-based learning. Metaphors are used when we are confronted with unknown and we have to relate it to something that we do know. It is a form of connection and synthesis. Anytime I am transferring something from one domain to another, I know I am in the presence of a powerful learning technique. This is why I think the "tangent board" came from that interdisciplinary class with multiple teachers. We built a structure that was all about connection as much as it was about analysis. All three of us were trained to be convergent thinkers in our disciplines, but together we started transferring ideas and techniques so fast that we would often hit what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call "flow."

How could I incorporate "metaphor" in a more formal way into my life? The next course I taught after Utopias was team-taught with an artist, Hodo, called "Metaphors We Live By" which used George Lakoff's book by the same name as a jumping off point for trying to name those metaphors for ourselves. That was a start, but it isolated the idea; I want to try to figure out how to incorporate metaphor and other forms of transfer as an integral part of what we think of as thinking and learning.

One final thought that gives me a fair amount of hope is that these kinds of issues are starting to make the mainstream press. One of the main stories in Newsweek while I was in Israel was about the "Crisis in Creativity." As you read this article ( I really recommend it), notice what they are saying about divergent and convergent thinking--gives one hope that we might, as Holden says, "have some brains as well as being intelligent."