Thursday, August 11, 2011

Possibilianism and the Search

This post is a little more complicated than most, and is most fruitful if you have the time to listen to David Eagleman's talk and read Walker Percy's essay (both are worth the time and effort). But I will try and summarize the basic ideas right now in a bit of shorthand. It seems to me that there are an endless number of ways to be on "the search" and, at the same time, we have to try to figure out what short-circuits that effort. The first part of this post is about one person's way of being on the search using science as a method; the second part is about the limitations of that method.

In an earlier blogpost I wrote about Walker Percy's idea of "the search" that is at the heart of his novel, The Moviegoer. And then, someone sent me a link to a PopTech talk that seemed to speak this very issue. David Eagleman, whom I had met earlier in the year at a reading at Pete's Candy Store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is an author and professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine (and former Albuquerque Academy student). He has created a religion called "Possibilianism" which shares with Binx Bolling a desire to be on "the search." AsEagleman says, "I am neither religious nor atheistic." Instead he promotes a kind of reasonable skepticism with a "dose of awe and an emphasis on open discussion." Possibilianism rejects the idea that there one particular religious story we should believe, and embraces the scientific idea that we hold multiple hypotheses in our minds at the same time. Then, as evidence comes in, we could make decisions about what to keep and what to discard. It embraces the DKDK zone, is skeptical of ideas posed in dichotomous formats and encourages divergent thinking--all cornerstones of experience-based learning. And, Eagleman is very funny--laughter being a key sign that some kind of deep learning might be happening.

As I listened to Eagleman's talk, I was brought back to another "scientist"--Walker Percy. Percy did not set out to be a novelist; he wanted to be a doctor. He received his medical degree from Columbia, but then contracted tuberculous while performing an autopsy. After a recuperative stay at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks he became a writer. Percy shares with Eagleman the scientist's temperment, but adds more than a "dose of awe" to his observations about being on "the search."

In an essay entitled "The Loss of the Creature," Percy explores some ideas that inhibit or derail the search. It is also an essay that I re-read each year as the school year begins in order to remind myself that my job is inculcate a spirit of exploration, not of sight-seeing--and just how difficult that challenge is. The appropriate metaphor is always more like being a mid-wife than a tour guide.
Percy starts by describing a Spanish explorer, Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time and is in awe and amazement. That, that precise feeling is what a teacher wants a student to experience in a classroom. But Percy explains that once the Grand Canyon has become a "tourist attraction" to be checked off as an experience (in other words, it is part of the curriculum) the explorer exists no more and has been replaced by the consumer.

Percy goes on to talk about how the students great difficulty is "salvaging [the object of study] from the educational package in which it is presented. The great difficulty is that he is not aware that there is a difficulty; surely, he thinks, in such a fine classroom, with such a fine textbook, the [object of study] must come across! What's wrong with me?"

What does this mean in terms of how we get people to be on the search, to recognize and reject the idea that they are consumers? Percy ends his essay, "It means that the student should know what a fight he has on his hands to rescue the specimen (the object of study) from the educational package. The educator is only partly to blame. For there is nothing the educator can do to provoke for this need in the student (the desire to be an explorer). Everything the educator does only succeeds in becoming, for the student, part of the educational package. The highest role of the educator is the maieutic role of Socrates: to help the student come to himself not as a consumer of experience but as a sovereign individual."

What I am wondering about, as always, is how to get people to see themselves as authors of their own learning, as explorers who are on the search who not only embrace Eagleman's "Possibilianism" but also Percy's understanding of how to subvert the "educational package."

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