Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Women's Ways of Knowing and Divergent Thinking

I got a note the other day from one of my former students, Carl, who was reflecting on our class together last year. He wrote, "I miss our history lessons! All the times we went off-topic and started talking about interesting things, haha!" Carl was remembering the times we were practicing connectivity on the tangent board (see this earlier blog post for a discussion of the role of tangents in fostering and inculcating divergent thinking) or explicitly practicing divergent thinking. Carl was someone who came into that class as a wonderful analytic, convergent thinker who had been well trained in the basic techniques of the sciences in Europe. 

What surprised him most about the class, however, were the times when we diverged and connected people, events and concepts that seemed far ranging and even, "off-topic." Sometimes these connections would take the form of creating analogies that seemed to contain portions of what we were exploring. Other times, we would have "metaphor practice" to try to construct a metaphor that described an historical event as fully as possible using our own experience. At the highest levels of thinking, analysis and metaphor meet as the critical and creative forces that make for original thought. To permanently separate them is to create a false dichotomy that chokes off imagination. I like to think that I was just trying to get Carl ready for a career in science (or whatever) by following the dictum of evolutionary biologist R. C. Lewontin, "It seems impossible to do science without metaphors."

As I was responding back to Carl's note I was reminded of one of the first times I ever thought about divergent thinking in this manner. I had made the conscious move to change schools from a rural all boys boarding school to an urban co-ed day/boarding school. Other than in summer schools, it was the first time I had taught girls, and it was remarkable to me how much more the girls' thinking was connected to both their own experiences as well as to other stories while they talked in class. 

This led me to start listening for "how" someone was saying something rather than only "what" they were saying. It is this added level of listening that is one of the cornerstones of shifting from thinking about teaching as being solely about the transmitting of information to examining teaching as also encompassing the exploration of how what is being transmitted is being received. Once you make this transition, it is like Alice falling down the rabbit hole or Dorothy waking up in Oz--a world full of talking scarecrows and mad hatters that consistently resists full comprehension. (I explored another form of this phenomenon in an earlier post on "The Hedgehog and the Fox.") It is has been one of the most profound paradigm shifts in my understanding of what I am doing in a classroom.

The confusion induced by my paradigm shift was compounded as I realized that having a full class of people who were ALL using different techniques to process what we were discussing was overwhelming and exhausting. But it also felt exciting every day because even if you had taught something before (I am up to having taught The Great Gatsby over forty times), you could never predict HOW a student was going read a book. 

I began to to investigate this phenomenon and, in a serendipitous moment, I discovered the Stone Center at Wellesley College. It was the work of Jean Baker Miller, the founder of the Stone Center, on the psychology of women that first drew my attention, but in the same year I had shifted schools a book appeared called Women's Ways of Knowing that made me re-think (and subsequently expand) the way I had been thinking about teaching. The discovery that Blythe McVicker Clinchy and her colleagues documented in that book was that there were identifiable epistemological levels to the way students engage material they are learning. I remember being so excited that I made my newly formed interdisciplinary course in Philosophy and Literature read the whole thing.

Clinchy discerned that there were levels of understanding that could be described and that were common to all students. But the real discovery, form my point of view, was that men and women appeared to have different techniques of making meaning at the upper levels of the stages. In short, men and women showed similar approaches in early stages of learning until they came to the level of "procedural knowledge." When people are in this stage they are asking questions about the accuracy and worth of the information they are receiving.  Is Nick a reliable narrator in Gatsby? Does Jefferson really believe what he wrote in the Declaration?

In other words, learners in this category were engaged in a reasoned reflection about the nature and authenticity of authority. Clinchy posited that in this stage there were "separate knowers" and "connected knowers." The former detached themselves from what they were studying, tried to remain objective and were often willing to argue and debate about whether something was reasonable.  These were predominately male. Connected knowers, however, were more likely to try to empathize with the source's point of view, to see the source in its real world context and to connect the source to their own experience. These learners were predominately female. Obviously, I wanted my students to be able to do both, but it seemed to be true that most students, like Carl, favored one form--separate or connected-- over the other.

But it was when I started teaching and coaching at a school out West that Clinchy's findings became even clearer. And it was not surprising for me that it was when I shifted from coaching boys to coaching girls in soccer that the difference between separate and connected knowers became most vivid--and most useful. Sports---like theater and music and all of the arts--are performance based activities and, as a result, you get immediate, real time feedback about whether something has been learned or not. Did the ball do what you wanted it to do?  Did you hit that note, or not? 

Furthermore, the more confident you were, the better you performed. But where did that confidence come from? What was its foundation? What was immediately apparent to me was that it was different for girls than for boys. With a girls team the more they empathized, saw what they were learning in a larger context and connected it to their own experience, the more confident they grew, the more they developed technically and strategically, the higher the their level of intrinsic motivation and the more it meant to them. From that moment on my teaching, and my coaching, became both more varied and more focused at the same time whether it was with boys or girls.

The point, however, is not that one way of procedural learning--separate or connected--is better but rather that it is good to know the epistemological strengths of the people you are teaching (and coaching) as well as where you think they could grow in the future. 

Finally, Clinchy's last level of learning--constructed knowledge--understands that learning is a process based on construction, destruction and reconstruction. These most sophisticated learners have a high level of tolerance for paradox, ambiguity and developed a narrative sense of self that tried to "establish a communion with what they are trying to understand." And being meta-cognitive--understanding the techniques that you yourself use to learn best--seemed to me to be a fundamental goal of any teacher or coach.

By the way, it turned out that Carl was a superb connected learner as well; he just hadn't done it much before.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Divergent Thinking about the Purpose of Studying and Doing History

One of the hardest things about starting the school year is remembering the things I need to forget. Once you have been teaching for awhile (and this only gets worse the more you do it), you build up such a reservoir of tacit, assumed understandings about what you are teaching that it is even more important to remind yourself that you have to see what you are teaching from the student's point of view. If you don't, you will never move them forward. I need to forget that I already know a lot about doing history, and look at it from their point of view. For example, if I don't let students explore what they think about history and what their past experiences have been in classes, then I will not have an accurate benchmark to know where to begin.

For example, many of them are really Henry Ford historians--"History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today." (Chicago Tribune, 1916). But some of them might be Arnold Schwarzenegger historians--"Ba Ba Ba BOOM. You're History." (The Terminator, 1984).

Another vital skill I have to remind myself to introduce is the idea of "divergent thinking." I wrote about this briefly in an earlier post where I paid the price and induced a frightened non-engagement in my class for a week because I forgot how crucial this skill is to creating an experience-based learning environment. So, what is "divergent thinking?"

The objective of divergent thinking is to generate a lot of ideas in a relatively short period if time.  As two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling famously said, “To get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away.”

Years ago there was a study that tested “divergent thinking” on a group of people.  These people were in kindergarten. The percentage of people scoring at “genius level” for divergent thinking was --- ready, 98%.  When that group was tested five years later that number was down to 32%.  When these children were fifteen years old, the number was down to 10%.  By the time they were twenty-five, the number was down to 2%. When I ask my students what they ascribe this downward trend to they are quick to say, "School." Regardless of whether they are right, it is kind of damning that they think this in the first place.

One of the major reasons we create environments that are not experience-based is because we are so focused on convergent thinking. We have a lot to cover, and we need every second to transmit that information to our students. In the past few years I make sure I have "shadowed" a student through their class day as an exercise to try and see the world from their point of view. What I find is the explicit or implicit goal of virtually every class is to converge down to a formula, a piece of information, a previously held interpretation. In short, the objective is to know something but the process is almost always a converging down on an answer, not on an opening up to an exploration. Divergent thinking is something that fosters the latter, and I always have to remind myself to include it as part or all of classes early in the year. And then I have to remember to keep doing it.

I thought I would practice a little divergent thinking myself on the topic of the "purpose of studying and doing history." There are a few rules in divergent thinking--avoid judging what you are thinking, try to be additive and play off what you just thought and be as playful as you can are vital. As Plato said, “What, then, is the right way of living?  Life must be lived as play.”  

So, here goes:

Some Reasons to Study and Do History: 

1)    George Santayana- “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." 

This seems to be the most common starting place for history teachers in staking a claim for the relevance of their discipline. However, I find that few historians actually subscribe to it. The "condemned" part seems both didactic and prescriptive. History certainly has to do with the past, but the past can't be repeated. At least that is what every historian I know thinks. This, of course, was the downfall of that non-historian, Jay Gatsby--"Can't repeat the past? Why, of course you can." 

2) You can't repeat the past, but there are cycles and patterns that can help you identify where you came from.  

Arthur Schlesinger was very big on this idea; he saw the identification of these cycles as leading to a more ideal society. For Schlesinger, the tension between pragmatism and idealism is part of the American character. It is important, however, that the identification of cycles is never helpful as a predictive mechanism. That is a fundamental difference between social scientists and historians. The former are trying to be predictive; the latter never are. Historians are wary of generalizations and dwell in particular settings, whereas social scientists are using particulars to achieve general theories and rules. Understanding the difference between social sciences and history is crucial and often muddled in a way that confuses students.

3) Maybe the past cycles, or maybe it provides models and analogies for the present and the future.  

Richard Neustadt was a big proponent of this. Much of this argument sees the past as a powerful analytic tool for making policy decisions. It uses case studies to examine whether something happening now is analogous to something that happened in the past. For historians though, models are like lenses on a camera, they bring some things into focus while blurring other things. It is a trade-off, you see some things more clearly but you miss other things completely when you use any model or analogy.

4) Perhaps the way to see the past most clearly is to see it through the lens of myth? 

Rollo May wrote a good deal about this. Myths, in this view, are not falsehoods, they are stories that are either living or dead. The way to understand the unconscious of another world is to understand its myths. As May wrote, "A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world. Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence [...] myths are our way of finding meaning and significance. Myths are like the beams in a house; not exposed to outside view, they are the structure which holds the house together so people can live in it." Myths tell us what we have internalized in our unconscious in ways that we are unaware of--another version of the DKDK zone.
(Divergent thinking should not be confused with brainstorming, by the way, although they are related. Brainstorming is a technique that encourages divergent thinking. Brainstorming is just one of many possible ways to produce divergent thinking, however.) - See more at: http://www.creativitypost.com/psychology/most_of_what_you_know_about_divergent_thinking_is_wrong#sthash.EPeBaKCS.
5) If myths aren’t true or false but, rather, living or dead, then we gain self-knowledge by understanding change over time in the mythic as well as the “historical” sense.   

The unveiling of underlying collective, cultural myths gives one a greater control over one’s life in the present. In other words, an understanding of one's deeply held myths is essential to both national and individual mental health.

Here is an experiment I have been running for thirty years since I was reading May's work. What book has EVERY American read or had read to them? My findings have been that I can say four words to you and you will all give the same answer. Ready? Here are the words-- "I think I can." 

Answer--The Little Engine That Could. Every year, the students who are "American" howl with delight that they all shout out the same thing. The "non-American" students just look quizzically at that behavior. The reason is that the "myth" of that story, and its multiple lessons on persistent striving and being the underdog, is so deeply internalized in our culture that it tells us, as a country, who we are. Interestingly, from an historian's point of view, it may be one of the myths most in jeopardy of dying right now.

6) Mark Twain looked at the past in a kind of poetic way--"The past does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." 

What I am realizing in this divergent thinking exercise is that studying and doing history provides a context for our lives. It reminds me of the philosophers--I remember reading Ludwig Wittgenstein in grad school--who believe that the origin of meaning is really in context. In  other words, meaning comes primarily when we are able to put something--a word, an event in our lives--in context. Without context, you have no meaning, only action. We need history in order to provide meaning for our lives. History is like the landscape of a scene you are looking at; you need that landscape to provide context that will tell you where you are. Perhaps history is to one's life what perspective is to a painter. I confess, however, that there are times that I think I am teaching history to people who are the least historical people (teenagers) in the least historical country (America) in the world.
7) And, of course, William Faulkner saw the past as always with us when he wrote, "The past isn't dead; it isn't even past." 

I think this is true, and it is most obviously seen in the idea of history as being actually similar to memoir--something I talked about in an earlier post. But Joan Didion is perhaps the person who resonates most deeply on this topic, and provides a nice closure to this first set of divergent thinking posts. She writes in "On Keeping a Notebook," “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Put Faulkner and Didion together and you end up with a poignant plea for history as a necessary signpost to self-knowledge and deeply understanding who one is as a person. But that understanding only comes when something means something. Studying and doing history provides the necessary context that allows that kind of deep meaning to emerge.

What this little piece of divergent thinking has shown me is the power of connection, and the way in which you create idea through that act of connecting. Next time, I will play off some of these ideas to explore reasons to study history based on the role of narrative, the relationship of stories to intelligence, and empathy.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Meditation on the Difference between Purpose and Relevance

I remember my college freshman economics book using the example of a someone dealing marijuana in order to explain a particular principle in the study of economics. It is significant, however, that I remember that the book used marijuana dealing as an example, but not the principle. The book was making a pandering play at trying to gain my interest--and perhaps the interest of my hall mate who actually was dealing marijuana--but it misfired because of a misunderstanding of the difference between relevance and purpose. Relevance is, unfortunately, dependent upon the perception and perspective of the viewer, and that, also unfortunately, is oftentimes myopic and shortsighted.

The poet and essayist Wendell Berry beautifully expresses the problem with relevance in teaching and learning-- “Of all the issues in education, relevance is the phoniest.  If life were as predictable and small as the talkers of politics would have it, then relevance would be a consideration.  But life is large and surprising and mysterious, and we don’t know what we need to know.  When I was a student I refused to take certain subjects because I thought they were irrelevant to the duties of a writer, and I have had to take them up, clumsily and late, to understand my duties as a man.  What we need in education is not relevance, but abundance, variety, adventurousness, thoroughness. A student should suppose he will need to know much more than he can learn.” Relevance has the negative side effect of actually closing us down to what we might most deeply need. But how do we combat this tendency?

Experience-based learning gains much of its energy and direction not from trying to be relevant to the student, but by trying to identify with great precision the purpose of what is being learned. Each summer I try to spend some time thinking through the purpose of whatever disciplines and skills I am teaching that coming year, and I have been pleasantly surprised by how my thinking has grown over the years with the repeated returns. This focus on purpose has had an effect on my relationship with my students as well --  most immediately when they want to know, "Why are we studying this?" and "When am I going to use this?" To me those are legitimate questions that we, as teachers, all ought to have sophisticated answers at the ready. Learning sticks with you when it has meaning, and meaning is directly related to purpose.

As one of my favorite cognitive psychologists Robert Sternberg has written concerning the major factor as to whether people achieve expertise (see the previous post for an investigation of how that operates with historians), "It is not some fixed prior ability (that determines whether one achieves expertise), but purposeful engagement." Purpose is both the engine and the compass of experience-based learning and if you can't articulate the purpose of something, then the "abundance, variety, adventurousness and thoroughness" that Wendell Berry talks about is never really embraced. Furthermore, Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, has posited that a sense of purpose a foundational precondition for creating a "growth mind-set" that is, in turn, a key to intrinsic motivation. In short, with having a sense of purpose the stakes are high.

The other day my friend Dan sent me an article that approaches this same idea from a different angle. What happens if you don't have a sense of purpose in your activities? A sense of purpose, the creation of meaning and feeling of control are all linked together. If having a defined sense of purpose gives you a greater feeling of control over a situation, what happens when you start to feel like you are not in control of your life?  British epidemiologist Michael Marmot has concluded that you risk a significant increase in the amount of debilitating stress you endure. He writes, "Although professionals may bemoan their long work hours and high-pressure careers, really, there’s stress, and then there’s Stress with a capital 'S.'  The former can be considered a manageable if unpleasant part of life; in the right amount, it may even strengthen one’s mettle. The latter kills. What’s the difference? Scientists have settled on an oddly subjective explanation: the more helpless one feels when facing a given stressor, they argue the more toxic that stressor’s effects. So the stress that kills, Dr. Marmot and others argue, is characterized by a lack of a sense of control over one’s fate. Psychologists who study animals call one result of this type of strain “learned helplessness."" If we want to avoid the toxic stress and the resultant motivational desert of "learned helplessness" that often results, we need to be able to articulate to our students the purpose of what we are doing together.

In clarifying our understanding of the importance of purpose we might also rescue the concept of stress with a small "s." Toxic stress is debilitating, but what often happens, as a result, is that people try to avoid all stress as much as possible. There is another kind of stress, however-- "understandable stress"-- that is the basis for the creative anxiety we feel in many of our most beloved activities. The "butterflies" that someone gets before a music recital, a dance performance, or in the locker room before the big game is a kind of stress that increases the depth of the learning and, for many people, the enjoyment of the activity. We are encountering a problem, but one that we think we can solve. That process, cognitive psychologists have found, is what triggers learning, not the addition of relevance. It's the feeling you have when you have heightened sensations that help you FOCUS more clearly and INTENSELY.  Anxiety or stress in this sense is creative because it puts you more fully in the moment, more alert, and more attentive to what is needed in that moment.

Experience based learning actually tries to induce that kind of understandable stress in order to foster creativity. It is the creation of an environment where you try to coax people into the DKDK zone. The DKDK zone is where the most transformative learning occurs, and it is often characterized by understandable stress when properly managed.  How would you know what you were capable of if you only did what was comfortable -- and what you thought at the time was relevant?  Wendell Berry is right-- "we don't know what we need to know... and we will need to know much more than we can learn." The problem with teaching and learning seen through a lens of relevance is that it provides a way for both students and teachers to avoid stress and anxiety, because it is always seeking a link/connection to what is already known. Whereas transformational learning inculcates the ability to tolerate - and embrace - that sense of understandable stress inherent to the DKDK zone, that is actually a necessary spark to creativity.

So, in the next post I will introduce the concept of divergent thinking as a way of mitigating toxic stress. And then I will practice that technique concerning the PURPOSE of studying and doing History; that will be a messy operation, I suspect.

I am just finishing Roger Schank's new book Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools and in it he issues this warning about the activity we are about to undertake to articulate purpose. He writes, "We say things to students like "You will need this later." But this is usually a bold-faced lie. You don't need algebra later. Making up nonsense convinces nobody." Now, THAT is throwing down the gauntlet.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Final Principle for Experience-based History: "People are Trapped in History, and History is Trapped in Them"

The other day I was sitting in an Upper West Side cafe with two friends of mine, Ken and Valerie, who happen to be expert historians. Both of them are professors at Columbia University and one of them knows as much about New York City as anyone in the world, and the other is the chief historian of the New York Historical Society. In short, they have internalized all the skills that an historian practices to a point where they don't even consciously think about being historians--they are historians. What I realized as I was talking to them--well, listening really carefully actually--was that there was another vital element of being an historian that they exuded almost as second nature.

The way in which they approached every topic we addressed reminded me of something James Baldwin had said years ago, "People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them." Baldwin came to this realization when he chronicled his experiences in a remote Swiss village in 1951 in the essay from Notes of a Native Son entitled, "Stranger in the Village." And it was precisely this sensibility that Ken and Valerie possessed as a foundation for the way they constructed their world. In other words, whether they were talking about the effect of the urban planner Robert Moses' ideas on the physical place where we were sitting or the way long dead New York City mayors were obviously influencing the present mayoral race-- there was always the the ability to see the past in the present. This kind of time travel to the intersection of the past and the present is what expert historians do, and it is one of the hardest things to teach novice historians. As a side note (though perhaps not really too much to the side) why are some of the best experience-based "historians" -- Baldwin, Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison -- writers in genres other than traditional history? All of them possess deep and sophisticated understandings of the way the past and present intersect, and it is part of what makes their writing so psychologically compelling.

Baldwin continued his thinking fourteen years later in a much under-appreciated essay entitled, "The White Man's Guilt." As well as being one of the most striking examples of empathy in the way I have been describing it in previous blog posts, Baldwin explains in this essay how the past and the present exist simultaneously, and how that affects who one is and how one acts. Baldwin writes, "History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one's point of view." 

What Baldwin is reminding us is vital to having students engage in experience-based history early in their academic lives. We have collective public pasts that constitute history and we have private pasts that are expressed through memoir, and the intersection of those two is what we call daily life. It is the daily life we encounter every day, and it is what we are unconsciously controlled by. Students can be brought to see this in a multitude of ways, but many history teachers are reluctant to let students play the game of history the way Ken and Valerie do for fear they will do it poorly.

One of the biggest debates in the teaching of history is less about what constitutes an expert historian and more about when one should introduce complicated ideas like the ones Baldwin is identifying to novice learners. In other words, history is seen as a kind of a club in which you have to pay your dues before you can become a member. To be sure, there is a difference between novices and experts, but when are the novices allowed to try to do the things the experts know how to do on a very high level?

Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Virginia,  is someone whose work always interests me because he looks at the acts of cognition that a learner employs in creating meaning. He goes beyond more traditional dictums passed out by teachers to just "work harder" and delves into strategies that are based on the cognitive strengths that a person possesses. However, in his recent book, Why Don't Students Like School?, he comes down on the side of not letting novice learners into the game of history that experts play too quickly. He writes, "A more modest and realistic goal for students is knowledge comprehension. A student may not be able to develop his own (historical) theory, but  he can develop a deep understanding of existing theory. A student may not be able to write a new narrative of historical fact, but she can follow and understand a narrative that someone else has written." He continues by comparing expert historians to expert tennis players, "In the same way expert tennis players (like expert historians) spend most of their time during a match thinking about strategy and trying to anticipate what their opponent will do. But we shouldn't tell novices to think about strategy; novices need to think about footwork and about the basics of their strokes."

Willingham would have people gain the necessary background knowledge that experts have before allowing them to play the game. This is, in fact, the way many history classes are taught; learn the material through a series of drills so that you may hope to be allowed to play the real game of history later in college.

But the fact of the matter is we need to let novices play the game of history earlier rather than later precisely because of what Baldwin illuminates in the quote above-- "People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them." In daily life, this principle is one that makes all the difference in how you understand the situation you are in. If you don't practice it, and deeply understand its implications, there are often serious consequences.

Most recently, Barack Obama sounded much like an expert historian (and memoirist) when he was trying to explain the aftermath of the court decision in Sanford, Florida.
--> "You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son.  Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.  And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store.  That includes me.  There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.  That happened to me -- at least before I was a senator.  There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.  That happens often.
And I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.  And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.  The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws -- everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.  And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case."

One of the things that was not surprising to me, given what I have heard from President Obama in other settings, was something that did seem to surprise news commentators. They noted how "remarkably personal" his talk was. It almost seemed to these commentators as if the historical was objective and the personal was subjective. But as I wrote about in the last blog post, from an experience-based point of view-- history is public memoir, and memoir is public history. Our public and our private lives are both influenced by history because history is most fundamentally the stories we tell ourselves about the past. The two are intertwined in our daily lives and we make decisions all the time based on Baldwin's principle--"People are trapped in history; and history is trapped in them." And that is why experience-based history is so important to both novices and experts.

We really have no choice about whether to be historians, only whether we are conscious that we are "doing history" whenever we act. And whether we will be historians trying to be as expert as we can be.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

How Can We Create Experience-based History? : Part II

Almost to the day three years ago I presented some ideas on the topic, "How Can We Create Experience-based History?" That particular blog post explored the different mental models that people who are not historians hold about the nature of being an historian. At the end of that post I asked what some of the implications might be for making history more experience-based and less a forced march through random dates and facts dominated by short term memory practice.

Three guiding hypotheses emerged:

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

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

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

One of the things I love most about teaching where I do is that I am given a free reign to experiment and explore. So, for the past three years I have looked at these three controversial ideas as a basis for having my students think like historians. But it is more than just wanting them to think like historians by looking at their world and the past; I wanted to find the intersection of their world and themselves. 

I started by asking them to create metaphors for their previous understandings of studying history. Many of my students come from all over the world and from very different kinds of school systems, so I wasn't sure what to expect. The results were remarkably varied. Students wrote things like, "History has been like having a shopping cart and the whole grocery store and a short period of time and you run through and throw things in the basket as fast as you can--but you don't know how much any single item is worth. You then check out with everyone else that was doing the same thing and someone totals up how much the stuff in your basket is worth. The person with the highest total wins." (Remarkably, this student had never heard of one of my favorite shows growing up -- Supermarket Sweep.) Clearly, running through the market might be fun, but the checkout would be anxiety producing.

I came across a line from E.L. Doctorow while I was reading his work of historical fiction, Ragtime. Doctorow wrote, "There is no fundamental difference between history and fiction; they are just different forms of narrative." This was reminiscent of what Roland Barthes had been maintaining when he concluded that the notion of "objectivity" that historians want to claim in their voices "turns out to be a particular form of fiction." Doctorow continued his claim in an interview in the Atlantic, "Historians research as many sources as they can, but they decide what is relevant to their enterprise and what isn’t. We should recognize the degree of creativity in this profession that goes beyond intelligent, assiduous scholarship."  The historian side of me struggled with this for quite awhile because I was not willing to give up the idea that fiction writers could simply imagine things to be true without having to worry about whether they happened. Historians could not do that. In that sense, I felt there was a fundamental difference between history and fiction, and I needed to embrace that difference.

And then in Vivian Gornick's book The Situation and the Story I read, "But memoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through he recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader come to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened." This description sounded more like what I was doing in my own historical writing and what I wanted from my student's work.

I began to reflect on all of the strategies and techniques that the memoirist/historian uses to make that narrative happen.  In the back of my mind I heard Aldous Huxley reciting, "Experience is NOT what happens to you; experience is what you DO with what happens to you."

In Patricia Hempl's memoir, I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory  she writes, "The big fiction advice is 'Show, don’t tell,' but this is not what memoir writers are embroidering on their pillows and sleeping on. It’s instead 'Show and Tell.' It’s the idea that you can’t tell unless you can show, but you don’t just show. You have to talk about it. You have to somehow reflect upon it. You have to track or respond to it, this thing that’s happening. And in the intersection of these two things is the excitement we feel about this genre. Too much show and, 'Why aren’t you writing fiction?' Too much tell and, 'I’m  not going to listen to you because you’re boring.'" History shared with memoir this fundamental characteristic--they were both SHOW AND TELL.


Excited by these ways of thinking about history, I began to use the following list (in no particular order) of suggestions - as the basis for trying to teach students how to create history :

-       select events – using analytic and intuitive techniques--that seem significant
-       assign meaning and significance – give those events weight(they cannot all be of equal weight)
-       keep your goal in mind: achieve insight and un-cover wisdom
-       know that this will be a process of discovery not pontificating on something you already know
-       the historian/memoirist has a need--articulate in precise terms what your particular need is
-       pick beginnings and endings carefully – consciously frame the events
-       choose the “container” with care--what will be the organizing principle of your narrative?
-       use the elements of fiction (setting, characters, climax, conflicts) to create your narrative
-       know your bias – you must be aware of yourself as an author--self-implicate with aplomb
-       immerse yourself in that time in the past (music, places, pictures)
-       do your research on this time period – what sources would be essential to include?
-       create a narrator and know their characteristics--you are not simply a reliable reporter
-       Show AND Tell

 I also began to invite memoir writers--Lee Stringer for Grand Central Winter and Danzy Senna for Where Did You Sleep Last Night: A Personal History--to class to discuss how they created memoir or, in Danzy's even more relevant phrase, "personal history." And then the students would craft their own "personal history/memoir" and we read each other's creations and noticed how they had been constructed using the techniques listed above.

I came to the view that history can be seen as “public” memoir... and that also means that memoir can be seen as “private” history.  

To be sure, all this attention to narrative construction put me a month "behind" in terms of covering the material of this American history course, but there was a remarkable transformation in the way in which my students read and asked questions. The most noticeable change was an increased interest in historiography ("the history of history" seen by looking at what an historian has written through the lens of the time she was writing in) and collecting competing accounts of the same event. In short, they went "meta." But, at the same time, they began to question the creation of whatever they read and assume that the author had made choices of data without being explicit about the criteria for those choices. In short, they went "inside" what they were reading. One of the things that I need to think about in terms of a principle of why some learning becomes "deep," or "transformational," or "experiential" is whether it always involves this rising above to go "meta" as well burrowing in to get "inside." Is that, in fact, part of how we make our own lives experiential?

I knew there was some paradigm shift when I read this student's observation and metaphor at teh end of the year about the work we did in class on being historians: "Playing history is kind of like playing Scrabble but you have this infinite number of pieces. And you can only select a certain number of letters--but some of them you choose and some of them seem to choose you (but it feels right). You look at all the pieces and you start to see some words you could create from the pieces that seem to fit the board. But you have to be careful to see if you are really just making up a word, or if it really exists. But then, sometimes, you have to make up a word because it is correct even though it doesn't exist. Compound this with everyone else around you playing on the same board, but with different pieces. Sometimes, it is just chaos." Hopefully, transformative chaos.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Final Precursor to Empathy: Not-Knowing

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I have not had the courage to suggest that "practices wondering with aplomb" go on the CITYterm skills checklist, but we do have another skill within the "Habits of Learning" category that is called "embraces confusion and explores not-knowing." While wondering is a practice that most students have some familiarity with from when they were younger, "not knowing" is something that terrifies many of them every day. Obviously, this idea of school as a place where you are supposed to know things (and get punished if you don't know them) goes back to the very early posts of this entire blog, and to the importance of the DKDK zone as a basis for experience-based learning.

What Emily (composite) and I discovered as we talked about her anxious feelings about practicing being empathetic was that Emily had an extraordinarily high fear of "not knowing" that was inhibiting her ability to dare to enter into someone else's experience. In short, she could be sympathetic and even enjoy that experience because she was sure that what she was feeling was accurate. But, when she was being asked to imagine what someone else was feeling and how they were constructing their world, she was paralyzed by her fear of "not knowing." What were the premises and assumptions at the base of that other person's world? How could you see implicit ones from their actions and hear them in their language? What were the foundational myths that this person believed in? What metaphors could you construct that they would agree that they lived by? What were the questions that preoccupied them most deeply? And, at the heart of it all, how could you be sure you were right? Wasn't this empathy practice just a complete, random shot in the dark?  

The more I listened to Emily the more I was  reminded of the poet John Keats' idea of "Negative Capability." In a letter to his brother in 1817 Keats was wrestling with the idea of creativity and trying to figure out why someone like Shakespeare (whom Keats greatly admired) should possess the ability to inhabit someone's character in such depth and breadth. He posited that Shakespeare cultivated a "Negative Capability, that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." In other words, in order to understand how someone else constructs the world you have to have the courage to set aside what you, yourself, already know to be true and deeply listen to what, and how, another person constructs their world.

Think about this in your own life for a second. How often do we take in something new we are presented with (a conversation, new data, something we see) and just file it immediately into what I think of an "experiential rut" in our minds? More often than not, we don't really even listen to what the other person is saying when we respond, we think about how what the other person is saying applies to what we already know to be true and then you comment on it. Listen to the conversations around you on a daily basis and see if this isn't the norm.

Roger Schank, who used to teach at Northwestern and writes a good deal about the relationship between story-telling and intelligence writes, "We match new events to stories we already know that are not exactly like those stories. We might, for example, recall an earlier attempt to get a teacher to change a grade while thinking about getting our boss to change his or her salary decision...To do this, we must be capable of thinking of stories we have acquired in he past to see if one of them matches closely enough to what we need to know. Thus, partial matching of one story to another is a critical aspect of human intelligence." By this theory, "the more successfully you adapt old stories, the more creative you are." My point here is that much of our daily life seems to revolve around adapting our own experience to what comes at us day to day, not imagining someone else's stories. We don't empathize, we match up someone else's experience so that it fits our own.

So, when you think about the process of taking on someone else's world view it is a pretty scary proposition--you have to destroy or annihilate what you know in order to experience something new. However, for a less threatening, and wildly humorous, view of the use of negative capability in casual conversation I would urge you to watch Woody Allen and Diane Keaton's interchange in an art gallery in Manhattan.

I realized  that there may be some good reasons for Emily to be anxious about practicing empathy. Empathy appears to be a dangerous business. Keats, in fact, confirms Emily's fears in another letter when he writes, "A poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no identity--he is continually in for--and filling some other Body--The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them unchangeable attribute--the poet has none; no identity--he has no self." It sounds a bit like Walt Whitman in stanza 6 of Leaves of Grass or Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, doesn't it? In order to fully understand what someone else understands you have to sacrifice your own self in the sense that you have to be willing to give up what you think is true; you have to enter into "not knowing." It may well be an act of imagination that requires what some therapists describe as an self-annihilation.

As we went through the rest of the semester, Emily and I heard many of the literary authors we met with at CITYterm echo what Donald Barthelme has written in a volume called Not-Knowing, "Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. We have all heard novelists testify to the fact that, beginning a new book, they are utterly baffled as to how to proceed, what should be written and how it might be written, even though they have done a dozen of them before." And the repeated chorus of these authors reiterating the same sentiment began to give Emily some confidence that not knowing was less permanent than it had felt before. She began to see empathy as not about being correct or completely accurate, but rather about getting as close as one could to the desired object. It was like watching her move from doing arithmetic to doing calculus-- from the idea of getting the right answer to the concept of gaining a more precise understanding of something or someone.

At the beginning of the semester Emily's attempts to practice empathy in her own writing looked more like descriptions of other people trying to act like Emily. But once she realized that if she could just put aside the "irritable reaching after fact and reason" that she could come out with a "positive capability" of getting closer to understanding how someone else constructs the world, then her anxiety lessened.

I think I learned from Emily that empathy is an imaginative act in a different way than sympathy and schadenfreude are. I think I also came to appreciate how scary being empathetic can be. And finally, I came to realize that "creative writing" might really be as much about confronting "negative capability" and becoming increasingly comfortable with "not-knowing" as it is about giving people a chance to be creative and express themselves.

What I found perhaps most surprising throughout this investigation is that empathy is usually presented as being a positive embracing of other people's views; it is a pretty warm and fuzzy business the way lots of people describe it. What Emily (and Keats) got me thinking about was how the empathetic act might also necessitate a submerging, perhaps even an aggressive obscuring of the self that might easily be seen as scary, unnerving--even terrifying. The most highly successful programs teaching empathy seem to be focused on the pre-adolescent population. Why is that, I wonder? And would a program for teenagers need to contain a more "Keatsian" element of not knowing?

My task is to now figure out where else I can develop this sense of "not-knowing" as an active precursor to the "positive capability" that might lead to empathy.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Is Sympathy different than Empathy? And Does it Matter?

This past year I had a student who, while working on the empathy protocols I mentioned in an earlier blog post, got me thinking about whether sympathy was different than empathy. And then, of course, whether the distinction between the two concepts was just a matter of semantics and, then, did it matter if there was a difference?

Emily (a composite person) was remarkably good at connecting with other students on a multitude of levels. She was one of those students who truly wants to be kind to other people, and who practices hard at making groups feel good about themselves. In the group self-assessments at the end of each project at CITYterm, she was one of the people who received high praise for making the group congenial and upbeat. She was a cheerleader, to be sure, in that she gave the groups she was part of a greater energy and spirit to help them complete their task. But she had other qualities as well that led her to be quite sensitive to the emotional reactions that other students had to stress and conflict.

What was intriguing was that when we began to practice empathy through the use of protocols, Emily was very unenthusiastic, resistant and surprisingly uncomfortable. I had (wrongly) guessed that she would embrace the protocols because they were designed to gain understanding in ways that were not your typical rational, analytic, lit-crit kind of reading that schools and particularly Advanced Placement English classes specialize in. I anticipated that accessing a more emotional technique would be helpful to her in ways that I documented with other students in an earlier blog post.

Emily and I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out why practicing empathy made her feel so ill at ease and anxious. And I think we came to a couple of realizations as a result that were helpful to her and revelatory to me.

Emily was particularly good at feeling and expressing sympathy. Sympathy, etymologically, is the act of having "fellow feelings" or of joining a "community of feelings." Literally, it is "feeling together." This is, in fact, what Emily was so good at--helping to create a community of feeling that bonds people together. She cared about how other people were feeling, and she was brave enough to put forth how she was feeling as a starting point of connection.

There are lots of examples of different communities of feeling coming together. Sympathy means that you acknowledge that people feel a certain way and that you feel bad for them, and that you care about the fact they are feeling this way. The other person is in a difficult place and you are acknowledging it--it is literally "feeling sorrow or pity for someone else's misfortune." The brilliant Broadway musical Ave Q, for example, contained a hilarious song about how to build a community around a common idea-- "it sucks to be me." It is worth listening to; it will make you laugh.

Ave Q flips this idea on its head as well by having those same characters admit to a secret Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude (depicted hilariously in another song from Ave Q) is "feeling joy at the damage done to someone else" or "pleasure at the misfortune of others." I sometimes wonder whether or not sympathy and schadenfreude are just flip sides of each other. When the better angels of our nature are at work we are sympathetic, but other times we are less generous.

Two of the stories that we used to practice empathy were Junot Diaz's "How to Date a Brown Girl, Black Girl, White Girl or Halfie" and Bernard Malamud's "Angel Levine."  The protagonist in the first is a Dominican-American adolescent male, in the latter it is an aging Jewish man. The first is sometimes aggressively dislikeable, the second more pitiable. I wondered if the fact that these characters lived lives very far from my and Emily's own experiences made it difficult to find ways to connect to them or their situations. Can you feel connection to, or compassion for, people whose lives are unimaginable, who appear hard to know from your perspective? What if you don't know them at all, can you develop skills to be able to imagine what this different life is, what this alien person feels? What I realized from reading these stories with Emily is that having the ability to be sympathetic (as Emily demonstrated consistently in her day-to-day life) is one skill that is important as a reader of books and of life, but that empathy is different skill that may have to be acquired in a different manner for some people. It seems that sympathy and empathy are closely related--kind of a sister act--but that for all their similarities in terms of expressing connection to other people there may be important distinctions.

Empathy, it turns out, is a surprisingly new word, having come into existence in 1858 thanks to German philosopher Hermann Lotze who was trying to explain how the appreciation of art depends on the viewer's ability to project his personality into the viewed object. It was then adopted (or translated) into a psychological term by Edward Bradford Titchner in 1909.  For Titchner, sympathy might be described as a "feeling with" someone, empathy is a "feeling one's way into." For example, Emily could have compassion for these characters, but she was quite unsure whether she could feel their actual feelings. In other words, Emily could feel sympathy for the characters, but projecting herself into either of the characters lives and experiencing those sensations was, as she said, "difficult, uncomfortable and potentially inaccurate." It was this last phrase--"potentially inaccurate"-- that actually gave us the clue that unlocked the reason for why Emily was so comfortable with expressions of sympathy, but blanched at the idea of trying to be empathetic. Exploring that reason--her profound discomfort with "not knowing"-- will be the subject of the next blog post.

For me, I was left to ponder how sympathy and empathy might both be used to form deep bonds of connections amongst people, but why one might be more accessible at certain times and in certain conditions. And, of course, to be thankful and grateful that I get to learn things like this from working with my students.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Wonder: Another Precursor to Empathy

In the last blog post I was exploring the way in which the cultural hostility to ambiguity might make it difficult for the practice of ambiguity. But what spurred those thoughts was my reading of Tony Wagner's new book Creating Innovators. While I love the ideas that Wagner and others support, my focus always comes back to the practical implementation of these grand ideas. What I have found in my own work with empathy is that the concept of ambiguity is actually a key precursor to being empathetic. If I could foster a deepened understanding of ambiguity as "multi-layeredness," then my students made progress in their ability to understand how someone else constructs the world. The study from the University of Toronto confirmed some of my suspicions about why my students had some severe roadblocks to practicing empathy.

Reflecting on these ideas, it occured to me that a missing link that needed exploration was the role of wondering in the development of empathy. Years ago I was trying to design an opening class that would be fitting for an experience-based program that used the world outside the classroom as both a laboratory and classroom.  What we designed was a "wondering and wandering" expedition based on John Stilgoe's book Outside Lies Magic. (I wrote about this in an earlier blog post.) But I can still remember the face of one student, Rose, as we returned from that first exploration to the parking lot and the campus beyond. There was confusion on her face, but also anger and resentment. It was not until later in the day that I had a chance to catch up with Rose to see what was happening. In halting sentences, she explained that she had felt ashamed and inadequate during the class. I was stunned. I thought we had engineered an "expotition" that Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh would have have been proud of only to realize that it had gone terribly, terribly wrong. But why?

Rose explained that she was embarrassed because she had realized that she didn't "wonder about things." In fact, she explained, she would go along almost every day without wondering at all. At first, I was gobsmacked; the idea seemed completely implausible. But as I talked with Rose it appeared to be true. And I have talked to other students since, they have confirmed that they often go through the day without "wondering." As one student said when I asked him as he was about to go into the Academic Dean's office, "Hey, I have two tests today, SAT prep and I probably won't even start my homework until 10 PM. Wondering is not on my to-do list."

As I often do in cases like this, I looked at the etymology of the word wonder--and there it was. Wonder:  "miracle, portent, horror, monster, object of astonishment." None of these things existed in Rose's life. In fact, she had designed her life (or it had been designed for her) to not contain these concepts. Wondering, I realized, cannot be assumed; it has to be explicitly practiced, modeled, reinforced. And frankly, I am not so sure that we aren't as alienated from the idea of miracle as we are protected from horrors. Nonetheless, I realized that adolescents do not have miracles and monsters in their daily lives the way they used to when they were younger.

Practicing "wondering" on a daily basis might seem somehow silly to some, but as Rachel Carson said in her piece for Woman's Home Companion in July 1956, Help Your Child To Wonder, “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength. If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy excitement and mystery of the world we live in." Rachel Carson's particular venue for practicing wonder was the natural world on the coast of Maine, but I have found plenty of miracles and monsters in New York City's "urban jungle."

(A side note: The Environmental Protection Agency in its Aging Initiative has instituted the Rachel Carson Intergenerational Sense of Wonder Contest, though I am not sure Rachel had a contest in mind to preserve our sense of wonder.)

After that class with Rose, I began to monitor the assignments I gave my students for their "wonderment factor." What I found about my own teaching was discouraging, but, I confess, not surprising. I did not have that many assignments that explicitly were designed to engage students in the act of wondering. It was much more likely that I would be asking them to explain, defend, critique and assess the merits of of this or that thing. I was quite good, I found, at getting them to be insightful critics with lots of judgments. But I was not very good at getting them to formally, or even informally, practice wondering. Check your own assignments--to both yourself and your students--and see if the same isn't true for you. 

And while I have not had the courage to put "ability to wonder" on the critical thinking skills checklist at CITYterm, I am much more conscious that I need to activate this skill in order to provoke imaginative acts--like empathy. And, surprise, the more you practice it, the better you get at it.

Walker Percy in his novel The Moviegoer insightfully links the idea of wondering and wandering to the warding off of what I think many people succumb to--despair. Theologically, and educationally, despair is something that occurs when you lose faith in the possibility of wonder. Wondering is what one does naturally when one is on "the search."

Percy's narrator, Binx Bolling, posits that "the search is what anyone would undertake, if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be on to something. Not to be on to something is to be in despair...And I have lived ever since, solitary and in wonder, wondering day and night, never a moment without wonder. Before I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion."

Going back to Wagner's book, Creating Innovators, one of its features is a series of case studies of individuals who he hails as being truly innovative in one field or another. For his purposes the people he is examining are those who win every fellowship imaginable and invent the I-phone. Wagner is examining a Lake Wobegon on steroids where not only "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average," but they are the strongest, the best looking and the most exceptional.  Nonetheless, what matters here is the role that "wondering" had to do with his subjects ability to be able to imagine.  He tries to ferret out what he thinks are the conditions that made them innovative, and discovers that family and school have essential positive and negative roles. That is what interests me, the ways in which we can use the classroom, and our students' life experiences, to help them cherish the world of wondering and imagining, and lead them toward the deep waters of empathy.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Precursors to Practicing Empathy: The Role of Embracing Ambiguity

I am in the middle of the latest book identifying empathy as a key to innovation--Tony Wagner's Creating Innovators. He is building on, among other things, the design thinking article by Tim Brown from IDEO first seen in the Harvard Business Review in June 2008. Brown, in a fuller explication of those ideas in his book Change by Design, maintains that "empathy is perhaps the most important distinction between academic thinking and design thinking." Daniel Pink, in his 2005 book A Whole New Mind thinks that "empathy is mighty important. It helped our species climb out of the evolutionary muck." In short, empathy has been getting a lot of play lately. And while I personally think that empathy could and should be part of "academic thinking," I am happy that it is being talked about at all. But it is not something that has been thought through from a teaching and learning point of view.

I love the cornucopia of ideas that come from these authors, and I love reading books that affirm what we have been practicing at CITYterm for the past decade or so. Every time I read these books and then I look at the skills assessment sheet that we design our course of study from, I feel encouraged that we are on the right path. My problem with all of these calls for empathy is that there rarely seems to be a hands-on look at HOW one practices empathy. What is the precise plan of action? What does one do in class to make this happen? Or, looking at the problem from a reverse angle --what gets in the way of practicing empathy? What makes it difficult to do?

The way empathy gets talked about in these books, however, reminds me more of a coach I was listening to at a basketball camp one summer who was explaining how to run a fast break. He started his lengthy exposition with these words, "First, assume a rebound..." But, it seems to me, we should spend some time learning how to rebound before we start running fast breaks. If you don't have the skill of getting the ball, it doesn't help to affirm how valuable it is to run a fast break offense.

Or, as my economics professor in college said when asked about the limitations of economists' thought processes in approaching problems replied, "Well, a lot of us (economists) are like a starving sailor stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat, but a whole case of canned tuna fish has washed up next to us. So, we think, 'How shall we solve this problem?' Economists are people who are prone to approach this problem by saying something like, 'First, assume a can opener."


In the next few posts, I would like to explore what I think are some of the precursors for the practice of empathy. This particular post will be about one of the antecedents that we can't assume to be there--like the rebound in the basketball game or the can opener on the desert island. In fact, we may live in a culture that is hostile to it.

The very first concept that is important to introduce when you are trying to facilitate someone becoming an experience-based learner is the DKDK zone--what this entire blog is named for. Being able to get yourself into the DKDK zone sets in motion a entire series of cognitive skills that make the learning transformative. When I first started practicing getting students into the confusion and disequilibrium that is the inherent in the DKDK zone, I began to notice that one major obstacle kept short-circuiting the spark that needs to be part of the process. That obstacle was my student's deeply held fear of ambiguity.
 My first reaction is always to trust my student's fears, and then go looking for how I or the culture we all inhabit might be culpable in exacerbating the fears. Self-implication, the ability to see one's own part in a situation (even if it be, as Vivian Gornick writes, "frightened or corwardly or self-deceiving,") is a wonderful opening to seeing those circumstances in a new way. So, try this as an experiment--free associate the word "ambiguity." After you have done that, check the dictionary for definitions. Most people come up with words like--unclear, vague, doubtful, enigmatic, cryptic and uncertain. Certainly, none of these are descriptions that are seen as positives. One dictionary has the following definition, "inexactness of meaning, lack of decisiveness or commitment resulting from a failure to make a choice between alternatives."

But look at other words constructed using the Latin "ambi" or the Greek "amphi." People who are "ambidextrous are not "unclear" about whether they are right or left handed; they are both. (Though, as a side note, "dextrous" means right-handed, so the bias and prejudice against left-handed people is certainly contained in the word.) And as my friend Christopher pointed out to me this week at the Teaching for Experience teacher workshop, people who are "ambivalent" have simultaneous and contradictory attitudes and feelings, they are not inconclusive, irresolute, or unsure. Amphibians can live on both land and in the water; they are not unsure about where to live! And, an amphitheater is one where you can see the stage from multiple angles.

My point is this, the society we live in is fearful of ambiguity and will do anything to resolve the dilemma of something having multiple meanings. If you keep digging in the dictionary, it is only after you get down to some secondary definitions that you come to "capability of having two meanings" (which emerges in the 15th century). Dichotomies reign supreme, but so often in an "either/or" sense and not in a "both/and" sense. Look at the contemporary political and social world and notice how much we avoid complexity in exchange for oversimplification. As H. L. Mencken said, "For every complex problem, there is an answer that is simple, direct and wrong."

And because my students are being culturally trained to fear ambiguity, they are at a huge disadvantage in trying to be empathetic. It is a similar phenomenon to when I discovered that some of my students do not "wonder" at all during the course of a day. It makes "wondering and wandering" a hard skill to practice. In a similar manner, many of my students spend most of their day trying to avoid ambiguity every time they come across it.

In order to be good at empathy, you have be well practiced in contradiction and multiplicity. In short, you have to understand ambiguity and embrace it. This is what I explored in an earlier post on Walt Whitman and his capacity for empathy on a cosmic scale. As Whitman warned us in "Song of Myself, "Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" Any teacher trying to move their students towards empathy would do well to have a sophisticated theory of what will be the major difficulties on that journey. One of the major difficulties will be embracing ambiguity and having a clear idea idea of where in each lesson this possibility will arise.

Interestingly,  a new study recently released by the University of Toronto addresses this precise problem. Part of the study reads, "Are you uncomfortable with ambiguity? It’s a common condition, but a highly problematic one. The compulsion to quell that unease can inspire snap judgments, rigid thinking, and bad decision-making. Fortunately, new research suggests a simple antidote for this affliction:  read more literary fiction.  The study goes on to talk about how reading fiction in certain ways may increase people's capacity for "disorder and uncertainty" and increase "sophisticated thinking and greater creativity." The reader, they conclude, "can simulate the thinking styles of people he or she might personally dislike. One can think along and even feel with Humbert Humbert in Lolita, no matter how offensive one finds this character."

And, in one of those "the world speaks to you" moments that happen in experience-based learning, a friend sent me Joss Wheldon's recent commencement address at Wesleyan University. Toward the end Wheldon's speculates,

"Our culture] is not long on contradiction or ambiguity. … It likes things to be simple, it likes things to be pigeonholed—good or bad, black or white, blue or red. And we’re not that. We’re more interesting than that. And the way that we go into the world understanding is to have these contradictions in ourselves and see them in other people and not judge them for it. To know that, in a world where debate has kind of fallen away and given way to shouting and bullying, that the best thing is not just the idea of honest debate, the best thing is losing the debate, because it means that you learn something and you changed your position. The only way really to understand your position and its worth is to understand the opposite...This connection is part of contradiction. It is the tension I was talking about. This tension isn’t about two opposite points, it’s about the line in between them, and it’s being stretched by them. We need to acknowledge and honor that tension, and the connection that that tension is a part of. Our connection not just to the people we love, but to everybody, including people we can’t stand and wish weren’t around. The connection we have is part of what defines us on such a basic level."

As is often the case in experience-based learning, it is the quality of our relationship (what Wheldon calls the "connection") that is the determining feature of what we learn. How can we learn to endure, even embrace, that tension? If we do that, I believe, we increase our capacity for empathy.