His name was Gene, and he was one of those old, grizzled guys wearing overalls with the perennial dirty rag sticking out of the back pocket. When
I worked in historic preservation in a colorful small town in Texas, Gene would often come by my office to chat. He was full of stories of how things “used to be.” Sometimes he told me secrets. On those days, he would suddenly appear inside the door frame looking quickly side-to-side and over his shoulder, then hunch forward with his finger at his lips motioning me quiet:
Apparently the best secrets required more than privacy; they also required oaths and even covert maneuvers. One day Gene came bursting through the door and flattened himself against the wall, and leaned over, whispering,
“ya wanna come see it?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“My time machine of course!”
He’d hinted at a major invention, but I was a bit slow on the uptake. I agreed with alacrity. He told me with quiet seriousness that he would have to blindfold me. I told him that was fine. I understood. We drove out to his farm in his old truck, and when we got close to the barn he tied a large bandanna-like scarf around my forehead, tight across my eyes. He parked, and then led me over to what felt like shade. I heard the barn doors drag across the ground, and the combined smell of hay and gasoline poured out and over me. Then. . . .he pulled off the blindfold and closed the doors, turned around, and said
“Well, how do ya feel?”
I smiled at him. What did he mean? He told me that he had to
"bring me back to BEFORE" the trip in order to keep the specs of the time machine safe, but he wanted me to know that I had enjoyed the trip!
Interesting, still, after all these years.
Was Gene a liar or was he delusional and somehow needing to bring me into his world of magical thinking in order to call me "friend"? Or was he just taking me for a ride?
I miss those conversations with Gene. Sometimes we discussed politics, the human condition, or other typically taboo subjects. . .and you might imagine how far-ranging our discussions ran. He was nothing if not passionate, and his head was filled with an amazing assortment of interesting tidbits that somehow fit together, yet also were uniquely his. But did I go anywhere? After my abduction into his world of dis-reality....where could I "go" with Gene that would ever hold any validity or link to another person or any other element of everyday-ness where other people think and interact?
- What is it about passion? I think I can listen to anyone who has a passion about “something” even when I know nothing about that particular “thing.” Show me someone who is enthralled with fruit loops, and if they can speak about it in an interesting way….I’ll probably be there, front row, listening. Will you be sitting next to me? On a similar note, isn’t one of our primary motivations in daily life to associate with other people who have similar passions and dreams so that we can experience that wonderful sense of shared energy or synergy? I think so. Gene had something going on that was close to passion, but he lost his way. Was it because he could not find a way to share it or discuss it legitimately? Did his ideas cease to become grounded within ....dare I say it: reality?
In the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, a child who knows no better than to speak the truth finally and simply points out the obvious: the Emperor is actually wearing NOTHING. How shocking! The Emperor was delusional, but how did it happen? What fed the lie? You know the story....was it the emperor's fault, or the system of bureacracy surrounding him and is that the same question? How do we know when we are in the midst of a system that is rife with bureacracy and that despite our very best efforts to be "real"/ to be authentic and valid we are only in the grips of something NOT. What if to survive and even thrive the tools we utilize or draw upon only exist within the corridors manned by magical-thinking, rubber-stamp wielding bureacrats who know only the dis-reality of "the system," and these tools are not creations or art, but actually perpetuations of a dis-reality deisgned to keep us in a hamster wheel or staring at the wall of the Cave?
I think we're well familiar with the need to dis-believe the Shadow Puppets in Plato's Cave, but how often do we accept the de-humanization of bureacracy by allowing it to dictate the rules of our existence rather than aid various daily practical needs? Ivan Illich writes about this process in his masterful work Tools for Conviviality, which describes the process of "the System" becoming the supreme entity that must be fed, rather than paying attention to individual and communal needs. I've written before about the Technology Seminar I've been participating in, and in that seminar, we talked about Illich this past week. We watched a terrific video on Youtube: Pinky's Scary School Nightmare. We've discussed this off & on in the seminar, and I don't think we've come to any conclusions because of vast differences in the frames of references amongst the faculty and staff that are members of this seminar. Maybe this is part of the construct involved? As far as the seminar was represented in the beginning, we have gathered to discuss the theory underlying technology, and more than any other subject we have discussed TOOLS. What is a tool; what is its purpose; how do we think of it; and where does its use end? These are only some of the questions we ask. The idea that tools also need the necessary support and coordination for proper functioning has been an impossible idea for rational discussion. Lately, the debate has become heated, and we have had to set it aside as thoughts or ideas are spoken or aired, but no resolve has been available through discourse. It might be because we, too, are part of a system much like what Illich describes in the article we read this past week, and that makes it difficult. Should we point this out, or should we accept our lot?
I believe we owe it to ourselves to reason it out. I believe that it's always ok to ask the tough questions.
Last week 110 wonderful students from my History classes—110 students!—presented their work for the semester in a public forum. It is an understatement to say they outdid themselves. I asked a LOT of these students, and I am pleased and encouraged that they come through. I am pleased for THEM because they not only have the satisfaction of a job well done along with some great (& interesting memories) but they also now possess the well-deserved confidence that comes from knowing "stuff" and a lot more than just "stuff." (More in future blogs!!) I did not put this project together for them. I gave minimal instructions and set them free to figure it out, because part of the assignment was indeed to FIGURE IT OUT FOR THEMSELVES. They worked together in groups, and that, too, was part of the assignment. I did not give them extra time due to busy schedules or activities. I asked for excellence, with a belief that the pursuit of excellence is its own reward. This was difficult. The evidence of their abilities and their capabilities rested not just in their presence & passion, but in the work that they put into their presentation. These students were (are) not media or technology majors. They represented a cross section of the university, since the Project derived from a General Education class. (See the wonderful group TWITTER-fest from the presentation: @#ets2010)
In our class, I divide the students into regions and later countries. For instance, in the History up to 1500 Class, we start in the River Valley Civilizations that will eventually become China, India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. The students stay in these regions/countries all semester and learn to live/interact/trade/conduct war, etc. from within the constraints of history and everything else that comes with a geographical 'boundary.' Instead of asking them to read a textbook and memorize then regurgitate facts, I ask them to actively engage history as if they are living it each week. Since History itself does not occur in a single moment of time all neat & tidy on a defineable timeline, but rather occurs or “happens” in a myriad of ways & means via multiple layers as real people live their lives and then leave a legacy, these students were challenged to find a way to express that. They took the challenge and excelled. They encountered events and engaged in a dialogue with various people who left an imprint on history. They were confident. They were strong.
But they were taken for a ride!
When it came time to present their material, despite the Imagined Future they had envisioned and put together, the TOOLS at hand were not ready for their use. This was an interesting (crazy?) meeting/colliding of two worlds, similar to the discussions that also ended in frustration and disconnect in the faculty seminar I mentioned above. Perhaps we are at a moment in time where the tools exist and can be thought of. We even use many of those tools in a variety of ways in everyday life, but they have not yet become part of our academic existence. Maybe this has been at the heart of the disconnect in the seminar: the faculty and staff participants not only speak two different langagues from different frames of reference, but fundamentally USE tools and think of tools in everyday life differently. When it comes time, then, to implement them, the "idea" or "notion" of TOOL (of "toolness") is so very different in our minds, that we are not even speaking the same language. One side wants to point at a naked Emperor, and the other is delighted with gadgets as ends in themselves. There seems to be no bridge between the two. Is it as simple as Means and Ends?
For their wonderful presentation, 110 bright (& bright-eyed) students proposed a future not only as an Imagined Future, but one they replicated in the classroom repeatedly! They ALSO imagined a presentation with many of those same tools at-hand. The tools the students were proposing exist, yes. Maybe they can't be imagined in exactly the same way by all groups of people. Maybe the Imagined Future looks different for different groups of people BECAUSE it completely depends on the moment in time in which we exist in the present.
Whether it's passive behavior that fuels the status quo, an inability to move forward TOGETHER with vision, I beleive we are in danger of falling into old traps. Just because we're dealing with so-called "modern" technology, this is not a new construct. In The Republic, Plato explains the wisdom and even the power that is to be gained from each person understanding and doing [his] own part, for therein lies justice. Wow. Justice:
"Justice, I think, is exactly what we said must be established throughout the city when we were founding it—either that or some form of it. We stated, and often repeated, if you remember, that everyone must practice one of the occupations in the city for which he is naturally best suited. . . . Moreover, we’ve heard many people say and have often said ourselves that justice is doing one’s own work and not meddling with what isn’t one’s own. . . . Then, it turns out that this doing one’s own work—provided that it comes to be in a certain way—is justice (433a-b). . . . Therefore, from this point of view also, the having and doing of one’s own would be accepted as justice." (433e-434a).
How do we move forward in the teaching & learning experience offering to our students the best of what we have to offer without falling prey to the Shadow Puppet mentality of ages past? Maybe we invest in the texts we teach and with integrity look in that Mirror-of-True-Seeing that is so often written about in the literature that has been passed down to us. Forcing others to accept a reality which we ourselves cannot deliver or verify but only imagine, will keep us forever chained in the cave.
I write about Adventuremental teaching, and I LOVE what I do! What does this mean for teachers, trying to keep the integrity of classical pedagogy intact while utilizing and understanding the Brave New World of technology? How do we avoid making claims of what is possible before the technological support is there to assist, and as Capt. Jean Luc Picard says: "Make it So"? To truly prepare students for the future, I believe we need to utilize the tools they will be using in the boardroom, their future meetings of all sorts, the conference room, & the world-at-large, but but but, if we cannot provide this experience in a meaningful way, then are we doing them any favors? If it doesn't "happen" is it like going for a ride in Gene’s time machine? Or, could it be like a group of "helpers" who surround an emperor, telling him what they guess he wants to hear? Or both? We could even be in danger of Aldous Huxley's horrific scenario, where a "Brave New World" is engineered to the point where we have to justify our existence to the TOOLS rather than using the tools as extensions of what we are about: LIVING.
This is nothing new, of course: these questions will probably ALSO be part of the Imagined Future *sigh* because technology is not just a piece of analog or digital equipment! Bureacracy, alas, is also nothing new.
What do we do, then, when we realize we are in the cave: Plato tells us we break free of the chains and, with help, emerge from the cave. Not only that, but according to ancient philosophy revered ever since and taught by US: it is our bounden duty to GO BACK INTO the cave and free our fellow brothers and sisters.
Does Kafka tell us how to free ourselves from the bureacratic nightmare of The Castle? Maybe knowing it exists is enough. Illich definitely tells us how to embrace Conviviality: through the proper use of TOOLS. How interesting.
The disconnect is bigger perhaps, than just a dialogue between professions. Again, nothing new. Apparently this generation is already “there” wherever "there" is. When we bring new media resources into the classroom, we are not acting as great benefactors “giving” them something they don’t already “have.” This is their world and will absolutely be part of the world they will enter and govern. We can help guide them into an active and engaged use of the tools that will better their lives in ways that professors always have….making sense of the world and utilizing the available tools in relevant ways. BUT, something is wrong when we expect our students to exist ALSO as tools to justify our existence. They will not. The world is too big and too accessible. They know what's out there. When we claim expertise we need to deliver, and if we cannot, the best thing we can do is admit that we are all, all of us, also students of something. If Gene wanted to bring me into his world to help justify his reality, that might be something else. I don't know. I do know that it says more about Gene than it says anything about actual reality.
When I worked in historic preservation and fell prey to the delusions of a a nice old man named Gene, where did he take me? For a ride, that’s for sure. What kind of ride is the question.
Where will we choose to go?