The Secret Society for Real School

I won’t get it right this time, either, but why not try again.

I’ve written and spoken several times on a topic I call “real school,” by which I mean the kind of immersive, transformative education that our various forms of institutional schooling rarely achieve. Real school is where cognitive stressors, intellectual community, serendipity, and hard mental labor (to name but four elements) combine with a sense of uncanny intuitive apprehension that both holds the experience together and propels it relentlessly to the next extension of reach and grasp. Your mind races at the same time that it finds a preternatural focus. Your skin prickles, but you also feel a deep sense of calm, or of elation. The experience must include the rigorous acquisition of skills and knowledge, but at the same time there is a cognitive-affective component that begins in wonder and ends in love, mingling wisdom and delight the way Frost said poetry does.

Most of us have experienced these transformative classes at one point or another, and perhaps marveled that this experience is so rare. Most schooling either ignores these possibilities, derides them, or dismisses them for one reason or another as impractical, chimerical, or limited to the lucky few who have great teachers in a small class at a singular moment in their lives.

Wanting magic is no defect of character. Insisting that education can be a sphere of wonder that enables a community of extravagantly fruitful intersubjectivity is not antisocial, though it is no doubt disruptive to an industrial model of education.

And now I find some soul mates in the land of information technology, and I begin to suspect there is a convergence here that is making me ready for more real school myself.

First is Vannevar Bush, whose essay on the Memex makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up. He has obviously been reading my mail, or I’ve been reading his. He wrote this essay in 1945. I wonder at the loneliness he must have felt, that far up on the mount of contemplative vision.

Next is Douglas Engelbart, whose 1962 (!) essay on the possibilities of augmenting human intelligence through networked communities neatly anticipates almost everything we’re talking about today when we discuss “knowledge management” and “knowledge networks.” More than this, however, Engelbart grasps the relationship between the intuitive and the analytical, expressing that relationship in prose that takes my breath away. Listen to this:

We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human “feel for a situation” usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.

Amen, brother, say English majors and computer nerds everywhere.

The computer and, even more crucially, the advent of ubiquitous high-speed networks and the World Wide Web have brought us to the time when the exponential possibilities Bush and Englebart intuited could begin to be realized–and realized in school, where communities shaped by human social networks can now be emulated and augmented by networked computing environments that allow us to reflect as never before on our own experience of education. We can engage the traces of our own engagement, together, approaching the sublime “think-together” capabilities of the telepaths in John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (US title: Rebirth).

I can sense this moment, this movement, every time I teach a class that suddenly blooms into community. Real school, where we mull together, and turn a muddle into a meal. But that’s another post….