Great NMFS seminar meeting two weeks ago. Subject: Ivan Illich. Leader, Linda Tegarden, a prof from the Business School. Her disciplinary perspective helped us think about Illich in light of the very disruptive moment higher ed’s business model is facing just now. “Business model,” of course, signifies a lot more than it seems to–but Linda could tell you that much better than I could. Her particular specialty is entrepreneurship, so she had particularly keen insights to share.
As did the other participants, all of them. In fact, it was one of the most spirited and intense sessions in memory. One usefully uncomfortable moment came my way near the end. The conversation had led to a vehement moment of self-examination for all of us. As I do from time to time (read: over and over), I was making the deschooling argument with great fervor. At that, a seminarian just to my left turned to me and said, “well, what about you, Gardner? You’ve chosen to reform the system from within.”
If the conversation had a musical score, the indication at that moment would have read “G.P.” Grand Pause. “You’re absolutely right,” I finally responded. I thought back over all the debates on edupunk. (I was going to include some links there, but just a few moments of reliving that time were enough to bring me down, way down, so I leave the googling as an exercise for the reader.) I thought back over all the weirdly maverick ways I had adopted over my career–adopted? more like discovered, and fell into, and could not but claim–and how nevertheless I continue to be drawn to the academy (“like a moth to the flame,” one non-academic friend has said) and what at its best it represents and empowers. I flashed onto the deepest mystery of all: why someone who had felt like an outlier from near the beginning of grad school, and who had been continually frustrated with so much of faculty conversation and practice, would have found his way (of all places) into faculty development–which sometimes feels like trying to be a physician to other physicians, a tribe notorious for being poor patients. (And where my own imposter syndrome gets pinged incessantly.) (And where I am doubtless a wounded healer myself, on my best days.)
It was an intense moment, made more intense when another seminarian, full of curiosity and collegiality (seriously, I’m not being sarcastic here), asked, “yes, Gardner, and how did you end up in faculty development?”
So the second best part of the story above, for me, is that there was such a moment of intense self-examination (and self-articulation), and in the company of such smart, committed, and intensely sympathetic colleagues. The best part is that there were such moments that day for all of us in the room. It was a day in which “work is play for mortal stakes,” as Frost wrote in another context. It was an afternoon in which the room became a university, and that flame to which I am drawn, this idea of real school, burned with the intensity I sought long ago when this journey began.
And Ivan Illich was the catalyst. His chapter on “Learning Webs” in Deschooling Society led us all the way back into a shared moment of what is indeed best about the academy, and what we who work within it must indeed labor to preserve. A happy and convivial irony.
As a postscript, I note here one of the more striking insights in a chapter full of such insights. At one point, Illich takes up (I kid you not) the idea of gamification. Here’s what he writes, in the context of discussing a game called Wff ‘n Proof (I have this game at home, but that’s another story):
In fact, for some children such games are a special form of liberating education, since they heighten their awareness of the fact that formal systems are based on changeable axioms and that conceptual operations have a gamelike nature. (Emphasis mine.)
Two short clauses, and a fantastic opportunity for liberation. I think he’s right, and I could write a post or two just on those bits of extraordinary insight. But Illich goes on:
They are also simple, cheap, and–to a large extent–can be organized by the players themselves. Used outside the curriculum such games provide an opportunity for identifying and developing unusual talent, while the school psychologist will often identify those who have such talent as in danger of becoming antisocial, sick, or unbalanced. Within school, when used in the form of tournaments, games are not only removed from the sphere of leisure; they often become tools used to translate playfulness into competition, a lack of abstract reasoning into a sign of inferiority.
Such a delicate balance. Such an artful balance.
May I be permitted another connection? In “Ecology of Mind: The Sacred,” Gregory Bateson writes,
[W]hile it may be fairly easy to recognize moments at which everything goes wrong, it is a great deal more difficult to recognize the magic of the moments that come right; and to contrive those moments is always more or less impossible. You can contrive a situation in which the moment might happen, or rig the situation so that it cannot happen. You can see to it that the telephone won’t interrupt, or that human relations won’t prosper–but to make human relations prosper is exceedingly difficult.
Here I think Bateson refines and purifies Illich’s argument in Deschooling Society, at least indirectly. (I do not think they knew each other.) Illich’s argument can sometimes seem as if he’s got a utopian formula in mind that will make human relations prosper. All calls to revolution have something of this appearance in them, and one does well to be skeptical. Yet this is only part of the story. The other part is just what Bateson says. We can do our best to create situations in which the magic might happen and do all in our power not to rig the situation so that it cannot happen. Can we say that we have followed this path? Often it seems to me that we have done almost exactly the opposite, in the macrocosm of schooling, while the great teachers and students continue to demonstrate the possibility of flourishing–of magic–on the microcosmic level. How much better, though, to plant a healthy garden than to point to the brave flowers emerging from the rubble of urban decay as a sign that the system is working–as a sign of the “student success” we should strive toward. Perhaps I work within the system to reform it because I’m convinced that we can find that rich soil beneath the pavement, and should, as a way to demonstrate that the brave flowers knew something after all….