Personal, not Private, Ted Nelson edition

It’s Ted Nelson day in VTNMFS-S13, the Virginia Tech New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar. I can see from the motherblog that Ted is already stirring up plenty of response, from delight to alarm, sometimes in the same post. As is his wont, of course. That’s part of why Ted Nelson is on the syllabus. That, plus his brilliance and zany rhetorical adventurousness. And what appears to be his utter fearlessness–fearlessness, no recklessness–in speaking truth to power.

Yes, Ted Nelson: a handful. Imagine him in your class, fellow teachers. A handful. Yet say what you will about Ted, he’s clearly someone who trusts the learner. Ted Nelson trusts the learner. Once more with greater emphasis, perhaps ruining the fantics, but here goes: TED NELSON TRUSTS THE LEARNER.

Most schooling does not.

Yes, we do not trust eight-year-olds to drive cars, vote, get married, drink, watch re-runs of Love, American Style and so forth. These activities are not developmentally appropriate. And for the boys in particular, there’s a real lag time in forebrain development, which means their judgment sometimes isn’t what it needs to be until, oh, later. (Sometimes much later.)

But do we trust students to learn?

Most schooling does not.

Again, there are some sound developmental reasons, but just between us (ok?), they can start to sound kinda funny after awhile, as they become unquestioned assumptions that we shellac with layers of cracked and tobacco-colored varnish (read: curricula). For example, we obviously can’t trust learners to love and purse the learning of math (or whatever subject strikes you as hard and frustrating) unless we require it. Right?  So the answer is to require learners to learn math. Right? They wouldn’t do it otherwise. They’d just skip it, the way kids skip their spinach and go straight for the soft-serve processed sugary confections. Here’s what’s funny about that question. It assumes there’s no good or practical way, short of a mandatory “forced march across a flattened plain,” to awaken enough intrinsic interest or curiosity to prime the pump for a learner to learn math because he or she wants to. No way to tap into the learner’s own ability (or, if they’re young enough, their propensity) to be intrigued. “Priming the pump” takes too long, is too complex, requires too much teacherly skill, won’t scale, and so forth. So we take a shortcut. We require students to take math. It’s good for them. And they won’t take it otherwise.

That’s a funny set of assumptions, and I don’t mean “ha ha funny.”

The result that I have observed over several decades of teaching is that we believe that a required course somehow obviates the need for awakening internal motivation, interest, curiosity etc. Those internal states are dodgy, difficult, complex, messy, hard-to-assess things. Why engage with that complexity when we can just say “hey you, take this or else” and be done with it? Why take a chance on love when in the end we don’t believe love matters as much as dutiful compliance? Duty is important, to be sure, and strong, well-aimed habits can carry one through the rough spots–but those same habits, as we shall see, can and often do lead to the tragedy Nelson limns in one of the bleakest parts of his essay:

A general human motivation is god-given at the beginning and warped or destroyed by the educational process as we know it: thus we internalize at last that most fundamental of grownup goals: just to get through another day. (my emphasis)

I ask you, hand on heart, do we really think we will raise a nation of quantitatively literate and engaged citizens because of required math courses? Sure, sometimes a required course is able to awaken an interest that would have lain dormant otherwise. Even a blind pig finds an acorn now and again. But is that really the best we can do? Would we put our faith in a pain reliever that seems to increase pain for 80-85% of the population while somehow miraculously relieving pain for 15-20%? (These are liberal estimates of benefit and conservative estimates of pain.) Hand on heart, looking into each other’s eyes: do we think required courses do much more than salve our conscience and give our students and us a way to play “let’s pretend” much of the time? The evidence I’ve seen, personally and professionally and across many different contexts, does not support the idea that a “forced march across a flattened plain” does more good than harm. Rather the opposite.

Ted Nelson trusts the learner. Most schooling does not. Blogging in my classes is many things for me, but at the top of the list is blogging as an exercise in trusting the learner–or as Carl Rogers puts it, “freedom to learn.” I assure you that this is not a safe thing to do. That’s part of the point. One can fail, and the failing matters. It’s not so much that school gives us a place where one can fail without that mattering. If failure doesn’t matter, in that sense, how is it really failing? Rather, school gives us a chance to experience a different truth about failure by uniting us in a community of delighted strivers and yearners: death alone excepted, failure isn’t final.

Which brings me to a first-time commenter’s response to part one of this exploration. Here’s the response:

But, what if in the course of life, something that seemed personal at 20, and blogged about freely, is something you would prefer to have in the private column of life at 25, 30, 40? I’m quite sure, many of us greying adults are very happy there are no digital footprints of our personal thoughts easily found on Google from our days in college.

I hear this observation a lot as I travel around talking to folks trying to make sense of schooling in a digital age. It’s an observation that emerges from a hard and worthy question. “I’m quite sure, many of us greying adults” indicates a steadfast conviction that those of us with the hoarfrost (or worse) turned a corner sometime in our early development and are very glad that no one can see what preceded that turn. What if we entered college as staunch (insert political party here) and then got smarter and wiser and became staunch (insert political party here). Isn’t it great we don’t have any images of our younger selves at Young Republican meetings that can be found on Google? Isn’t it great there are no pictures out there of our youthful dalliance with Students for a Democratic Society? Aren’t we glad that we didn’t share photos on Facebook or on our blogs of those times we went to churches we thought we believed in when we just weren’t sophisticated enough to know that we simply believed in what our parents taught us to believe? (Thought in passing: one rarely encounters the idea that increasing intellectual sophistication can lead to religious belief as well as away from it, though I know that it can and has.)

Aren’t we glad we don’t have to run for President when YouTube shows us apparently drunk? (I’ll leave that as an exercise for the astute reader.)

Aren’t we relieved that there are no pictures like this on the Internet to embarrass our wiser, older selves?

Kids these days. I googled “spring break photos” and this one seemed safest to post here.










I mean, if this is what kids are voluntarily uploading to the Internet, or are having to endure being uploaded to the Internet, how in the world can we trust them as learners, give them a global printing press, and say “please put more stuff up on the Internet”? Won’t we just set them up for more future embarrassment? Aren’t we simply contributing to the grand and ultimate erosion of the right to be silly, the right to be debauched, the right to be young, be foolish, be happy (well, happily intoxicated anyway) without those lapses following them around like a blinding hangover for the rest of their lives?

Perhaps. Perhaps the young men and women in this photo will be forever barred from positions of responsibility and leadership because their employers will see this photo (or worse yet, rely on a sophisticated algorithm to find the applicant’s face in every photo on the Internet) and say “I could never hire such an irresponsible and reckless person, especially if they’re also too stupid or careless to prevent the publication of their stupid carelessness to the World Wide Cesspool.” People enjoy judging other people’s lapses. Perhaps such judges, much better at hiding their own lapses (lapses that often mutate and persist into adulthood), will see such photos and blackball everyone in them. Seth Godin tells such a story:

I almost hired someone a few years ago–until I googled her and discovered that the first two matches were pictures of her drinking beer from a funnel, and her listed hobby was, “binge drinking.”

Note, however, that the woman was doing a good thing in a bad way. She was crafting an identity and publishing it to the Internet. As Jon Udell argues, One Will Be Googled, and that should lead us not to resist publishing to the Internet, but to publish thoughtfully and well to the Internet so that the googling reveals things about us we want to be known. In the language of part one of this post, the googling should reveal us as persons while not tossing aside our privacy. The young woman in Godin’s story has of course done exactly the opposite. I have no idea who she is as a complete person. And it may well be that she advertises herself as a binge drinker because she hasn’t had much help–certainly not much help from schooling–in thinking about herself as a complete person and how to demonstrate that thinking in a generous, connected way on the Internet not as a result of a prescribed and proctored curriculum, but as an ongoing commitment.

I suspect her schooling hasn’t helped her, not because she was shown too much trust as a learner, but because she was shown too little. Perhaps she knew and did her duty in school: comply! prepare! speak when you’re spoken to, until we say you’ve learned enough to earn the right to speak in the modes of sophistication we have prescribed, and in a way that will shield you from the embarrassment of admitting you’ve failed or ever been mistaken, an admission that can be evaded unless the mistake was public, which it would have been if we had encouraged you to narrate your learning and publish that story to the Internet!

Of course I cannot say for sure that the recklessness of publishing your private enthusiasm for binge drinking to the Internet is in any way correlated with a failure of education, a failure linked to our desire to protect our learners from themselves that may emerge from a lack of trust, but I think it is reasonably clear that if we truly desire to protect our learners from themselves, we are failing. They are publishing to the Internet no matter what we say. Human beings typically want to connect with other human beings. Those energies will find an outlet. And my argument here is that we should not be protecting our learners from themselves. We should be trusting them, and aiding them in discovering and using (and teaching us, too) the arts of freedom.

Those arts are not simply the arts of abstinence. Milton writes, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue.” Me neither, though the result is sometimes a commitment to enduring conspicuous failure as one builds what Godin calls “a backlist.” John Dewey observes that “education … is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” The extent to which we share with each other our growing processes of living, in all their complexities and inconsistencies and false starts and unexpected delighted discoveries and embarrassing stumbles, is the extent to which we are committed to the idea that we could build a better world together.

The idea of commitment is important here. “The figure is the same as for love.” Love is the greatest risk of all, and at the same time the greatest extension of trust we can experience. Michael Wesch tells the story of his wife’s advice to him on his first, nervous, anxious, tense, wildly hopeful day of teaching: “love your students, and they will love you back.” Anyone who’s taught for very long recognizes the difficulty of such a commitment. Yet it’s not optional. Mike expands on this idea in his essay “From Knowledgeable To Knowledge-Able: Learning In New Media Environments” (2009):

Managing a learning environment such as this poses its own unique challenges, but there is one simple technique, which makes everything else fall into place: love and respect your students and they will love and respect you back. With the underlying feeling of trust and respect this provides, students quickly realize the importance of their role as co-creators of the learning environment and they begin to take responsibility for their own education.

Love doesn’t mean keeping your students safe by teaching them abstinence. Love means keeping them safe by teaching them the arts of freedom. Abstinence is one of those arts, of course, but only one, and in my view one of the lesser of them, perhaps the least of all. Abstinence in this sense would mean abstaining from learning itself, a devotion to the idea that “ignorance is bliss.” Education is devoted to the idea that any such bliss is not a bliss worth having, and certainly not a building material for a better world. At least, that’s what we profess, implicitly, by taking money for teaching, research, and service.

What is the alternative to the kind of risk I’m urging us to take? Or to put it another way, what is the risk of not taking these risks of narrating one’s person (not one’s privacy), as that personhood emerges and develops, in a community that conspicuously supports the goal of knowing even as we are known? What if we do not engage with the kind of love that trusts the learner with the intensity and urgency of a Ted Nelson?

In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis describes the potential horrors (one might say, a “learning outcome”) of a refusal to engage with this higher love:

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket–safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

Yes, our younger selves may break our hearts as we grey into middle and late adulthood. But the only way around that risk is to start building unbreakable hearts as we become adults. Is that what we want? Will such hearts even be able to recognize the world’s deep hunger, much less respond to it with any deep gladness?

For there is another terrible risk in allowing our younger selves to persist alongside our greying ones: those younger selves may judge us, and not too kindly. Emerson warns us of the risk of not learning the habit of trust:

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

I am sorry for the androcentric nouns, but I am not sorry for the sentiment. Notice that Emerson does not say we should “detect and watch that gleam of light … from within” instead of “the firmament of bards and sages.” He says “more than,” and everywhere in “Self-Reliance” argues that it is that inward watching, that very habit of welcoming and not dismissing or rejecting one’s thoughts, that is the greatest lesson we may learn from the bards and sages we encounter in our education. We recognize our kinship, our responsibilities, through the inward watching and welcoming we learn from those who have done that before us–and those who naturally do it now, before schooling has diminished that trust:

What pretty oracles nature yields us on this text, in the face and behaviour of children, babes, and even brutes! That divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose, these have not. Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted….  Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you and me. Hark! in the next room his voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic. It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or bold, then, he will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary.

What if we encountered our younger selves speaking clearly and emphatically in the next room of our “backlist“? What would they say to us? Would they commend us for the compromises we have made, some of them necessary, some of them pretended so for the sake of our supposed dignity, our need merely to make it to the end of another day? Would our younger selves embarrass us with their energy, their hopefulness, their strong and happy rejection of our rebel and divided minds? Would those younger selves haunt us with their alienated majesty?

What might we see at eighteen, or even at eight, that might forever elude our maturer sight? Could we lay in stores of our youthful visions to feed us, encourage us, and occasionally chide us as we encounter the wearying discouraging complexities of our adult lives? Can we trust our younger selves, and the younger selves around us, and the younger selves for whom we invent the future, a great cloud of witnesses around us, past and present and future, not to point a reproachful finger at us, disdaining our cautions, indicting our impenetrable unbreakable hearts?

Have we no better fellowship to imagine or to build? Millions of grains of sand in the world. Why such a lonely beach?

5 thoughts on “Personal, not Private, Ted Nelson edition

  1. Trust the learner, indeed! And in contrast to the other offered perspective, I find myself looking back more often than not these days with anxiety and worry, SEEKING that younger self. Sure, there are things I’d take back, things I’m glad aren’t posted in cyberspace. BUT, I worry more that I’m losing touch with the zest, reckless exploration, and emboldened curiosity that seem to be more characteristic of a younger me than the present one. I hope and pray that my kids are keeping shreds of this alive in me, and that this self-awareness keeps a spark ignited that refuses to let her go.

    The challenge I found myself reflecting on, in reading Nelson, was how much of life has come to be experienced as compulsory. It starts with the notion of schooling, prerequisites, prescribed coursework – but even as a parent I recognize the limitations of this. However, so much of MY life seems compulsory (though willingly embraced as a means to an end) – working, earning, paying bills, feeding, clothing and raising kids – prescribing a structure, schedule, activities, learning foci for my kids truly seems the only way to make it all work. It’s a conundrum I’m not sure how to solve…

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  4. The post helps me to connect to the way our copying technology allows us to freeze in time certain moments never to be undone. Certain moments that become inconsistent or ‘inoperative’ at a later date. What if someone had a picture of Bill Clinton inhaling!
    I wonder if the next sci-fi movie to come along might explore erasing the inconsistency of these frozen moments, this evidence, as in the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. At a macro-level, history is written by the victors who have glossed over counter-veiling, and incompatible evidence, at least in the propaganda-type history taught in school.
    Maybe our recording technology will make us more honest, less-hypocritical,and wiser as to the ways of youth and age, to narrative, and to context.

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