Optimism

3. Hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something; a tendency to take a favourable or hopeful view. Contrasted with pessimism n. 2.

So the Oxford English Dictionary. I picked sense 3 because it seems most resilient in the face of abundant evidence that this is in fact NOT the best of all possible worlds (pace Leibniz, at least as he’s pilloried by Voltaire).

It seems to me that educators, no matter how skeptical their views (skepticism is necessary but not sufficient for an inquiring mind), are implicitly committed to optimism. Otherwise, why learn? and why teach?

Satan Overlooking Paradise

I think of this as I begin another semester thinking with faculty and staff across the university (last term Virginia Tech, this term Virginia Commonwealth University) about the possible good we could co-create, and derive, from interactive, networked, personal computing. To be pessimistic (not skeptical, pessimistic–they are not synonyms) about personal, networked, interactive computing is to be pessimistic not about an invention, but about invention itself–that is, about one of our most powerful distinctions as a species.

Computers have become woven into our lives in ways we can barely imagine, but the best dreams about the texture of such a world are hopeful, and stimulate hope. Are we there yet? Of course not. But to be pessimistic about computers is to be pessimistic about humanity. And while that’s certainly a defensible position generally speaking, it seems to me that education is an activity, a co-creation, a calling, that runs clean counter to pessimism.

Last week in the seminar we read Janet Murray’s stirring introduction to The New Media Reader. A colleague from the School of Dentistry. A colleague from the library. A colleague from the Center for Teaching Excellence. Colleagues from University College. And more. Once again, I read these words:

We are drawn to a new medium of representation because we are pattern makers who are thinking beyond our old tools. We cannot rewind our collective cognitive effort, since the digital medium is as much a pattern of thinking and perceiving as it is a pattern of making things.

Indeed–yet this is not to deny the meta level at which we consider our consideration, and think about our blind spots so we can find more light:

We are drawn to this medium because we need to understand the world and our place in it.

Yes–and now the world we need to understand is also a world transformed, for good and for ill but potentially for good, why not?, by the medium itself. Recursive, yes–but more deeply, a paradox, not an infinite regress. That’s the hope, anyway. And educators are committed to hope.

To return to [Vannevar] Bush’s speculations: now that we have shaped this new medium of expression, how may we think? We may, if we are lucky and mindful enough, learn to think together by building shared structures of meaning.

That mindfulness is the meta level. I am optimistic about that meta level. As a learner, I have to be. If mindfulness is impossible, then it’s truly turtles all the way down, and who would care?

How will we escape the labyrinth of deconstructed ideologies and self-reflective signs? We will, if we are lucky enough and mindful enough, invent communities of communication at the widest possible bandwidth and smallest possible granularity.

Lucky, and mindful. Chance favors the mindful mind.

We need not imagine ourselves stranded somewhere over the evolutionary horizon, separated from our species by the power of our own thinking.

Or separated from our history, or from our loved ones–though clearly Hamlet (to name only one) demonstrates that mindfulness alone is no guarantee of anything. But what is on the other side of the horizon? What do we find when we return to the place we left and see it for the first time?

The machine like the book and the painting and the symphony and the photograph is made in our own image, and reflects it back again.

To which I would add: the syntax and punctuation in Murray’s sentence above enact the pulses of ways we may think. Those pulses and the ways they enact are poetry. What more complex shared structure of meaning is there?–unless it’s true that all art aspires to the condition of music. Poetry “begins in delight and ends in wisdom,” Frost writes. He continues: “the figure is the same as for love.” Can the shared structures of meaning emerging from our species’ collective cognitive effort begin in delight and end in wisdom, too? Can the figure our collective cognitive efforts make be the same as for love? I think: I hope so. I think: it better be. I think: how can I try to help? The seminar is one answer, a crux of hopes, the discovery of an invisible republic of optimism.

The task is the same now as it ever has been, familiar, thrilling, unavoidable: we work with all our myriad talents to expand our media of expression to the full measure of our humanity.

And by doing so, that measure increases. May we use that abundance wisely, fairly, and lovingly within this mean old brave new world.

With luck and mindfulness, I am  hopeful that we can.

for my Jewish mother, Dr. Janet Murray, with love and deepest gratitude

3 thoughts on “Optimism

  1. Thank you, Gardner. Today was full of much academic reading and writing, and tonight (with a cup of tea for company) it was a joy to find your post. Thank you for sharing optimism, mindfulness, poetry, and Janet Murray’s wisdom. I’m already imagining my own “invisible republic of optimism” with fellow educators, a wonderful thought! Now… to track down The New Media Reader to enjoy Janet Murray’s introduction in full.

    I began my day with these words from Seamus Heaney, shared with me by a friend. With them, and your post, I’ll close this day — with optimism. Thank you.

    This is how poems help us live.
    They match the meshes in the sieve
    Life puts us through; they take and give
    Our proper measure
    And prove themselves most transitive
    When they give pleasure.

    – Seamus Heaney, from the essay ‘Extending the Alphabet’ in The Redress of Poetry (1995)

  2. Your post inspired what I can only describe as a “perfect G. K. Chesterton moment” for me, reminiscent of my first read through Orthodoxy. He, too, speaks of sailing away from his own country and returning to it, thinking he is the first to discover it, and in that discovery truly seeing it for the first time. He, too, speaks of the power of paradox, of things so deeply metacognitive that they transport one to a completely other world. I hope that I truly share your hope – that I may escape the narrow focus of Chesterton’s asylum resident – and pursue learning for the windows and portals and new horizons opened by our collective thinking and making.

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