2017: Quarks, Love, and Insight

Quark structure proton

Two ups, a down, and some gluons.  A hadron; later, perhaps, an atom.

I used to do a little warm-up exercise in faculty development workshops. I called it “Quarks of Learning.” The question was simple: what are the elementary particles and fundamental constituents of learning? The responses were always interesting, and revealed a surprising amount of agreement among faculty from different disciplines. The adventure, then, was to discuss how one might build learning experiences out of those fundamental constituents.

I liked the warm-up for a lot of reasons. There were not any obviously wrong answers. The agreement was surprising. We weren’t getting waylaid by typical categories of “skills” and “content,” a false and pernicious and very damaging dichotomy. And the exercise seemed to be self-dramatizing, in a way, as the pleasure of listing these fundamental constituents, and the engagement that pleasure empowered, seemed itself to be a fundamental constituent. We found ourselves in productive community, aligned yet varied, thoughtful and creative, having a good time building something together out of ideas that didn’t usually emerge in “faculty development”–and certainly not in “training.”

Over time, and in varying roles within institutions of higher education, I’ve thought a lot about these quarks of learning. I’ve tried to support curricula within the English major that would keep those quarks embedded in the design of the major. I’ve tried to do similar work with faculty development in pedagogy, in teaching and learning technologies involving networked personal computing, and in the large and comprehensive structures involving colleges, faculty, and academic programs (including a degree program) across an entire university. All along, I’ve wanted those quarks to be more powerfully present, in all the discussions and planning, than talk about “operationalizing” and “branding” and so forth, as I have many times seen how the fundamental constituents vanish–or are erased–in favor of talk about process that serves the institution much more than the learner.

For a long while, I advocated for “interest” as the fundamental constituent of learning, the quark of all quarks. I still believe that interest, and the psychology of interest, are fundamentally empowering elements of all learning. As time has gone on, however, I can see that interest doesn’t quite resonate with my audiences the way it does with me. As the psychology of interest and curiosity becomes more sophisticated and pervasive, that may change. As I become better at explaining myself, ditto. To this point, however, it has been difficult to make the case that the kind of interest and curiosity I care about is fundamentally different from the “look, a squirrel!” varieties of endless superficial distractions.

The two quarks I’m working on now, therefore, are love and insight.

I’ve had something to say about love elsewhere, and I’ll have more to say about that in future posts. Tonight, at the start of a new calendar year, I will write a few things about insight.

I presented my first talk on an insight-oriented education in November, when I was honored to be the opening keynote for OpenEd 2016. I wanted the talk to be about insight, to be itself insightful, and to help to stimulate insight in others (in this case, the audience for the talk). You can see the opening video montage I created here. And you can see a Periscope recording of the talk made by the redoubtable Robin DeRosa here. I’ll have more to say about that OpenEd keynote in subsequent posts. At this point, I’ll simply say that I was working from Jonah Lehrer’s account (in “The Eureka Hunt”) of the neuropsychology of insight, as well as from ideas regarding sustainable psychotherapeutic improvements stemming not from medication but from what we used to call the “talking cure,” and which now seems to be about the power of language and story in particular to re-wire the brain by means of patients’ insights into their own circumstances, histories, and personalities.

Those areas alone merit and require a great deal of work. Little did I know that another enormous journey of discovery in this area was about to begin as well.

One of the more remarkable things that emerged from my talk was a tweet I received from an indispensable member of my personal learning network, Morris (Mo) Pelzel. Mo’s first tweet to me about Bernard Lonergan, the one that alerted me to Lonergan’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, is just out of Twitter-reach tonight. I’ll need to download a new version of my Twitter archive soon so I don’t lose that tweet! It was a vital moment. But at least I have the follow-up for you below.

Mo opened to me an exhilarating, difficult, yet utterly direct and moving text that took everything I had said about insight to the next level, and helped me understand that I was right: insight was indeed one of the quarks I sought. The word, the idea, the core reality of insight bridged the affective and cognitive realms more effectively than interest had. It connected with deep self-awareness. It was strongly aligned with ideas of creativity and imagination, but resisted being limited to only the arts, or only the humanities.

Most of all, it was a quark that met one of the prime requirements for quarkdom: it would be difficult for anyone in higher education to say, out loud, that insight was dispensable and played no necessary role in education. Or so I hope. And: once insight is in there, I reason, it becomes very difficult to retreat to reductive views of anything regarding learning, assessment of learning, expertise, pedagogy, etc. Like love, but with a more powerfully cognitive presence in most conversations about learning (alas, but I’ll take what I can get), insight would be the quark that was not only a fundamental constituent of learning and thus of school, but also a quark whose presence would liberate discussions about learning and schooling from the deadening technocracies that surround them.

So here and now, at the close of the first day of 2017, I offer a bit of Lonergan for you. His writing is extraordinarily ambitious, dense with meaning and implication. At the same time, his subject is so important, and the need for the thoughtful engagement he advocates and demonstrates is so urgent, that the book reads to me like a special edition of a newspaper written just before a crisis, not simply in response to it. I can’t pretend to grasp it all, yet. Parts of it may be beyond my reach. But the parts I do get thrill me. They help me think. They help me understand. And as I go along, Lonergan teaches me how to understand him better.

Here, then, now:

First, then, it is insight that makes the difference between the tantalizing problem and the evident solution…. Secondly, inasmuch as it is the act of organizing intelligence, insight is an apprehension of relations…. Thirdly, in a sense somewhat different from Kant’s, every insight is both a priori and synthetic. It is a priori, for it goes beyond what is merely given to sense or to empirical consciousness. It is synthetic, for it adds to the merely given an explanatory unification or organization…. Fourthly, a unification and organization of other departments of knowledge is a philosophy. But every insight unifies and organizes. Insight into insight [the project of the book, Lonergan tells us], then, will … yield a philosophy…. (4-5)

[I’m skipping items five and six because a) they’re too difficult for this already lengthy post, and b) seven and eight are crucially important.]

Seventhly, besides insights there are oversights. Besides the dynamic context of detached and disinterested [i.e.: not self-interested] inquiry in which insights emerge with a notable frequency, there are the contrary dynamic contexts of the flight from understanding in which oversights occur regularly and one might almost say systematically. [Yes, indeed–one of the reasons I have been reading books about the 2008 financial meltdown as well as the tragedies of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia–not to mention watching Titanic over and over.] Hence, if insight into insight is not to be an oversight of oversights [what can I say? the man has a sense of humor], it must include an insight into the principal devices of the flight from understanding. Eighthly, the flight from understanding will be seen to be anything but a peculiar aberration that afflicts only the unfortunate or the perverse. In its philosophic form, which is not to be confused with its psychiatric, moral, social, and cultural manifestations [rather large exceptions here, but let’s keep going], it appears to result simply from an incomplete development in the intelligent and reasonable use of one’s own intelligence and reasonableness…. [I’d say that such incomplete development is partly a failure of education, and that much contemporary schooling, especially at scale, not only neglects but indeed tends to block or thwart such development.] (5-6)

[Again, skipping two elements, for reasons as above.]

The present work, then, may be said to operate on three levels: it is a study of human understanding; it unfolds the philosophic implications of understanding; it is a campaign against the flight from understanding. The three levels are solidary. Without the first there would be no basis for the second and no precise meaning for the third. Without the second the first could not get beyond elementary statements, and there could be no punch to the third. Without the third the second would be regarded as incredible, and the first would be neglected. (6-7)

[And now Lonergan writes with even greater urgency.]

Probably I shall be told that I have tried to operate on too broad a front. But I was led to do so for two reasons. In constructing a ship or a philosophy one has to go the whole way: an effort that is in principle incomplete is equivalent to a failure. [A beautiful analogy and for me a home truth–as well as one of the principal failings of higher education’s approaches to “educational technology.”] Moreover, against the flight from understanding half measures are of no avail. Only a comprehensive strategy can be successful. To disregard any stronghold of the flight from understanding is to leave intact a base from which a counteroffensive promptly will be launched. (7)

I have used a more gruesome analogy for my own version of Lonergan’s last point when I say one cannot have a “pet cancer.” Very often it seems to me that bureaucracies and especially technocracies are pocked with strongholds of the flight from understanding, so much so that it becomes quite an adventure merely to identify the valiant and embattled strongholds of insight among them. And even when those strongholds of insight are acknowledged, there is usually a sense that they are rare and special, and thus not essential or fundamental. Therefore everything else can be defined as business as usual, “operational” in a very narrow definition of “operations.” When those “operational” elements become in fact more strongholds of the flight from understanding, they become malignant–and it is in the nature of malignancy that it strives to overtake and feed on, thus ultimately destroy, the good. And the shuttle explodes, or burns up on re-entry, metaphorically and historically speaking.

Lonergan’s final argument for my post tonight circles back to why his endeavor matters. He insists it’s practical to work through a complex and difficult philosophy of insight. It’s operationally relevant! Vitally so. “But to be practical is to do the intelligent thing, and to be unpractical is to keep blundering about. It follows that insight into both insight and oversight is the very key to practicality” (8).

I’ll come back to some of these points as I continue to work though Lonergan’s book. But now, here, then: we must build and offer our learners an insight-oriented education. Do you hear talk about an insight-oriented education when you hear “student success” discussed? If not, pull the emergency stop. Help to avoid a civilization-sized train wreck.

What I am discovering about my “quarks of learning” is not simply what must be included in all learning design, but the very ground I must stand on myself, those aspects of real school that are non-negotiable. In this way, I begin to have insight into insight, myself.

Much to explore. Thanks, Mo.

Happy New Year.

Lonergan, Bernard. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. 5th edition. Ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran. Volume 3 of the Collected works of Bernard Lonergan. University of Toronto Press, 1992.

One thought on “2017: Quarks, Love, and Insight

  1. Hi Gardner…what a exciting way to begin 2017! I am delighted for your discovery of Lonergan, and humbled to be part of your PLN. Your enthusiasm has kindled in me a desire to revisit Insight, which I first grappled with more than thirty years ago as a seminary student. I eventually wrote a dissertation on Lonergan’s notion of human development, and at one time thought that my career might be in large part devoted to the study of his writings. Other developments intervened and, alas, it has been some years since I have given serious time to it. But I will happily read it again with you and look forward to your own insights about Insight. 🙂 I think you’ll be particularly interested, for example, in L.’s treatment of emergence and emergent probability, which will further support the notion of emergent learning.

    If the exploration of insight will be this thrilling, imagine what you’ll do with love!

    BTW, here’s that first tweet you were referring to:

    https://twitter.com/MorrisPelzel/status/794185882479669248

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