Category Archives: Live Encounters

TEDxMarinAcademy – The Need for Positive Change in Education

Here is the video version of the TEDx talk I gave concerning the state of affairs in education today and the need for a new paradigm.  The TEDx event took place May 23, 2013 on the campus of Marin Academy in San Rafael, California, the theme was Positive Change, and the greatest thing about it was that it was fully student organized.  Two inspired seniors organized and presented the evening as their Senior Project.  They did a wonderful job, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to address an audience on a topic that has been occupying my thoughts and imagination for more than a decade.

My talk was one of seven for the evening.  They are all edifying and worth your time and attention.  The link below will play them all back to back.

TEDx Talk – 5/23/13: The Need for Positive Change in Education

Here is the transcript of a TEDx talk I recently delivered at TEDxMarinAcademy.  The theme of the event was Positive Change, and the purpose of my talk was to lay out, as clearly as possible the argument in favor of a major overhaul in our system of education.  I will post the video when it becomes available.

THE NEED FOR POSITIVE CHANGE IN EDUCATION

I ask questions.  I always have.  It is what drives me in life.  And I try to ask the big ones.  Like, where did we come from?  What are we supposed to be doing?  And I think these are rather important questions.  Otherwise, how do we know that we are doing it right?

I ask the same questions about education.  Where did it come from?  What are we supposed to be doing – in school?

So, tonight I want to talk about education, and I want to begin with questions.  For starters, why education?  Why systematize learning, something that happens quite naturally, all the time, school or no school?  And why school?  Why locate our system of learning in a building?

If you haven’t asked these questions, how do you know we are doing it right?  Here are some more.

Why classes?  Why do we have classes?  I don’t mean why do we gather together in rooms to learn, although that is a good question, too.  I mean, why do we coalesce a collection of skills and concepts around a single topic and lay out a sequential course of study – like a recipe.  Because it is, isn’t it?  A class is like a recipe for learning.  It’s like baking a cake.  It has a list of ingredients – we call it a syllabus.  It has a sequence of events, a list of things to do in a particular order – we call it an assignment schedule.  And it has a predictable outcome.  Serves 18.  And we assess the cake against a standard set of evaluation criteria – flavor, texture, fluffiness.  Why do we do that?  Why is that our model of learning?  I wonder.

Why tests?  Why the sit-down, short-answer or multiple choice, pencil and paper tests?  Why measure the value of what you know and what you can do by doing something later life does not value and you won’t be asked to do again outside of school.  (The DMV notwithstanding, of course.)  In any case, I do wonder.  And there are plenty of questions to be asked about schooling.

Why group students for learning by age?  This one baffles me.  Is age that significant?  Should students all be learning the same thing at the same age?  Should students all be learning the same thing? – now there’s a question.

What we know is that human beings are wonderfully differentiated, each in possession of a unique set of strengths, weaknesses, interests, and challenges that change over time.  Different things become relevant at different times.  Why, then, group students by age and have them all doing the same thing at the same time?  I wonder.

Here’s another question:

If high school didn’t already exist, if we didn’t know what high school was, what would we create to serve the purpose?  And what is the purpose of high school education?  What is it for?

I believe the purpose of education is to assist individuals in reaching their highest potential in community with others and in service to the common good.  That’s pretty much it, isn’t it?  Education is about your personal potential, it’s about living together, and it’s about the common good.  Great.  So, if that’s what it is for, are we doing it right?  And why are we doing it the way we are doing it?

Well, as it turns out, there are some answers.

Before about 150 years ago there was no common system of what would come to be known as public education in this country.  State-funded, relatively-open schooling for all did not exist before about 1860.  People did not go to school then the way we do now.  At that time, cities were growing and the urban population was expanding, and a group of folks – educators, politicians, business types – got together and created a system that would prepare almost everyone for citizenship in an increasingly industrialized society.  What they came up with was the foundation of American public education and it had a very specific purpose: To meet the needs of the emerging industrial economy and consumer-based society.

Industrialization?  You mean factories?  Yes, I mean factories.  Production facilities for products for large markets.  Consumerism?  You mean buying things?  Yes, I mean buying things.  The acquisition of tangible goods beyond what is required for daily life.  Am I saying that we have been convinced to buy things we don’t need and it is related to schooling?  Yes.  I am.

Think shoes for a minute.  How many pairs of shoes do you own?  Personally, I own many.  The fact is, one pair of shoes can get me to work, up the mountain, out to dinner, dancing, anything I need.  And yet, I have shoes.  Dozens.  I have shoes I never wear.  Don’t you?  Ever wonder about that?  How did we get convinced to buy all these shoes?

I have said that the industrial influence on education was profound.  If you wanted to profit from an emerging industrial economy, you needed two things.  You needed the capacity to produce products and you needed people to want to buy those products.  How do you get that?  You educate for it.  You create a system that conditions people to want more than they have.  Consumers.

If you want to think about how schooling is like a consumer economy, just ask yourself who is selling what to whom and what is the price?

But as a rising industrialist, you also needed people to work the factories – and it is tough work on an assembly line.  Long hours.  In rows and columns.  Doing repetitive tasks.  Mostly alone.  With strict time limits.  Deferring gratification.  And producing products that are subject to evaluation based on standardized measures of quality.

What?  Does that sound familiar?  Actually, I hope not.  Not too familiar.  I was talking about working in a factory, but it describes the current dominant paradigm in education in this country very well.

So, the emerging industrialists needed people to work the factories and people to buy the products.   But they needed something else too.  They needed to control for creativity.  Because it turns out that creativity in a factory setting is a liability.  If we are being honest, we do not want people on an assembly line coloring outside the lines.  An entire line of widgets assembled … creatively.  No.  We want outcomes to be measurable, predictable, and consistent, and we want to be able to track productivity and to control for quality.  So, creativity in an industrial economy becomes a liability.

And the raft of research that tracks the decline of creativity in students through schooling is well known.  Creativity declines in school.  But why is that?  What happens in 12 grades of school that makes creativity so unlikely?  I wonder.

I was speaking to someone recently and she told me a story of her son, a 7th grader at a prominent Marin middle school.  She said one day she was called in for a parent conference.  Apparently something had happened and they needed to talk.  So, she went and as she tells it, the science teacher’s chief complaint about her son was that he was singing in class.  Singing.  Well, you know.  That is understandable.  Singing during a test or a silent reading period or something.  But, it wasn’t that.  They were doing a lab – conducting an experiment, working in pairs or trios and apparently there was quite a bit of activity and chatter in the room already.  But this behavior, she was given to understand was unacceptable.  Singing is not called for on the lab instructions, is it?

I tell this story not to out these teachers but because it illustrates something about the system and what the system values as worthy evidence of quality performance.  The fact is that singing may well have been a sign of engagement.  This boy’s mother was so convinced – he is generally an A student.

Exceptionally curious.  Extremely bright.  Fully engaged.  But no where on the plan does it call for singing.  Singing is not a part of learning.  Is it?  And it is not on the rubric! – so singing becomes, by definition, out of bounds.  My point is, what our system can’t predict, it can’t tolerate.

But you know things have changed around here lately.  The economy is no longer simply industrial.  It is post-industrial.  Unto informational.  We accept the idea that anything that can be automated, will be.  Why will anything that can be automated, be automated?  Because machines are programmable, controllable, predictable.  And people are not.  People are creative.  They don’t do those jobs as well.  And so manufacturing jobs in are in decline.  We have a system of education in this country that trains people to do jobs for which they are not well suited and that are increasingly unavailable.

At the same time, our most innovative companies have recognized the value of human creativity in the work place.  I heard recently that Apple’s motto is, “If you want to be managed, you are not employable.”  If you want to be managed, you are not employable.  It is an interesting idea, isn’t it?  There was a time when part of being employed was being told what to do.  Not so much anymore.

I had an interaction with a student a few years ago that illustrates what I mean.

We were beginning the process of writing an essay – a literary analysis – and I had just finished a lesson on thesis statements and how to craft a powerful thesis out of real questions students really have about the text.  My argument was, in fact still is, that a great thesis depends on great questions, and if you are going to write the essay they need to be your questions.  At the end of class one of my students approached me, quite concerned.  In fact, she was on the verge of frustrated tears.  So we talked and at one point she said to me,  “All of my other teachers have simply told me what to write, and I have written it, and I’m good at that.”  That’s really what she wanted me to know.  “But you’re not telling us what to write.”

And I said, “That’s right. I can help you learn to write well. I can coach you on form and style.  I can give you strategies for diction and syntax and even idea generation.  And I can help you understand the text.  But I can’t ask your questions for you and I can’t tell you what to write.”

The point is, if you want to be told what to write, if you want to be managed, you are going to find it hard to find a job that is creative, innovative, and part of positive change for the future.

You know, Google, I hear, has a 20% rule.  That is, 20% of the time, one day a week, employees can spend pursuing their own, creative projects.  People work alone, in pairs, in groups.  And many of these ideas fizzle out, fail, go nowhere.  But some of them do go somewhere.  And Google trusts this.

Google Earth came out of their 20% rule.  Did you know that?  It was somebody’s independent study project.  Google, like other companies in the business of innovation and creativity, has figured out that good, new ideas come from people seeking answers to their own questions, and being allowed to risk failure without penalty.  So, the 20% rule.

Why not a 20% rule for school?  One day a week kids can learn whatever they want?  I wonder.

Failure, incidentally, is the other thing that the industrial model of schooling gets wrong.  In school, failure is one the worst things that can happen.  Right?  The F.  We give it its own letter and its own lexicon of euphemisms.  In fact, in some cases a failure on an assignment is never redeemable.  It has to be right the first time.  And maybe now you can see why.  In industry, failure can be catastrophic.  If you fail to sew the seam, make the weld, install the circuit, the thing doesn’t work.  And that is a deal breaker if you are trying to sell it.  In the production of products, failure is to be avoided at all costs.

So, if school is preparing you for work in an industrial economy, failure has to be discouraged. Vilified. Punished.  But what if school were not preparing you so much to produce products as to  make positive change in the world?  Failure in any field based on innovation is a pathway to success.  Right?  We know this to be true.  Failed attempts are keys to later success.  The design firm IDEO uses the mantra “Fail early, fail often.”  Pixar uses the same idea – so I hear.  Why?  Because they like things not to work?  No.  Because failure is the goal?  No.  It’s because they know the value of a failure well made.  They know that innovation depends on repeated attempts.  They know that creativity requires feeling the freedom to fail.  They are destigmatizing failure.

If schools are preparing students for a job market that is not about working in a factory, and is about innovation and creativity, then we should be teaching our students to fail early and often and to learn and improve from their mistakes.   And the process of failing well should be encouraged, designed, assessed, evaluated, measured, rewarded.

Crazy ideas?  Not at all.  They work.  But schools don’t do these things because they are stuck in an outdated model that has not seen change since its inception.  It is time we moved on.

So, how do we do it better?  No.  Scratch that.  Let’s ask a different question.  How do we do it differently?  Because I don’t think we need to do what we have been doing better or more or harder or more on time or with stronger study habits or with more sleep.  We need to do something very, very different.

And I have some ideas.  There are three things any school that is thinking about its future has to do today:

The first thing we have to do is shift the paradigm.  The curriculum is no longer ours and we must stop thinking of schools as delivery systems for information.  Every one of us carries the entire internet in our pocket and content is not what we are selling anymore.  The curriculum is free and available to anyone with a connection.  So, educators need to shift their thinking and their self conception from deliverers of content to facilitators of learning.  Step number one: we begin to see ourselves as educational choreographers (or what some have called learning ecologists) and not task-masters in the delivery of content.

The second thing we have to do is personalize education.  We have to stop telling kids what to learn as if we knew what content would be useful five years from now.  We don’t.  We have to start asking different questions:  What do you want to learn?  What will be your process?  And what will success look like for you and how will we measure it?  We have to involve kids much more deeply in determining and defining their own learning pathways.  And we have to help kids identify their interests and develop them into passions so that they can lead lives of fulfillment and joy at the intersection of what they are good at and what they find valuable.  So, step number two is moving from standardized curriculum to personalized learning.

And finally, we have to take the concept of relevance much more seriously.  Students should be working and learning in the real world, on actual problems that actual people face, and they need to see the relevance of their learning in the impact it has on people’s lives.  Students should be presenting their understandings to authentic audiences of evaluators – their teachers as well as people they do not already know.  Because a pencil and paper test does not measure the kind of understanding that is valued by the world we are preparing these kids to change and to heal.  But a performance of learning to an audience they don’t already know does.  Step number three: abolish the pencil and paper test and move to performance assessments and real world projects.

You know, it is critically important for schools to realize and respond to the fact that students today have access to all of the information they would ever need.  The internet is truly a game changer.  So, the question is no longer, What do you know?  It is, What can you do with what you know – and for whom?  Students can be trusted with their education.  They might need mentoring, guidance, coaching, as do we all, and there might be failures along the way, in fact I hope so, but students no longer need us to give them the answers.

They need to be put in charge of their own education, they need to put in touch with the thing itself, not its facsimile, and they need to be asked to show what they know and what they can do in authentic situations.

This is the agenda education for the 21st century.

Student Internships & Real World Experience

A student came to me the other day.  She was in tears.  Something had just happened in Spanish class that really threw her.

“I have to drop Spanish,” she said.  “I can’t go back there.”

“Tell me what’s going on.”  I pushed a box of tissues within reach.

We talked at length.  We talked through what had happened that afternoon in class and how we would handle it.  And then our conversation turned to larger concerns and she told of me of her ongoing frustration.  She wasn’t learning what she wanted to learn and it hurt because she loves the language, but she felt that her time was being wasted in this advanced class that focused on literature and the technical aspects of the language.

“I don’t want to read science fiction in Spanish,” she explained.  “I want to speak it.  I want to speak Spanish to Spanish speaking people.  I want to be able to go to a Spanish speaking country and live there and meet the people.”

It was easy to feel her frustration with a curriculum that simply wasn’t meeting her needs, wasn’t igniting her passion for Spanish.  And yet, that’s what this level of Spanish was all about.  It wasn’t a problem with the class; it was just a bad match for her interests – and she was serious about her interests.

We talked through possibilities.  Could she stick it out?  Would it be different in a different class?  Could she take a different kind of Spanish class at a community college?

How about volunteering with a local social service non-profit in place of her Spanish class?  Her eyes lit up.

In the following few days we talked to many different people.  Her parents were excited, supportive, and nervous because what we were contemplating represented an atypical path through school.  College Counseling was not against it – the important thing was to be able to talk about it on a college application and to tell a compelling story about the decision to drop Spanish.  The Academic Office was doubtful because it was more or less unprecidented and our program is not set up to allow lots of students to do the same.  The Service Learning Coordinator was thrilled.

“Oh yeah,” she said.  “Four things come immediately to mind.”

My student, with the help of her parents, generated a list of interests.  How would she like to spend her time learning, and what did she want to get out of this experience?  Then, she and the Service Learning Coordinator came up with a list of eight possibilities.  Eight local organizations who were looking for volunteers.  Eight opportunities to use her Spanish to help people.  I was amazed, and we are still waiting to hear what comes of the contacts, but to think that a week ago she was in tears of frustration because of not learning what she felt was relevant and today she is looking forward to the possibility of volunteering with a Spanish speaking non profit is eye-opening.

I met with her late in the week for an update.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“I am nervous.  I don’t want this to be a bad decision.”

I tried to help her see that in this case she was in control, that whether this turned out to be a good decision or a bad one depended on her, her initiative, her drive, her approach, her follow though; it was up to her.  And I would be there to help.

The moment has stuck with me.  I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps for the first time, this student was faced with an unpredictable outcome.  It might work and it might not.  But the moment seemed real.  Neither she nor I knew what would happen, but we knew what it depended on.  That, too, is the live encounter.

The next morning, as my student was filling out a form, I overheard her talking to a friend.

“I heard you might be picking up an internship,” her friend said.  “That sounds so cool.  I’m so jealous.”

And then I started to think.

A One-sided Film Worth Seeing

Here is a plug for a delightful and significant film by Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel, a couple of inspired and inspiring social documentary filmmakers of some merit and promise. Siegel has been around the block a few times and has an impressive body of work including the well-received The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Betz seems to have emerged on the scene more recently. Their film Queen of the Sun is deserving of your attention. The issue is real, the facts are good, and with a couple of caveats kept clearly in mind, you’ll be better for having seen it.

Promotional flier

The film begins with Rudolf Steiner, the early 20th century Austrian philosopher and, perhaps more familiarly, the progenitor of Waldorf pedagogy. In 1923 (2 years before his death) Steiner published a series of lectures on the biology and the community of honey bees. Famously, he warned that if modern apiculture of the time continued to meddle with and manipulate the natural life cycle of bees, we would see an alarming collapse in global honey bee populations in the span of 80 to 100 years.

The prediction comes to light today mostly, I think, because it seems to have come true. Isn’t that right? Had nothing come of it, it seems to me we would never be citing it.

In any case, it has – and is – coming true. Commercial honey bee populations are declining in this country consistently by 30-50% annually, much of what we eat is dependent on honey bees pollination, and people are concerned about where this might lead. Common sense eater, sustainability activist, and wonderful writer, Michael Pollan is quoted in the film saying that 4 of every 10 bites of everything we eat is the result of pollination. It is a seemingly obvious connection – without honey bees we would not enjoy nearly so many almonds.

The film proceeds from that premise in typical documentary style, from alarming factoid to alarmist interpretation, to persuade us that the bees are in peril, that we caused it, and that we can do something about it if we care enough and if we develop an enlightened perspective. (You can sense my caveat, I bet.)

The film is not objective (but I didn’t want it to be) or balanced (and I was grateful that it took a stand), and it wafts into philosophy and mysticism without warning (which is my own proclivity, as well.) It is a position statement and a rallying cry – and as such it succeeds. I am not sure there is an anti-honey bee statement to be made. Still, the commercial beekeepers come out looking criminal, interested in the bottom line and next year’s income. The only large-scale beekeeper interviewed is shown saying, “It’s a financial concern. We are in it to make a living.” The issue is clearly more complicated than that. Consumers have to bear some of the culpability for their carefree consumption of monoculture crops – almonds, corn, soybeans.

And the film sidesteps entirely the issue of how bees came to be in this country in the first place. The film’s implication is that we need to get back to a wilder, more natural state in which bees live on their own and pollinate without human interventions. The historical fact is that honey bees were introduced intentionally to this county only in 1622 – it is a glaring omission to ignore the fact that honeybees themselves are an invasive species. There simply are no wild hives in North America. They are all feral and introduced and non-native. The film does not take up this issue, but instead takes for granted that bees are here, for us, and we must be their caretakers.

But in the end, from this reviewer’s perspective, it is a worthy viewing. There are wonderful scenes of deeply connected and charismatic nature activists doing what feeds their souls. There are intriguing philosophical and spiritual digressions, and there is a strong message of human place in nature, not as dominator or manipulator, but as stewards.

And it presents the sexy side of the issue seductively. It is easy to get on board with this cause and to feel good about doing your part for a fuzzy, softly buzzing insect that frequents flowers and makes something as sweet and sensuous as honey – sometimes stinging when we misstep in its presence but giving up its life in the gesture. As one student remarked in the afterglow of the film last night, “I think I’m going to get a hive.”

Why Go Outside?

This short speech I delivered recently to the Marin Academy campus community as part of an all-school assembly.  It was a small part of a larger effort to promote MA Outings and the value of getting outside, but it figured prominently in the program, was requested by students, and I was proud to address my colleagues and students in this manner.  Other than my meager contribution, the entirety of the assembly was organized and presented by the committed and enthusiastic students of the Marin Academy Outdoor Leadership Emphasis (OLE).  It was impressive to witness these students owning their experience outdoors and promoting something they believe in to their community.

I have always wanted to quote Thoreau to my colleagues – one more thing I can check of my must-do list.  The speech went something like this:

Why go outside?  Some wonder: why do we do it?

Why have outings?  Why hike in the mountains?  Why go SCUBA diving?  Or snow camping?  Or kayaking – when there is so much good stuff to do – inside.

Why learn to surf?  Or climb rocks?  Or hike in the desert?  Or dive for abalone?  These things are hard – and they can be scary.  I can fall and get hurt, and I like to play it safe. So why do it?

And why spend the time and energy to learn the skills that these activities require?  Why learn to identify a wild mushroom?  Or the print of a coyote?  Or the call of Red-Tailed hawk?  These things take time.  And I don’t have a lot of time.  I have things to do.  Homework.  Emails.  Staying current.

So why do it?  Why go outside – to spend time I don’t really have – to do things that are hard and possibly unsafe?

It is not an easy question to answer.  Not really.  Not today.  Not for us living in a day and age in which we define progress as technological advancements in the art and science of  – standing still.  Think about it.  If we were to catalog all of the major technological advancements of the 20th century – and if you were asked to identify the one distinguishing feature common to them all – you would have to say that 20th century technology gave us a greater and greater ability to be less and less active.  20th century technology gave us the ability to produce more by doing less.

The radio, the telephone, air conditioning, light bulbs, the automobile, the airplane, instant coffee, television, the yo-yo, the parking meter, drive in movie theaters, the photocopier, the microwave oven, fast food, Velcro, cake mix, super glue, the credit card, the VCR, the integrated circuit, the microchip, the calculator, post-it notes, the lap top computer, cell phones, the internet, email, the tablet computer.  All came about in the 20th century in the pursuit of productivity – and all require almost no effort to use.  Progress is in some way defined by how little effort is required to produce a product or an effect.

What does progress in this light do to our sense of self-efficacy, our physical sense of our bodies existing in the world by the effect they have on our surroundings?  Do I exist in any meaningful way in the world if my body does not exist in an efficacious physical relationship with its surroundings?  Consider it?  How do you know you exist except by your effect on your surroundings?

You know, I spend a lot of time in the Outings Office – which is adjacent to the Science office.  My desk is not 35 linear feet from the desk of my good friend and colleague John Hicks.  And yet, more times than I care to own right now I have picked up my phone, which is within arms reach of the chair in which I sit, and I have dialed extension 274 – which is the numerical identifier of the phone which sits on the desk of my good friend and colleague John Hicks.  Why?  Why do I call instead of taking myself on a short jaunt into the Science Office to speak to my good friend and colleague John Hicks?  Because it is easier, it is quicker, and I don’t have to go outside to do it.  Of course, right?  No.

It is not a matter of course.  In fact, it is inconceivable, because it is not easier.  Not in the long view.  I memorized John’s extension.  Okay.  Not hard, right?  What is it again?  Right.  272.  And to do that I had to print out the Voicemail Extensions list – think: printer – manufacturing, shipping, diesel, electricity, ink, paper – I had to find his extension listed there – think about all that went into creating that list and the need for it – all those extensions, and all the work that goes into assigning them, reassigning them, and sending out electronic copies of updated versions – and then I pushed some buttons on my phone that elicited a few sounds from that device and I waited to hear John’s voice – think about what goes into that.  Yes, you get the idea.  Is technology of this kind really easier?  Or does it merely duplicate simpler existing techniques?

It is not easier or quicker to stay still and develop a dependence on technology.  Technology has done some wonderful things, of course  look at us here, now, inside this gym with heat and lights and a microphone and – but a dependence on technology is an addiction like any other.

For one thing humans grew up outdoors, understanding ourselves in relation to the natural world of physical things.  Real things.   Our brains evolved in response to outdoor challenges and we developed the ability to make meaning in natural settings.  Real is still more meaningful and more salubrious to us than virtual – and we can tell the difference because we are human and we are alive.  Nature – and its physicality – makes sense to us on a very deep level.

And the inverse is also true.  We make sense to ourselves in nature.  Nature doesn’t lie to us.  It doesn’t sugar coat the truth and it doesn’t respond one way or the other to the stories we tell it about ourselves.  It’s neither impressed with our successes, nor is it disappointed with our failures.  Nature is impervious to charm and wit and spin and elocution.  And yet, it speaks to us.  Every time we grow hungry, thirsty, sleepy, weary, or cold our deep and true selves are in dialogue with nature.  Even if we aren’t listening.  Nature reminds us in the language of our native tongue of the rules we must live by, the boundaries of our existence, and the limitations of our physical being.  Nature defines us.

So why go outside – to spend time – doing things we find challenging?  Because we are alive, because we are human, and because being alive means something by our relationships with the physical world.

But don’t take my word for it – I might just be nuts.  Listen to your self.  Listen to your peers.  And listen to our old friend Henry David Thoreau from the second chapter of Walden.  Listen to how many time he uses the word life – and live:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Marin Academy – I invite you – I encourage you – I implore you.  Get outside and into your next excursion.

Change by Necessity or Faith

“Sometimes … reaching your Element requires devising creative solutions to strong limitations.  Sometimes … it means maintaining a vision in the face of vicious resistance.  And sometimes … it means walking away from  the life you’ve known to find an environment more suited to your growth.

“Ultimately, the question is always going to be, ‘What price are you willing to pay?’  The rewards of the Element are considerable, but reaping these rewards may mean pushing back against some stiff opposition.”

Sir Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Viking, p155.

Not just throw-away advice, it seems to me, although, unfortunately it has the ring of platitude.  In fact, I think all great advances, in whatever field and whatever context, were revolutionary – tending to turn things around or upside down, demanding sacrifices and causing anxiety.

What’s deceptive about Sir Ken’s words, what seems platitudinous is how easy it is to accept in hindsight.  The “of course” factor is huge, as it is in all platitudes.  But there is no “of course” when you are turning your world upside down, swimming up stream, making sacrifices, and causing anxiety.  There is no “of course” in the moment.  Still, that is what people tend to say.  “Of course, it was hard.  Of course, there were sacrifices.  That is part of the deal.”  But that belies the severity, the pain, and the difficulty experienced.  The great and noble stories unto myths we pass around the family of relatives who gave up everything to follow a dream, uprooted their families to reinvent their lives, faced the fear of failure for the chance to greater success, don’t include the reality of the pain, don’t allow the experience of the anxiety and the difficulty.  What we experience in stories like that is the the inspiration and the success.  As if the price paid for change is somehow a little less relevant.

And it is so much easier to go with the flow, to make lemonade, to take it easy.  But those aren’t the stories we tell.  The story of uncle so-and-so who “was never particularly satisfied with his lot in life, but he made it work.  Day in and day out he just got along, kept on.  Sure, somewhere deep down he had something like passion, a dream that he always said he couldn’t remember, but what he was really good at was going with the flow, taking it easy, playing it safe.”  We don’t tell that story – because success depends on adversity.

Weird, eh?  Why should that be?

And great advances are always perpetrated out of necessity, not luxury or privilege.  It is too hard to swim upstream – unless you have to, unless there is no other option.  Think of pacific salmon that die after struggling to invent the next generation.  (And listen to the inspiration in that: struggling to invent the next generation.  It gives you chills.  But I wonder whether if the salmon had a choice, they still do it?  Would they still swim up stream?)

Looking back we say it was all worth it, but in the moment, how can we know?  We can’t.  In the moment, we trust.  Change requires either necessity or faith – which is belief without support, believing in something despite the evidence (not purposefully believing in something that is contradicted by evidence – some people do that and that practice is perverse.)  But, you don’t always need evidence to know something is true.  Or right.  Or apt.  Or necessary.  That’s intuition.  And as the poet Rumi says, “There are many ways of knowing.”

A Landscape of Sound

These Eastern Woods, pine and hemlock, maple and birch, are a place of sound.  I am habituated to depend on my eyes – as are most of us, I believe – but this place is so full of ambient sound that if I were deprived of my sight, somehow prevented from sensing with my eyes, I feel sure this place would come alive for me through sound.

In fact, I have found, puttering around this stout cabin, these shady lands, that in this place hearing is more keen than eyesight.  How often I have heard a whistling birdsong or the echoing knock of a woodpecker – and not seen its maker!  When I can’t see, I can still know.

Two days ago an enormous crack split the woods, a precipitous sound both startling and exciting.  I was inside but I heard it plainly.  Then, following close, the wrenching sound of falling, the breaking of branches and the upheaval of earth.  It all culminated in a booming thump and crash that seemed to roll through the woods like thunder, lingering in the air and falling off slowly.  The lasting reverberations I felt more than heard.

(When a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound.  Be sure of that.  Sorry.  Couldn’t resist.)

My first thought was of the kids and I hurried out to the front porch.  I didn’t know where they were at that moment and for all their scampering and knocking about in the woods, I thought it could have been them pushing over a tree. (!)  An absurd thought it was and easily dispelled.  The kids, of course, were safely perched on their favorite boulder and just as rapt by the sound as I.  They sat there, all three, frozen where they had been when the first crack sounded, staring off through the timber with wide eyes.

“Did you see it?” I called to them.

They hadn’t.  “It was over there!”  They all pointed.

“What was it?” my youngest said.

The instinct to look for what one hears is not mysterious.  With just a few notions – evolution, self preservation, natural selection – it is easy to see, so to speak, why we do it.

But much goes on in the woods that I hear and never see, and my world, the suburban world of career and commute, is seldom so invisible.  It is disconcerting at first to be so suddenly reacquainted with the significance of sound.  But it is a necessary upset.  It is disconcerting in the way one knows one needs to be disconcerted, a healthy kind of growth.

It is like recovering from an injury I didn’t know I had sustained, learning to hear again.  I didn’t know, wasn’t aware, that I was slowly going deaf.  Like seeing through prescription lenses for the first time – I hadn’t known what I wasn’t seeing.

Ultimately, the desire to see is too strong, the spectacle is irresistible.  Later that afternoon, we all went to investigate the epicenter.  A large white birch, having grown over the years on a bending angle in search of light, now lay in an awkward sprawl across the road to the upper header.  It had taken with it two other trees, both small hemlocks.  We stood and surveyed the scene.  The ground uphill where the tree had stood and the roots had broken was a chaos, like a bomb crater, stones and soil, moss and roots still hanging in the air.  The heavy trunk lay where it had landed, ponderously inert in the deep rut it tore in the ground.  You could almost hear the reverberant thud all over again.

“Wow!” my youngest said.  It was all any of us could say.

The acoustics of this sylvan venue, this landscape of sound, are astounding, enviable for any theatre, lecture hall, or symphony space – because the woods are, of course, all of those things.  But the imagination is always second to the real thing.  A live encounter always requires actually being there.