Monday, May 23, 2011

We Are Too Full with Knowing

A Walk Through the Woods (5.23.11)
I believe in rituals.

For a long time, each spring I would reread Thoreau's Walden I found it reconnected me to self and other in ways often necessary after a long winter in the Northeast. Sometime between December and May I had forgotten the most fundamental of things: how to breathe.

I have neglected reading Walden in recent years, hurrying about as if the work at hand might be better shaped through frantic pace.  I was feeling all of this today as I made my way to work, wondering not for the first time, what is it that I do and is it worth what it takes.  It was as if I saw school for the first time, wondering how Richard Elmore might see it: With indifference? With certain clarity?  It caused me to pause, remember what my first years of teaching were like and how privileged in many ways those days were before the advent of external and national Standards and with them all the rush, rush, rush to perfection.

Today I asked a group of senior students which was more beautiful: perfection or imperfection. They were discussing ethical implications of cloning and it had me wondering why we find ever newer ways to shun our humanness, our imperfections. I was thinking of being married, of being a mom and how I have learned that I will never be perfect as either and how hard it is nonetheless to not expect an idealized version of love in return.

I thought about this as I listened to this group of students discuss their views-- their partial understandings.  How can you know at 17 that love will always disappoint and that it is in the disappointment that its beauty will be so clear?  

What do we teach at school and how essential is what we teach?  Much of what I read in the Common Core Standards feels inconsequential to me, quite frankly rather unimportant.  I mean just how important is it for 10- or 11-year-olds to type three pages on a computer "in one sitting"? Is this essential? Is this even worthy of our time, our children's attention? Where in the Standards does it say that students need to know that perfection has been oversold; that imperfection is beautiful?...That the way home is often not direct and that we may be the better for it?

A Bend in the River (5.23.11)

It was with such thinking that I made my way home and was hardly surprised by my sudden decision to pull to the road side and take a walk through the woods.  Yes it was misting, perhaps some might characterize it as drizzle or light rain, but it fell with such aimlessness and I thought there's a message here I need to feel, to hear.  Deep breaths of rain and spring must be good. A restorative perhaps?

The woods were wet, filled with fog and empty of people.  And surely the hour I spent there was a baptism of sorts.
Summer Waits

I walked mostly on paths I had not known before, with my camera in hand and thought is there nothing lovelier than a feeling of being lost? I stopped thinking and lifted the camera to make images and now and then I put the camera down knowing no image could be made.  It was this lovely bit of tension between making and being that steadied me, reminded me that art and living are not separate breaths I take.

Later, I began to read Walden and stopped in the second chapter when I read:
I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet.

It is in what I do not know that I make art.  I have searched the Standards and cannot seem to find this elemental truth.

Sadly, I think, we are too full with knowing.


  1. A couple of years back I was visiting Big Picture schools in California and was talking with an advisor about his class. He spoke about a girl who had dropped out of mainstream high school and came to his Big Picture school so she could get back into learning around her interests.
    However for the first couple of years she barely did any work and was close to being asked to leave a number of times as on the surface it looked like the school did not suit her.
    All of a sudden after a successful internship she turned the corner, was motivated, and was then committed to her work.
    At the end of her 4 years she made the comment at her graduation that for the first couple of years at the school, when she was doing no work to speak of, she was learning to "breathe" again.
    At a school that allowed her to take her time, find her interests/passion and find what it means to take ownership of her own learning, she was able to find herself, be herself...and breathe.

  2. A powerful story and one that motivates me to take the chance I think I need t take and begin a school where breathing is permitted, necessary. When I worked towards my doctorate I recall handing in the same work for multiple classes which was not only permitted but thought to be a wise decision. In many schools where I have worked, such practice might be considered cheating.

    We need to be less about schooling and more about learning.

    Thanks for posting the comment. Appreciated it.

  3. Hearing about your experience today made me reflect on an idea about learning, humility and liminality that's been preoccupying my thoughts in personal learning and designing learning strategies since last December.

    This poem by Sharlande Sledge posits it well:

    “Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
    Both seen and unseen,
    Where the door between the world
    And the next is cracked open for a moment
    And the light is not all on the other side.
    God shaped space. Holy.

    On a personal level, I understand learning to be about acknowledging and privileging my own humility and vulnerability. I think it's about knowing that I *don't* know and taking steps into the unknown that I create myself further. And when I delve into a deep learning experience, that momentary recognition of entering into a "thin place" - to be engrossed in the flow of learning that liminality of the experience comes to the fore.

    We learn so much through subconscious mechanisms aside from the obvious "old-school" approach of having knowledge poured into our heads. Learning only "clicks" for me when there's an integration of the subliminal & liminal thinking - often times there are weeks or months of delay while something mysterious happens in my head that connects it together. Foregrounding "knowledge & skills" to be acquired by rote in a traditional schooling model seems to be neither subliminal or liminal - rather an exercise in poor implementation with poor results. What qualifies as "perfection" in the trad model? To be full of knowing? How do we approach engendering and developing wisdom?

    Thank you for your words Mary Ann. Very thought provoking as always. Very much appreciated.

    - Ian

  4. Ian,

    Thank you so much for your insightful comments. Samhain (thin place) has always been of interest to me and I had not thought of it in light of the thinking I have been doing about knowing and unknowing. It opens so many possibilities though.

    - Mary Ann