Moving Toward Complex Thinking and Transdisciplinary Approaches in Education (pt 1) #change11

I re-read a July 4, 2011, column by William Irwin Thompson, called “Can We Shift from Empire Back to Republic?” and was reminded, as I so often am in reading Thompson, how there are very few functional metaphors to explain complex problems. Thompson, however, has a good one.

We live in a culture that pits left against right, good against evil, believer against non-believer, capitalist against socialist, Coke against Pepsi, and so on, in a winner-take-all smackdown. Reality is, of course, not so simple. Thompson writes:

Culture is a complex dynamical system and is not a political or religious ideology, so what is required in this planetary transformation is an understanding of planetary dynamics in the interlocking exchanges of atmosphere, ocean, and continent. Science left to itself can become authoritarian and tyrannical; religion left to itself can become genocidal, and art left to itself can become narcissistic. What is needed is the triple description of these three different and independent cognitive domains, a triple circularity that is presented to us in the dynamics of atmosphere, ocean, and continent.

Bingo. Culture is not a war. There is no us against them. The planet recognizes such battles as sideshows. To say religion is pitted against science is like saying the Colorado River is pitted against the Grand Canyon. Can you declare a winner?

I think it’s also helpful to start thinking in three’s instead of the usual Manichean dualism standard in most Western ideology. When at least three forces are at play, head-to-head battle is less impossible. Instead, a system emerges, a cycle forms. (In a relatively small example, compare England’s last election to America’s upcoming race. With three in the running, new combinations and positions emerge; more people are represented; nuance is possible, though I’m not sure the results were much better.)

Thompson uses the atmosphere, oceans, and the continents as a kind of metaphorical map for what a new complex mode of thought might look like. (He’s also being literal with his choice of images, since he argues that actual ecological preservation will be critical to our survival, and that we must learn to honor the planet’s “wish” to remain in symbiotic stasis.) Because oceans wear on continents, continents drift into oceans, and the atmosphere interacts with them both, it is impossible to isolate, praise, and/or blame one phenomena when seeking to analyze and fix some global problem. Certainly, the same is true of ecosystems, weather systems, markets, and organisms.

But, less literally, Thompson is referring to the impossibility of reducing the complexities of reality down to simple, competing ideologies, and then choosing a side and seeking to extinguish your foe. That would be like trying to sop up the ocean with the beach. In a complex dynamical system, the only “evil” is failure to perceive the nature of complexity, and even then, doing so it isn’t evil. The worldview that lacks a complex understanding of things is just one more component in the dynamic, multi-faceted system. It isn’t wrong, per say, just partial. It should be noted, however, that many problems, some of which are often tagged as evil, are the result of ideological thinkers who cling to narrow depictions of reality which favor atmosphere over ocean, so to speak.

If you’re interested in solving Earth’s greatest problems, complex thinking is a necessity. If you’d like to try your hand at something less daunting, like a creating a literary revolution, you’ll need to tap into complexity as well, consciously or unconsciously. Hear’s a brief example:

Who created the Beat Generation?

A simple answer might be “Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs.” This answer, however, ignores the formalist poetic establishment the Beats were working against, the Post War economics that provided both the means for rebellious written expression (expanded highways, leisure time, type writers and tape recorders) and the material to rebel against (the bomb, conformity, The Cold War), as well as the long trail of literary influences who preceded the Beats (their influences tended toward Romantic, Mystical, and Eastern writers). The Beat movement was not so much an intentional creation as it was an emergent phenomena that must be looked at through many different lenses in order to be explained: literary, historical, economic, psychological, and so on.

Ultimately, I think this way of thinking demands a shift to a transdisciplinary approach to education, one where departments no longer work in isolation from one another. A great voice on this subject is Alfonso Montuori, Professor of Transformative Studies at Californian Institute of Integral Studies. In an interview with Russ Volckmann, he explains the dilemma of bringing transdisciplinary approaches to higher education:

When you look at the organization of both universities and the organization of thinking, there are interesting architectural parallels. When you look at the university, you have these different departments usually housed in different buildings. Disciplines have all these different branches. Knowledge is reduced to finer and finer levels of granularity. That’s a reflection of the way we were traditionally taught to think—by reducing and isolating and getting down to the smallest variable—the logic of either/or until you reach the bottom. The university is the concretization and institutionalization of a certain way of thinking. So for transdisciplinary work, you have to learn how to contextualize and connect. That’s originally what systems theory was attempting to do.

In reality, there are no fine boundaries between science and writing, between physical education and physics, math and music. In the university, they generally erect brick walls around their disciplines.

Why I No Longer Eat Cephalopods

If You Want to be Enlightened You Should Look Up Right Now!

Three-quarters of all enlightenment experiences occurred after glances upward at the sky (not actual statistic!) It happened to the Buddha, the sky waiting patiently while he struggled under the bodhi tree, needlessly attached to the earth and its seasonal visions of suffering and death. Ego, please be gone, but first, let me check the alignment of the stars, and….bam! This is due to the different regions of the brain, James H. Austin tells us, and is a physiological phenomenon associated with the brain’s capacity to visualize more effectively while the eyes are looking upward. Looking down, on the other hand, underwrites the trenchant penchant for singular focus and language. Van Gogh knew this, too, when he painted the sky as alive (but his story ended with a different kind of ego death), and so did Sri Ramakrishna, who looked up and saw white geese angling across a background of black clouds, and he melted, faster perhaps, than do the substances of this world.

Making the Beast with Two Backs

In Othello, Act 1, Scene 1, Iago uses the phrases “making the beast with two backs” to refer to Othello and Desdemona making love.

In Shakespeare’s time, “making the beast with two backs” would have been a slang or street term for sex, much like “doing the nasty,” “making whoopy” or “the horizontal hokey-pokey.” I’m sure we could play this game all day.

Shakespeare used slang, idioms, fun phrases, as well as what we might call poetic language and certainly his own coinages.

Start to pay attention (maybe you already do) to the kinds of language and phrasings you use at home, in the office, at the bar, etc. Our everyday speech is filled with such bursts of poetry.

Things like: “Three sheets to the wind” or “I turned beet red.” And so on.

In Act 1, Scene 1, Brabantio says “O heaven! How got she out? O treason of the blood!”

This could be, “Oh my God! How could she stab me in the back like that!”

Notice how “stab me in the back” is a common phrase, but also a metaphor. “Treason of the blood” might have been a familiar phrase to Shakespeare, but it’s not to us. Also, we don’t tend to say “O heaven!” but say “Oh my God!” or “OMG!” all the time.

In Act 1, Scene 2, Iago begins planting seeds of doubt into Othello’s mind by telling him that Brabantio “spoke such scurvy and provoking terms against your honor.” Scurvy was, of course, a disease Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized. England’s growing merchant class would have been familiar with sailor’s battling scurvy on the high seas. Of course “speaking scurvy” means little to us today. It might be translated as “talking smack” or “speaking ill of someone.”

A serious scholar (i.e. not me) might be able to tell you which lines from Shakespeare’s plays are fresh and inventive, and which ones would have been considered ordinary language in the late 16th Century and early 17th. It is, however, a comforting thought for writers that Shakespeare was not 100% Shakespeare. What I mean is that Shakespeare borrowed, absorbed, modified, and plagiarized language from other sources. He also invented. In fact, perhaps we can modify what it means to be a Shakespearean genius, not a pure original genius, but something more like a magpie.

The Official Adventures of Harry McSpears and the Sausage McGriddles of Azkaban: a Remix*

The old scar on his forehead, which was shaped like a bolt of lightning empowers individuals to make informed choices about how to maintain the essential balance between energy intake and energy expenditure.

Harry tried to recall what he had been dreaming about before he had awoken with the key message, “it’s what i eat and what i do … i’m lovin’ it.” And who had the old man been? For there had definitely been an old man.

At once, Hermione Granger’s voice seemed to fill his head, shrill and panicky. “Your scar hurt? Harry, that’s really serious….Understand that to meaningfully inform children we must communicate with them in a fun, age-appropriate way. Write to Professor Dumbledore!”

But what would he write?

We are all lights of the world and we all need to continuously inspire others and look to the higher power. You are all in my prayers. God speed. Love, Britney.

Even inside his head the words sounded stupid.

And so he tried to imagine his other best friend, Ron Weasley’s, reaction, and in a moment, Ron’s red hair and long-nosed freckled face seemed to swim in partially hydrogenated soybean oil.

“Your scar hurt? But what if I have a friend who is also a member and we both order tickets, can we sit together? I mean…you’d know, wouldn’t you? I’ll ask Dad.”

Mr. Weasley was a fully qualified wizard who worked in the Ministry of Swamp Sludge McFlurry, but he didn’t have any particular expertise in the matter of Minty Mudd Bath Triple Thick Shakes.

In any case, Harry didn’t like the idea of the whole Weasley family knowing that those found to be taping a live Britney Spears performance will be ejected from the premises. And he somehow didn’t want his visit punctuated with anxious inquiries about tangy warm cilantro-lime glazed chicken.

And then the solution came to him. It was so simple, and so obvious, that he couldn’t believe it had taken so long:

Commercial bootlegs are not only excessively priced and of inferior quality, but primarily, they are illegal! With your help we can stop the flood of illegal recordings and preserve the integrity of Britney Spears’s work. Get snacking now!

Harry leapt up from the bed, hurried across the room, and sat down at his desk:

Dear Professor,

Can you give me the nutritional information for one of my favorite McDonald’s USA menu items? Dudley’s diet isn’t going too well. Working with his suppliers, he airlifted sandwiches to volunteers in the field. The package includes a fold-out poster of Britney inside

From The Bottom Of My Broken Heart,


Yes, thought Harry, that looked all right. There was no point in putting in the dream. He didn’t want to look as though he was derived from testing conducted in accredited laboratories. Without glancing at his cinnamon melts, he started to get dressed before going down to freshly-prepared Sausage McGriddles.

*This piece is simply a collage of actual text taken from a Harry Potter novel and the respective websites of McDonald’s and Britney Spears.