4 Quotations on the Present Dilemma in Online Education

“If I were to compare this time in MOOC development to internet search, Alta Vista just got invented — Google hasn’t even arrived yet. This is still so early.”
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, April 2013

“When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rearview mirror. We march backwards into the future. Suburbia lives imaginatively in Bonanza-land.” (p. 74-75) McLuhan, M. (1967). The Medium Is the Message: An Inventory of Effects. Berkeley: Gingko Press.

Dabbagh and Bannan-Ritland (2005) “The Creation process for online course content is often perceived to be the direct transfer or copying of traditional curricular material to the Web with little or no modification.” (qtd in Designing Effective Online Instruction)

“Much technology use in education uses new tools to largely replicate learning models of the past.” David Thornburg, “Learning on the Holodeck” (2010)

Nine Rules for the Education Apocalypse

1. Don’t fear the Apocalypse. Emily Dickinson knew she was in the presence of poetry when she could feel physically the top of her head coming off. This was not a metaphor. It was a mystical experience. Incidentally, the word “apocalypse” (from the Greek apokaluptein) means “revelation,” and more specifically “to uncover,” as in lifting the top of a box. Surprise! It’s a present! Let’s not fear the apocalypse, but instead prepare our education system for transformation. Instead of exams, let’s assess them on whether or not the tops of their heads come off. Education should be about running a more complex, subtle operating system.

2. Suck less. There is this guy with a tug-boat who hauls icebergs from the North Pole to the Middle East to provide fresh water for billions. His job is easier than getting students to learn and getting teachers to teach. You can tug an iceberg to a desert and everyone will drink, but you can’t lead anyone to learning. I have yet to see a so-called education reformer address the fundamental problem with the education system, which is, put succinctly: school sucks. Boredom is the main currency of education, exchanged fluidly between teachers and pupils.

3. Create a new center. Where is the Andy Warhol of education reform, charging way out in front of the generals, the avant-garde? It was Warhol who created a new center out in the margins. He built a new camp that at first looked foolish, laughable, but soon became the new center. Prophecy. Then, after some time, his work became the status quo, until…look…here comes another Andy!

4. Be Useless. In The Idea of a University, Cardinal John Henry Newman creates a distinction between useful and useless knowledge, and then sides mainly with the latter. The Liberal Arts are the useless arts and, therefore, supremely useful. The merely useful fields of study are definitely useful, make no mistake, but they are not nearly useless enough. Chuang Tzu knew this, and so favored the disabled and crooked trees, and generally preferred to drag his tail in the mud rather than coming to court with sage advice for the king. Too few sages make the difficult decision to be useless. Too many decide to be useful, to claim a role in the established drama. Watch out for anyone chasing his destiny, submitting to fate, or following his dreams! Too often people dream of being useful. What’s the use in that? The earth, to pick one example, is completely useless. It doesn’t do anything. It plays a non-zero-sum game, and, even better, it’s totally unaware of itself, or at least can’t be bothered to submit the proper reports. The earth doesn’t care. It treats humanity like a straw dog. It does nothing, endlessly. See that oh-so-exquisite school of fish circling the coral? It dissipates, and then reconstitutes itself into various, ever-changing patterns. Constant adjustment, constant beauty, constant change. This is what we should be teaching our children: how to make beautiful schools. Of course, this requires rules and hard work. But mostly it means being useless and doing nothing.

5. End grades. If we treat students like rubrics, don’t be surprised if all they care about is grades, or, worse yet, don’t care about grades at all. The best students and the worst students are the ones who don’t care about grades. Students are not percentages, points, letters; they are not dollar signs, checked or unchecked boxes on rubrics. They are whole people and will respond as such if you treat them accordingly. A rubric is for a mechanic. This is what’s wrong with your car. This checks out okay. Transaction complete. Let me top off your fluid. If creating life-long learners is what we’re after, then why do we care so much if they get it right at the end of each three-month block? Let’s measure them in thirty years. See how well we did. Assess this: Dharma burning through Karma. Or, “We’ll change your brain, or your money back!” MRI instead of final exam. Replace the scantron with the brain scan.There are no grades in reality. There is only practice. The world is practice. God is practicing right damn now. Hey, Shakespeare, you forgot to finish that subplot with Polonius spying on Laertes in Paris. Minus 10 points on your little Hamlet play. Also, your main character has too many contradictions. Was he insane? Was he faking? It’s really unclear. Plus, I’m pretty sure you plagiarized, Shakespeare. I saw you looking over little Thomas Kyd’s shoulder.

6. Destroy Departments; Kill Majors. The new schools should soften all boundaries between genres, subjects, majors, departments, and degrees and instead orient student energy around direct action, creation, and experiment. The only reform necessary is a release and redistribution of energy. (Education reform! Ha! Was it ever formed to begin with?) The ever-shrinking art, music, physical education problem solved: do them all at once: climb and swing from ropes to splatter paint while listening to music and recording audio and video to edit into a film later. Or else we do all school work while walking 2.2. miles-per-hour on treadmills, ala Brain Rules by John Medina. Walking and writing. Perfect. Word art! Large scale installation art work made of language, maybe heavy-lifting in there, too. Let’s throw all subjects together! Science and Home Economics and History, study the chemical composition of food and the history and culture of dishes and cuisines. History, Literature, Religion, Philosophy, Psychology, Astrobiology, Evolution….these are not separate subjects. Never could be. The inventor of the concept of “bits” thought of himself as neither physicist nor engineer. The writings of Emerson are neither essays, sermons, or in line with normative categories of literature we might use to partition a syllabus: poem, play, fiction, non-fiction. What was Teilhard deChardin writing? You might find him in the bookstore under philosophy, religion, paleontology? Joseph Campbell? Marshall McLuhan? Bucky Fuller? There is nothing liberal about partitioning knowledge into categories or majors. The globe cannot be divided into majors and minors, so neither can its consciousness. The university is the globe’s consciousness. Not, “What’s your major?” but what are you working on, thinking about, advocating, becoming? Not, “Where are you from?” but “Who are you now?” In order to change schools, you would have to change yourself, and no one wants that. Socrates, at the beginning of Western Education, said, “Know Thyself!” and still, we do not listen.

7. No classrooms! Learning is the goal. Who cares the vehicle? As soon as you set the times for a class period, you kill learning, which does not occur in 50 minutes chunks at the appointed time. In school, out of school. In class, after class. Such ridiculous boundaries. Education has a design problem. Create whole learning environments, entire learning communities (not just like two classes jammed together for 6 credits.) I mean a whole learning world. Does the Internet exist? I mean, if the internet is everywhere, it is nowhere. It just is. If it’s in our cars, phones, brains, then it is an extension of life as we know it. Same for education, same then doubly of online education. It should be called just education, and then, not even that. There is no classroom, never was—don’t go to class—you are the classroom, the pupil, the teacher, the world, the universe, basic human consciousness is the university. The university is nowhere and everywhere or else its center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. I forget which one.

8. No more hoops and papers! Jump through the hoop! Get the piece of paper! No, let’s paper over the hoop and at least make them crash through it. Or shrink the hoop! Maybe expand its circumference beyond detection. Make the center of the hoop everywhere, the circumference nowhere! If you get your piece of paper, you will be prepared, at least, for the coming fascist onslaught. (Show me your papers!) If the paper is what matters, than the trappings of education matter. The book itself matters more than the content, more than the act of reading. Book as bludgeoning device. There is no teachable moment, only one continuous mistake. Shikanza, shikanza. Your assignment for next time: Build a new planet from scratch with your hands.

9. Charter for a New University (Based on Mirra Alfassa’s Auroville Charter)

—The university belongs to nobody in particular. It belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in the University, one must be the willing servitor of the Global Consciousness.

—The university will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress and a youth that never ages.

—The university wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, the University will boldly spring toward the future realization.

—The University will be a site of material and spiritual research for a living embodiment of an actual human unity.

The Teaching-Learning Paradox Revisited (Part 1)

A simple syllogism to begin:

1. All people are ideologues*.

2. Teachers are people.

3. You know what goes here.

If you reject the premise, you probably want to stop reading. You are the problem.

If you accept the premise, you also probably want to stop reading. Some unpleasantness flows from it.

There is a secret that snakes through the history of education research. In fact, it’s not even a snake. A snake could easily slip into the rushes and go unnoticed. What I’m writing about looks more like a roaring springtime river bloated with snowmelt. Don’t fall in.


In their 1968 study The Teaching-Learning Paradox: A Comparative Analysis of College Teaching Methods, Robert Dubin and Thomas C. Taveggia analyze 40 years of research comparing the effectiveness of a range of college teaching methods, including lecture, discussion, tutorials, independent study, small group work, and TV courses (1968’s equivalent of online education). Their book can be summarized in two words: “No Difference.”

Dubin and Taveggia poured over the data of nearly 100 studies that compare teaching methods by using final examinations as dependent variables (a potential weakness I’ll discuss later). What they found should be disturbing to any instructor who has ever flown the flag for a particular teaching method, for example, favoring small group work over lectures.**

They repeat their conclusions frequently throughout the 86-page study, anticipating, rightly, that no one would listen:

In the foregoing paragraphs we have reported the results of a reanalysis of the data from 91 comparative studies of college teaching technologies conducted between 1924 and 1965. These data demonstrate clearly and unequivocally that there is no measurable difference among truly distinctive methods of college instruction when evaluated by student performance on final examinations. (35)

Lecture? Lecture plus discussion? Small group work? One-one-one tutorials? Self-directed independent study.

No difference. Regardless of method, students will earn the same grade on the final examination.

Rubin and Taveggia also compared small classes with large classes, as well as so-called instructor-centered vs. student-centered classrooms (a bizarre, Orwellian construct if I’ve ever heard one. More on that in future installments.)

No difference.

Just to repeat: When measuring the performance on college final examinations, lecturing is no worse or better than other methods (despite the lecture’s oh-so authoritarian overtones). In fact, it does not matter one whit which teaching method is employed.

Sure, 1968 is a long time ago, but The Teaching-Learning Paradox has been cited over 200 times since then, and there is widespread agreement on its conclusions. Medical educators seem particularly drawn to (and perhaps repulsed by) its conclusions. This is unsurprising given the importance of final exams in medical school, and the heavy content-knowledge required to become a medical professional (again, Rubin and Taveggia are measuring the kind of end-of-semester knowledge acquisition that many of us may find limiting).

Olle Ten Cate, a medical school professor and former president of the Netherlands Association for Medical Education, published an article in 2001 called “What Happens to the Student? The Neglected Variable in Educational Outcome Research” that is largely a response to the problem presented by Rubin and Taveggia. Ten Cate summarizes the problem (and the accompanying feeling of frustration). He also, however, begins searching for a way around the paradox:

Yet, is it conceivable that there really is no difference in the effects of such different treatments in education? How can we sustain the idea that systematically different educational approaches, not during one hour, not a day, or a week, but during four or six full years and thousands of hours of ‘experimental treatment’, will show hardly any measurable differential effect other than student opinion? (83)

He also points to the money that is being wasted on such studies, since it has been clear for decades that the overall conclusion is “No Difference.”

If we put so much money, time and energy in such huge curriculum experiments, some day the community might not remain satisfied with the consistent finding of ‘no difference’.

You could easily connect the conclusions of The Teaching-Learning Paradox to today’s hot teaching technology, online education. A 2009 meta-analysis of online education by the U.S. Department of Education showed no significant differences in the learning outcomes of three different teaching “mediums” (online, web-blended, and face-to-face). The study’s conclusions claim that blended students performed “modestly better,” but if you dig into the study a bit more, it stipulates that “the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium,” only that many of these course required more from students and instructors and “It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages.”

This lines up nicely with Dubin and Taveggia’s conclusions. If I can take some liberties here and subvert Marshall McLuhan, it’s the message, not the medium.

In fact, as Dubin and Taveggia note, there are only two factors that are consistent in all 91 studies they analyzed: students enrolled in a course, and each course featured a textbook. Lecture at them. Make them watch you on TV. Make them do the work on their own. Make them log into a website. Tutor them.

As long as they are enrolled in your course and reading a textbook……

You guessed it:  No Difference!


Are you drowning yet? Rethinking your teaching method? Wondering whether or not this huge push for more interactive, student-centered learning environments (think ice-breakers, small group work, group projects, student agency, one-one-sessions) has been a complete waste of time?

Well, yes. Yes it has.

That is, if your central goal is to deliver content. The evidence seems clear. At the end of the semester, students will know about the same amount of stuff regardless of teaching method***. Read The Teaching-Learning Paradox and then sit through some faculty training on how to engage students. If you’re not furious, you can’t do math. Dubin and Taveggia’s work is lucid and straightforward, and seems to be supported with each new study on teaching methods. If your goal is for your students to obtain content knowledge by the end of the semester, you should be in open revolt against anyone who suggests that one teaching method is superior to another. It simply isn’t true.


What if content delivery isn’t your ultimate goal? And what might Rubin and Taveggia be leaving out? In future posts, I will consider other studies and books that present the issue from a slightly different angle. For now, let me return to Ten Cate’s paper for some possible solutions. First, he provides a potentially depressing anecdote that (after some reflection) presents a way forward from The Teaching-Learning Morass:

Some call it the VanderBlij Effect, after the Dutch math professor who delivered remarkably clear lectures. However, students attending his lectures usually received lower grades at the test than those who had not attended his teaching. The latter were forced to study so hard to master the material that they really grasped it. But the effect we are discussing may affect students in both groups.

Oh my. Even skilled teachers are wasting their time? This story actually offers an important (and hopeful) truth: authentic student-centered environments (and student effort and study time) can have an impact. In fact, this was the only thing that Rubin and Taveggia found that did make a difference:

We found two studies in, the literature which compared some form of study with no study and evaluated their respective outcomes on examinations covering ability to recall or prove knowledge of course content.These studies had a total of six comparisons between groups of students who studied and those who did not, all of which were independent comparisons. The results are significantly in favor of study. (26)

The grand irony of many so-called student-centered learning strategies is that they are just more instructor-centered strategies in disguise. It’s the soft authoritarianism of ceding control.  Above, we find that if students actually take their learning into their own hands, it can make a difference. It seems to be the only thing that does. As one of my colleagues says, “I don’t teach no one nothing.”

The lesson of The Teaching-Learning Paradox is that if instructors apply their own methods (whether instructor-centered or student-centered) it will not make a difference. Hence, Ten Cate’s question, “What Happens to the Student?” He claims that the studies Rubin and Taveggia analyzed (and almost all subsequent studies that support their conclusions) have three massive flaws: First, they confuse an independent variable for a dependent variable. That is, the results of a final examination are not really the result of the teaching method, they are an extension of it. This is why, potentially, all of the final exam results do not vary. Second, these studies are not truly blind, and can never be. If they students know they are being taught, they will act differently. Third, the effects on the student are not being measured. Is education simply about inputs and outputs? Is it merely about transferring knowledge? Shouldn’t we be looking for models that measure the effects on student behavior, which is, ultimately the one factor that can make a difference, if we extrapolate from the above mentioned studies on “studying,” and on the true meaning of the VanderBlij Effect?

Maybe The Teaching-Learning Paradox does not present a paradox after all. It might simply be an infinite regress. When the twin mirrors of content delivery and final examination are made to face one another, you get a perfect, endless, pointless reflection.


*Perhaps I’m abusing this term. I simply mean that everyone operates from within a particular perspective or set of perspectives, and that we often, consciously or not, make judgments about the world based on assumptions that our perspectives are superior to others. I’m doing it right now. One purpose of this blog post is to point out that educators often charge forth into the classroom under the assumption that their methods of instruction (whether cutting edge or traditional) are the most effective ones available. Evidence to support such claims does not exist.

**The results of the study hold true for different mixtures of methods, such as combing lecture, discussion, and small group work.

*** Later, I hope to discuss the difference between “teaching method” and “teaching style.” I will also discuss some more recent cognitive research. It may well be that “style” is another “method,” and that style will also make “no difference.” I hope not.

Oral Literature (Part 1)

I made another video attempting to follower the “vlogger” approach (see my previous two posts). This is the first part of a two-part series on Oral Literature as it applies to my Mythology course.

Vlog Your Children Well

Below is my attempt to create an online lecture based on the advice given by Tad Suiter in the video I posted here. Essentially, by learning from the style of effective vloggers, Suiter recommends to create short videos (3-7 minutes) characterized by a style of fast-talking, high energy, and jump cuts to eliminate wasted time and space.

Basically, get in their face and engage them.

I’ve also included pictures, visuals, and some text. It’s a little long at 9:42, but as the opening lecture, I had some key definitions and concepts to cover. I think I can break it down some more.

Also, I’m still not comfortable editing in Camtasia yet, and some pictures move around a bit. I have a lot to improve (including higher energy levels, quicker cuts, more succinct delivery and outlining), but feel I’m heading in the right direction. Thanks, Tad!

Watch “Re-inventing the Lecture (Or, Why Online Lectures Don’t Work, and What We Can Do About It)” on YouTube

Should Only Rock Stars Make Online Lectures?

After reading David Byrne’s recent ode to Iowa (in which he recounts the state’s socialist utopian roots and observes that Iowa “may not be cool, but it might be beyond cool. Here among the winding creeks and fields of corn they may have arrived at some kind of secret satisfaction”), I went looking for more wisdom from the former Talking Heads musician and found his TED talk (which was thankfully decidedly un-TED. By that I mean it wasn’t a breathless, triumphant paean to the coming salvation of our digital overlords).

In fact, Bryne’s presentation is quite understated. He only makes one simple point: the evolution of music can be tied to architecture of performance venues.

This sound obvious, but it carries immense implications, essentially undermining the Romantic notion of creativity’s emergence from individual emotion and intuition. In other words, creativity isn’t the product of inner-magic. It is shaped by the external environment. In fact, Byrne argues that the external form might precede creativity, or, as he writes elsewhere:

So, the order of the process is the reverse from what is often assumed: the consideration of the vessel comes first, and that which fills it comes afterwards. Most of the time we’re not even aware of this tailoring we do. Opportunity is often the mother of invention. The emotional story — “something to get off my chest” — still gets told, but its form is guided by contextual restrictions.

He is writing about music, but I instantly thought of online lectures, and of the classroom in general.

Today, I read an anti-MOOC article in Slate by Jonathan Rees which, among other complaints, trashes the lecture format that appears in some MOOCs:

But the most common way to assess learning in the MOOCs offered by the largest providers is a single multiple-choice question after approximately five-minute chunks of pre-taped lectures. If I had told my tenure committee that I taught history this way, I’d be in another line of work right now.

I know exactly what’s he talking about, but I think he’s missing the point. You simply can’t teach the same way online that you can in the classroom. Had he told his tenure committee that he recorded and uploaded a live 80-minute lecture and discussion session onto Blackboard, he would not have pleased them either. Online instructors who use the 5-minute-and-quiz format are not trying to dumb their product down (that might be the unintentional result). Instead, they’re trying to adapt to a new environment.

I write differently on a blog than I do with my pen and notebook. I teach differently in a lecture hall than in an oval-shaped seminar room. I have some classrooms that I’m still trying to figure out. Exactly how do I teach in here?

The online classroom is one of those. We are all struggling to adapt.

Perhaps I was enamored by Byrne’s star power or his recent praise of Iowa, but I was able to pay attention to his lecture, in part, because of environmental or technological factors (it helped that I was intrigued by his argument as well).

That is, he used pictures, which he changed frequently. Also, the camera angles changed often. I don’t have a crew to replicate the latter, but the former is quite simple to do in an online lecture.

The video below is my relatively recent attempt to make a lecture that suits the online format, minus the camera (I have a hard time making this look natural or finding the right setting. I wish, like Byrne’s TED talk I could be recorded in a hall packed with people). Still, I use ten slides in less than 10 minutes, not MTV fast, but enough perhaps to keep attention.

In this respect, I should probably follow more of Pecha Kucha format, which is 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide. Here is author Dan Pink explaining and demonstrating:

Finally, here is a recent video I did using a webcam and a few pictures and text on PowerPoint. Someone told me it looked like I was talking in a closet. Again, I’m not sure how to make the video appealing without either having the camera pointed up my nostrils or projecting me in the background like a specter:

A regular classroom is just a regular classroom. No one is expecting Literature 101 at 8:00 in the morning to be a Hollywood production. But, once you create a video and upload it to YouTube you are, in a way, competing with the pros.

What is someone with no training in media and performance supposed to do? I guess become famous and let the TED folks film you.

I’ll get right on that.

What is Mythology? (Part 10: A New Myth for an Old Planet)


I ended Part 9 by calling for a transdisciplinary approach to mythology, which begs two questions:

1) What the hell does transdisciplinary mean?

Big word, simple meaning: going beyond the limitations of fields of study, majors, programs, departments, genres, etc., in order to search for a more holistic approach to education that can adapt to the creative complexity of the world. This doesn’t simply mean buffet-style education, taking a little of this and a little of that, but actually putting some of the pieces together to form a bigger, more functional picture of reality.

2) Isn’t it a contradiction to continue to use the term “mythology” while pursuing a transdisciplinary approach, since mythology is itself such a narrow sliver, confined to the dustbin of the dustiest department: Literature?

No. And please stop asking me questions. Simply behold.

But actually, you’re right. It’s just that I’m convinced mythology isn’t really a discipline in the way the sociology is. Well, mythology may be a discipline, but “myth” is not. Furthermore, many myths (as we’ve been discussing in connection with “myth-as-fugue.” See Parts 2 and 3) were composed during a time of limited literacy and less division among fields of study. They tend to serve multiple functions, containing their respective civilizations’ political, historical, spiritual, religious, psychology, and literary aspirations. In that sense, myths are pre-disciplinary. They can teach us quite a bit about how poetic narratives tie things together.

Which brings me to this point: I want a new myth.

Cue Huey Lewis and the News: (WARNING: Please don’t watch this video unless you are prepared for unmitigated awesomeness!)

This video raises several points: First, that red suit should be back in style shortly. Two, Huey Lewis is really bad at lip syncing. Three, why hasn’t this song been used by a pharmaceutical company yet? (Call me if you’re interested in some freelance ad work!) Four, how could this band have had an actual fan base? Who were they? Nerdy frat boys from Indiana?


Huey Lewis is a bad example of taking multiple traditions (blues, rock, soul, doo-wop, funk) hitting puree, and serving a palatable, yet tasteless product. When searching for a new global myth, we want to avoid this. The transdisciplinary movement has also been criticized for churning out endless new majors that sounds like word salad. Here’s a chart that shows how one of pop psychology’s more annoying trends may have emerged:

Tokuhama 1.1

I’m all in favor of this kind of work and believe that whatever insights we are learning about the brain should be disseminated. However, the downside is that it leads to a lot of shallow analysis, especially considering we’re still in the early stages of research, which has not prevented the proliferation of dozens of books with titles like “Left Brain, Right Brain, Fight, Fight, Fight: How the Latest Neuroscience can Make You a Better Cheerleader.” (I made that up, but if you want to discuss the possibilities here after we nail our Huey Lewis/Heart Disease pitch, I’m all ears.)

Brain is the new black. And writers and publishers are jumping in with both feet before the ink on Neuroscience Quarterly is even dry in a desperate attempt to to coin the newest buzzword (Neurogrilling: how understanding your mind can improve the tang in your tangy barbecue sauce.)

It doesn’t stop there. Many of the fastest growing college majors are spliced together from old ones: cyber security, biomedical engineering, health management, computer game design, and so on. These majors merely reflect changes in the marketplace, and no one should be blamed for heading to where the jobs are.

However, this sort of hyper-specialization presents obvious problems, especially since the biggest issues facing our planet seem to be global in scope. Where are the big thinkers?

The above majors are inter-disciplinary, but not transdisciplinary. They are pieced together from narrow slivers within preexisting disciplines, but don’t strive for a more complete pictures beyond their narrow focus. And that’s probably okay for them.

Let’s look at one example of a new major, however, that strikes me as potentially transdisciplinary, and then look at how it might contribute to a new global myth.

Take environmental studies, for example. From the start, one is forced to consider complex systems. It’s not sustainable (pun intended) to isolate particular elements in an ecosystem and expect the health of the entire system to be maintained. Certainly, an environmental studies major would be expected to know chemistry and biology, to get right down into the muck of matter, but when you start making a list of all the factors that contribute to the well-being or ill-health of an ecosystem, you will never stop: water regulations, the local economy, local diet, religious and philosophical ideologies, and, certainly, the fundamental story humanity has written to reflect our relationship to the planet.

But there is no story. Only stories. Only mythologies.

In a post titled Toward a Humanities of Global Consciousness at Evolutionary Landscapes, I advocated for Chief Seattle’s idea that we belong to the planet, not the other way around. This is short enough to fit on t-shirt, but deep enough to challenge certain understandings of Christianity and market-based capitalism to the core. At this stage in the game, it doesn’t matter the source of the myth or even whether or not it’s true: all that matters is how we would be served by it, and if it is beautiful, elegant, and inspiring enough to help save our planet.

And of course we will need more than one.

Unless we re-imagine our relationship to the planet, we will almost certainly initiate a catastrophe. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have recently reached 400 ppm, and may be at their highest in 2 million years. Water supplies are projected to continue their precipitous decline. The mining of minerals and fossil fuels will eventually deplete the raw materials of our economy and way of life. We may not be walking around consciously planning our day around a collective myth, but we are certainly acting in compliance with a few assumptions: 1) Whatever is here is here for our taking, and 2) Technology will eventually fix this for us. (I’ve written about the theme of technological utopianism before, and I believe it is a myth that explains much of contemporary behavior.)

I believe exploring myths can force us to question the implicit or explicit stories we use to navigate existence. It is perhaps time for us to examine these stories and their effects, and consider reorienting ourselves. I not sure where to begin with such a task, but I will just end by presenting a few thinkers who are cosmological in nature, and whose work points toward this kind of reorientation. There are all, in my view, accomplishing this through story-telling. Their myths are different, but, I believe, improvements over the two assumptions I’ve listed above.

Buckminster Fuller’s notion of “Spaceship Earth” suggests that we are at the helm and must take responsibility for understanding how this ship works and how to engineer it properly. His most famous invention, the geodesic dome, was the result of deep insights into mathematics and a quest to create the best possible structure with the least amount of material. His writing and talks often strive for a comprehensive take on human affairs that incorporate math, science, architecture, design, and economics. He is perhaps one of the earliest prominent systems thinkers:

Carl Sagan’s description of humanity living “on the shores of the cosmic ocean” is a sweeping attempt to reorient our perceptions, both humbling and elevating. His writing is often poetic, mythopoetic perhaps, and seeks to induce awe and respect in the face of the vastness of the universe:

James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis forces us to consider the earth as something of a living, self-regulating organism (this can be taken literally or as a metaphor, and it borrows, of course, from Greek Mythology). If the Earth is trying to balance itself, and we are of Earth, maintaining this balance must be our duty:


What is Mythology? (Part 6)

In Part 5 I tried to be a bit more straightforward in my definition of mythology. Being straightforward is kind of a drag, and if all you ever did was sit around creating, compiling, and arguing definitions, after four years I would deem you educated.

Here are three more definitions of “mythology” I use in my course, all written by prominent mythologists:

1)  Joseph Campbell, from The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

Mythology is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology. Their function is to serve as a powerful picture language for the communication of traditional wisdom.

As I previously discussed with the notion of “myth-as-fugue,” here and here, myths definitely contain elements of biography, history, and cosmology, among other things. However, you wouldn’t want your understanding of Sumerian history to rely entirely (or even largely) on The Epic of Gilgamesh. History is referenced, but not accurately. Historical fact is, in part, the basis for some of what happens in the epic. It’s just transformed into literature and fantasy, a bit like those made-for-TV-movies that used to be so popular. Though, I should note, the idea of understanding history as a collection of verifiable facts is a relatively recent concept. It’s not that those compiling the myths of Gilgamesh were bent on distorting history (although political agendas may have been driving them).


Instead, the recalling and recreating of myths in the present in order to continue the power and promise of the ancestors probably kept history alive in a way that blurred our linear notions of how events unfold. Accuracy in fact and reason did not hold the kind of sway that a direct experience of divine powers did. Once you begin to view the ancient and classical world through their primary values, you have to change your categories of understanding. Myths were not subjected to fact-checkers. The myths were plainly factual each time they were enacted and retold. They succeed via their power to produce effects on the participants. Their truths was blindly obvious, as obvious as the cycle of seasons.

It was, in fact, the movement of time in these cycles that held more sway than any notion of linear history. If the rites were performed and the fertility gods responded, with rain, with floods, with storms, with a good crop, then the facts were readily apparent. We don’t view causation or time this way today, nor did people run around discussing the psychological themes in myths as if they could somehow be teased out and isolated from the performance of the myth in its entirety.

What then does Campbell mean by equating mythology with psychology. If we grant that psychology confronts the psyche and perhaps the soul (as opposed to merely treating problematic symptoms, as a psychiatrist does) then Campbell is rightly claiming a role for mythology that is not occupied by other fields.

Mythology reminds us what it is to be human. It is, in Campbell’s words, a mirror that reflects aspects of our being we often forget or try to oppress. When we read mythology, we can be forced to ask questions about fate, the meaning of life, or deeply held beliefs and emotions. Mythology often recounts the human journey in ways that refuse dissection and classification. It returns us to one of those fundamental questions that are not answerable directly (which is why they are not scientific questions). What am I suppose to do? Who I am? Why does anything exist at all? What is the story of my life? Am I being called to transform my life?

In many ways, similar to other forms of literature, mythology induces reflection, an exploration of the interior spaces. It is perhaps the root of all literature, and therefore more of a radical enabler of reflection.

2) William Irwin Thompson, from The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light:

Myth is the history of the soul.

Thompson sets the history of the soul in opposition to the history of the state, of war, of economics, and technology, or, in other words, the usual markers of history. But what exactly is the history of the soul? It is best to simply refer to a larger context of this quote, which appears numerous times in Thompson’s masterpiece, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light:

William Irwin Thompson NYC Gates 279__Under_the_Gates,_Central_Park,_2005_Photo_Michele_LaporteMyth at the level of understanding of the Age of Heroes is symbolic or figurative, but the world is still divided. Level IV is the unitive state of the great mystics; it is a state of being, analogous to music, in which myth is not simply a description, but a performance of the very reality it seeks to describe. Here history becomes the performance of myth, for the experience of recalling (anamnesis) enlightens the individual to see that myth is the history of the soul. The ego is locked into a narrow time frame (Plato’s cave), and so experiences from the other dimensions of the soul are recast into the forms and imagery of the ordinary world, but in the experience of illumination the ego realizes that the narratives that seem to be saying one thing are saying much more. (Page 6)

History is an illusion, or at least a narrow depiction of reality which filters out the pure, direct light or reality and presents a shadow play. Myth alone records the non-linear history of the soul, a history which is constantly denied or forgotten, or just extremely difficult to record. In fact, it has largely gone untold, passed along orally, transmitted in secret, available only to initiates. Myth captures some of this, but must be unlocked to be believed. Thompson’s emphasis on performance reminds us how much of our artistic knowledge is not directly explicable. You must see the painting, hear the music, read the poem. Talking about it or trying to use explanatory language around the edges of an artistic performance might provide insight, but it will always be a secondary, filtered experience.

3) Karen Armstrong, from A Short History of Myth:

Karen-Armstrong-Spiritual-QuestWe have imagination, a faculty that enables us to think of something that is not immediately present, and that, when we first conceive it, has no objective existence. The imagination is the faculty that produces religion and mythology. ….But the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light and to invent technology that has made us immeasurably more effective. ….Like science and technology, mythology, as we shall see, is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.

This quote would have seemed silly perhaps fifteen years ago. No one took imagination seriously then. Something has changed, however, and creativity and imagination are no longer confined to kindergarten classrooms and New Age workshops. In fact, they’re probably in danger of being abused by corporate America and drained of meaning by one too many TED talks extolling their virtues. The early creators of myths were the first “out-of-the-box” thinkers, I suppose. Maybe the Australian aboriginals will start appearing on “Think Different” posters.

Anyway, I deeply appreciate Armstrong’s use of the term “imagination” as a kind of visionary capacity for creating culture and new perspectives for exploring the vital questions of our being. It also stands as a reminder that many of our key scientific advances began as dreams, hunches, intuitions, and flights of fancy. Perhaps mythological imagination is the creative ground out of which the arts and sciences arise.

What is Mythology? (Part 5)

In Part 1, I attempted to explain the complexities of the term “myth” and the difficulties of defining it. Largely, this was a riff on the contemporary understanding of “myth” as “false,” as in, “It’s a myth that turkey makes you sleepy.” (Which is true, by which I mean that you get sleepy on Thanksgiving because you’ve eaten too much, have the day off work, and started drinking wine at 11:00 in the morning just to deal with your extended family, not because of the relatively minuscule levels of tryptophan* in the turkey)

Instead, I’ll be more direct. Here is the working definition of mythology I use in my classes: Mythology is the study of stories exploring fundamental mysteries of existence, especially those pertaining to the following three questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

I borrowed these questions from Paul Gauguin’s painting of the same name, “Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where are We Going?”


I then use each question as a separate unit of study: Where Do We Come From? (creation myths) What are We? (mainly epic tales)  Where are We Going? (This third unit can cover apocalyptic narratives and stories of the afterlife, but I also use it as an opportunity to discuss the potentially oxymoronic “Contemporary Mythology,” as well as narratives we use to imagine the future, especially futurism, science fiction, and technological utopianism, about which I’ve recorded a lecture and written an article.)

The majority of the texts we cover in my Mythology course fit comfortably into the standard canon (indeed, my central textbook, World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics, is printed by McGraw Hill) but I like to define the term so that texts and ideas beyond just the ancient and classical world can be explored.

This leads me to three misnomers about Mythology, which correspond to the categories of Geography, Time Period, and Purpose. Some of this is addressed in my video “Contemporary Mythology.”

1) Geography. In-coming students often assume that mythology comes primarily from Greece, Rome, and wherever Norse is. This is not their fault. America’s educational heritage comes from Europe. American and European literature mainly references myths from these cultures. These myths have been translated more frequently. More texts have survived, and so on. When you look at them on a world map, however, they don’t even account for 1% of the world’s land mass. Myths can be found in every culture, on every continent (well, not sure about Antarctica), and from every religion. (In Part 7 I will discuss the difference between religion and mythology.) Why not explore mythology on a global scale. For centuries it was believed that Homer’s epics were the oldest on the planet, until The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian text which predates Homer by 1300 years, was discovered. The myths of the West are wonderful, but it’s a big world.

2) Time Period. Mythology is not something that simply stops with the later versions of King Arthur in the 15th century. It’s something we do each and every day. We will continue making myths because this is what humans do best. It makes perfect sense to spend most of the semester reading the canonical myths, from Gilgamesh to Arthur, with stops at every civilization along the way. However, it would be a mistake to assume that mythologizing (the verb form, which simply means to create somewhat exalted stories out of reality) was just something that pre-scientific people did when Wikipedia was not around to provide the answer. In fact, I would argue, we create myths every time we come home and answer the question, “How was your day?” or every time we return from vacation or fishing trips. Mythology is a living field of study. Mythological figures emerge from celebrity culture, sports, and politics on a daily basis. John David Ebert’s film criticism is a great examples of this practice. Furthermore, the myths of the past are alive today in exciting ways. When you see someone gazing lovingly into his glowing screen of social media, you are witnessing the living Narcissus.

3) Purpose. I couldn’t tell you for sure why students sign up for Mythology courses. I do believe a good many have a genuine interest in the subject and find the myths they have heard to be compelling and mysterious and out-of-the-ordinary. Some want to have fun (as much fun as a college course can be, which is to say slightly above mowing the yard). Others may anticipate an easy grade. All of the above might be true, but I believe the purpose of mythology is to reconnect with the mysteries of life and to achieve a sense of wholeness. I can’t grade on such a standard, but it’s no accident that Joseph Campbell quickly found himself transitioning from English professor to something like a self-help workshop guru. This is not a path I want, but it does demonstrate the power of myth (to borrow the title of a wonderful book and interview series Campbell did with Bill Moyers).

Finally, I take great pains to emphasize one key portion of my definition, which is that myths explore mysteries; they do not explain them. Certainly if some portion of a myth takes an actual stab at explaining how giraffes developed long necks and concludes that a crocodile bit down on a giraffe’s head one day and stretched the poor creature out, then we should not deny the place of contemporary science to object.

I do not believe, however, that myths were merely an early attempt at science. Nor do I believe that science can do everything that myths can do. In fact, any good scientist will tell you there are certain questions that are not theirs to ask. Some of these are mythological questions.

*First, I should point out that WordPress wanted me to spell “tryptophan” as “Aristophanes,” which is hilarious to me and five other people. Second, dozens of foods you probably eat each week have more tryptophan in them than turkey. Do you say, “Man, this tryptophan is making me sleepy!” after eating a ham sandwich? No? Then be silent. I’m trying to watch the Lions game.