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.

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

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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?

Sorry.

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:

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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 9: The Trouble with Poetry)

I enjoy the anthology I have been assigning for my Mythology course, World Mythology: An Anthology of Great Myths and Epics. It covers myths from across the globe and is filled with wonderfully informative historical glosses and highly readable translations.

This last feature is also a bug.

You see, the entire book is written in prose even though almost all myths were composed in poetry. Prose translations are pretty standard fare for textbooks, and I understand why. It is difficult enough enticing students to read obscure works that are thousands of years old. Poetry adds one more layer of complexity.

However, something critical is lost when myths appear in prose. I first discussed the concept of oral tradition in Part 2, and it is likely to be a recurring theme in these posts. It is, like most academic terms, invented after the fact. No one reciting The Odyssey to a crowd in Athens would have stopped and said, “Thank you for supporting the oral tradition! I’ll be here all week!”

This is exactly the reason we need to keep reintroducing this term. It is foreign to us. Without understanding how the oral tradition informs mythology, a central point is lost, perhaps the central point if we consider how myths were often ritualized. Myths are performances, and poetry is the preferred medium for this. In fact, “song” is probably a better word to use than poetry. (The difference between poetry and song is less defined the farther back you go in history.)

Watch this brief excerpt from a performance of Beowulf, featuring a furiously intense performer with a stringed instrument:

These events would have been nothing like the timid and moribund poetry readings you might have stumbled upon at a local bookstore with the poet meekly reading poems directly from his book.  In the time of Beowulf, the “scop” (pronounced “SHOWp) sang and recited the epic poem accompanied to music. Anglo-Saxon poetry was highly alliterative and based on a set number of accents per line, and in the video you can hear him repeating consonant sounds at the beginning of words.

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The best contemporary translation of this text is by Nobel-Prize-winner Seamus Heaney, who retains much of the alliteration in his English version, which is, of course, sold as a book meant to be read silently. Performances of poetry like the above video are rare in our culture. Perhaps the best contemporary equivalent is a rock concert. This scop would have been performing Beowulf to a large, enthralled crowd hanging on his every word. The music, meter, and alliteration would have helped with this, but also the story itself, its violent action and how it reflected their cultural values.

The world of contemporary poetry and rock-and-roll, however, have little to do with one another at the moment. Poetry is largely confined to classrooms and independent bookstores. There are exceptions. In many ways, poetry slams carry on something of the oral tradition. There are also outliers from the contemporary poetry scene, such as Robert Bly, whose readings often feature music and his trademark didactic style. He is also the one contemporary poet most in touch with Joseph Campbell’s work and the role of mythology in poetry. In fact, his book Iron John is an imaginative (in Karen Armstrong’s sense of the word. See Part 6.) application of mythology to address the psychological journeys of men. It’s a book that would not have existed without Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which, Bly could retort, would not have existed without poetry. Here is Bly reading the work of the Indian poet Kabir:

The tendency to translate mythology into prose makes sense for another reason: unlike most contemporary poetry, myths of the ancient and classical world are narrative-driven, performing more of the function that  novels do today. Probably the epic poem met its demise when Cervantes wrote Don Quioxte. Novels could start telling the long stories. Cervantes published his novel in 1605. Incidentally (or maybe not) the important epic poems begin to trail off at this point. We get Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), several insane William Blake epics in the early 19th century, Byron’s mock-epic Don Juan (1824), a few by Keats and Shelley in between, and Goethe’s Faust (finished 1831). It’s not that poets stopped writing epics ( Nobel-winner Derek Walcott’s Omeros, for example), but they have either taken on the interior spaces as opposed to the external heroic journeys, effectively become more subtle, psychological, and, well, contemporary, or they have launched off into meta spaces and become self-aware parodies. By the time James Joyce published Ulysses in 1922 (patterned after Homer’s The Odyssey) the novel had become to the vehicle of choice for epics, and for longer literary narratives period. Poems are now confined to a much smaller space.

Although narrative-driven, the old myths were also poetry. (We keep returning to the concept of myth-as-fugue from Parts 2 and 3. You see, myths are impossible to dissect, pin down, classify. Poem, novel, song, ritual, history, esoteric spiritual manual, etc.) In the textbook for my course, Gilgamesh is in sentences and paragraphs, appearing as some surreal short story out of South American magical realism (though set in Southern Iraq, of course). In reality, it would have looked and sounded more like this, from the first page of David Ferry’s translation:

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Translators of this epic usually attempt to replicate the rhythmic structure of the originals, and here it seems Ferry uses anywhere from 4 to 6 beats per line. Stephen Mitchell’s translation uses 5 in some sections and 4 in others. In any event, the rhythm and repetition (in particular of the word “who”) create a sense of immediacy and tension (as repetition often does in performance). This of course gets flattened out or just plain removed in prose translations.

Here’s a related passage from the textbook I’ve been mentioning:

Who as the Gilgamesh who built these walls of lasting fame? Who was the Gilgamesh who built this most majestic temple? Gilgamesh was the renowned king of the city of Uruk. To his people, Gilgamesh was a tyrant who became a great hero. Gilgamesh left his city to learn how to avoid death, and he returned having learned how to live.

Cue the “The More You Know” music from those NBC commercials. Certainly this is more readable than Ferry’s poetry translation, if you define readable as instantly palatable. Much has been lost, of course. Reading Ferry’s version, I can almost hear a pounding drum and see people gathering close to the poet to listen and be reminded of the lore of their civilization.

I just keeping thinking that mythology is poorly served by quiet textbooks and desks arranged in neat rows. This is a bigger problem than I can tackle here (or likely in my lifetime), but I’ve written in the past about the need for a more transdisciplinary approach to education. Studying Mythology in the English Department (or in any one department at all, given the whole myth-as-fugue situation) is as myopic an approach as studying the environmental crisis entirely in the Biology Department. To do a proper job of this, we need Chemistry, Political Science, Marketing, Education, and so on.

A Mythology course should include, at least, the following departments:  English (Literature and Creative Writing), Foreign Languages, History, Anthropology, Music, Theater, Speech, Religious Studies, Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science, and so on. Sure, Culinary, too. We’ll get hungry doing all of this.