On the Banks of the River Both-And: The Universe as a Compound I

Early this morning, I sat in my garden drinking my first cup of coffee.  It’s my usual habit to take a few moments to center myself, and allow thoughts to be whatever they will–a half-assed version of meditation that suits my inability to still the inner world for longer than a few heartbeats.  12072611_10101918673874203_291909373709517194_nThis works well, and allows me to progress to more important considerations beyond keeping silent and still.  I was not made to be serene on purpose, and the harder I try, the farther from it I get.  So I just don’t anymore, and that helps me to relax.

 

Apertures of the Universe

There’s this concept that keeps crossing paths with me.  I’ve encountered it repeatedly, whether in the pages of a Hindu sacred text, the writings of Alan Watts, or as a child watching Nova and Cosmos.

We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

Pause and chew on that for a moment.  How many billions of humans exist, right now? Each of us is one of these cosmic apertures, through which all the stuff of the universe is touching itself, looking at itself, listening and doing, wiggling, feeling, thinking.  If that doesn’t fuck you up for a split second at the very least, you haven’t really thought about it.  Or you’re just used to thinking about it.  13912572_10102337793704703_7071814879435889539_n

This idea that we are each continuous and eternally present functions of the entire cosmos, not the end product, but an always-wiggling bit in transit, isn’t new to me.  And yet it is always new.  Every time I encounter it–reflected back at me through what I’m reading or seeing or some random thought that floats by during my half-assed Practice–it feels fresh and crisp and startling.

So if each one of us, as conscious/self-aware human animals, is such a lens, to say nothing of the innumerable plant and animal species with which we share the planet, and there is life out there beyond this little envelop of moisture and rock and air–that’s one hell of a compound consciousness, an “I.”

I briefly contemplate what sort of apertures tardigrades and bacteria make, or daffodils and puppies, triceratops and tube worms, corals and elephants…and broccoli.    Because why would such an impossibly, burstingly full and wigglingly alive universe restrict itself to one variety of experience or self-knowledge?colour_mandelbrot

 

Or Best Approximations

God, or the eastern imaginings of such a thing.  I won’t spend much time on this topic today, because it strikes me that it would take far too long.  I can’t ascribe to some sort of formal creator deity, especially not out of the Levant.  But this hyper-conscious, compound I that the universe appears to be seems like the closest I’ve come to accepting the notion of a deity on a personal level.

If that is a god thing, then aren’t we all god in the sense that what looks out is a fractal bit of the bigger “I”? Isn’t that broccoli you ate for dinner, the bullock who died for your hamburger, the squirrel eating all the birdseed out of your bird feeder right now–aren’t they a fragment, too? Perhaps in a totally broccoli-like or bovine-esque or squirrel-onic way, which is not yours…but isn’t that something worth considering?

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Worlds that Never Were: Imagination, Intelligence, and Education

I recently finished grading and submitting records for another semester.  My role is small.  I only teach a couple of sections of Introduction to Anthropology for a local university.  And yet, I see what I do as important–not just for my students, but for me as well.  Learning is not a finite process, restricted to a specific location or a particular building.  It goes on as long as we do, and when it stops, we may as well throw in the towel, because what follows is a long, dim corridor of heartbeat and breath and boredom.

 

How “Education” is Killing Us

That may seem like a dramatic statement, and in the short term, it is.  In the long view, however, you might come to see things from my perspective.  Much of my year is given over wholly to crafting lessons and lectures, interfacing with students, and reading their attempts at writing.  After two years, I’m gaining a little data, but much of what follows is based on my daily experience.

I teach zombies for the most part, with a few who stir to life to answer questions or laugh at my terrible jokes.  But the vast majority of my class time is spent trying to provoke some sign of intelligent life in a room populated with glassy-eyed, unresponsive young humans.  16dbdd643e2671848823165d27161957Even the simplest inquiry usually turns into an unpleasant and frustrating process of trying to gain some answer besides a shrug or a blank stare.

It’s possible that most students sign up for my course because they think it will be an easy A, because anthropology has a reputation for being flimsy or whimsical or whathaveyou.  You try cramming all of human activity and behavior and belief over our 3 million year (yes, 3 million, because Homo sapient aren’t the only member of the genus) history, and introducing the five distinct disciplines within the field into 15 weeks, and let me know how whimsical you feel.  That notwithstanding, I try to make it fun and interactive.  But when I’m the only one interacting, it becomes difficult.

I think a larger problem is that most of my young students are either fresh out of high school or have had no other college experience that they can use for context.  What I’m learning is that learning is not the goal in the public education sphere, and hasn’t been for some time.  These kids are trained not to respond, not to question, and certainly never to have anything resembling an original thought.  In my class, and I suspect in most other classes, this is a huge problem.  How are you supposed to be an adult if you don’t know how to think or interact?

 

Teaching to the Test Isn’t Teaching

Imagination is something all humans possess, although it takes different forms and is dependent upon the individual for a means of expression.  It’s also the fundamental underpinning of natural human intelligence–this ability to abstract, to envision, to play.  And it’s something that’s being kicked out of us during our years of formal education–not because the teachers want to do it, not because they want to build automatons for the State Machine.

I’ve known primary and secondary teachers who weep blood crafting interactive activities and shell out considerable amounts of their meager personal income in order to keep the spark of human curiosity alive in their classrooms.  It’s a losing battle, that, when you consider that the State Machine mandates that the only thing that matters is performance upon standardized testing.  This encourages rote memorization and pushing through material with little time for questions or exploration.  It’s a feature of our industrialized educational sphere, and was when I went to school, too.

It’s this pressure on educators that causes them to inadvertently squelch natural intelligence.  We “measure” intelligence in this culture based on a monolithic standard that doesn’t give credit for different types of intellectual strength.  This root is problematic when you consider that I’m on the other end teaching people who don’t appear to have the sense of a box of rocks.  233393-Robert-A-Heinlein-Quote-When-any-government-or-any-church-for-thatBecause what they seem to have internalized are not the facts or concepts they bubbled so many bubbles about on scantron sheets, but a broader concept that their job as students is not to think but to memorize.  They’ve also been taught that being “wrong” is worse than being silent.

How did we get here? I think this question and realize that I already know, but the answer is long, convoluted, and digs up unpleasant realizations about this culture that no one really wants to hear.

 

Burning or Banning?

Books that teach are unpopular.  I’m not talking about your Algebra book, but those that shove our noses into the muck of our social context.  When we prohibit access to these unpleasantly honest works–many of them labelled “fiction” as if that were somehow of lesser value than hard and factual, dry and unpalatable assessments–we are agents of a sort of decentralized tyranny.  a254993c08e067def58d677fcfcc66b2So, schools that ban books are doing the job of fascists everywhere, even if they would squirm away from that rather bald comparison.

You see, I was a horrible student, given to causing trouble by asking too many questions and later to simply absenting myself entirely from the microcosm of high school.  What I wasn’t doing was “hanging out with an undesirable element” or stealing or drag racing or defacing public property.  Those activities were  not to my taste.  I was smoking, and drinking terrible coffee at a Waffle House, with my journal and a stack of books two feet tall.

I was reading Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov,  Wollstonecraft and  Rousseau, le Guin and Buaudrillard and a host of other writers both frivolous and deeply academic all mixed up together.  Many of these books have spent time on a banned books list in one or more school districts.  Some, like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 have earned spots on those lists–and why? Because the core message of the book is dangerous to communities that want everything to be nice, organized, peopled by a citizenry that asks no uncomfortable questions.

I was imagining.  I was looking for answers and truth, which are not always the same thing, about both Life and my life.  Sometimes, I felt I’d nearly touched those truths or answers.  Sometimes, I feel like I will chase them like a horizon line until I die.  But, in all the time since my stint as a teen aged truant, I have valued hard truths and troublemakers. Those questions that some feel can be avoided by removing literature that encourages the young to ask them are essential to a healthy culture. They push us to embrace and explore change in healthy, relatively safe realms of the imagination.

But they are not comfortable. And those who dare to inhabit this discomfort inevitably invite their friends in, too. Questions, and literature that leads us to ask them, are treated as a sort of gateway drug in many parts of our social landscape. And those who deal in banned books, disturbing inquiries, revisionist history that flouts our carefully constructed social-historical mythologies–these are Troublemakers. The status quo reviles them as the peddlers of anti-social rhetoric. I have always prized them, having been one, myself.

 

I value them still, even when said troublemakers make my job difficult.  Because I see, after only a few semesters, that my class may be the first, terrifying taste many students have of intellectual freedom.  After a staid and cultivated landscape of subject matter–which they memorize, regurgitate, and promptly forget–here comes this crazy person dragging them into a hinterland full of dangerous concepts, wild and unruly thoughts.  I tell them that everything that came before was part of a cultural narrative and its truth may not be quite as they believed.

Those with imaginations tend to get more out of the class than those who simply scribble every fantastical and barely believed word that comes out of my mouth.

“There are millions of people in the world who believe very different things than you do.” “Religion is a social system, designed by humans to encourage community cohesion and social harmony. And there are many deities, even some religions with no deity at all.” “Our species is one among many in the Homo genus, and we once share the landscape with at least one other type of human.” “Colonialism shaped both Western science and the way we perceive world cultures, and is alive and well in a new form, today.”  (Cue expressions that look like physical pain or shock, whether the student is an agitator or compliant.)

I see the former, who may sometimes ask questions or engage in dialogue.  The latter wrap themselves in the comfort of learned scholastic behaviors and obedient silence, as if offering no resistance to this terrifying new place will somehow preserve them.  But it won’t, anymore than it will do them favors in their adult life.

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Talking Heads and Parking Lots: Pausing at Semester’s End

I walked across the griddle of black asphalt that was the parking lot.  My car looked lonely, because the last day of classes had already happened and students had taken their freedom post haste.  True, most teachers are giving finals next week, and those same students will return, dragging their feet and muttering pep talks to themselves on Monday or Tuesday.  I, I thought as I pressed my key fob to unlock the car, am not most teachers.

 

How Did I Get Here?

On a Friday afternoon, beneath a sky marked only by the most decorative of clouds, I sat in my car in the university’s mostly empty parking lot.  After the frozen stillness of the offices, I unfurled in the dense and clotted heat of the closed passenger compartment.  This was a space into which the minutes did not trespass, and the light fell more freely.  How did this happen? I meet my own gaze in the rear view mirror, and let my eyes slide away.

It strikes me as the height of irony that I, of all people, should be a teacher.  Yes, I, the poster child for truancy, the hater of unwarranted authority and imposed structures lacking sufficient explication–and yet here I am.  My shoulder bag, abandoned in the passenger seat, bulges accusingly with term papers and scantron sheets.  I have not yet made a start with the papers, but the bubble sheets for the last test–titled Anthro 1102, Greatest Hits–those, at least have been squared away.  I never wanted this, never dreamed of or planned it.

But there, what’s that? Could it be satisfaction? Perhaps contentment? What an odd sensation of…just right.  IMG_5333

 

Feasts and Modern Survival

On the afternoon before these hot-car meditations, my students gathered for the Commensal Feasting Event.  Putting food in our faces together with other familiar humans seems to be something all groups like to do.  In fact, this penchant for snacking with friends may be one of the big keys to why and how we managed not to die out like the other Homo species with which we once shared the landscape.

But surely it’s not important anymore, right? I mean–modernity, science, all the technological and industrial mechanisms with which we can surround ourselves in lieu of others of our kind–what about all that? In this culture and others, it seems, we are now dying of loneliness.  Because we might feel self-contained, but we’re still pack animals at every level.

So, I’ve made it a practice to bribe my students with extra credit.  It’s an exchange, really.  They invest time or resources to prepare or purchase something–which, even cups and plates are rewarded, because we need those in order to eat and drink together–and then we gather on the last scheduled day of class before finals week begins.

We visit and eat, every offering is displayed on the feasting tables (desks or lab benches shoved together at the front of the room.) There’s music and sharing and a lot of noise, especially when I have more than one class section and they meet each other for the first time.  Everyone has a pretty good time.

 

Summer Vacation Thoughts

I have a lot of work ahead of me, which I am a bit reluctant to begin.  But once everyone’s grades are averaged and I’ve submitted the numbers to the university, then what? When we’re young, we idolize this stretch of hot weeks and ending of scholastic responsibilities.  But, I find myself in a different place, a reversed one, as a professor.

I know, even in the cases of students who frustrated me, that I will miss the routine of class, of lecture and trying to reach them about things that are relevant to the discipline. I will miss seeing the characteristic expressions that betoken brain-melting or sudden understanding.   Because, while it’s not the reason I took this posting as a teacher, it is why I’ve stayed.

There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work to do this summer.  Once grading is complete, I want to dismantle my entire class structure.  The lecture style, while fun for me, doesn’t feel effective.  Are they learning? And what are they learning? Because I am sometimes deeply disturbed by the concepts they manage to twist with misunderstanding.

Then, there’s the strange terror response they exhibited at the very mention of a 20-page research paper.  I lost a few students because of that, because writing and research are no longer taught, no longer considered relevant life skills, but something mysterious to be feared and avoided.

 

 

At the feast, I told my kids, “Congratulations.  You made it.  No matter what grade you receive on the paper, you should know that it’s a huge accomplishment.  You did this, and you should be proud of that.”

So, who knows–perhaps I’ll deconstruct the process and make it four or five smaller chunk grades.  Or maybe we’ll do several small projects.  IMG_5334All I can say with certainty is that, while I can absolutely talk for 3 hours at a time about anything anthropological, I wonder how much they hear and remember.  I think a new approach is essential.  That will require an awful lot of coffee.

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Just so you know, none of the above or the images or the quote are my contributions.  That would be WordPress.  It brings up a question for me, which I will pose to those of you who have joined me.  Can you manufacture authenticity?  Or perhaps we should call it “soul,” since the substance of a thing is integral, here.  In the attempt to do so, do we not rob ourselves of authentic experience, and can we know anything about a person or, in this case, the writer of a blog, who uses the simulacrum of real-ness as a foundation for everything that comes after?

 

 

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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