April 30, 2017

The Study of Being Human

Driving home on a recent spring evening, I was listening to a Black Eyed Peas song, “One Tribe”. It’s quite the earnest appeal, both the lyrics and the… prayerfulness… of its musical arrangement. The crew Whoa-o-o-o-ing like a choir in the background, while Will.i.am preaches about forgetting evil and embracing our oneness. It’s very touching — hopeful and beautiful.

I think that BEP album is an extraordinary piece of music — a blend of many forms, evoking powerful feelings and a kind of narrative sense about the group, their beliefs, and lives. I feel like I learn a lot about these folks. (I know, how naive can you get? But that’s a side effect, methinks, from many years of teaching. You think you’re pretty good at knowing a lot about people with just a little information; you do a lot of narrative and biographical extrapolation. And you probably are pretty good at it. Plus, you like to think well of people. You want to see the best in them.) Yes, yes… The album is the epitome of commercial. Pop Culture. Industrially sanitized. All the evils. I agree. AND… It’s an excellent piece of musical craftsmanship and powerful expression.

But here’s the (first) point I was getting at: This song, “One Tribe”, expresses the exquisite hope that, it seems, lies within each of us for a harmonious, open, and loving life. For an enlightened society, as the Shambhala Buddhists express it. This sense of oneness, of course, expresses itself in highly varying forms and intensities, but still…

Then there are other songs on this BEP album. About having things and people. About wild, reckless living. About the power of youthful consumers to control the economy. And those songs, also with great power, express the materialism and self-centeredness that lies within each of us as well. In highly varying forms and intensities. But still…

And I was thinking to myself, as I contemplated this complex tapestry of thought and feeling: I don’t think those two value systems — connectedness and self-centered materialism — work together. They go beyond creative tension to irreconcilable differences. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it seems that the continually repeating story of humankind is brief moments of spiritual bonding surrounded by a steadily increasing rise of Mammon. Hey, I’d rather be wrong; somebody convince me, please. But regardless, that’s not the (real) point.

The (real) point is that I want a school where the kids and adults grapple, effectively, with such questions frequently and for a purpose. Not just a 10-minute discussion as part of the unit in social studies (or science), but really grappling because it matters and because, well, that’s what happens in this community of learners. I want to see learning experiences that challenge people’s easy nostrums and hidden assumptions — maybe some time spent dumpster diving, or studying the stock market. (Are these different examples?) Accompanied by ingrained reflective practices — personal and communal, formal and informal — that help to make meaning of those experiences. Plus continual, light-handed coaching in how to get value both from the experiences and the reflections.

Here’s an example: At Eagle Rock School, in Estes Park, Colorado, new students’ orientation learning experience is a 25-day backpacking trip in the Rocky Mountains. “Hi, welcome to Eagle Rock. Here’s where’ll you’ll live. Here’s the food commons. These folks will be your housemates. And tomorrow, we’re heading into the mountains for three weeks. Pack light.” I’m guessing that questions about community, trust, responsibility, courage, commitment, among others, get addressed in very real ways.

Now, that’s learning.

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