Reclaim TALONS

Out Walkin'

While I attempted to introduce the new academic year in a blog post that wound up meandering into too many of my thoughts and feelings on the culmination of BC teachers’ recent strike action, here I intend to share my initial guiding interests and projects setting out into the 2014-15 school year. As I alluded to in my previous post on the dawning of September, I plan to continue my research into citizenship education as concerns digital pedagogy, curricular reform, and broader currents in educational philosophy.

In the last few years, I have become an admirer of Paulo Freire‘s notion of critical pedagogy, and try in my own practice, as well as my classroom constructivism, to create habits surrounding an ongoing praxis of reflection and action for myself and my students. Such a praxis suits the type of citizenship education Gert Biesta and others espouse as central to the emancipatory process introduced by Freire, and also aligns with many of the intentions of pioneers on the open web and in the digital humanities. In my work as an open educator this praxis also revolves between the theoretical concerns of pedagogy and the practical applications of these intentions.

Reclaim TALONS 

One such foray into the practical application of my research interests has me finally setting out on an adventure I have long-anticipated.

Since taking the TALONS communities onto the public web, first with Edublogs.org, then Wikispaces.com and free WordPress.com sites, I have largely pursued a narrative of online learning which focused on the skills and awarenesses required in the digital sphere. Working across these public platforms, my students and I have contemplated digital citizenship and storytelling, as well as had many opportunities to connect our classroom learning with a wider audience than within the school district’s information silos.

Each of these services – Edublogs, Wikispaces, and WordPress, among others – have afforded us the opportunity to dip our toes in the public web without first surmounting the limits of my own technological expertise around how to manage and administer our own classroom spaces and domains.

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 2.42.53 PMBut in the meantime, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know and work with a handful of innovators in higher education who have shown me the relevance of gaining such expertise, both for my own development as an open practitioner, and as an opportunity for the students I work with.

In his 2009 essay, “Personal Cyberinfrastructure,” Gardner Campbell presented an idea Jim Groom, Tim Owens and Martha Burtis have since ran with at the University of Mary Washington:

Suppose that when students matriculate, they are assigned their own web servers — not 1GB folders in the institution’s web space but honest-to-goodness virtualized web servers of the kind available for $7.99 a month from a variety of hosting services, with built-in affordances ranging from database maintenance to web analytics. As part of the first-year orientation, each student would pick a domain name. Over the course of the first year, in a set of lab seminars facilitated by instructional technologists, librarians, and faculty advisors from across the curriculum, students would build out their digital presences in an environment made of the medium of the web itself. They would experiment with server management tools via graphical user interfaces such as cPanel or other commodity equivalents. They would install scripts with one-click installers such as SimpleScripts. They would play with wikis and blogs; they would tinker and begin to assemble a platform to support their publishing, their archiving, their importing and exporting, their internal and external information connections. They would become, in myriad small but important ways, system administrators for their own digital lives.3 In short, students would build a personal cyberinfrastructure, one they would continue to modify and extend throughout their college career — and beyond.

In addition to building technical knowledge and skills required to exercise agency and voice in the post-Gutenberg age, students charged with the creation and maintenance of their own personal cyberinfrastructure would be engaged in learning across the disciplines of “multimodal writing to information science, knowledge management, bibliographic instruction, and social networking.” To read Campbell’s 2009 call for this type of university education strikes me at this stage in my research and interest in the digital humanities and citizenship education as the intersection of the two, and something that ought be explored at the highschool level.

By Campbell’s description, this discussion of a technology-infused education, is everything at the core of popular discussions of digital skills, literacy and citizenship. “If what the professor truly wants is for students to discover and craft their own desires and dreams,” he writes,

a personal cyberinfrastructure provides the opportunity. To get there, students must be effective architects, narrators, curators, and inhabitants of their own digital lives.6 Students with this kind of digital fluency will be well-prepared for creative and responsible leadership in the post-Gutenberg age. Without such fluency, students cannot compete economically or intellectually, and the astonishing promise of the digital medium will never be fully realized.

While Campbell admits that such forays onto the open web wait until students enter college, the intervening years in educational technology have only hastened the need for students to protect and manage their own data. In British Columbia, FOIPPA laws surrounding storage of student-data on locally maintained servers creates the need for many district’s and educators to work within closed or clumsy information management system provided by Pearson or Microsoft, where after spending millions for the software, the rights to the intellectual property of student work is retained by the company.

The same laws might be seen as the impetus for public school students in British Columbia to be educated in owning once and for all their digital selves, as it is in the interest of so-called ‘protection’ of this information that the laws exist in the first place.

Since the University of Mary Washington launched its own riffs on Campbell’s cyberinfrastruture in projects such as Domain of One’s Own and Reclaim Hosting, I’ve often mentioned to Jim Groom that I would love to bring what he and Tim Owens and Martha Burtis have created to the TALONS classroom. For only my own hestiation has it taken this long to bring the project about though, as Jim has been enthusiastic about the prospect from the first. Within a day of sending Jim and Tim an email outlining where I wanted to go with the TALONS data, the class site had migrated to its new domain (http://talons43.ca).

The journey had begun.

In the week since, I’ve also moved the open course Philosophy 12 from its old WordPress digs to a subdomain on the same site (http://philosophy.talons43.ca), and will do the same with the school’s open Introduction to Guitar closer to the spring. Tim and I have begun to see if data from the class’ years’ old subject wikispaces will easily migrate to DokuWiki apps residing on the same site (eg. http://socials.talons43.ca), and in the next few weeks the TALONS will be setting up their own blogs as extension of the webspace which they will use to chart their learning over their two years in the program. When they come to graduate from the program, and move into grade eleven and beyond, they will have the opportunity to take their data with them, transfer it to their own domain, and continue in their digital educations.

As the province begins to etch out its vision of personalized learning, I submit what comes of our continued experiments to the discussion of citizenship education in the 21st century.

The Digital Age and Curriculum in British Columbia

I: The Digital Shock & Curricular Reinvention 

“We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capacity in the history of the human race,” declared Clay Shirky in his 2008 tome Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (Shirky, 2008). In the intervening years we have continued to see an emphasis in curricular thought and reform which seeks to realize the potential of a dawning Digital Age. In blog posts and cable news investigations, parent-advisory council meetings and teacher professional development events, academic scholarship and TED Talk distillations, discussions about curriculum struggle toward consensus on what might constitute an education for the 21st Century. Such a time is fraught with both possibility and peril.

Simsek and Simsek describe the Digital Age as a time when “forms of information have changed drastically” (Simsek & Simsek, 2013), so much so that they are capable of inducing a state of shock:

“Information is an integral part of daily life in today’s society in order for individuals to survive against information-related requirements. Production of knowledge requires different skills than those necessary for producing goods. Thus, the concept of shock could be interpreted partly as the feelings of the confusions of people, being aware of not having necessary skills for the new literacies” (p. 127).

In contemplating the nature of shock as might effect curricular reform, it can be helpful to consider Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, wherein she presents the rise of neoliberal capitalism and its champion Milton Friedman’s ideas across the latter half of the twentieth century. Friedman, Klein observes, looked to the onset of crises and shocks as opportunities to radically intervene in the reform process, noting his admission that “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around (Klein, 2008).”

Looking toward the unique challenges presented by the Digital Age, David Perry recommends taking “note of the plasticity of digital forms and the way in which they point toward a new way of working with representation and mediation, that might be called the digital ‘folding’ of reality, whereby one is able to approach culture in a radically new way” (Perry, 2011).

As this ‘folding’ of reality administers structural changes across society, curricular reform lies at the center of digital reinventions of politics, economics, creative expression and collaboration, the natural sciences and perspectives on the nature of life and consciousness itself. However, such broad educational considerations are hardly novel, as Egan noted in 1978 that once started down the path of inquiry into the methodology of education, “there becomes little of educational relevance that can be excluded from the curriculum field” (Egan, 1978). Thus, the regeneration of our curricula to suit the Digital Age is something that ought be carefully engaged to ensure an authentic expression of society’s best intentions for education.

Ralph W. Tyler’s Principles of Curriculum and Instruction outlines a rationale for viewing, analyzing and interpreting an instructional program as an instrument of education. Tyler notes “no single source of information is adequate to provide a basis for wise and comprehensive decisions about the objectives of the school,” (Tyler, 2013), and advocates for a comprehensive discussion of curricular purposes from each of the progressive, essentialist, sociologist, and educational philosopher’s perspectives:

“The progressive emphasizes the importance of studying the child to find out what kinds of interests he has, what problems he encounters, what purposes he has in mind.

“The essentialist, on the other hand, is impressed by the large body of knowledge collected over many thousands of years, the so-called cultural heritage, and emphasizes this as the primary source for deriving objectives.

“[Sociologists] view the school as the agency for helping young people to deal effectively with the critical problems of contemporary life. If they can determine what these contemporary problems are then the objectives of the school are to provide those knowledges, skills, attitudes and the like that will help people deal intelligently with these contemporary problems.

“[Educational philosophers] see the school as aiming essentially at the transmission of the basic values derived by comprehensive philosophic study and hence see in educational philosophy the basic source from which objectives can be derived (p. 4-5)”

This paper seeks to examine the Government of British Columbia’s Education Plan (BCEdPlan) from each of these perspectives with the hopes of furthering discussion of the potential of curricular reform in the Digital Age within the province.

II: Principles of Curriculum and Instruction in the BCEdPlan

In 2012, the British Columbia Ministry of Education began consultations to bring about changes in the province’s K-through-12 curriculum. Guided by the Premier’s Technology Council 2010 report, A Vision for 21st Century Education (Council, 2010), the BCEdPlan was published in 2013 and shares the province’s vision for teaching and learning in the Digital Age, with reforms set to address curricular goals and assessments, graduation requirements, transitions to post-secondary learning, parent-communication, and even the physical time and place of formalized schooling (Government, 2013b). These changes are guided by the EdPlan’s Five Key Elements (p. 5):

  1. Personalized Learning for Every Student
  2. Quality Teaching and Learning
  3. Flexibility and Choice
  4. High Standards
  5. Learning Empowered with Technology

“While a solid knowledge base in the basic skills will be maintained,” the BCEdPlan admits that better preparing students for the future will require greater emphasis on teaching “key competencies like self-reliance, critical thinking, inquiry, creativity, problem solving, innovation, teamwork and collaboration, cross-cultural understanding, and technological literacy” (p. 4).

At the time of this writing, the Ministry of Education has begun posting draft versions of subject and grade curricula from grades kindergarten to nine. The intent of this section of the paper is to investigate the formally published BCEdPlan with the hope that this discussion might lead to a similarly critical analysis of subject curriculum as it comes more clearly into focus.

Progressive

In its advocacy on behalf of student choice and flexibility, the BCEdPlan may be seen to embrace tenants of the progressive mindset. By looking to develop students’ passions, self-reliance, and personalizing the learning experience of each individual, the focus on role of the child in the schooling process is soundly rooted in progressive principles.

While the BCEdPlan does state its intention to prepare students to “realize their full potential and contribute to the well-being of our province” (p. 5), less well emphasized are the democratic traditions of the progressive movement. The words ‘society,’ and ‘democracy,’ do not appear in the BCEdPlan; however it does state as an objective for further action that “We will work with our education partners to identify the attributes of an educated citizen and how that will be articulated throughout the education program culminating in graduation” (p. 5). Curricular discussions in British Columbia might delve further into the progressive promise of student-centered learning characterized by John Dewey, who warned of the danger that increased personal independence could decrease the social capacity of an individual” (Dewey, 1916):

“In making him more self-reliant, it may make him more self-sufficient; it may lead to aloofness and indifference. It often makes an individual so insensitive in his relations to others as to develop an illusion of being really able to stand and act alone — an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remedial suffering of the world (p. 42).”

Essentialist

Essentialists, meanwhile, may not see their approach as integral to the BCEdPlan, which cites as an operating premise the idea that “The world has changed and it will continue to change, so the way we educate students needs to continually adapt” (p. 5). The impetus for the education revolution in British Columbia and other jurisdictions around the world is an acknowledgement that the Digital Age has so fundamentally changed the nature of society that new skills and knowledge(s) are required for tomorrow’s citizens. And while it may include traditional values and legacies such as cross-cultural understandings and assurances that core knowledge and “basic skills” such as literacy and math will be preserved, the BCEdPlan looks to create and define new skills and proficiencies – e.g. “innovation” and “creativity” – which essentialists may view as components of a much lengthier cultural heritage.

For example, the essentialist may view the advent of new communications technology as an opportunity to apply the lessons of past revolutions in reproduction and collaboration to contemporary curriculum. Providing an education in the background of the relationships between advances in technology and human creativity, for instance, could prove a valuable instructor for young people learning about literacy in the Digital Age. Bruner describes undertaking such a task as learning about “not only the role of tools or language in the emergence of man, but as a necessary precondition for doing so, setting forth the fundamentals of linguistics of the theory of tools” (Bruner, 1966).

It remains to be seen the amount of influence these and other cultural legacies will exert in the pending British Columbia curricula, however the tenor and intent of the BCEdPlan as stated casts its gaze decidedly toward the future, potentially at the expense of the vast cultural learning about the past.

Sociologist

The BCEdPlan adopts a sociological lens in developing curriculum that is part of a broader government agenda to confront the perceived needs of our historical moment. As part of its Jobs Plan (BCJobsPlan), the Government of British Columbia declares that it is “reengineering education and training so that BC students and workers have the skills to be first in line for jobs in a growing economy” (Government, 2013a). Within this broader context, the critical contemporary problems British Columbian curriculum intends to address come into clearer focus, as education is redrawn from the bottom up, in three stages:

  1. A Head Start Learning to Hands-on Learning in Our Schools that will “give [students] an earlier head-start to hands-on learning, so [they’re] ready for the workforce or more advanced training when [they] graduate” (p. 8);
  2. A Shift in Education and Training to Better Match with Jobs in Demand to [maximize] spaces available to provide the programs [students] need to compete successfully in the workforce” (p. 8); and
  3. A Stronger Partnership with Industry and Labour to Deliver Training and Apprenticeships to “better connect [students] with the on-the-job and classroom training [needed] to boost […] skills or achieve certification” (p. 8).

Sociologists may be encouraged by the consideration of such economic metrics to guide the creation of British Columbian curriculum. However, by viewing the BCEdPlan as embedded within the government’s more comprehensive BCJobsPlan[1], they might find the purview of this sociological study to be narrowly focused or to ignore altogether areas of potentially more pressing contemporary importance. “To make the most effective use of our education and training resources,” the BCJobsPlan notes, “we will rely on the best data and […] the most up-to-date labour market information […] to guide government decision-making and to determine spending priorities” (p. 7).

Further sociological study may seek to critically address 21st century problems such as inequality, environmental degradation, or the degree to which our education systems help actualize the democratic ideals enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Canada, 1982) or Multiculturalism Act (Canada, 1988).

Educational Philosophy

While the first of these three lenses might assert different resolute perspectives toward the creation of curricular purposes, the educational philosopher approaches the discussion in the tradition of the humanities, and is thus “committed to the concept of knowledge as interpretation” (Drucker, 2011), as well as the idea:

“That the apprehension of the phenomena of the physical, social, cultural world is through constructed and constitutive acts, not mechanistic or naturalistic realist representations of pre-existing or self-evident information” (par. 7).

Educational philosophers may be critical of the BCEdPlan’s reliance on “the best data and labour market projections” to direct educational resources at the expense of allowing a more broadly constructed view of education’s role in democracy into the decision-making process, as this data assumes a market-oriented solution to a perceived educative problem. Others may highlight the similarity between this practice and the economic project authored by Milton Friedman in the form of neoliberal capitalism, “the doctrine that market exchange is an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action” (Harvey, 2005).

The educational philosopher may also challenge the symbolic representation and meta-messages about the nature or purpose of education communicated in the language and design of schooling, as Giroux has noted that the “survival-of-the-fittest ethic has replaced any reasonable notion of solidarity, social responsibility and compassion for the other” (Giroux, 2012).

Image by Alan Levine

III: Further Discussion

Analyzed through these various perspectives, the creation of 21st century curriculum in British Columbia can be seen to highlight aspects of both the progressive and sociological perspectives. While each of these lenses could be explored further, a more comprehensive approach to addressing essentialist and philosophical concerns would allow a more broadly constructed view of curriculum in the Digital Age. In implementing its notion of 21st century learning, the government of British Columbia should be especially willing to experiment with new technology in developing a curriculum reflective of the digital medium’s message (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967), lest our collective aspirations for the future be limited unnecessarily by perceived economic realities.

The ‘shock’ of the Digital moment provides an opportunity for both critique and the establishment of new myths surrounding education, the broader enactment of which Michel Foucault described as Enlightenment (Foucault, 1984), or critical ontology, something that should “be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating,” but rather, “a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

Paulo Freire described a similar sense of enlightenment at the root of an emancipatory critical praxis, whereby “critical percep­tion is embodied in action, [and] a climate of hope and confidence devel­ops which leads men to attempt to overcome the limit-situations” (Freire, 1970). This emancipation constitutes an active citizenship that continues to transform reality, “and as these situations are superseded, new ones will appear, which in turn will evoke new limit-acts” (p. 99).

By applying such critical discourses to the negotiation and expression of societal interests with respect to curriculum, we are presented with one of the unique democratic opportunities presented by the Digital Age itself. Indeed, as Simsek and Simsek point out, “the free flow of information through new technologies is consistent with the requirements of deliberative democracy.” However, as the man largely credited with the developing the World Wide Web, Tim Berniers-Lee, recently noted, “Unless we have an open, neutral internet […] we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture” (Kiss, 2014).

In encountering the Digital Age, educators and those interested in constructing curriculum are well-served by embracing the spirit of the open and interconnected web, and playing what Jim Groom and Brian Lamb call for as “a decisive role in the battle for the future of the web” (Groom, 2014). They write, “It is well within the power of educators” to engage in this struggle, though admit that it “will require an at-times inconvenient commitment to the fundamental principles of openness, ownership, and participation.”

As the Ministry of Education continues to unveil its vision for the future of education in British Columbia, these and other questions, perspectives and concerns raised in the discussion of this paper are presented with the intention of further engaging an ongoing discussion of curricular purpose in the province.

Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction (Vol. 59): Harvard University Press.

The Constitution Act, 1982 (1982).

Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988).

Council, Preimier’s Technology. (2010). A Vision for 21st Century Education

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.

Drucker, J. (2011). Humanities approaches to graphical display. Digital Humanities Quarterly, 5(1).

Egan, K. (1978). What is curriculum? Curriculum Inquiry, 65-72.

Foucault, M. (1984). What is Enlightenment? . In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans. 30th Anniversary Edition ed.): The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

Giroux, H. (2012). Education and the crisis of public values. Peter Laing, New York.

Government, B. C. (2013a). BC Jobs Plan

Government, B. C. (2013b). BC’s Education Plan Province of British Columbia.

Groom, J. L., Brian. (2014). Reclaiming Innovation. EducausE review, Online.

Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism: Oxford University Press.

Kiss, J. (2014, March 12, 2014). An online Magna Carta: Berners-Lee calls for bill of rights for web. The Guardian

Klein, N. (2008). The shock doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism.

McLuhan, M., & Fiore, Q. (1967). The medium is the message. New York, 123, 126-128.

Perry, D. (2011). The Computational Turn: Thinking about the Digital Humanities. Culture Machine(Spec. Issue ).

Shirky, C. (2008). Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations: Penguin.

Simsek, E., & Simsek, A. (2013). New Literacies for Digital Citizenship. Online Submission, 4(3), 126-137.

Tyler, R. W. (2013). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction: University of Chicago press.

[1] Where the BCEdPlan runs just under 8 pages, the BCJobsPlan measures just fewer than 50.

Emergent Citizenship: Curriculum in the Digital Age

Junedays

“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.” (Mitchell, 2008)

What is curriculum?

Kieran Egan begins his essay, “What is curriculum?” (Egan, 1978) by presenting the idea that schools and curriculum constitute a process by which “children are initiated into particular modes of making sense of their experience and the world about them, and also into a set of norms, knowledge and skills which the society requires for its continuance.” John Dewey presents a similar vision of schools that are “responsible not to transmit and conserve the whole of its existing achievements, but only such as make for a better future of society” (Dewey, 1916):

“It is the office of the school environment to balance the various elements in the social environment, and to see to it that each individual gets an opportunity to escape from the limitations of the social group in which he was born, and to come into living contact with a broader environment.” (p. 20)

Dewey’s description can be seen in congruence with the critical ontology of the self that Michel Foucault described in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” (Foucault, 1984), which should: “be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating”:

“It has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

It is toward this ideal of enlightenment that we might apprehend the spirit of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Canada, 1982), or the Multiculturalism Act (Canada, 1988), which seeks “to promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.” While Egan notes that “one symptom – or perhaps condition – of pluralism is the conflict and argument about what [the] curriculum of initiation should contain,” it should not be controversial to state that the mandate of education includes an introduction to (and the rehearsal of) the requisite skills which promote this “full and equitable participation” in the creation of our collective societal narrative(s) and identity.

This paper attempts to describe the nature of knowledge-creation in the Digital Age, and outline an approach to curriculum and citizenship that embraces an emergent sense of identity and culture.

Emergence in the Digital Age

The modernist conception of citizenship expressed in the Multiculturalism Act aligns neatly with possibilities brought about through the revolution in communication technologies that can be thought of as our Digital Age. Simsek and Simsek characterize the early stages of the Digital Age as a time when “the forms of information have changed drastically” (Simsek & Simsek, 2013):

“Information processing has been transformed from being passive receivers to active information processors, who must engage, construct, respond and act with information.” (p. 127)

“Our emergent digital times,” Nahachewsky and Slomp argue, “challenge the authority of any one author or teacher” (Nahachewsky & Slomp, 2009). However, envisioning a curriculum that might challenge the central authorial role of the teacher presents a number of difficulties, as Osberg and Biesta argue that such an emergent information landscape assumes that “Knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object that can be transferred from one place to the next[i]” (Osberg & Biesta, 2008). The emergent classroom is a place where

“Knowledge is understood, rather, ‘to ‘emerge’ as we as, as human beings, participate in the world.” (p. 313)

This view of knowledge is congruent with Simsek and Simsek’s description of the literacies required to actualize democracy in the digital era, which “differ from the previous ones, mainly due to their operational, interactive and user-based technological characteristics” (p. 129). Here we see that the emergent view of knowledge-construction, which presents a difficulty to institutional learning, may be supported by the advent of digital communications technologies.

Teaching and learning in polyphony

“If we hold that meaning is emergent,” Osberg and Biesta state. “Then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic” (p. 316). Sidorkin admits that “the tragic side of such a situation is that regardless of teachers’ intentions the relationship cannot become equal and truly dialogical” (Sidorkin, 2000). Despite one’s best efforts, the context of organized learning assumes orientation toward certain aforementioned goals and/or outcomes.

Paulo Freire confronted the student-teacher contradiction by prescribing what he called the “problem posing method” of education, whereby curricular content “constantly expands and renews itself” (Freire, 1970):

“The task of the dialogical teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to “re-present” that universe to the people from whom she or he received it – and “re-present” is not as a lecture, but as a problem” (p. 122).

However this framework maintains the authority of the teacher to “re-present” the reality of students toward their emancipation and as such is deserving of Bruner’s critique (highlighted by Nahachewsky and Slomp) in that the student becomes a “performing spectator” who “does not invent the world, [but] uses it” (Bruner & Bruner, 2009).

Sidorkin looks beyond this dialogical model toward Bakhtin’s idea of polyphony (Bakhtin & Emerson, 1993), and proposes that “the problem of imbalanced relation is not to be countered with power sharing based on considerations of equality.” Rather, he says, it should be “addressed with polyphony, the principle of engaged co-existence of multiple yet unmerged voices” (Sidorkin, 2000). The literacies attending such curricular intentions can be seen to revolve around the realization of a critical awareness of one’s community, and an ability to articulate a unique perspective within it. And it is here we see the notion of emergence begin to exist in a dual sense, as it arises in a collective narrative of community, but also in the individual’s sense of themselves within that community.

Sidorkin argues that curricular authority in the classroom should aim toward the realization of mutuality in meaning-making, stating “The polyphonic authority creates mutuality, and only this kind of authority should be used in education.”

It is this invitation to mutuality that Nahachewsky and Slomp describe by noting that:

“If students are allowed, through openness in the curriculum and their teachers’ language, to become part of a negotiation, facts then are created and become interpreted understandings shared by teacher and students, rather than transmitted by teachers as predisposed ‘truths’” (Nahachewsky & Slomp, 2009).

The skills and competencies attending such collective meaning-making may well have long been essential to the democratic project, as Simsek and Simsek note that “democratic values needed for citizenship are not different for new literacies.” However, they present the Digital Age as an opportunity to realize further promise of the democratic project:

“Many democratic values could be acquired by new literacies. New literacies are prerequisites for digital citizenship. New literacies increase the availability of relevant and credible information and broaden the capacity of individuals to get, share, compare, and contextualize information by developing new skills” (p. 133).

While they are careful to not describe the revolution in communicative technology as a panacea in an era of anemic political engagement and accountability, the authors do note that such a summary of digital citizenship embraces the value of broad contribution to an emergent, collaborative constructed community. Optimistically, they note, “Digital citizenship could create a more transparent, connected and participatory democratic environment” (p. 132).

Curriculum as Identity

The advent of the Digital Age has led to an increase in the opportunities for individuals to contribute their voice to the type of polyphonic democracy suggested by Freire and Sidorkin. Simsek and Simsek characterize the Digital Age by highlighting the increasing ability and access individuals have to spaces in which they might cultivate a networked, public “identity.”

“Identity in the digital territory is seen as a higher construct of literacies, which enables the citizen to act as a person with culture and independence as well as with critical abilities and democratic values” (Simsek & Simsek, 2013).

When conceived of in this fashion, the society education serves intends to admit all voices in its chorus, and asks that schools provide learning in the conception and expression of individual and pluralist identities. This is a process that unfolds endlessly, as the One and the Many are constantly making each other (Follett, 1919), and it is toward this critical praxis that education must orient the student experience if it is to achieve Freire’s “critical and dynamic view of the world” by which we might realize what he considered the central human objective: “permanent transformation of reality in favor of the liberation of people.” The progress toward this pluralist aim is the stated purpose of the Canadian Constitution, and should guide the continued exploration of curriculum in the Digital Age.

Bakhtin, M. M. M., & Emerson, C. (1993). Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics: U of Minnesota Press.

Bruner, J. S., & Bruner, J. S. (2009). Actual minds, possible worlds: Harvard University Press.

The Constitution Act, 1982 (1982).

Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988).

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.

Egan, K. (1978). What is curriculum? Curriculum Inquiry, 65-72.

Follett, M. P. (1919). Community is a process. The Philosophical Review, 576-588.

Foucault, M. (1984). What is Enlightenment? . In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans. 30th Anniversary Edition ed.): The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

Mitchell, D. (2008). Cloud Atlas: A Novel: Random House LLC.

Nahachewsky, J., & Slomp, D. (2009). Sound and fury: Studied response (s) of curriculum and classroom in digital times. Beyond ‘presentism”: Re-imaginging the historical, personal and social places of curriculum, 139-151.

Osberg, D., & Biesta, G. (2008). The Emergent Curriculum: Navigating a Complex Course between unguided Learning and Planned Enculturation. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(3), 313-328).

Sidorkin, A. M. (2000). Toward a pedagogy of relation.

Simsek, E., & Simsek, A. (2013). New Literacies for Digital Citizenship. Online Submission, 4(3), 126-137.

[i] See Biesta and Burbules (2003), Biesta and Osberg (2007), Cilliers (1998) and Osberg et al. (in press).

Epistemology, Pedagogy and Democracy in the Digital Age Bibliography

The Virtual Self @nora3000 at #Brocku [visual notes]
The Virtual Self, visual notes by Giulia Forsythe on a talk by Nora Young at Brock University March 2013 (Learn more about Giulia’s amazing Visual Practice here).

It has been a treat to delve deeper into the web of scholarship that charts the intersection of so many different philosophical inquiries that concern pedagogy as a branch of the digital humanities these last few weeks. The metaphysical and epistemic questions that guide our social, ethical and political discussions around the larger purposes of curriculum cast an incredibly broad net, but are undeniably arising out of the digital revolution in communicative technology we are living through. And so my bibliography covers a lot of ground:

  • What is knowledge in the digital age? How is it attained, where does it ‘live’?
  • If in fact knowledge has changed, how should we go about teaching in this new era?
  • And how do these shifts in knowledge and social processes affect the nature and purpose of citizenship?

Answers to these questions lie in fields of sociology, philosophy, political science, and education, but I have tried to locate and share readings that plot the intersection of these topics as relates the narrower field of ‘curriculum.’

Andreotti, V. d. O. (2011). The political economy of global citizenship education. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 9(3-4), 307-310.

Biesta, G. (2013). Learning in public places: Civic learning for the 21st century. Civic learning, democratic citizenship and the public sphere.

Biesta, G. J. J. (2012). Doing Emancipation Differently: Transgression, Equality and the Politics of Learning. Civitas Educationis. Education, Politics and Culutre, 1(1), 15-30.

Downes, S. (2012). Connectivism and connective knowledge: Essays on meaning and learning networks. National Research Council Canada, http://www. downes. ca/files/books/Connective_Knowledge-19May2012. pdf.

Feldman, S. B., & Tyson, K. (2014). Clarifying Conceptual Foundations for Social Justice in Education International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Social (In) Justice (pp. 1105-1124): Springer.

Garcia, J., & De Lissovoy, N. (2013). Doing School Time: The Hidden Curriculum Goes to Prison. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 11(4).

Howard, P. (2014). LEARNING COMMUNITIES AND DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP IN ONLINE AFFINITY SPACES: THE PROMISE AND THE PERIL. INTED2014 Proceedings, 5658-5658.

Khoo, S.-m. (2013). Between Engagement and Citizenship Engaged Scholarship (pp. 21-42): Springer.

Lentz, B. (2014). The Media Policy Tower of Babble: A Case for “Policy Literacy Pedagogy”. Critical Studies in Media Communication(ahead-of-print), 1-7.

MacGregor, J., Stranack, K., & Willinsky, J. (2014). The Public Knowledge Project: Open Source Tools for Open Access to Scholarly Communication Opening Science (pp. 165-175): Springer International Publishing.

Martin, C. (2011). Philosophy of Education in the Public Sphere: The Case of “Relevance”. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 30(6), 615-629.

Monteiro, H., & Ferreira, P. D. (2011). Unpolite Citizenship: The Non-Place of Conflict in Political Education. JSSE-Journal of Social Science Education, 10(4).

Queen, G., Ross, E. W., Gibson, R., & Vinson, K. D. (2013). I Participate, You Participate, We Participate…”: Notes on Building a K-16 Movement for Democracy and Social Justice. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor(10).

Rice, J. (2013). Occupying the Digital Humanities. College English, 75(4), 360-378.

Schugurensky, D., & Silver, M. (2013). Social pedagogy: historical traditions and transnational connections. education policy analysis archives, 21, 35.

Sidorkin, A. M. (2010). John Dewey: A Case of Educational Utopianism. Philosophy of Education Archive, 191-199.

Sidorkin, A. M. (2014). On the theoretical limits of education Making a Difference in Theory: Routledge.

Siemens, G. (2014). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age.

Talisse, R. B. (2013). Sustaining democracy: folk epistemology and social conflict. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 16(4), 500-519.

Willinsky, J. (2013). Teaching for a World of Increasing Access to Knowledge. CALJ Journal, 1(1).

“Moments happen quickly, and changes come slowly.”

Summer school

The title of this post, and its contents are synthesis and reflection of my thoughts while reading James Nahachewsky and David Slomp’s book chapter “Sound and Fury: Studied Response(s) of Curriculum and Classroom in Digital Times,” originally published in Beyond ‘Presentism': Re-Imagining the Historical, Personal, and Social Places of Curriculum (2009).

Similar to Borges‘ introduction, “like all men, he was given bad times in which to live,” we find ourselves in complex times that have yet undeniably coalesced into a present “moment” that might be described as a Digital Age. The arrival of these digital times has arrived with

“a shift in perspective that recently has thrown many modernist educational boundaries and underlying assumptions into doubt – including constructs of learner and teacher, and schooling itself (Gee, 2004; Knobel & Lankshear, 2007). This shift is due, in part to young people’s own fluid, de-territorialized meaning-making afforded by the consumption and, perhaps more importantly, the production of digital texts.”

Nahachewsky and Slomp present the problem of how confronting these new realities of the digital age reveals a contradiction in that “digital texts, as created by young people become sites of action and agency [while] Arguably, brick and mortar classrooms are not.” The language arts, the authors note, are uniquely situated to reveal the particular opportunities such times present the study of pedagogy, as new media arise, changing the relationships between students, teachers, and even broader educative communities beyond our institutions. Using the shift brought to text by the digital age as a corollary, the authors begin to outline a structural transformation that is beginning to be seen in literacy education.

“The spaces of classroom and educational digital texts create complex dialogic ‘contact zones’ (Bakhtin 1981), where we may witness the representation of learner, teacher, and curriculum in interesting, complex, and non-traditional ways.”

Highlighting the example of the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol for Collaboration in Basic Education, Nahachewsky and Slomp note that democratic governments have engaged the collision of the 21st century and its burgeoning technological revolution to provoke discussion around the revolutionizing of curriculum itself, though the section of the paper begins with a quote from Jerome Bruner’s Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (1986):

“Language- can never be neutral, it imposes a point of view not only about the world to which it refers, but toward the use of mind in respect of this world.”

Because while the governments of the western provinces strive toward a collaboratively determined common curriculum that will best prepare young Canadians for the digital and globalized 21st century, “The primary issue the Ministers [of education from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon and the North West Territories] identified in the agreement was the need to optimize the limited resources of the provinces in improving education [emphasis from the original].” The point of view “imposed,” and which frames the narrative of educational reform contextualizes the task as one of necessity rather than aspiration.

One needn’t suggest that fiscal responsibility shouldn’t constitute an aspect of educational discourse; but by beginning from this foundation, the “authors” of our curricular narratives – granted such voice by the democratic processes guiding public policy in Canada – limit the possible iterations of curriculum that might better contribute to education’s guiding purpose(s) than those created solely out of financial necessity. With the broad focus of literacy, the authors summarize the purpose of language learning expressed in the WNCP, which presents literacy as a tool:

“To facilitate thinking, define culture, develop personal identity, build interpersonal relationships, extend experience, facilitate reflection, contribute to a democratic society, construct and convey meanings, and facilitate metacognitive awareness.”

But while even optimists among us might appreciate these strokes of application that these democratic processes have sketched out on our collective behalf, the authors emphasize what is not included in this discussion of education’s future, what is not part of the narrative authored on society’s behalf: “the question, To what end?”

“…to what end do we use language to facilitate thinking or to construct meaning?”

In other words, what is understanding? And what is it for?

The affordances of new media in these digital times has further contributed to the disruption of the narrative of the singular author, a process that has been at work throughout the modernist period and which dates back to the Enlightenment period. Such philosophical movements are congruent with Bruner’s suggestion “that our use of language has a constitutive role in creative social reality and concepts of our selves.” 

To paraphrase Michael Wesch, our digital times present us with the opportunity to witness Marshall McLuhan‘s edict that “we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us,” in real time, largely through the critical study and experimentation with different forms of texts encountered in the language arts classroom. Indeed, Nahachewsky and Slomp point out that “this has important implications for the culture of education and the concepts of self that teachers and students co-construct.”

As the revolution of text online has challenged the notion of a single authorial rendering (even of an original work or act), so too might the digital age present the opportunity to consider the direction and construction of meaning to be a collaborative act between students who are guided in this process by a teacher. However well intended, our present schools are places where

“students are seen as participants who are given a role as ‘performing spectators who play out their canonical roles according to rule when appropriate cues appear.”

Bruner notes further than “this role causes the child to only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it.” However much this framing might offer a shift in perspective to today’s educators, it has been more than one hundred years since Maria Montessori lamented that while “it is true that some pedagogues, led by Rousseau, have given voice to the impracticable principles and vague aspirations for the liberty of the child […], the true concept of liberty is practically unknown to educators.” (Montessori 1912)

More than one hundred years ago, Montessori wished

“to direct the teacher to awaken in him[self], in connection with his own particular field, the school, that scientific spirit which opens the door for him to broader and bigger possibilities. In other words, we wish to awaken in the mind and heart of the educator an interest in natural phenomena to such an extent that, loving nature, he shall understand the anxious and expectant attitude of one who has prepared an experiment and who awaits a revelation from it.”

However as we look to the educative narrative presented in Canada today, we might note the Federal Harper Government’s discussions of scientific discovery have similarly limited its scope to invest “scarce resources” in research that offers a practical return on investment, thus affirming the broader cultural narrative of perpetuating an infinite growth economy as our highest purpose.

As it is in education, the question To what end? is not included in the discussion of why we ought pursue scientific discovery (if not to achieve predicted economic outcomes), and the omission represents an abandoning of principles around which our cultural, social, artistic, political and moral traditions each originate and continue to revolve, those traditions which coalesced and were articulated during the dawn of the era of mass-printed texts.

Following the invention of the printing press, Europe witnessed the transformation of its public sphere(s) (Habermas 1991), with paradigmatic shifts visited upon religion, politics, science, philosophy and the arts. The ability of greater and greater numbers of people to encounter and freely share new ideas delivered a cataclysm upon the singular narratives of public affairs constructed with absolute power by monarchs and churches, and is the overarching arc of justice which guides foundational schools of western philosophical thought to this day. Broadening the base of authorship in the creation of a collective narrative led directly to the transformation of the existent structures of the preceding paradigm.

We might learn from these events, as the advent of our modern, digital technologies presents what may constitute an analogous ‘moment’ of cultural revolution where the discussion of what might be is at least as relevant for discussion as the prospects of what must be. In fact, we have learned much from those who sought to uphold the mantles of chalice and crown throughout the various Enlightenment revolutions employed various arguments to make their case, and should proceed skeptically with those who would tell us what “must be.” With the traditions of scholarship and tools we have acquired in the age of empiricism, the test to establish what “must”…

must be of the strictest rigor.

In the meantime, it is equally important that modern educationists explore and discover what can be, as it is central to the task of creating a fuller perception of nature and humankind which the traditions of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and political philosophy demand of us.

Curriculum as Black Box

Image from designshack.net

“…a black box is a device, system or object which can be viewed in terms of its input, output and transfer characteristics without any knowledge of its internal workings.”

In conducting an inquiry into curriculum, the black box may prove a useful metaphor to consider possible avenues of discussion or research. In his essay What is Curriculum? (pdf) Kieran Egan introduces Cicero’s use of the Latin curricula “to refer to the temporal space in which we live; to the confines within which things may happen; to the container, as opposed to the contents.” By applying the metaphor of the black box, we can appreciate the discussion of curriculum as being concerned with educational inputs and outputs, and the black box itself representing the individual experience of the learner.

With the advent of Enlightenment philosophy, society began to orientate itself toward the actualization of a pluralism that assumed an infinite diversity of human minds; here we see the shift of inquiry away from inputs and outputs, and toward the nature of the black box itself.

Egan presents this awakening thus:

“traditional curriculum questions about what should be taught can no longer stand as a distinct question in the fact of discoveries about individual differences. Questions of method are unquestionably relevant to curriculum decisions.”

“The difficulty,” he adds, “in admitting the question, how, into curriculum matters is that there becomes little of educational relevance that can be excluded from the curriculum field.”

Indeed. And as we have become subsumed in a preoccupation with how, we have suffered from what Egan calls “a general failure of nerve, of vision, and of direction.”

“To know what the curriculum should contain requires a sense of what the contents are for. If one lacks a clear sense of the purpose of education, then one is deprived an essential means of specifying what the curriculum should contain.”

B.C. launches Skills for Jobs Blueprint to re-engineer education and training

And so we find ourselves surrounded by curricular initiatives that describe at exhaustive length the hows of learning in the 21st century: game-based, play, outdoor, experiential, collaborative, critical thinking, and various apps, hardware, and learning media aggregate to serve a purpose that is discussed as a forgone necessity. Notions of what should be taught are often presented in platitudinous photo-opportunities operating within the premise that the future will so paradigmatically different from the present or past that any discussion of curricular contents can only be looked upon with the most pragmatic or utilitarian perspective.

In building the altar of how, the means of delivering curriculum have become the ends: we have become singularly focused on what education must be in favour of what it might become. 

Egan would agree:

“This manner of stating the problem exemplifies the failure of nerve: it suggests we have no control over the future; we cannot make of it what seems best to us.”

Image from Zcache.com

In considering curriculum as a black box problem, we might be guided by Schroedinger’s cat thought-experiment. Originally conceived to highlight the paradox at the root of quantum mechanics (basically the uncertainty principle), a simplified look at the analogy finds Schroedinger’s cat inside a black box with a vial of poison that will alternatively be delivered, or not, depending on the state of a subatomic particle.

Until the box is opened, there exists potential for either eventuality to exist: that the cat is still alive; or that it has expired. And so until a definitive measurement or observation can be made, the cat might be thought of as being both alive, and dead.

In our own practice and research, ‘opening the black box’ of individual learning experiences is similarly limited and may be seen to require such a dualist response. “Focus on either how or what at the expense of the other,” Egan writes in his conclusion, “is improper.”

He writes:

“Proportion and good sense demand that we turn our attention increasingly to what questions and present strong arguments for or against specific curriculum content.”

In resembling the black box, our discussion of curriculum traverses the knowable entities of inputs and outputs, and seeks to investigate the opaque nature of individual experience. In this inquiry, as soon as measurement and observation are able to record new points of knowledge they unfold into new inquiries toward an ever-retreating horizon.

As a symbol, the black box represents paradoxes that are at the heart of learning and knowledge, and aligns with Egan’s characterization of bringing about authentic curriculum as a struggle to “summon the nerve to believe that we can make the future what we want and better prepare children to deal with it.”

EDCI 335: Final Design Project

EDCI335 Final Design from Bryan Jackson on Vimeo.

You can read the full PDF of the paper here

Background Drawing identified-gifted learners from the Coquitlam School District, Gleneagle Secondary School’s TALONS (The Academy of Learning for Gifted Notable Students) Program offers Ministry-identified gifted learners interdisciplinary core curriculum (Social Studies, English, Math, and Science for grades 9 and 10, all at an honours level), as well as experiential opportunities to complete Planning 10, Leadership 11 and PE 11. TALONS learning is largely organized around inquiry-based projects that make use of outdoor education and community service elements to imbue learning objectives with a greater tangible relevance to students and their local, as well as global, communities. In addition to covering provincial Ministry of Education curricula in the above courses, the program is grounded in George Betts’ Autonomous Learner Model (Betts & Neihart, 1986), with an emphasis on metacognition and acquainting each member of the cohort with skills and habits uniquely tailored to their own social and emotional roles in cultivating interdependence and community.

This design project was conceived to align both the explicit and implicit foci of British Columbia’s Social Studies 9 curriculum (Social Studies 8 to 10 Integrated Resource Package 1997) with a larger narrative expressed in the personal and collective learning in the TALONS classroom. By bringing the “Hidden Curriculum” into the open in this manner, the learning design intends to conceive of means of engaging the course material which are congruent with its ends. 

Summer Book Project: Narcissus & Goldmund

Image courtesy of Solomon Says

I first read Narcissus and Goldmund ten years ago this February – finishing it at 11:33pm on February 16th, 2004 (the inscription in the back cover tells me). It’s likely that I was at my house on Barbara Circle, in Little Rock, an idyllic three bedroom where I spent my senior year of college. It’s possible that I was traveling somewhere with our track team, laying in the back of a team bus taking us north to the indoor tracks of the midwest, or biding time in a hotel or at one of our early season meets.

The note in the back of the book only gives the date and time.

I’d already read some Hermann Hesse by then – Siddhartha and Steppenwolfto be sure, perhaps even Demien (which I purchased at Little Rock’s fabulous Lorenzen & Co Booksellers). But after ten years, Narcissus and Goldmund has stuck out, somehow: there was something about this parable that effected the twenty-three year old me greatly. Delving into the passion at the heart of artistic expression, I recall the book presenting some sacred devotion to life, love and connection that however subtly contributed to the momentum of my post-collegiate years.

This past July, as I began thinking about these youthful books and first (re)read On the RoadI coupled Narcissus and Goldmund into a short list that I thought might capture the transformation that Literature had wrought on my young mind and life. The list included (or has grown to include):

Through On the Road I was heartened to discover in the text that neither of us had aged so terribly that the experience made me cringe. True, there was sadness where before I may have seen lust or excitement, fear where before there had been confidence. But alongside what Kerouac had to say to me at thirty two rang loud and clear the message he had for the younger Bryan, and it was a lesson I’m still grateful to have been taught.

With Hesse I had a similarly passionate relationship as a younger man, reading nearly everything I could get my hands on between the ages of twenty and twenty-five: Steppenwolf, Demien, Rosshalde, Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund (The Glass Bead Game site on my shelf, a treat to myself for some future date when I can read a “new” book by a favourite long-deceased author). Each of them is dog-eared and wildly underlined; the’ve been lent to friends and frequently to students (especially a yellow and yellowing copy of Demien that is currently on a vacation with one of the TALONS alumni). Concerned as so many of his stories and characters are with discovering one’s passion, voice and place in the world, he is what I consider to be an essential voice for wandering youth.

But I’ve long held Narcissus and Goldmund somewhere above his other works – more profound, more lasting, or all encompassing. I’m not sure what, exactly, and so I sat down this February, somewhat coincidentally to see what all the fuss had been about all those years ago.

As in most of Hesse, there is the ring of a Jungian call to pursue one’s heroic calling in life that Narcissus presents his younger pupil Goldmund as he counsels him away from life at the seminary:

“Natures of your kind, with strong, delicate senses, the soul-oriented, the dreamers, poets, lovers are almost always superior to us creatures of the mind. You take your being from your mothers. You live fully; you were endowed with the strength of love, the ability to feel.”

Goldmund’s sensitivity is aesthetic, where Narcissus’ is logical, and the novel makes a case for the superiority of the former as we follow Goldmund away from school to bathe in the personal riddles of time and the nature of the self on a pilgrimage that may be characterized as spiritual without being religious.

There is an exaltation of mystery here that I no-doubt found inspiring as a fifth year senior looking ahead at graduation.

“Oh how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pong, the eye of a person or of a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all; but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning like Father Anselm or wise like Abbot Daniel, and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening.”

In the spring of 2004, I was on the verge of graduating from university. I had lived in Arkansas for most of five years, beginning when I was scarcely 18, and the life I had established for myself in the south would soon be over and in many ways irretrievable. While this is true in some ways of all experience, leaving Little Rock brought with it the additional mourning that most of my friends from that time would be returning to their own home countries and cities across the States, and whether I was conscious of it at the time or not, I was comforted through Goldmund’s experience of death bringing his life into a crystalline focus:

“He thought that he, that all men, trickled away, changing constantly, until they finally dissolved, while their artist-created images remained unchangeably the same.

“He thought that fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all things of the mind. We fear death, we shudder at life’s instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something that lasts longer than we do.”

Indeed, a journal entry from the afternoon of February 12th, 2004 – that was written on a charter bus taking our track and field team north to compete at an indoor meet the University of Iowa – is freckled with Hesse quotes, and captures a purely preserved expression of my mind at the time:

“We are in a western-looking saddle of the country, with sparse snow around the trees that flank farmers’ fields. It feels like Wyoming, the sun-bleached yellow terrain, mountainous as we run down the ancient Ozarks. Dirt roads and barns abound, as do the hawks riding updrafts against the dusty foothills, bullet holes against the blue sky.

“It is a place that lends itself to a trip through one’s mental landscape, and easy to become lost in your thoughts up here, and as we ascend a ridge-winding two-lane highway and climb above a soil-rich rolling valley – Marshall Welcomes You, the sign says – something says to me, Merritt, BC, and in a flash I see British Columbia. It is fleeting though and only a moment before the small-town churches and Missouri mom-and-pops begin to dominate the scenery, and Canada is an infinite ride away into the North.

“Home is both a million miles away and yet somehow coming closer than I care to have it. Anyone who cares to read these words will traipse through these last few dozen pages and tire of the time I have devoted to the loss and remorse the idea of leaving Arkansas has brought me. But it is something which weighs mightily upon me.”

As with Kerouac earlier this year, I am happy to find in the rereading of Narcissus and Goldmund that my younger self was fortunate to encounter an author and a companion such as Hesse. Goldmund confronts his own existential nausea with a devotion to applying his aesthetic sensitivities – as both the cause of Goldmund’s inspiration as much as it is his torment – to art that was able to capture “the solemn feeling of a rare and great experience which he might perhaps know one more time in the course of his life or which might remain unique.”

With so many of my own life experiences nearing an end, my anxiety was given solace in attempting to live with what Hesse called:

“A deep reverence, a great earnestness, and at the time a secret fear of the moment when this high, unique experience would be over, classified, swallowed by the routine of days.”

Reverence alone, Goldmund realizes, is not enough, however.

“In order to create a work like this, one had not only to carry images in one’s soul; one also had to have inexpressibly trained, practiced hands. Perhaps it was after all worthwhile to place one’s entire life at the service of art, at the expense of freedom and broad experience, if only in order to be able once to make something this beautiful, something that had not only been experienced and envisioned and received in love, but also executed to the last detail with absolute mastery. It was an important question.”

It is, and it’s one of many pieces of the book that struck me in 2014 as much as in 2004. Almost thirty three, I’m no longer looking out on adulthood as the Void Beyond University so much as I am poised between the path I’ve created of it thus far, and the possibilities it holds into the future. Ten years on from both Hesse and graduation, I have accumulated a good many of the life moments and experiences that will have cumulatively determined who I was in this life. And while my interpretation of the wrestling with that question may have shifted, it feels central to feelings about my self and life today as much as ever.

Like Goldmund, I have remained “in his dreams or his thought-filled moments of rest, overlooking a flowering or wilting valley, […] all eyes an artist.” With him I have “longed desperately to halt the gracefully drifting nonsense of life with [my] mind and transform it into sense,” though of late this has taken on a more intellectual aim than artistic.

Toward the end of the book, Narcissus directs me to consider the merits of complementing this pursuit with more art, and heart:

“Our thinking is a constant process of converting things to abstractions, a looking away from the sensory, an attempt to construct a purely spiritual world. Whereas you take the least constant, the most mortal things to your heart, and in their very mortality show the meaning of the world. You don’t look away from the world; you give yourself to it, and by your sacrifice to it raise it to the highest, a parable of eternity. We thinkers try to come closer to God by pulling the mask away from His face. You come closer to Him by loving His creation and re-creating it. Both are human endeavors, and necessarily imperfect, but art is more innocent.”

Because just as the more academic or reflective posts on this site are records of ideas and expressions of an evolving self, there are emotions and realizations captured in these aged books of both Hermann Hesse and my own ink that light the way to an understanding that yet eludes meaning, an exaltation of

“How mysterious this life [is,] how deep and muddy its waters [run], yet how clear and noble what emerge[s] from them.”

On Jack’s 92nd Birthday

Jack Kerouac would be ninety-two today (March 12th), a birthday the New Republic has celebrated with a Reconsideration originally published in December of 1972. Noting a recent change in fashion that “left Kerouac’s work inert and his legend inactive,” William Crawford Woods set out to devour the scope of the author’s “one vast book” of a life in literature, discovering (in Dharma Bums)

Kerouac’s special grace—which is, at his best, to shower mindful tenderness on the crummy specifics of the day-to-day. It’s a grace given no- where more freely than in this book, where the writer’s later bleaker vision (“Why else should we live but to dis- cuss . . . the horror and terror of all this life . . .”) is crowded off the page by animal enjoyment. The uniform celebration of food, sex, art and exercise that is the core of the book suggests the intellectual sensuality that was the core of the Beat esthetic: poems and women, both to be made.

This past summer I made a point of rereading On the Road more than ten years since I discovered it as an undergraduate, and was struck with the same sense of energy:

Like Wordsworth, Kerouac’s work is not so much craft as it is a beatific exaltation of This Moment in Life, spoken plainly in the language of the people. Not to say this wasn’t also Hemingway’s concern; but one gets the sense that for him or Fitzgerald, there is an intellectual factor at work. In Kerouac, the mind is an obstacle to be overcome in deference to the Now, and the image Kerouac creates of Dean and their mutual quest is a story of saints engaging in communion with the people and the land  West, where the Beats introduce the transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson to the American Night.

Woods points out that Jack’s legacy is rightly obscured by rising tide that drowned modernity’s brief infatuation with “spontaneous prose,” noting that:

Kerouac, by subscribing to so strict a program, had made himself into the one thing he professed himself to be at war with: an academic from the start. Another novelist might discover his materials and methods painfully from book to book, but Kerouac came with a design that only genius could save from formula, and I think we will see that that salvation was not forthcoming. For what the author did was write the same book eight, 10, a dozen times, and in the end his “spontaneous prose” was shuffled from volume to volume in an unspontaneous manner.

But as I discovered this summer, “I could have had worse idols than Jack Kerouac, who told me all about the pitfalls of the wandering life all the while extolling the virtues of the truly beatific moments their could be exchanged for.” He is, Woods reminds us today on what would be Jack’s 92nd birthday, “the kind of unanonymous writer to whom some of us have a specific special debt.”