30 December 2005

Change of mission

I edited my mission statement above from "Passionate teachers teaching enthusiastic students in joyful schools" to "Enthusiastic human beings living passionate lives in a joyful society"

The change is a reflection of how important the opportunity to revision the Social Justice Committee at QUUF is to me and how it fits in with my calling to serve. I believe that the universe has provided and it is up to me to respond. This is the beginning of something big in my life, it simply remains to be seen what that something turns out to be.

09 December 2005

Let’s talk about Social Justice and QUUF

The following is a piece I wrote to give to people with whom I have set an appointment to discuss the topic of Social Justice and QUUF:

Here are some thoughts that might help give us a common starting point for our discussion. I took the liberty of asking myself a couple questions just to give every one I talk with a similar foundation for building our conversation:

What’s the push for change in the Social Justice Committee (SJC)?

I suspect that when most people think of serving on the SJC they imagine they would be subjected to a constant barrage of bad news and then feel compelled to respond by making endless demands for money, time, and energy. At least, that is what I imagined when I first thought about it. And I was right. Every time I get another story of unjust persecution or heroic efforts to save people from pain and suffering in the SJC mail box my immediate reactions are a series of compassionate feelings backed by a moral logic to make every sacrifice to help. This creates an ever present temptation to either shut down my feelings to protect myself from being overwhelmed (which is not a viable option) or to demand more money, time and energy from the congregation.

The problem with giving in to the temptation of making demands is that if SJC becomes a constant harbinger of bad news accompanied by persistent requests for attention, then the congregation will eventually cease to give the SJC full consideration. Good UU’s will all listen to the words out of dutiful respect, but in our hearts and minds we will already be shielded against the expected assault. If the committee is one of the key ways that the church can accomplish the goal of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, then the first responsibility of the SJC is to cultivate and maintain a trusting relationship with the congregation in which the congregation can count on the SJC to wield the scalpel of affliction and the salve of comfort in ways that will heal, not just make random stabs into the open wound of our conscientious awareness of flaws in the world.

If the job is so personally demanding then what could possess me to accept it? What pulls me, personally, to champion a change in the SJC?

I stand convicted of the possibility of creating a world that works for all. I am sentenced to work on manifesting that possibility and I suspect it may be a life sentence. The prison I occupy to serve out this sentence is a life of affluence and material freedom. Being a healthy, educated, white, middle-class, heterosexual, male, citizen of the United States of America at the dawn of the 21st century at least partly defines the inescapable walls that I am condemned to work within. The prison that I inhabit is one in which every one of those characteristics is supposed to be accompanied by a wealth of privileges and benefits, the world described by those labels is supposed to be one that works, but it doesn’t. Of course, those who say they would kill to have the freedom of my position in the world cannot conceive of it as a prison, but what kind of freedom is it when I have to shield myself from the realities of the world? I may have physical and mental freedom, but if I cannot deal with the world as it truly is then I do not have emotional freedom, and certainly not true spiritual freedom.

Taking on the SJC is the forefront of my quest for true freedom, a freedom that transcends the accidents of my circumstances. I have put myself in a place in which I have the responsibility to see the world for what it truly is. And I have also accepted the responsibility to assist the congregation to formulate a practical strategic response to that world. By accepting these responsibilities I expect to have many opportunities to face whatever it is that binds me and prevents me from truly seeing and accepting reality. Facing those bonds will give me the opportunity to become a powerful creator of the possible, specifically, the possibility of creating a world that works for all.

But, I don’t know exactly what to do, so I am asking for help. First, I have to work out how the SJC can become a better vehicle for QUUF to embody it’s mission of service beyond the church. Once I’ve got a handle on that, then the rest might be clearer.

Questions to consider in preparation for our meeting. I do not expect you to answer every question, they are just food for thought and give you a good idea of where I am coming from:

What is Social Justice to you?

Someone suggested that a Social Justice Committee is a way for the congregation and the church to look outward towards the rest of the world, whereas most of the other committees are primarily concerned with looking inward at the needs of the congregation and the church itself. The converse of this metaphor is that Social Justice is also partly responsible for the face that the church presents to the wider world because we will be known by our deeds (or unknown due to the lack of them) in our local community. Why do you think the Social Justice Committee is important to QUUF?

Our resources are limited, how can we say “no” to a worthy cause?

How do you define an “unworthy cause”?

Is there a way that we can say “yes” to every worthy cause even when we have neither money nor volunteers to offer?

How can we help cultivate enthusiastic responses to SJC news and recruiting messages?

How do we find and follow the passionate energy that inspires service? How can we become trustworthy stewards of a congregational conscience that goads the church into action when it’s the right thing to do and dampens the fires of enthusiasm when they threaten to burn us?

Finally, what can we do to lead the way towards joyfully healing the horrors of the world? (By joyfully, I mean in a way that fully engages an individual’s attention, not merely in a way that amuses them. Full engagement of attention is one of the symptoms of deep learning, it leads to increasingly complex understanding, is always challenging and sometimes involves pain and discomfort.)

07 December 2005

Santa's New List

Santa’s sitting in his office proudly reviewing a press release about how his operations have finally entered the twenty-first century with the launch of a new NASA-style mission control computer system for making his list and checking it twice.

Just as he is about to put his seal of approval on the release he sees a note slide under his door and hears someone running down the hall. When he reads the note it turns out to be a hand written warning that there could be serious problems with the new computer’s integrity.

Santa is very concerned because he has invested immense amounts of time and energy in this system and hates the idea that he might deliver coal to the wrong stockings. He decides to head to mission control to check on the system directly. Upon arrival he can tell things are not going well.

The Chief Mission Control Specialist is going through an emergency check list on all systems. The young elves who run this elite space-age operation took the 60's NASA geek image seriously so over their green tights they wear white button down shirts with pocket protectors in the breast pocket. Every elf in the room has visible sweat rings emanating from their armpits as they are all frantically pushing buttons to double check every single system or running around to manually cross check the data. There is constant low level din punctuated periodically by shouted reports to the Chief Mission Control Specialist that a particular system is "A-Ok" or "30% operational" or whatever.

Santa puts on his best game face with a warm and reassuring smile of concern as he checks in with his Chief-Elf-In-Charge. But, his Chief-Elf-In-Charge is red-faced and looks like he's about to pass a kidney stone.

Santa figures he’s seen it all, so he plays it cool. "What's the situation, Sparky?"

Sparky, the Chief-Elf-In-Charge is a young 500 years old and has only been at this job for a few years since the last Chief-Elf-In-Charge (who was over 1000 years old) quit in protest as soon as the list checking computer system was approved. So, Sparky takes a deep breath after his Chief Mission Control Specialist finishes giving him a quick status report.

"Well, Santa, it looks like we've got a problem."

"Is that right, Sparky? Is it the computer?"

Sparky replies, "Well, sir, it may not be the computer. We're currently running every diagnostic in the book and several that aren't because the data that we're getting is, um, bizarre."

"What do you mean by 'bizarre,’ Sparky?"

"Well, sir, when we decided to develop the computerized list checking system the programmers were ecstatic that they would have a chance to work with real world systems instead of the usual gaming stuff. So, they decided they should collect real time data to accurately capture the actual complexity of day-to-day living and then run that data through a few well chosen culturally correct morality filters to sort the data and then crunch the resulting numbers to arrive at a clear and appropriate decision about who should receive coal in their stocking instead of presents. Everything was fine until they went to test the system last month.

"What they found was that the system seemed to work very well, except for one small glitch. You see when they do this kind of initial systems test they compare their test output decisions with a control set of data from the old system..."

"Sparky, cut to the chase."

"Well, sir, the old elves from the List Checking, Twice Bureau pointed out that while the computer did a good job with stuff like your basic lying, cheating and stealing, it was completely missing the ability to detect when children would say one thing but actually do another without an outright lie."

"Since hypocrisy is so much more subtle than lying, it had been overlooked in the original design so the input systems had to be redesigned and the programming reworked, which put everything badly behind schedule so when they launched the whole system this morning they went live without having tested the hypocrisy sub-system thoroughly."

"So, you think there is a problem with the hypocrisy sub-system?"

"Well, not exactly, sir."

"Come on, Sparky, I'm a very patient man, or so the legend has it, but you're pushing it aren't you?"

"Sorry, Santa, Sir, I just can't believe the data we're getting."

"So what's the data, then?"

"Well, the programmers for the hypocrisy sub-system had to come up with a way to quantify the hypocrisy in a way that would allow them to calculate each transgression, so they asked the old elves in the List Checking, Twice Bureau for how they dealt with hypocrisy.

"The old elves told the programmers that when they judged hypocrisy it was important to estimate the relationship between the hypocrisy of the society and the hypocrisy of the individual. 'It is a fact of human nature,' they said, 'that the individual cannot be expected to have any less than their fair share of the hypocrisy of the whole society.'"

"Yes, I remember back in the day how it was such a guessing game, at best." agreed Santa.

"So, you see, sir, this means that our computer has to calculate not only the hypocrisy of the individual, but the hypocrisy of the whole society, in order to be fair. And we now have the advantage, for the first time, of calculating a precise ratio. And true to form, the list team came up with a brilliant solution and also discovered that the burden of hypocrisy is a weight on society."

Just then the Chief Mission Control Specialist Elf ran up to the Chief-Elf-In-Charge and frantically whispered a report in his ear and showed him a series of printouts that were on the clip board in his hand.

"Ahhhh, I see.... Ohh? But... Uh-huh," said the Chief-Elf-In-Charge as he heard the report. Finally, he turned back to Santa with a dire look on his face. "I'm really sorry to have drawn this explanation out, but I think it is very important for you to understand the situation completely and I have just gotten the final report on the computer diagnostics."

"And?" said Santa.

"Sir, the computer is working fine, even better than expected actually."

"But, you say that as if it’s not good news?"

"No sir, that means that our data is correct and that the number of people who are saying one thing and doing something different this holiday season is rising extremely fast. The trend is so strong that the whole of human society is going to implode as soon they reach hypocritical mass."

24 October 2005

Pacific Grace and her extraordinary boom

This is the Pacific Grace, which I photographed in Port Townsend on October 17th. What caught my attention about her was the short foresail boom and the extraordinarily long mainsail boom. The first picture to the left shows that the mainsail boom is so long that it has a substantial bow to it. The curvature is not an effect of the camera, it is the actual shape of the boom. Actually, looking at it this way it is a rather elegant reflection of the curves of the deck and the rails. Was that intentional, you think? The second photo on the right shows the information they had on display about her (you can click on it to see it full size.) The third photo, while it technically sucks as a photo, shows how short the foresail boom is and the odd distance between the masts that caught my attention as I was walking into downtown.

If anyone happens to know a reason for such an arrangement I would love to hear about it. Is there something about fishing, or the particular waters she was designed to sail in that would make this arrangement of particular advantage?

Interesting light on a VW

18 October 2005

Dear QUUF,

I am the new chair for the Social Justice Committee (S.J.C.). The S.J.C. membership has declined to the point where it is evident to the leaders of the church, and those who remain involved, that it needs to be revived. In spite of this need for revival we are staying faithful to the key activities and annual events that have stable participation and reliable existing leadership. For details on which activities we expect to continue see my article in the November newsletter.

The challenge of reviving this committee is no small task, but it is one that is important if we take the description of it seriously. Here’s a excerpt of one description I received as a new member, “The committee strives to find ways and means to rectify social injustices; and support groups organized to deal with social problems.” When I was approached by Rev. Bruce Bode and President of the Board Kendra Golden to consider this leadership position I was initially hesitant to accept. At the September kick-off meeting (my first, which I attended out of curiosity) and in previous personal conversations with Julia Cochrane, former chair and my vice-chair, she made it clear that this is a significant task that has gotten the better of previous people in my position.

By coordinating a heart and soul searching inquiry into the questions, “What is Social Justice?” and “Why do we have a Social Justice Committee?” I am interested in finding out how you (and the rest of our congregation) relate to, think about, and act on the idea of Social Justice. I took on this task because I have an opportunity to take advantage of my unique combination of only limited UU and QUUF history, an abundance of experience with facilitating inquisitive learning, and a particular interest in developing an integrated approach to the diverse issues that cause injustice and suffering in the world.

If I were taking over a committee with a full slate of activities and a need for complex church-wide coordination then my lack of history would probably be an impediment to getting things done effectively. But, by remaining faithful to the established successful activities, I will be supportive of those who so generously lead them while putting my primary focus on this learning and re-visioning process for the committee.

The investigation will have three key components. First, I will reach out personally, through articles, personal interviews and being available at church events, to invite exploration of the basic questions above. Next, Kathy Walker and I are working together on an upcoming Social Justice unit for the RE program to create a more comprehensive congregation-wide investigation of current Social Justice involvement within and beyond the church. Finally, the committee will sponsor an open forum for the congregation to hear about and be heard regarding the results of the previous steps plus I will explain the final process for creating a vision for the S.J.C. and it’s role in our congregation.

My goal, personally, is to transform the UU claim to respect the dignity and worth of all life from an abstract rhetorical device into an honored and cherished practice in my life. I suspect that this congregation has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to those who are actively committed to Social Justice issues both personally and professionally, but only with your help will I discover those riches and succeed in revitalizing the S.J.C. Please contact me with your thoughts, questions, answers and concerns for Social Justice and the S.J.C. If you are willing to share your feedback with the entire world, then replying in this Blog is certainly a welcome method for sharing.

05 October 2005

Discovering Context

One day while teaching an eight year old to hit a ball with a bat I had a vision that altered my view of teaching forever. I homeschooled other people’s kids for about five years and it was during that time that I had an insight that has guided my work ever since. Dale and I were at the baseball field in the park across the street from my house, where I offered private teaching services. Our friend and my other student that day, eight-year-old Keith, was helping us as best he knew how. Keith was encouraging Dale and making every suggestion that popped into his head. Keith, in contrast with Dale, was a natural and confident athlete but had a great store of patience for helping his friends.

Keith and I had thought of just about everything that could be thought of to help Dale. We tried different bats, balls, pitching distances, holding the bat differently, and every way we could think to adjust Dale and his performance. We also varied our own behavior by taking turns pitching, talking about how we remember learning to bat and demonstrating our own batting techniques.

I always knew Dale was challenged. He is the only child I ever taught who truly needed his prescription of Ritalin. Dale was born drug affected and his adopted mother was a school district employee who had studied prenatal development and specifically the effects of maternal drug abuse. She figured by Dale’s pattern of neurological dysfunction that his mother had probably done some heavy cocaine in his fourth month in her womb, not to mention whatever she was doing when he was born.

So, after what seemed like hours of unsuccessful coaching, there I was pitching a dirty white baseball with red dirt-dulled stitches underhand to Dale standing with an shiny aluminum bat only 10 or 15 feet away. At that particular moment, just as I was releasing the ball (that Dale would swing mightily at, but miss) I saw something. In that instant I made an observation that lead to an insight into teaching that has driven my fascination with education ever since. Just as I uncurled my fingers and the ball was released to fly towards Dale, he twitched, ever so slightly.

That twitch did not reveal to me how to help him. Only our determined, relentlessly loyal and supportive practice eventually helped him improve his batting. What occurred to me was a very peculiar vision of the task that I had chosen as a profession. Suddenly, every one of the details that Keith and I had attempted to adjust became dimensions in (what I later learned mathematicians call) an n-dimensional space. An n-dimensional space is an imaginary space that has an arbitrary number of dimensions, anywhere from one to infinity.

Since the task itself was a fairly straightforward physical coordination of motor skills, the basic variables might be accounted for by a reasonably small finite number of dimensions although more than just the four space-time dimensions we are all familiar with. Within this imaginary space in which the behavior occurs there is easily imagined a particular region in the space that we would call, “success”. My job as the teacher is to help him as the student to move out of the space of “failure” and into the space of “success.”

This is a pretty straightforward concept but what occurred to me upon observing his twitch was that Dale may have had things thrown at him before under less favorable conditions and his emotional response to having something thrown was something that I could neither control for, nor reliably find out about. But, rather than simply adding a single dimension of emotion, this insight lead me to realize that there were a potentially infinite number of dimensions if I wanted to take into account his whole history with bats, balls, throwing, where we were, the time of day, his experience with men, and everything else that could possibly affect his mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual state of being. The challenge of teaching is not only moving the results of his performance but accurately discerning, from nearly infinite possibilities, both the relevant dimensions and the appropriate direction to move within each of those dimensions. Not to mention the challenge of figuring out what combination of causal factors are relevant in each dimension and responsible for movement in the desired direction.

As you can imagine, the insight was initially a little overwhelming. But over time, as I have studied and read in various fields my understanding of it has gone through a metamorphosis. My insight was not simply a realization of how potentially daunting teaching can be, but was the revelation that how the student experiences the world is the fundamental currency of our exchange as teacher and student, as opposed to the traditional notion that the currency of teaching is knowledge, skills and information. What my insight points to is not the traditional approach of accounting for a teacher performance with students, but instead points to developing a map of experiences that actually accords with the student’s world. But that became clear over more time and continued metamorphosis of my ideas.

Around the same time I was teaching Dale, my lover and I were developing the spiritual dimension of our lovemaking. She was a musician and we also had an extensive ongoing discussion about how important an audience is to the performance of music. More specifically, how the mystical potential of music to move the audience is similar to the experiences that arose out of the spiritual dimensions of sexuality. In the course of this extended conversation I talked with her about several pivotal experiences that I have had as both an audience member and as a performer.

Once when I was in my early twenties I was attending a conference at Portland State University and one of the sessions I attended featured this amazing black woman with elegant streaks of grey in her hair, whose name I cannot recall, who was standing in front of a half empty room, and speaking on a subject that I do not think I was especially interest in. I was seated in the middle of the room but found that she was fascinating. Besides the fascination with her what sticks with me is that at the end of her presentation she went to the back of the room and stood by the door to meet those of us who had heard her presentation.

I thought what she said to me a little odd at the time because she remarked that I was a really great audience. She said how she really appreciated how much energy I put into listening to her and gave her so much to work with. I left the room slightly bewildered because I had never heard of a presenter or performer giving an audience member such a specific compliment. Of course, you always hear musicians talking about how great an audience is, but she was not being the least bit general and she did not say anything even similar to other people whom she talked to before and after me. And she wasn’t flirting, either, her gaze was pure appreciation and moved on without hesitation to the next person in line. Later in life I got similar compliments and even attended some workshops that focused on listening skills so I began to understand that certain ways of paying attention can sometimes be unusually rewarding for all concerned. But, it was in that conversation with my lover that it all came together and I realized that, in fact, I was sometimes being an audience almost as intensely as I was being her lover.

This realization about the value of being audience brought me back to my most cherished memory of being a performer. At the end of my second year at Reed College I was cast to play Laertes in the “15-minute Hamlet” a comic parody of Shakespeare’s classic by Tom Stoppard. This was also the last of only a handful of times that I took a hallucinogenic drug, in this case LSD. The play was being done as the final project for a friend of mine in the Directing class which usually only played one performance on the last Friday of regular classes for the year. But at Reed we have a tradition called Renn Faire that takes place on that weekend at the start of reading week which is a week without classes that precedes final exam week. Renn Faire started out as a Rennaisance Faire back in the sixties or seventies but has since been transformed into a sort of psychedelic celebration of playful indulgence with every kind of whimsical distraction imaginable (or unimaginable depending on how creative the organizers are.) So, we scheduled a special second performance for Saturday afternoon of Renn Faire.

I had not planned on being high while performing, but that’s what happened. It started after a very successful Friday night performance (the one that counted for the director’s grade) at which I was not high. Not long after the play was done and we were heading out into the night I was offered two hits of acid that someone had extra (I made it a policy never to buy drugs, but that did not stop me from using some that were freely offered.) Now, I had only limited experience with hallucinogens and I thought it would be fine to take it since the performance was not until after midday the next day and, surely I would be O.K. taking it and being up a little late that night. What I did not anticipate was a 13 hour trip. When I got home late the next morning I talked it over with my roommate and we figured that first, if I went to sleep there was no way I would wake up in time. Second, if I timed my taking of the other hit just right then it might help me overcome fatigue but probably wouldn’t fully kick in until a little while after the performance. So I took the hit and headed back to the theater. (I let my fellow actors know what was up as we got into costume, so they could respond appropriately if something went awry.)

Then, as we were about to head out to the front lawn where we were planning to perform, it started raining. The director puzzled out how to proceed and decided we would simply move ourselves into the Student Union (S.U.) building and delay the start time to allow for the change in venue. Out on the front lawn a marimba band was just getting rained out, so we ran around announcing that we would shortly be performing in the S.U.

I have never before or since seen the S.U. so packed with human beings. It was wall-to-wall with people on the floor, sitting in chairs, standing on chairs and filling the balconies on either end as well. We had a tiny little space in the middle to work with. Due to the delayed start I was already beginning to feel the effects. Now, consider the situation, there was a seething sea of sweaty college kids who just came in out of the rain after dancing to the happy music of marimba, we’re having to improvise adjustments to all our movement to accommodate these masses of people, including our sword fights plus I am rapidly reaching a hallucinogen induced heightened state of being.

Fortunately, the performance went off flawlessly, neither I nor anyone else missed a line, my sword fight with Hamlet (done with boffo soft swords, by the way) was great and the crowd was ecstatic. Needless to say, so was I. At this point I cannot recall a single detail of the actual performance, but the ecstatic feelings are indelibly etched in my being. I can remember the aftermath in great detail, including the tingling in my lips as the simple logistical challenge of changing out of my costume became a monumental challenge for my blended mental/emotional/physical/spiritual attention. My chemically enhanced intensity rendered me incapable of handling even this very basic task. Fortunately, my friends were able to help me in my time of need and I was spared the necessity of fully grasping all the details of reality for a little while longer. On the whole this was the most utterly ecstatic experience I have ever had. The trip went on for the rest of the day and into the night in an enjoyable way, but as I said, that was the last time I did LSD or anything like it.

For a long time I gave a lot of credit for the intensity of my experience to the drug, but now I have a different view. There was something else, a very important something else, to which the drug merely added a chemical boost. The primary cause of the intensity I experienced was the exchange of energy, the exchange of attention, between the audience and us performers. The feedback between me, as performer, and my audience is very similar to the feedback between lovers, or the feedback between a teacher and student, or the feedback available in any meaningful relationship.

I believe that the conditions in the S.U. that day, the context within which we performed our play, were coincidently ideal to generating an ecstatic relationship between us and our audience. Some aspects of the context were carefully honed to bring that relationship into being (i.e. the script and our rehearsed delivery of it) but there are many other factors that simply arose spontaneously out of the moment (i.e. the rain that drove us all into the S.U. and our ways of adapting our scripted actions to the very cramped “stage” area.) It cannot be argued that we were especially talented performers, nor that the script made it a sure thing. What made it work so well was the synchronicity of the whole, the confluence of individuals in a culture embedded within a society on a planet in which cells aggregated to form the individuals who could be in that space to experience that series of moments in time and have them mean something extraordinary. To say that another way, the experience that I had was significantly affected by the molecular influence of LSD on my brain, it was significantly influenced by my choices the night before, it was significantly altered by the organizational tradition of Renn Faire, it was significantly enhanced by the societal tradition of theatrical performance, and it was significantly determined by the meteorological effect of rainfall. I cannot discount any of these factors in understanding what this experience means to me. All together I have come to refer to this diversity of factors as context.

The realization that the context of my experience had such a profound effect on its quality leads me back to thinking about Dale and his experience of learning to bat. The insight I had at that time was a visualization of the immensity of the contextual factors that contribute to every moment of our experience.

In the view of traditional educational philosophy the challenge of teaching is to create a sufficient teaching performance such that the student, as audience, is moved in some particular way. That movement was traditionally thought of as acquiring units of knowledge, skills and information as a simple replication of the teacher’s performance in some specific, limited way and an accumulation of these performances results in education. If the teacher can bat then the teacher, by some performance moves the student to acquire the ability to bat.

My vision makes a mockery of the traditional approach, especially in light of multiple intelligences and diverse learning styles. Just to assume that we can create an adequate set of knowledge, skills and information is bad enough, multiple intelligences and learning styles then adds the complications of presenting each knowledge, skill, and information in a multitude of ways. Finally, to add insult to injury, by taking my vision seriously we now have to account for a potentially infinite number of other factors for each individual student.

But I have also gained a very clear sense that being in that space with my student was the most natural and simple access to knowing exactly what was needed without having to account for all the details. This sense that there is a simple, natural access to right action completely alters the challenge of teaching. It changes it from a nearly impossible technical challenge into a relationship challenge. The question is not how to create a teaching performance that will invoke, inspire or otherwise cause learning to occur, but how to relate to the student in an appropriately intimate way such that you can share in their journey of life and eventually influence their navigation and cartographic practices.

18 September 2005

On my way home from work tonight around 11PM

My unusual view of the Wooden Boat Fest

I actually took a few more shots than this, some were even of boats, but they were not very interesting. I was also delayed in posting these because my computer had to be sent to California to be repaired and so I was almost two weeks without it. I was able to post the Gatekeeper story during that time because I was able to do e-mail through my phone.

08 September 2005

The Gatekeeper

Once long ago, two young travelers met at a crossroads. They had each come from opposite directions but discovered that they were both intent on heading south towards bigger towns that would have better opportunities for young men like them.

The young man who came from the west lamented the poor state of his home village. He said the people there were all stingy and mean. He said they were loose in their morals and that too often they gave into the sensual pleasures of eating, drinking, dancing, and carousing all together.

The young man who had come from the east sympathized with his new companion and lamented that while his town didn't seem to be as bad as that the truth was that there just weren't enough honest girls his age, jobs that suited him, nor the means to find his good fortune in life.

By and by they came over a hill and saw before them down in the valley a town. It was a town bigger than either of their villages had been and had a nice wall around it, meaning that it had to be more prosperous than their undefended villages. Seeing this good sign they quickened their pace a little. As they approached they both looked carefully for signs that would tell them what kind of townsfolk lived there. The young man of the west pointed out everything he saw to his more reserved companion. He noticed some garbage and litter and thought that might mean they were untidy. He saw some people begging and thought they might not care to take care of the poor people, he saw a rowdy looking bunch of teenage boys and thought the town's parents might be too indulgent with their children.

The young man of the east just nodded to acknowledge the comments and kept his observations to himself. As the main gate into the town came before them in the distance the fellow from the west concluded his monologue by saying, "I'm not sure about this town, it has a nice wall but, really, it might not be any better than at home. My dear departed grandmother used to talk about when she was young and traveled about with her father who was the cloth merchant. She said that if you ever have any doubt about a town like this the thing to do is ask the gatekeeper. Gatekeepers know almost everyone in a town and the old ones have been around long enough to spot folks that belong in a place even before they know it themselves."

At last they reached the gate and there sitting next to the gate on a worn old wooden bench was an old old man with a grey beard who looked like he was a tree that had rooted in the rocks of a mountaintop and been weathered by a thousand years of rough and stormy winters. As he snoozed in the warm sun of that calm spring day he was grey, roughly wrinkled and bent over but eternally peaceful in his respite.

The young man of the west cleared his throat loudly and said, "Excuse me old man, but are you the gatekeeper?" Just when the youth had excused himself the gnarled old figure had snapped his eyes open, squinted up a little as he gave his grizzled head a quick shake, then he stood up confidently and with a grace that is normally only expected of much younger men.

The old man stood still and silent for long moment giving the two travelers an appraising look up and down before he replied, at last, "Yes, I am the gatekeeper. What is your business?"

The young man of the west took in a deep breath and then launched into an extended explanation of how he had left behind his poor depraved village in search of the town that would make him happy and contented all the rest of his days. He topped it all off by saying, "So you see old gatekeeper I am on a quest to be a good citizen but I require a town in which I can be in the company of other good citizens. I ask you, who are wise in these matters, is this the town for me?"

The old man let his gaze linger on the young man of the west for a long moment then he suddenly turned to the young man of the east and asked "What is your business?"

Before answering he glanced at his companion to see an expression of surprise and no small amount of annoyance, but seeing that his compatriot was not going to speak the words of discomfiture that played silently over his uncomprehending lips, he said very simply, "I have also left my home village to seek a place of opportunities, to meet honest people and find my good fortune."

The old man nodded silently and sat back down on his bench. He turned to the young man of the west and said, "I think, young sir, that you will find in this town too much of what you left behind. Alas, we in this town are frail and flawed human beings with not enough goodness."

To which the young man of the west immediately replied to his companion, "Ahhh, didn't I tell you as we approached that this town might not be any better than at home! Now you have heard it from the wisdom of the ages and there can be no doubt. Come along my new found friend, I have heard that the next town is twice as wealthy as this with an even greater wall to protect it. Surely the people there must be truly good to be so blessed!"

However, the young man of the east was not ready move on so he thanked the other young man for his company and wished him well in his travels. Anxious to be on his way to find the town of good citizens that would make him happy and content the rest of his days he left with a bemused look and a shake of his head at the foolishness of anyone staying in a town known to be as depraved as this one.

The young man who had come from the east then turned again to face the old man sitting on the bench beside the gate that led into town and asked, "Pray tell me, wise old gatekeeper, is this town right for me?"

The old man invited the weary young traveler to sit beside him on the well worn bench. After they had settled into comfortable positions looking back up the valley watching the other young man disappear as he turned onto the road leading south, the old man said slowly, "I think, young sir, that you will find in this town too much of what you left behind. Alas, we in this town are frail and flawed human beings with not enough goodness." He paused and looked over at the young man, who just waited patiently for the old man to continue. "Young man, if you choose to live in this town you will indeed find what your heart truly seeks, even amongst us frail and flawed human beings with not enough goodness. If you are willing to work you will find opportunities. If you are honest and true you will find honest people. If you take advantage of the opportunities and treasure the honest people you find, then surely your good fortune is to be discovered here."

The two men sat together for a long time and talked about many things before the young man left the old man to enter the town and begin his new life in search of his good fortune. He returned often to visit with the old man. It turns out the old man had inherited the post from his father, but had never married and his last apprentice had gone south in search of a more prestigious gate to keep. One day the young man became an apprentice to the old gatekeeper and soon after took the job when the old man finally died.

In the end he found that the old man was right, he found exactly what his heart was truly looking for even in the midst of a town full of frail and flawed human beings with not enough goodness.

27 August 2005

Village Bootstrap

I was recently invited to sit in with a group of Port Townsend (PT) movers and shakers who want to create a support system for ensuring that PT remains a vital artistic community and moves in the direction of sustainable economic development, as well. My friend Walter Dill played host to this group of people he recognizes as having different pieces of the puzzle. After the meeting I was very excited about the possibilities that could arise, but the group was struggling to come up with a concise description of what it is and what it would accomplish.

Another important quality of the group was that while it mainly consisted of people who are successful in various ares such as business, art, crafts, community organizing and education. There was a very clear intent to utilize the entrepreneurial energy that most of us have demonstrated for the greater good, in the form of a cross fertilization of the for-profit and non-profit ways of thinking. It was a couple days after the meeting that I awoke with the following idea:

The Problem- The image of the solo Bootstrapper

We are in the habit of behaving as if our success is a by-product of our ability to act independently when, in fact, our success is really a by-product of the interdependent web of relationships within which our acts take place. Our society consistently points to the independence of actors in telling stories of success. The heroes own bravery, intelligence, quick wits, and feelings of loyalty are portrayed as the most important causal factors in the drama. As a consequence we have developed deeply ingrained habits that reinforce our perceptions of independence. We tend to value the qualities of personality and leadership that reflect independence from, rather than interdependence with others. Our culture has a phrase that elegantly sums up in one image this idea—when someone has succeeded on his own terms then he is said to have “pulled himself up by his own bootstraps.” And now it has become summed up in the term “bootstrapping.” We can imagine someone who is clinging to his own bootstraps and magically levitating or we can be more literal about it by picturing a fellow with a rope rigged over a pulley and tied to his bootstraps. What this popular image hides is that there is more at work than just the bootstrapper’s own efforts.

The Solution- The Village Bootstrap

Taking the bootstrapper image as a starting point we can see that one way or another there is something missing for it to be an accurate portrayal of reality. If we see the bootstrapper with a rope then in order to discover the whole story behind this scene we have to discover how he came by the rope, what’s supporting the rig and how did he put it all together. If we are literal then the mystery is only a matter of investigation, but the truth is that many of us are more imaginative and not quite so literally minded.

If we see a levitating bootstrapper then he seems to be defying a fundamental quality of our universe, thus in order to explain such a phenomenon we have to find a subtlety of the universe to fully understand how such an event could, in fact, happen. Fortunately, the only quality that he needs is an appropriate web of relationships. This is what magicians regularly rely on to accomplish the seemingly impossible. The subtlety of the universe is that the bootstrapper has discovered a basic magic trick, he has given us the impression of being levitated against the known laws of our universe because he put himself at the center of a set of relationships that we are not yet perceiving. Instead of drawing a large and obvious line from his boots to a mechanism he has utilized a large number of insignificant lines to accomplish the same feat. You can take this either the literalist way, such that he has devised a clever mechanism that we are not seeing (like fine, yet very strong threads, or you can take it more imaginatively such that he has simply tapped into subtle universal energies.) Either way, the bootstrapper is successfully giving off the impression that his efforts have elevated him from mundane reality into a more elite realm. The fact is that no matter what the causal factors are, it is true that he has achieved a significant feat, no matter how he accomplished it, because the average person will never levitate by any means.

What we are trying to accomplish as a group is to create a process whereby levitation in the realm of creating a sustainable community becomes the norm rather than the exception. We see that we have a wealth of talents that have individually levitated and we want to not only tap into the subtlety of the universe for our collective levitation but also create a system for passing the skill of levitation on indefinitely into the future. We know that our individual successes are the result of our skillful positioning within the web of interdependencies and our challenge is to reliably guide ourselves and others into the right position time and time again.

The web of relationships that we live in is a dynamically changing environment. Sustainability in a web of interdependency is achieved by having the stresses and strains of change occur such that the connections remain intact throughout the process. Failure and breakdown occurs when the stresses are either so traumatic that the connections are immediately broken or else the stresses become static loads that eventually wear out the connections. We know that we have the talents to accomplish near about anything we commit ourselves to create, but what we do not know for sure is how to transform our current mostly independent ways into the ways of interdependence. We have become a group of reluctant independents and came together to discover how to become intentional interdependents. For me the personal question is whether I can overcome my habits of independence and surrender myself to interdependence? I don’t know yet, but I’m willing to give it a go.

This twelve pointed figure is an image that has fascinated Walter because unlike the standard dodechahedral star in which the lines each cross only nine other lines, when the figure is drawn with these particular curves then each line crosses twelve other lines. This figure is the metaphorical representation of what we are trying to create in community, how to use a subtle variation on how we organize our efforts to achieve a result that positively influences everyone else in the community. It is a good image for what a village bootstrap might look like.

22 August 2005

What are schools?

In order to understand how the full diversity of stuff I post on this blog relates to the mission set forth above (Passionate teachers teaching enthusiastic students in joyful schools) it is necessary to understand what I mean by the term 'school'. There are three key meanings that I generally use for the term and in the context of my mission I am referring to the broadest most inclusive sense.

To start with the narrowest sense, 'schools' are the buildings and related infrastructure in which teachers and students are housed. The middle range of meaning refers to teachers and students regardless of where they conduct their affairs. The broadest sense of 'school' is essentially all-inclusive of environments in which learning takes place without necessarily referring the roles of student and teacher.

This blog is a glimpse into my schooling, meaning any and all of the places in which I am learning, even when I am not taking advantage of infrastructure designed for the purpose nor in the traditional roles that are associated with that task. So far I have posted glimpses into only a few of the many areas in which I am actively learning.

In my book Attitude First (available from Trafford) I mentioned that I am not interested in trying to start a school, but that is only true of the most narrow sense of the word. The truth is that I am actually quite actively pursuing several projects that are aimed at creating schools in the broader senses of the word.

[For a more recent exploration of the idea of schools check out this page on the topic at my new website.]

19 August 2005

18 August 2005

More Dock Wandering Photos

Today I was wandering out of the Otter Crossing Cafe and onto the docks at Point Hudson . It was a rather low tide and revealed some rather interesting features. These are the best five out of about 20 shots.

FYI on the my photos- I am using my Treo 650 to take the shots then I open them in Photoshop and use the auto levels image adjustment to enhance the contrast and color intensity. I think I have published every photo exactly as composed, otherwise.

17 August 2005

Refining my concept of Blogging

I am currently reading the book Who Let The Blogs Out? by Biz Stone. As is evident from the frequency of my posting, so far I am not yet taking full advantage of this Blog. I have recently created the site http://www.SchoolOfConscience.org which will be a more effective repository for my extensive reflections on the deeper issues that occupy my mind than trying to fit them into blog entries.

We'll see where I end up.

02 August 2005

Choosing Schools

This post is a response to a posting on a private discussion group that was inquiring about how to select an appropriate pre-school.


I wanted to chime in on the topic of educating your little ones. I am not a parent, but have worked with children for over 15 years in a variety of settings. My first job after I left college, in response to my realization that working with children was more fulfilling than anything I could conceive of getting a degree in, was as a pre-school teacher for 3-4 year olds.

In the intervening years I have pursued not only great ways of educating young ones, but also the stories we tell each other about what it is we think we are doing when we educate children. Those stories are more academically known as educational philosophy. Everyone of you tells yourself, and anyone who will listen, a story about what it means to be a parent, how to be a good parent, how to avoid being a bad parent, and why it is that you do not buy into different ideas about those same issues. Those stories you tell are a parenting philosophy. (Isn’t it odd that there is a whole discipline of educational philosophy, but there isn’t a discipline of parenting philosophy?)

In educational philosophy there are two long standing traditional positions that appear to be fundamentally opposed and two more recently developed positions that are both attempts to overcome the limitations of the traditional opposites. The opposite positions are most easily understood as the teacher-centric and the learner-centric perspectives on learning. The first attempt to overcome the limitations of opposing these roles was to blend them into a single whole, the relationship-centric perspective. And finally, the most recent attempt is one that takes an even wider view where even the relationship is embedded in a context that has significant influence on the learning process and might be called the context-centric view. More academic names for some of these views would include behaviorism, constructivism, and situated cognition.

Personally, I favor an inclusive view. Everyone is right, to some degree. My challenge is to figure out how to communicate my understanding of how they all fit together in a way that will help, and not merely confuse, parents. I believe that if you can understand how those philosophical ideas really relate to each other and reality then you will be better able to get through the confusing mass of information that you will inevitably gather in your conscientious search for the RIGHT school.

I also like to make pictures in primary colors (that pre-school influence, I guess) and so I created a little drawing to illustrate how those different views mentioned above all fit together.

The method behind my madness in this particular illustration is to group the academic disciplines into their respective philosophical views: Behaviorists opposite the Progressivists, the Blended Constructivists including both, then all three being engulfed by the Situated Cognitionists. The extension of each of these views beyond the bounds of the philosophical framework in which they were developed leads to the diversity of rhetoric that you see in the promotional literature of schools. The problem with using philosophical positioning as a way to market and sell schools is that if you assert one position you are forced to distinguish that position from all the others, therefore, the tendency is to talk about your own position as if it is in opposition to the other views, as if the others are lacking something that you have. Thus, each of the philosophical positions leads to a distinct kind of schooling rhetoric that appears to bear no meaningful relationship to the other rhetorical approaches.

Every good parent is sooner or later inundated by information about schooling. The question is how to make sense of it all. With that challenge in mind I drew the universal players matrix (click on the image to see a larger version):

In this illustration I take the colors from the first picture to show what part of reality each of the philosophical positions was primarily drawing on to gain their valuable insights. The external constructivists/ behaviorists were looking at catalyst’s role in learning, the internal constructivists/ Progressivists were looking at agent’s role in learning, blended constructivists were looking at the school context’s role in learning, and the situated cognitionists were looking at the community’s role in learning. The teacher centric philosophers (in red) were looking at how the catalysts of the learning process influence the learning process. Their mistake, in my view, was to confuse the vitally important catalytic function with the most common role that we think of fulfilling that function, the teacher. In reality the catalytic function is served by many people who may have many different roles, some of which have nothing to do with teaching as it is normally meant.

“So,” you ask, “how does all this help me make sense of the piles of school promos and make the RIGHT choice for my child?” First, the most important thing is to understand that schooling, through the lens of educational philosophy, may sound complex, but it is not rocket science. The truth is that it always boils down to your child having some kind of relationships with those people and things that surround them. No matter where they go they are an agent of their own learning process, and you can’t do anything about that. Sometimes they will find people and things that catalyze their enthusiasm, and sometimes they might be their own catalyst. Your influence in this area is limited to creating catalytic opportunities and hoping for the best. The area you have the most influence, and a fundamental responsibility as a parent, is in the area of context.

The idea of a school is to create a context within which education is more assured as an outcome than if the children were not in that context. The question of the quality of a school entirely rests on the quality of the relationships they will develop there. The only way to predict the nature of the relationships that are available in a given context is to begin relating to that context. The practical reality is that you have to meet the teachers, the administrators, the other parents, and the kids. The more you can relate to them, the more accurately you can assess the kind of relationships that seem most likely to develop. The fact is that you have to follow your gut instinct and choose a school in which both you and your child will be supported to be the kind of people you most want to be.

Now, the question is, why was it necessary to go through so much falderal to arrive at the simple truth of following your gut? Because, in case you haven’t noticed, your gut is directly connected to your brain. If, as you listen to some schoolman selling you on the tremendous value of his school, you can filter the technical jargon into the simpler categories of agent, catalyst and context, then you can hopefully discern how this teacher thinks he is supposed to relate to you and your child. Then you can compare:
1. his opinion of how he is supposed to relate
2. your experiences of how he actually relates to you and yours, and
3. the stories of how he has related to other parents and children.

It really makes little difference what he thinks about what he does, but what does make a difference is whether he acts according to how he thinks about what he does. This is known as integrity. If he is making promises about parent involvement and the other parents are not involved, then something is not right. If he is promising democratic decision making and consistently acts as the dictator then something might be amiss.

The right questions to ask of the school people are things like;
How do you practice respect for children with different learning abilities?
How do you transition children from dependence on adults to resourceful self-reliance?
How do you help children balance their need to develop self-reliance with the fact that they are part of the community?
How do you handle emergencies, like injuries and public tragedies?
How do you balance your responsibility for protecting my child with his/her need for independence?
Tell me about some of the more challenging students you have had?
How do you balance the needs of the outwardly energetic children with the needs of those who are more inwardly energetic? (I’ve never met a child who was not energetic.)

Some of these questions may not be your typical interview fare, but part of the point is to get them to tell you personal stories about the difficult situations they have handled. If you have gotten an earful of their philosophy, then frame the question so that it challenges their favored perspective. For instance, if the teacher is espousing a learner-centric philosophy, ask them questions about how the events in the outside world are dealt with in their class, or how they handle situations that clearly call for adult interventions. The challenges that you pose could give you an insight into how they might handle a future situation in which you feel obligated to challenge a decision they made about your child. The more you can get them to tell you stories, the more personally you will get to know them and the better possibility for building positive and engaging relationships that will better serve the children. Or for discovering that you are not comfortable with them and moving on.

13 July 2005

School of Conscience

Conscience is the ability to both feel and act on our interconnectedness with others. All the great spiritual traditions of the world acknowledge and honor these connections as the very foundations of goodness and spiritual insight. The good life is one that is lived in accordance with the sacredness of life, the inalienable rights of every individual and accepts that actions that threaten to destroy life are not consistent with goodness. Sustainability is, therefore, a matter of conscience and a moral imperative.

Achieving education is the fundamental purpose of schools. Education is the state of mind in an individual wherein s/he can perceive accurately, think clearly, and make appropriate choices according to their personal values and goals. The person who is universally recognized as educated demonstrates diverse capabilities and the ability to acquire capabilities as necessary. (Other purposes of schooling are either layered on top of this fundamental purpose or are shallow substitutes. Such substitute purposes are championed by those who conclude that some people are incapable of being educated and therefore the schools should provide them with something else, which conveniently perpetuates the interests of a few people who benefit from the subjugation of others.)

When we combine the need to clarify what actions are “appropriate” for individuals and the moral imperative for a sustainable society then we have a dilemma. The dilemma is that our schools do not provide, our society is not organized for and too often our lives as individuals simply lack the methods and means of understanding how these different levels of complexity interact to produce effects in society and cause effects in our lives. We too often do not appreciate the interconnectedness of life itself and how we contribute to or detract from the systems within which we are active co-creators.

School of Conscience exists to face this dilemma. School of Conscience is an educational community of practice that facilitates personal experiential understanding of the interconnectedness of life as a stable foundation for building a healthy and sustainable society.

06 July 2005

Wandering About The Docks

Here a few of the better pictures that I took today. I am beginning to get the hang of using this camera.

First off, the Adventuress, one of our local tall ships.

Next we have the North Star returning from the Tacoma Tall Ships event that took place last week.

05 July 2005

Discerning Right Action: Towards Contextual Sustainability

How can I discern right action? Is it possible to develop a fundamental framework for evaluating action, a moral framework, that transcends my cultural and personal idiosyncratic biases? Accepting that the current modes of global human action are not sustainable, then how can I reasonably judge the actions that are proposed to remedy the situation?

Consider the moral dilemma of creating sustainable hospitals. If you strip away all the humanity of a hospital you have an ecological disaster. Hospitals in the United States produce immense amounts of toxic material, generate large quantities of other types of waste, and constantly consume vast amounts of energy for lighting and all the technology they employ. It is a very brave soul indeed who would ever suggest that saving an abstraction like environmental resources could ever be more important than providing a woman giving birth to her first born child the very best possible medical care. Yet, if we take sustainability as a moral imperative then this kind of dilemma arises when the models for sustainability do not take into account how our complex social, cultural and personal needs interact with the needs of the larger environment in which they are situated.

I have been fascinated by The Natural Step as a model for global human sustainability for quite some time. The Natural Step presents four simple, scientificaly based principles, or system conditions, that work together as a framework for judging the sustainability of uses of material resources. In the context of The Natural Step a system condition is a pattern of system behavior that must, by definition, lead to the destruction of the system. The system in question is global humanity and the framework addresses human utilization of global material resources within the ecosphere. Based on these principles many organizations have been able to make substantial gains in their ability to maximize the value they extract from the resources they have invested in and at the same time lessened their negative impacts on the ecologies within which they are embedded.

Just recently I had an inspiration that the idea of system conditions might be usefully applied across all the scales of magnitude that we humans are centrally concerned with. Essentially, the scales of magnitude that I am referring to are the major holonic levels that make up, and have significant impact upon, our lives. The idea is to create a set of meta-moral precepts, normative statements that, if true, must underlie all other moral considerations. This assumes that all morality should ultimately be concerned with sustaining life, particularly human life, thus all actions that can ultimately destroy human life must be immoral.

The beauty of a system conditions approach is that it will provide the widest latitude for positive dynamic expression. Rather that prohibiting specific actions, it provides evaluative criteria that will remain constant across the vagaries of time, space, and culture. Within a system conditions model that accounts for more than merely the global resources the paradox of the resource intensity of a technologically sophisticated hospital can be put into proper perspective. This is perhaps a one of the only valid applications of science to morality.

While the foundations of The Natural Step model are relatively well established, the principles I propose for other levels are inevitably going to be controversial, but the exploration of the question is ultimately worthwhile.

The quest begins by developing a deeper way of understanding The Natural Step principles and then using that insight to form the basis for extending the model logically. I found that the meta-framework that Fritjof Capra used in his book The Web of Life meets the challenge quite nicely. Capra proposes to understand complex systems, like living systems, by integrating conceptions of the three fundamental aspects of structure, pattern, and process. His book is devoted to developing an understanding of life as the unified interactions of dissipative structures, cognitive processes, and autopoietic (self-making) patterns.

When looking at the four system conditions I propose that the first condition, that substances from the earth's crust cannot systematically accumulate in the ecosphere, is a structural condition. According to one theory of early life, for billions of years the Earth's crust has been used as a toxic waste dump by the aerobic life forms that evolved when the original anaerobic life forms essentially poisoned themselves into obscurity with their own metabolic waste, oxygen. We humans, on the other hand, have been working very hard to dig up a whole bunch of those environmentally isolated materials (copper, lead, mercury, etc) in order put a few to new uses. Unfortunately we were not aware, originally, that some of those materials and the by-products of our methods of removing them are extremely toxic. And now that we are aware, some of us are too interested in our nice things to make a fuss about stopping something that’s been going on so profitably and for such a long time (as long as the mess isn’t in our own backyard.)

The second system condition, that substances made by society cannot systematically accumulate in the ecosphere, is a pattern condition. The pattern of distribution of the substances society makes has to be consistent with the pattern that allows life to survive. The pattern that has sustained life is one in which there is no waste. In nature everything that might be considered a waste product for one organism is food for another, thus at the level of the whole system the only waste is the heat we dissipate into space. We, unfortunately, have created a vast amount of stuff that does not yet fit into this pattern.

The third condition, that the productive capacity of the planet cannot be systematically diminished, is a process condition. The only input to our planet is solar radiation and the only way that input becomes productive is through photosynthesis. Thus, if we decimate the forests and other highly diverse ecosystems that provide the vast majority of the planet’s photosynthetic processing capacity then we will cut off the productive capacity for Earth's systemic ability to maintain a relatively stable temperature in spite of increased solar output.

Thus we are left with the final system condition, which says that we have to make fair and efficient use of resources for meeting human needs. This condition is the odd man out because it does not actually address the ecosphere nor present a need that is really relevant beyond our species. Thus I felt that it was better understood as an indicator that there is another level that was necessary to analyze in order to gain a full understanding of what is implied by “fair and efficient” and “human needs.” Originally I thought to call this one a pseudo-condition, but instead chose to call it a contextual condition. It is not false, as the pseudo prefix might imply. It is perfectly true, but the condition is one that can only be met by looking at the context within which the other system conditions are met, society.

I did not have a ready model of societal system conditions, but I adapted the work of my friend Sharif Abdullah, founder of The Commonway Institute and author of the book Creating A World That Works For All. In his work with Sarvodaya, the Sri Lankan peace organization, and in his orientation to the Common Society Movement, he proposes to understand society as the unified interactions of consciousness, economics and power (aka. politics.) I have taken the liberty of adapting some of Sharif’s insights into system conditions and assigned the three aspects of society to the three aspects of systems. I also formulated a contextual condition that points to my own work. I subsequently reformulated my own work to conform to the idea of three system conditions and one contextual condition at what I call the communal level to cover the small group level of our early evolutionary history in tribal and familial situations. An individual subsistence level seemed appropriate then I finished the model off with reformulations of Capra’s definition of life as system conditions for the cellular level with a contextual condition that points to the need for Robert’s Natural Step. Here is a graphical representation of the resulting model along with the set of 15 system conditions (1,2,3…15) and five contextual conditions (A, B, C…E).

I. Ecosphere: Karl Heinrich Robert's Natural Step
1. Take: Substances from the Earth's crust must not systematically increase in the ecosphere.
2. Make: Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in the ecosphere.
3. Maintain: The physical basis for productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically diminished.
A. Fair: Fair and efficient use of resources with respect to meeting human needs.
II. Sociosphere: Sharif Abdullah's Philosophy of Inclusivity
4. Affiliate: Enemy thinking must not systematically increase in the sociosphere.
5. Consume: The gap between rich and poor must not systematically increase in the sociosphere.
6. Conflict: Violence must not systematically increase in the sociosphere.
B. Positive: Positive relationships must be supported with regard to meeting community needs.
III. Communosphere: Don Berg's Thrival
7. Lead: Behavioral prohibitions must not systematically increase in the communoshpere.
8. Manage: The mutual exclusivity of meeting members complex human needs (Max-Neef) must not systematically increase in the communoshpere.
9. Attend: Self determination must not systematically diminish in the communoshpere.
C. Optimal: Access and opportunities for achieving optimal states of mind with regard to meeting individual needs.
IV. Psychosphere: Subsistence
10. Nourish: Supplies of air, food, and water must not be systematically contaminated.
11. Protect: Threats to physical and emotional safety must not systematically increase in the psychosphere.
12. Love: Affective connections must not systematically decrease in the psychosphere.
D. Attentive: Flexibility and intelligence with regard to meeting cellular needs.
V. Biosphere: Fritjof Capra's Definition of Life
13. Transform: The activities and eliminative functions of cells must not be systematically blocked.
14. Generate: The cycles of metabolism and cellular production must not be interrupted.
15. Commune: The communion between an organism and its environment must not be systematically diminished.
E. Stable: Stability with regard to environmental chemical and climatic conditions.

{Please forgive the large file size. For best viewing I suggest you download the image and open it in a graphics or photo viewing program in which you can zoom in and out.}

So, how does this help with the question of right action?

Assuming that morality is ultimately about the perpetuation of life, earthly life, human life, social life, communal life and my life (to span from the general to the specific), then a moral enterprise must have some way of distinguishing good from bad. What the system conditions approach does is establish criteria for making reasonable discernment of badness. It does not, however, define any reasonable criteria for the good, but we can get to that later. Given the current state of the world I believe it is more important to determine a reasonable standard for our truly self-destructive behaviors as distinguished from the merely unpopular ones.

Consider the example of the hospital. How do we balance the needs of a new born and her mother with the needs of the environment? The Natural Step only points out that the meeting of human needs should be fair and efficient. But how are we thinking about needs and fairness? These are issues that are tricky, but with an appropriate set of system conditions that account for all of the embedded systems that must be addressed then we can begin to get more insight into the issues. We can begin to re-design systems at all levels to accommodate the broadest possible set of concerns knowing that we can make a broad variety of choices that will effectively avoid total global, social, cultural and personal disasters.

There is no easy answer, but by collectively addressing the issue within the system conditions we can be confident that we will not kill ourselves inadvertently or unnecessarily. That is the one consistent conclusion that I have reached throughout my work; we have to meaningfully include as many people as possible in the process of choosing how to productively address all of the massive, seemingly intractable, problems that we face. If we can come to some reasonable agreement on the most fundamental system conditions for all five levels of our human existence (thus defining the most fundamental evils to be avoided) then we are well on our way toward also facilitating the discovery of a diversity of local, regional, national, as well as global methods for effectively choosing right action.

04 July 2005

On my way home from church yesterday

This is the former B.C. Lippencott House, now a healing center located uptown here in Port Townsend, WA, USA.

And here is a view into the backyard that my housemate so beautifully created over the last twenty+ years that she has lived here.

08 June 2005

Education as a Moral Enterprise

The crux of the matter seems to me the conceptions of morality and education. In my own work the two are inextricably linked, whereas there seems to be a dominant conception of education as merely the delivery of units of knowledge, skills and information with no necessary link to morality and the daily human struggle to decide what is right versus wrong action.

In my work I propose that we can better understand education as a mapping of experiences. There may be units of knowledge, skills and information that are necessary, but the mere accounting for the presence of the unit is not adequate. In order for the learner to become educated they not only have to have an experience of the unit, they must also be able to relate that unit to where they are in their life, where they are going, and how that unit relates to other units that the learner has experienced. Thus in my view the delivery of knowledge, skills and information are a fundamental part of learning, but in order for an educational result to occur from that learning, that lesson must be incorporated into a map that shows the learner, the teacher, the lesson and other relevant information from the learner’s life.

The idea of creating a map also means that the cartographer has to be able to privilege some information over others. There is a big difference between a topographical map and a highway map. The cartographer must decide what is important and what is not important within the context that the map is going to be used. If I am a delivery driver trying to drive from Seattle, Washington, to Los Angeles, California, then I am not concerned with the height of the mountains along the way, but I do want to know the difference between a high speed interstate highway and a country lane. But if I am a mountain climber trying to get up to the top of Mt. Ranier then I do not care what kind of highway goes up to the foot of the mountain, I want to know how steep the different climbing routes are.

Consider what it would be like if you were an apprentice map maker creating a map according to the way our education system is organized. Someone would tell you that you are going to get a whole bunch of information that is supposed to be valuable, but you only have their word for it since you can’t tell it’s value. In fact, the information is presented in ways that make it boring and therefore enhances the perception that it is totally irrelevant to anything in your life. You are given the information in bits and pieces over a very long period of time and according to a scheme that is organized only superficially by those who actually present it, but mostly is haphazardly assembled from the conflicting political and social interests that wield influence in the highest levels of society. Given this amalgam of data you are expected to produce a map.

The system, while it may leave some things to be desired is reasonably good at delivering units of knowledge, skills and information. Thus you would have a lot of data for your map. You have units of history, mathematics, and a variety of other subject areas. The way they know that the delivery was successful is that soon after you have had certain units delivered the schools account for those units. Once they have accounted for the units they delivered, then they give you some recognition of this fact by giving you a grade, a test score, or a diploma to signify that you have all the appropriate units of knowledge, skills and information as far as they are concerned.

The only problem is that people are like sieves. This scientist named Howard Gardner who is famous for creating the theory of multiple intelligences did some studies that showed that people who are supposed to know great things because of the advanced degrees they have been awarded, do not actually understand the world in the way their discipline has shown the world to be. What he did in his study was to take a bunch of people who had been studying for a long time and presented them with the most basic problems from their area of expertise. The most interesting result was in physics because in physics there is very little room to argue about the interpretation of the problems and how they should be answered. The problems were presented in several ways, on e way was the way they are always presented on tests, of course, the well-schooled almost always solved these easily. But when these very basic problems that can easily be solved by applying the most fundamental principles of physics were presented in realistic ways that might occur in the real world, well over half failed to apply the simplest strategies of their field of expertise. They came up with the same kind of answers that any untrained adult or even a child would come up with.

My interpretation of this result is that what went wrong is that those who failed to apply the most basic principles in spite of their advanced training failed to integrate those crucially important tidbits into their understanding of the world. They were well trained to regurgitate the unit in the prescribed format for testing, grading, and all the other instructional bookkeeping, but it is wandering around in their brain unconnected to how they actually operate in the world. If these students are trying to get to Los Angeles they are hopelessly lost because the school system has trained them to take tests and respond to the requirements of instructional bookkeeping instead of the requirements of the real world.

The choices that need to be made in order to relate to the real world are moral choices. The student of reality must have the courage to locate themselves in the world, decide what direction they want to travel or a destination they want to go to and then honestly discern the relationships between them and the units of knowledge, skills and information that are presented. If education is to be truly relevant, then it must take the learners decisions into account. It does not have to bend to the whim of students, but it should at least have some consideration for the students lives and goals.

The problem with units that are not related to each other or relevant goals is that they are not useful. If I know that I am in Seattle and want to go to L.A. then it is vitally important that I can locate them both accurately. If I am literally traveling then it is important too also have the basic concepts of compass directions and navigation. Without these basic concepts I will not be able to even read a map, let alone make one. I could end up wandering around trying find a big red line on the ground, and that’s assuming I got the highway map and not the topographical map!

The way to discern right action (morality) is dependent on having the ability to relate experiences to ourselves, our goals, other people and other experiences. This kind of discernment relies on both the head and the heart, it is both cognitive and affective.

Education is a moral enterprise when it is conceived of as a process of helping a learner relate to their world in such a way that they can effectively choose right action based on considering their goals, their opportunities and the society in which they are situated. If education is reduced to the delivery of knowledge, skills, and information then it is effectively divorced from morality because delivery can be achieved without ever addressing how the lesson can or should lead to right action.


Don Berg