A Conversation about Education

A: What’s education?
B: Well, that’s a pretty broad topic.

A: Can we narrow it down?
B: You mean, to be more specific, like, ‘what does it mean to learn?’

A: Yes. I think so.
B: Maybe it’s best if we have a conversation?

A: Sure. However, we should probably set a few parameters.
B: What do you mean?

A: Well, I don’t want to limit the discussion, but I think we should try to frame it.
B: Okay. To enhance the analysis?

A: Exactly. I just read an interview with Michel Serres.
B: The French Philosopher?

A: Yes. It’s pretty remarkable.
B: Uhm. How so?

A: Well, Serres states:

‘The key to inventing through conversation is to ensure that the conversation is not … a sort of fight to the death between two set opinions. Each participant in the conversation must be free and open’.

B: Interesting. That’s powerful.

A: It struck me, in that sentence, that the process of ‘what it means to learn,’ is about…
B: Novelty. Or, more concisely, the novelty of thinking…

A: Precisely. It’s about invention.
B: The trick, then, becomes how to position ourselves to remain open to what’s to come.

A: Yes. And, free to accept it. It’s an entirely different landscape.
B: It’s not so much about the acquisition of knowledge, per say.

A: No — it’s something much more lively and robust.
B: That notion, of the acquisition of information, seems so outdated.

A: In a way, we need new terms, new coordinates…and, new tasks!
B: Education, thus, is conceived more in terms of exploration and discovery.

A: Indeed.
B: It’s adventurous.

A: It requires fortitude, patience, and determination.
B: And, practice: a truly playful commitment to the every day.

A: That raises an interesting point.
B: You mean, namely, how to train our ability to remain ‘open and free?’

A: Absolutely.
B: That seems like a pretty difficult endeavor.

A: Well, it’s definitely a delicate one.
B: I suppose, how to make it natural, without prescriptive measures…

A: One-size-fits-all really doesn’t fit anyone, at least not since the Industrial Revolution.
B: That’s for sure. (Except, maybe, in Soviet Russia.)

A: How to create that environment?
B: One that is personalized, connected and supportive.

A: It seems like a different attitude needs to be adopted.
B: Yet, it’s so hard to incorporate new ways of thinking about old questions.

A: Yes, but as Serres responds, our institutions are in crisis.
B: Which makes the old ways less tenable?

A: More susceptible, for sure.
B: That’s a good way of looking at it.

A: Like fault lines.
B: That await an earthquake?

A: Fragile, and yet what is necessary as a catalyst for change.
B: Oh, you mean, like the ones that signify an earthquake is imminent?

A: Yes. If you take seriously Serres’s notion that, from a historical perspective, there have been three distinct revolutions…
B: Revolutions always interest me.

A: The first revolution is, essentially, the emergence of writing in an oral world.
B: Homer, etc.

A: The second, which is well known, is the invention of the printing press.
B: You mean, with Gutenberg?

A: Yes.
B: What a transformation that was…

A: The third revolution is the digital revolution.
B: Which is the one we are in the midst of now?

A: That’s Serres hypothesis, anyways.
B: I think I read Cathy N. Davidson make a similar declaration.

A: This formulation takes us to the heart of the problem.
B: Which returns us to our initial question, ‘what does it mean to learn?’

A: A circuitous route, but, it’s all connected.
B: We’re almost there!

A: I can feel it too.
B: It’s amazing. I mean, if we truly believe we are in the middle of this revolution.

A: What transformations!
B: From our spoken voice, to the written word, to what we are undergoing today.

A: It makes you wonder, rather deeply and intently.
B: Especially, if other generations felt their own historical importance.

A: To be sure. We live in an interesting time.
B: With weighty, challenging, tenuous questions.

A: Despite that significance, the aim of education has always remained the same.
B: What do you mean?

A: Well, for me, there are certain traits or characteristics that persist, despite historicity.
B: Can you elucidate? That seems rather divisive…

A: We always run a risk when we try to classify, especially, ‘what it means to think.’
B: That’s why I was a little puzzled by your statement.

A: What I mean to say is that, ‘education’ should keep thinking alive.
B: Ah, Whitehead. What about the ‘traits or characteristics?’, though?

A: That’s a bit more slippery.
B: Without question!

A: In a way, these attributes are mutable, but if I were hard pressed…
B: I’ll twist your arm.

A: Here are a few examples: attention, determination, kindness, persistence…
B: Ah, the intangibles.

A: Yes. But, I would be firmer.
B: How do you mean?

A: These intangibles, as you say, are what comprise, what I would call, a constructive life.
B: Like, for example, the ability to think, and to stand by your convictions?

A: When you see a student exhibit the courage that thought demands…
B: It’s unmistakable. Admirable, beyond measure.

A: Exactly. It’s hard to quantify these types of qualities.
B: I see where you’re headed.

A: Yet, how do you teach these qualities?
B: You mean, how to create a system where they’re allowed to transpire?

A: Precisely.
B: I suppose, that’s the crux of it.

A: It’s also where most people insert technology in the discussion.
B: How so?

A: Do you mind if I read a passage from Serres?
B: Not at all.

A: It’s a bit lengthy.
B: I don’t mind.

A: Okay.

‘At the time that printing was invented Michel de Montaigne wrote in his Essays (1580), “I would rather a well-made than well-filled head.” He had noticed this peculiar thing, which was that the head — as a thinking subject — was changing. The feeling at the time of the printing revolution was that a new way of thinking was emerging, and proof of this is that mathematical physics came about around this time. Today, too, a new way of thinking — and quite simply, a new head — is emerging. You can see it in the computer: It holds your memory and a lot of your operating system. As a result, there are many old brain functions that are being replaced by the computer, and thus the head is changing. That’s the new human being.’

B: A new head?!

A: I really take his point seriously.
B: You mean, the bit about the ‘well-made’ head?

A: Indubitably.
B: It’s not what’s stored in your head, but how you use your head?

A: I think that’s on the right path.
B: Yeah, I’m not sure I quite have the right words.

A: I’m not sure anyone does, at least not yet.
B: Right. They probably still need to be invented.

A: Rest assured, we’re getting somewhere.
B: Oh, how I do enjoy our conversation.

A: I think, for me, the question remains the same.
B: How to remain flexible?

A: Yes.
B: One last point.

A: Sure, go ahead.
B: As educators, what role do you think we should play?

A: Can you elaborate?
B: Well, if a paradigm shift is upon us, what’s our function?

A: Ah. I think we need to be active and involved.
B: Committed to the world.

A: Constantly evaluating our relationships.
B: Keeping them porous.

A: Also, I would add, reserved in our judgements. That’s the key.
B: How can you assess a situation when you’ve already established a position?

A: You read my mind!
B: I’m just trying to keep up with you!

A: Ha! I think that’s right, though. How do we expect the next generation to have a conversation that’s ‘free and open’, when we’re unable to exhibit that same attitude?
B: What a wonderful question.

C: Where do we go from here?