“La Llorona and Pier 2” at Burning Man 2012
(c) 2012 Michael Holden. All rights reserved, used by permission.

A couple days ago I mentioned to a friend that I was exploring how the 10 Principles of Burning Man could help us reinvent the structures, objectives, and experience of higher education. “Why did you choose their 10 Principles?” she asked. “Isn’t Burning Man a Satanic Cult?”

Because this was a spirited yet honest inquiry, I figured it was time for me to explore both parts of the query! I decided to figure out 10 Reasons why I feel the 10 Principles provide a reasonable basis — and a good model — for catalyzing radical innovation in higher education. Here’s my list (please add to the comments if you can think of more Reasons).

The Principles:

#1 Recognize and Honor Individual Transformation. By valuing radical self-reliance and immediacy in the context of gifting and civic responsibility, the alchemy of an individual’s transformation with respect to his or her community is emphasized. W. Edwards Deming’s 14 Points were all about individual transformation, so to me, the Principles bring us back to a time where the concept of self was valued as a critical and distinguishable element of the society. The 10 Principles presuppose a movement towards individual transformation that embraces the modern ideals of social responsibility.

#2 Drive Out Fear. By creating an environment where radical self-expression is not only valued but expected, everyone who enters the event space agrees to temporarily suspend judgment about how others express themselves. What better way to radically drive out fear, something that Deming encouraged us to do to revolutionize the workplace (as early as the 1950’s)!

#3 Are Institutionally Minimalist. The values of radical self-reliance and communal effort necessarily place the burdens of survival, expression, and growth on individuals and small collectivities – rather than large institutions. The act of decentralization frees up emotional energy to freely innovate. (Furthermore, I think that the images of “Burning the Man” directly relate to a rejection of institutions that do not support the human spirit.)

#4 Are Emotionally Compelling. The event as well as the principles elicit strong emotions – either positive, identifying with inspiration and transformation, or negative, emphasizing fear and condemnation. Regardless, we believe that strong emotions provide energy and in harnessing this energy, it is possible to transform institutions.

#5 Have Catalyzed a Self-Organized Network with Global Reach. The events and the principles through which people have found others who share their values has resulted in a self-organized network with global ramifications, and regional organizations that support and extend the spirit of the community. This is precisely the kind of grass-roots explosion that would yield lasting institutional transformation.

#6 Have Been Demonstrated Across Years and Scales. Burning Man has a 30 year history, which has been proven to unify people gathering on multiple scales (from a handful of people to tend of thousands) in pursuit of artistic and experiential progress. We like the fact that we can use the framework to study people in different age groups, from different geographies, and from wildly variable backgrounds – who have all come together to share expression, experience, and learning.

#7 Cultivate the Development of Self-Expression. There is a dedication embedded within the Principles to divinely inspired play that helps individuals discover what they’re good at, what they like to do, and what makes them feel vibrant and engaged. If this is all higher education accomplished, it would be highly successful!

#8 Embrace Everyone. Diversity is useless within an atmosphere of fear, and the principle of radical inclusion roots out the barriers that prevent us from leveraging the creative value of diversity (or at the very least, encourages us to explore why there are barriers in the first place). The event has simultaneously been labeled a celebration of Paganism and a place to find and follow Jesus. The fact that both of these experiences can co-exist is, in my opinion, the epitome of innovation and personal transformation.

#9 Are Simple. I can actually remember most of the 10 Principles without writing them on my hand, which means I can reflect upon them often in the course and context of daily life.

#10 Provide a New Framework for Evaluating Higher Ed. (At least we think it’s a new direction of thinking – and there is, for sure, value in novelty) Has anyone else made these connections before? If so, I hope they join us in a mutual pursuit of understanding and institutional transformation.

(So, is it a Satanic cult? I guess this would depend on your definitions. If you’re frightened by images of diverse groups of people dancing around giant bonfires celebrating their humanity and uniqueness and connectedness — oftentimes in ways that challenge social norms and taboos, then yes, I guess it is. But to me, this is the neoplasm from which innovation erupts (in celebration!) of the ecstasy of the human spirit. And it doesn’t matter to me what label you give it – that’s the way I want to be, and plan on living.)

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