A few days ago on the Burning Blog, Caveat Magister posted his reaction to the Burning Mind Project. The post has received some endorsements, and some pushback. I’d like to take the time to respond, as well.
On Dictatorship and Extreme Bigotry
First, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to Caveat for his post. He pointed out some flaws in what we’re doing which are, in retrospect, quite embarrassing, but entirely in line with the kind of feedback we were hoping to get when we put this site up. In particular, Caveat pointed out the absolutist, even dictatorial tone of the language we used to express the Ten Principles as we perceive them in higher ed. For example, we explained the principle of civic responsibility as follows:
Public welfare is of paramount importance. Participants must honor the sanctity of the social fabric and take personal responsibility for ensuring positive individual experiences that contribute to the greater good of the local community, as well as society at large. The community cannot endure if all of its members are not committed to acting to ensure its survival.
I added emphasis to the word “must” here. Caveat’s right on this point: who are we to tell anyone that they must do something? We’re not ready to back down from the belief that, ultimately, civic responsibility is the cornerstone value that will allow a decommodified gift economy to flourish. However, in many cases it is precisely Burners’ refusal to honor social fabric that is the catalyst for some of the most meaningful change. On re-reading how I interpreted the Ten Principles I find the text riddled with such examples of absolutism. That’s something that will be addressed.
Another thing worth dealing with explicitly would be our formulation of the principle of radical self-expression:
Perhaps the most extreme of the Ten Principles, the community values the unique contributions and participative styles of its members, so long as personal expression respects the rights and liberties of the others (i.e. expression cannot violate the principle of radical inclusion).
Again, it is frequently acts of exclusion that are catalysts for change. The feeling of revulsion that Caveat got in reading our website, which prompted him to write his post, is a visceral expression of this. As Caveat says, “A certain level of ambiguity is healthy for Burning Man. A certain level of uncertainty, even confusion, is essential.” We love ambiguity, and endorse uncertainty and confusion in our classrooms. When we wrote that radical inclusion must trump radical self-expression, we were thinking of cases of extreme exclusion–think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which each of the parties refuses to acknowledge that the other side exists, or even worse, even has a right to exist. We will stand fast on rejecting any form of extreme bigotry, but Caveat is right: short of extreme bigotry, there is definitely a place for radical self-expression that makes others feel excluded and marginalized. It is precisely through the process of figuring out why one feels marginalized or excluded, or feels the need to marginalize or exclude someone, that growth happens.
So, thank you, Caveat, for holding the mirror up to our faces. We needed it.
On the Nature of Science and Academic Inquiry
A second thread of the conversation started around Caveat’s post is the nature of scientific and academic inquiry. In an attempt to ward off the comments of the hairsplitters, I’ll start by saying that this is going to be overly reductionist. The idea is that there are basically two forms of academic inquiry: descriptive and applied. Descriptive inquiry seeks to study phenomena, to label them, to try to understand them, confirm that they exist, and sometimes to dissect them. In some cases, and to some people, sure, this can be like having to explain the joke, or even knowing the secret to the magic trick, so that it no longer seems magic. However, I’d argue that what more frequently happens is that the quest for understanding leads to even deeper questions, and an even more profound sense of awe and wonder. It is precisely by understanding the secret to the magic trick that one is able to modify it, to adapt it, to create even more powerful magic. This new magic is the applied side of academic inquiry.
The Burning Mind Project does not exist to study Burning Man. We’re not trying to define or interpret or control or even influence what goes on there (beyond wanting to go to the desert, hang out with amazing people, and to share what gifts we may bring). Rather, the point of the Burning Mind Project is to bring the Ten Principles to the default world in a way that is meaningful and catalyzes the kind of self-understanding that frequently comes from a Burn. A necessary first step for us in doing this was to try to wrap our brains around the Ten Principles in a way that would enable us to use them to shape classroom experiences for our students. We’ve been busy doing this, and haven’t spent as much time writing about it. It is a great gift to us to have people respond to what we’ve written so that we can polish and refine what it is that we’re trying to do. Burning Man is NOT our target–rather it is the bow that powers our arrow. Our target is education, and on fixing the ways that it is tragically broken.
On the Viscerally Negative Reaction to “Academia”
The third thread running through this discussion is that many of us have been wounded by education and by our experiences with an educational system that is broken. Whether you want to refer to this as Academia or as something else, the truth remains that as Sir Ken Robinson says, education is ruthlessly and systematically destroying creativity and self-awareness in our young people. We are taught that if we are not good at the Three R’s that we are “stupid” or ADHD or otherwise deficient and in need of remediation. The Burning Mind Project actively seeks to correct this. When students enter my classroom, I only have two objectives for them. As a result of having been in my class I want them to learn two things:
- Do you love–or could you learn to love–doing this? (“this” being whatever the subject of the course is)
- Are you, or do you think you could be, good at it?
Other than these two vital nuggets of self-awareness, nothing else really matters to me. I happen to teach mostly web-development and programming courses. Do I really care if my students grow up to be computer programmers? By whatever happy accident they ended up in my classroom, one thing I know for sure is that I am NOT there to make them feel like shit if they can’t get their programs to work. Sure, some of my students will find a passion and an aptitude for the technical stuff I do, and we will have a great time together building cool stuff. And then another set of them will find that programming is not their bag, and they will depart feeling comforted that they now know this, and they’ll go on to do equally amazing stuff with their true gifts. For all of them, I leave with the satisfaction that perhaps I’ve helped them understand themselves just a little bit better.
Yeah, so maybe academics are at the gates. But we’re not storming the castle–we’re on our way out to tell everyone about the cool shit we found inside.