Friday, May 23, 2014

New questions and old

Had a quite fascinating conversation with a colleague who studies education today. My head is still abuzz with the miracle that was "Buddhism and Modern Thought" so it was nice to have a chance to reflect on it, and to reconnect with broader questions of pedagogy and liberal arts - the objects of her work. It's always nice to have a conversation like this, though it also makes me realize how easily I lose the wood for the trees... we need friends to remind us of our broader commitments and questions! A few highlights from the conversation:

Was our course valuable as part of a liberal education? I've been thinking about Buddhism and liberal arts for a few years, as you know, but it wasn't a main concern of our project this semester. (In fact, I can't remember the last time I thought it about explicitly - d'oh!) But the answer came easy: yes. Why? Because, I extemporized, it was an occasion for developing a deeper, truer sense of agency - of the world and one's place in it, of its challenges and the things one might do in response to them. You don't need to buy into the Buddhist answers, but engaging its questions is valuable. Also: ours was an adventure in liberal education because it schooled us in respect for others' efforts to make sense of these things: the Buddhism we encountered was emphatically plural and appropriately so.

What does it feel like to encounter a new idea? My first thought (which I went with) was that it should feel at once bizarre and familiar. We encounter a lot of weird ideas all the time and don't pursue them. It should be "out there" enough, different enough from your usual way of making sense of things, as to strike you as odd; but at the same time it should resonate in some way, something you thought you knew will shine with a new clarity in its light. So you abide with it a while. I mentioned William James' idea of how knowledge grows, but might also have mentioned his idea of a "live option." One of the benefits of small seminar classes is that you can experience more things as potentially live options for you as you witness them resonating with others. But - another thing I'd forgotten (and forgot while talking to her) - this was one of the recurring questions of the first part of our course! Remember? It appeared as the question of (how) it is possible to really encounter anything new...

The hardest question to answer was actually the first one she asked me: How did I think the course went? I was surprised that I hesitated in responding, since I think - I know - we had an amazing seminar. But the very nature of its success made the question somehow tricky. As a truly collaborate venture, with a syllabus recalibrated as we went along, our course ended up in a truly different place than I thought we would. This was of course by design! But still, I was suddenly aware of a gap between the retrospective coherence of what we had done and any of the things I had imagined we might do when we started. What tripped me up was something I don't even think my friend meant as part of the question: how the actual course would measure up to its starting intention? In many cases that's just the right question to be asking but it seemed somehow too easy to say "it was an open-ended course." I'm still now sure why I was tripped up here... it may be because not just the syllabus but the instructor were changed by the experience!

We talked about other stuff than "Buddhism and Modern Thought," of course, as one does. But it was refreshing to be reconnected to these big questions about education which - I'd nearly forgotten this, too! - are among those which led me to decide to spend next year in China! What do we teach? Why do we learn? How do we live?

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