Saturday, September 19, 2009

Casting, occasionally, our anchor in the ocean of time

In recent days, the Learning Development Institute has started organizing so-called Lakeside Conversations. These dialogic events are being hosted by Lya and Jan Visser on behalf of the Institute. Following is a brief description of what these conversations entail.

Here is what we have in mind with the Lakeside Conversations.

The Learning Development Institute has, over the ten years of its existence, organized transdisciplinary dialogue that usually involved groups of participants of several tens to more than a hundred people at a time. Examples are the debates on the Meaning of Learning (MOL), those around the Book of Problems (BOP) or concerning the Building of the Scientific Mind (BtSM). Traces of these past events can be found in various locations on the Web site of the Learning Development Institute. On an on-and-off basis, we have also opened our house to receive guests from the LDI community or sympathetic to LDI's mission and had very interesting conversations with them. Based on that valuable experience, we have now decided to become more proactive in this area and, still on an ad hoc basis, wish to host, whenever the opportunity arises, conversations about things that matter at one of the places where we regularly live in southern France and The Netherlands, or even where we may be traveling, such as in South Florida.

These events are called Lakeside Conversations or, in French, Conversations au bord du lac, not only because of the setting of where we spend part of our time in the Low Countries, literally in the immediate vicinity of a small lake, called Lingemeer (Lake Linge), but also inspired by the opening lines of a poem written in 1820 by Alphonse de Lamartine.

And so, driven on ceaselessly toward
new shores, carried beyond return into eternal
darkness, shall we never cast anchor for a
single day in the ocean of time?

Click here for the full translation of this beautiful poem.

We are glad that these localized meetings have a much smaller ecological footprint than the larger ones we will continue to organize from time to time.

This is how it works.

Typically, these events take place around dishes and glasses whose delicious, refreshing and uplifting contents we share as much as the thoughts, ideas and experiences we bring to the table. While, by nature of these events, participation is by invitation, anyone is welcome to indicate their interest in participating by writing to us. In other words, if you are part of the LDI community, i.e., if you have ever seriously collaborated with us on implementing LDI's mission, don't hesitate to be in touch if you happen to be in or to be traveling to The Netherlands or France or any of those multiple other places where we may be, because we stay never very long anywhere. We shall be happy to host you, as many of you have experienced in the past, and invite, whenever possible, like minded spirits to cast their anchor at the same place, so that we can all share thoughts, food and drinks. In the spirit of social networking, those invited are welcome to suggests others whom they feel should join the party. This may include joining at a distance via some form of teleconferencing, such as by using Skype video or audio, via telephone, or employing a video link using the H.323 standard.

Here is what we like the Lakeside Conversations to focus on.

We feel that there is no shortage of issues that serve as food for thought. Some of them may be related to LDI's current work in the areas of Building the Scientific Mind (BtSM) and Learning for Sustainable Futures (LfSF). However, we are naturally also open to any suggestions. Over time, we assume some workable process will emerge to ensure that matters of discussion reflect the interests of the community of those who participate in these conversations, while at the same time serving to propel LDI's work forward. They may well turn out to fall in line with Christopher Phillips's ideas of the Socrates Café.

Just as a start, during the past three weeks we had conversations about the development of Basic Books in Science for the Life Sciences (Sept 2, 2009); Collective Intelligence (Sept 13, 2009); and Learning for Sustainable Futures (Sept 17, 2009). No more than a start, but the success of these initial Lakeside Conversations and the enthusiasm they generated among those who participated, encourages us to continue to develop this model further.

To stay tuned join the Facebook page of the Learning Development Institute, which will announce forthcoming events whenever they are being planned long enough in advance, or check out regularly the Web site of the Learning Development Institute.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Understanding the world in diverse ways: Kieran Egan's perspective on reimagining the learning environment

In The Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up, Kieran Egan refers to education as "the process in which we maximize the tool kit we individually take from the external storehouse of culture" (p. 40). I take the term 'education' to comprise any kind of learning, whether deliberately self-chosen, culturally expected, state enforced or facilitated, or accidentally engaged in. Egan's affirmation then makes sense. The accelerated evolution of our species at its current stage of development is to a much greater extent determined by our ability to interact with the cultural legacy to which our ancestors contributed than by the genomic heritage they left behind. This sets us apart from any other species in the animal kingdom. It is the reason why the particular development our brains have undergone is the greatest gift we owe to evolution.

The tools Egan refers to are cognitive tools, the kind of mental faculties that "enable the brains to do cultural work" (p. 40). In fact, they are themselves part of the cultural heritage of humankind. One acquires the tools and the abilities associated with their usage by interacting with that cultural heritage. Hence Egan's above cited notion of education. He identifies these tools in the context of five different kinds of understanding, i.e., somatic, mythic, romantic, philosophical, and ironic understanding. The table below provides a quick overview of these five kinds of understanding. A much more elaborate rationale can be found in Chapter 3 of Egan's book.

We develop the cognitive tools in these five domains successively as we grow more mature in our understanding of the world. However, as we become mentally more sophisticated, we mustn't throw out prior ways of understanding as we develop the cognitive tools associated with new ways of understanding. As we progress through life we need them all. We must keep the prior tools in our tool kits as we are continually in need of understanding the world in complex ways and from multiple perspectives.

Egan's idea of 'cognitive tools that allow the brains to do cultural work' leading to different kinds of understanding is based on a conception of the mind as "an ambivalent thing, made up of culture drawn from outside the organism and of cognition within" (p. 84). It creates a framework for thinking about educational reform based on a scheme that "combines epistemological, psychological and emotional characteristics together" (p. 84).

Egan uses that scheme in the second half of the book in which he describes a history of the future of education on earth from 2010 to 2060 in five ten-year intervals from the perspective of a fictitious researcher coming from a planet outside our own solar system. This is an interesting way to test the ideas developed in the first part of the book by means of a thought experiment regarding how the world would change if such ideas were put into practice in such a way as to avoid that they would be rejected. After all, many good ideas get rejected as soon as it comes to implementing them in settings that are impervious to change, as both traditionalist and progressivist educational environments tend to be.

Depending on one's attitude towards anything Utopian, one may variously like the description that ensues. I, for one, was more enthralled by what I read in the first part of the book than by my subsequent exposure to the road to Utopia. The more ideal the world of education became as the story of the future enfolded in Egan's book, the more uncomfortable I felt with the impending state of perfection and the gradual disappearance of problems. Would there be anything left after 2060 that one might want to meaningfully engage in to further improve the world and the human condition?

One of the more provocative assertions regarding the future of education has to do with the use of technology in education. Current expectations are that technology will have a positive influence on the quality of the school environment. Contrary to that expectation, Egan's thought experiment points towards the "near absence" (p. 167) of technology in the schools in the 2040-2050 decade. Says Egan:
'Access to information' had been one of the mantras of the early days, when computers began to have an effect on education. But access to knowledge had never been the problem, and it should have been clear then, and was to many, of course. Even a hundred years earlier, students had access to plenty of knowledge; the problem was getting it into the students, and getting it to mean anything much to them. The most fundamental change in schooling was tied up with precisely that problem. Technology had its uses in providing immediate access to any information required, but the more important feature of the new schooling was the recognition of how to use the older technologies of human communication like the story and mental images, which connect knowledge with human emotions. (pp. 167-168.)
No doubt, interesting food for thought!


Egan, K. (2008). The Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Syngué sabour

I could not recall having ever heard of Atiq Rahimi when a friend of mine in nearby Avignon, whom I visited the other day, told me about a book he had just read that he felt I shouldn't fail reading myself as well. The scanty details he provided about the story itself were unconvincing, but something in his voice that words cannot describe told me that I had no choice but buying the book. So, back at home, already past midnight, I ordered the book online and found it in the mail two days later. Another three days and I had read the book.

Atiq Rahimi is an Afghan novelist and filmmaker, exiled in Paris, France, whose previous work was written in Farsi. Singué sabour - Pierre de patience (not translated into English yet, as far as I know) is his first novel directly written in French. It landed him the prestigious Prix Goncourt, an honor rarely bestowed on other than French nationals.

Rahimi writes a powerful prose. Low impact short sentences that together create a cumulative effect that is different from, but not less potent than some of the famous opening lines known from the literature that resonate in the mind long after they have been read. In a short opening paragraph Rahimi leads his readers into a room that will be the setting for most of what happens as the story unfolds. Its various features are painted with broad strokes of the brush. The second paragraph focuses the readers’ attention on a man’s photo portrait in that same room, which is otherwise devoid of ornaments. In the third paragraph the camera pans to a man, lying on a mattress against a wall opposite the photograph. The same man as the one depicted in the portrait, but older now and exhausted. In the fourth paragraph we see the man being nursed by a woman, his wife. We gradually learn that the man is a fighter with some religious cause. Nothing out of the ordinary in a country like Afghanistan, where most people adhere to some religious cause and a fair proportion of the men translate such adherence into violent opposition to those who share different convictions. It so happens that he got wounded, can no longer move or speak, and is being kept alive thanks to the care of the woman.

In the course of the events the woman becomes convinced that the man listens to her and can understand her, despite the fact that he cannot speak or emit any signal that would show comprehension. But any such proof is not really what she is looking for. According to a Persian myth there exists a magic stone, the ‘patience stone’ (syngué sabour), that you need merely put in front of you to entrust to it all your misery and suffering. The stone will, like a sponge, absorb it all until, one day, it bursts into pieces. On that day you will be relieved. The man having become the woman’s singué sabour, the novel turns into a monologue that the reader overhears. The monologue reflects some of the specificity of the man-woman relationships as they are embedded in Afghan culture. However, that cultural context is only the setting that one may expect to be the natural choice of a writer who grew up in it. The reader does not have to be familiar with that particular culture to absorb and process the messages contained in the monologue.

The book is a small miracle of transcultural communication about the intertwined, connected, yet separate worlds of male and female human existence--full of complexity, pain, and occasional tenderness and beauty. There is much to be learned from imbibing this monologue, whether you are a man or a woman.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


What follows is the only slightly edited text of a contribution I made yesterday (January 13, 2009) to a discussion on the LearningSocietiesConference list. In what I write I make reference to thoughts expressed by two other list members. As the list is for members only, I quote below two fragments taken from posts by Khalida Qattash and Katrien Dupont.

Among other thoughts about the current events in Gaza, Khalida had contributed a poem that ended as follows:
Nevertheless, you are gruesomely lucky,
'Cause despite your fortunate being,
You must survive the coincidental guilt
Of being yourself and not
A condemned, tracked, and raided,
Nobody, 'cause you're not Gazan!

Katrien had contributed with the following thoughts:
Could we send action pamflets around somehow to distribute the message that the war is over and people WILL have to live together always ? Maybe this way everyone starts to believe peace is possible !! . . . .What if a soldier entered and you started hugging him massively telling him the war is over ? There's nothing crazy enough to try if it lights up a spark in his/her soul. Just never let yours die !!! For peace !

Following is my own contribution that I was encouraged to share with a wider audience via this blog.

These are hard times for those who want to retain a useful balance between emotions and considered argumentation. I have a special relationship with the lasting conflict in the Middle East and its immediate background. Here is what explains that relationship.

I was a child during the Second World War and grew up amidst the ruins of what was left of the city of Rotterdam after it had been destroyed on May 14, 1940, by what was then considered unprecedented massive bombardment during the first days of the German invasion of The Netherlands. Our house stood at the perimeter of the wasteland that remained. As a child I witnessed the atrocities of war, saw my Jewish neighbors, among which a girl roughly my age, being deported to never come back; I saw my father being taken away and was glad to see him reappear seven or eight months later after the war had ended; I vividly recall the sound of the blast when one of Werner von Braun’s missiles, destined for London, didn’t make it to there but hit Rotterdam instead, a few streets away from where we lived; and I can still access imagery stored in my neural network of planes in the sky overhead engaging in air combat with shrapnel dropping all around us.

I also witnessed reconstruction and reconciliation in the years following the war. It’s difficult to erase childhood memories, but one can learn to live with them and love and appreciate former enemies.

It was a good preparation for later in life as I lived through a couple of other wars and forms of violent conflict, often feeling morally and emotionally associated with those who committed violence against violent oppression. The liberation struggles in Southern Africa are the setting of that experience. I became the mature adult that I believe I now am while living between 1971 and 1993 in that part of the world, almost 13 years of which during ugly armed conflict, fomented largely by foreign interests and financing, in Mozambique, as well as being in relatively close touch with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, many of whose principal actors operated at that time from within Mozambique.

Palestine is in between the above experiences. I was a molecular biophysicist in the mid-1960’s. Molecular biology was still an emerging scientific field under development at but a few places around the world: Cambridge, London, Paris, Uppsala, Haifa, Rehoboth are some of those that come to mind. I ended up spending a year at the Theoretical Chemistry Department at the Technion in Haifa as a research fellow, having been awarded a prestigious scholarship to do so. My perceptions of the state of Israel were naïve when I accepted the offer. They were influenced by how the creation of that state had been depicted in Western Europe (still from a perspective that perceived colonization as something quite normal) and the pain that never disappears of having witnessed the slaughter of one’s fellow human beings, particularly those with which one holds relationships of proximity as those that exist between children who live in the same street and play together. Against that background the survival of a people destined to be totally exterminated by means not at all remote from those that industrial societies invent and develop to advance their capitalistic goals, was--and still is--reason for joy. It was reason for joy to me.

We had no money and the only way to reach Haifa from where we lived in The Netherlands was to drive there by car. On the way we had a bad car accident just outside Aleppo, Syria, where we consequently had to stay for several weeks before continuing our journey. It was the beginning of an eye-opening experience. Through conversations with the people we met we became aware of alternative perceptions and realities. Uninterested in politics then I had never heard the name of Balfour and discovered, feeling ashamed to be so ignorant, that any school kid in Syria knew that name (school knowledge of course, probably not very profound, perhaps even with strong elements of indoctrination, but it contrasted with my own total ignorance).

Life in Israel at that time wasn’t as bad as it is now. It was still before the 5th of June 1967, the time when things started changing quite dramatically (in my view and that of others I’ve read about it). Discussions were open and enlightened, at least in the circles in which I moved among my Israeli colleagues. But I also moved in parallel circles, those of the Arab citizens living inside Israel’s borders. Among them was the poet Samih Al-Qasim. Conversations with Samih opened my eyes further, awoke in me the recognition that, though I don’t like politics, I couldn’t ignore political realities, and through him I got to know others.

I was still in Haifa when sirens sounded again. It had been some time since the war of my childhood. I was still in bed when we heard the sound. During at least a month prior to it I had witnessed and become irritated by the psychological build-up to a war that was still to happen but had meanwhile been firmly implanted in the minds of people. Days prior to the event I had been attending a lecture by a visiting Israeli scientist who bid farewell to us, the audience, with the words: “See you after the war.” Rather than joining the people we heard rushing down the stairs of the apartment building where we occupied two rooms and a kitchen at the top, we stayed in bed, annoyed, waiting for things to happen that never happened. Stupid, perhaps, but that’s what we did. In fact, what happened, we soon found out, happened across the borders. I stayed in Israel during the six days of that short war that many in Europe applauded while it filled me with sadness. Those six days seemed to have changed the minds of many of my Israeli friends and the colleagues with whom I closely collaborated on scientific matters. I stayed for another month before returning to Europe. When I finally left, Samih said: “I hope to see you again in better circumstances.” In 1973 we met again in Jerusalem. He repeated the same words.

You don’t have to be a poet for those words to become an integral part of your continuous discourse. Any Palestinian will likely feel that way and so will many other people on this planet. In fact, I think any Israeli in his or her right mind should feel that way as well. Surely, I feel that way when I think of the many people I have met in the countries and territories whose history and current realities have been marked by events that should have never happened. Yet they happened. Anyone can become a victim. Anyone can become an oppressor. Those who have once been victims seem more apt turning themselves into the opposite; adopting the logic of those at whose hands they once suffered.

The arrow of time points in one direction only. It’s forward. You can’t undo history. We are all the product of injustices to which our ancestors fell victim or of which they were the perpetrators, or both. After the apartheid regime finally ended in South Africa, the parties to the conflict of the past subjected themselves to a process of unearthing truths and reconciling what had seemed impossible to reconcile. It’s an encouraging example of what can be done. Somehow the madness must stop. While the conflict still rages, we must be clear and lucid in condemning the crimes that are being perpetrated, in the first place to avoid that they will happen again. We must understand the past and recognize what went wrong (Khalida’s point--well taken), not in an effort to point fingers at those who did it, but trying to comprehend fully the picture we are looking at. From that perspective we must not look back, and certainly not look back with a view to reconstituting the conditions of the past, which has never been a great success, the creation of the state of Israel perhaps being an enlightening example, in retrospect, of what should not have been done. We must look forward imaginatively and creatively, envisioning new futures (Katrien’s point--equally well taken). Surely, such futures are futures of peace. That’s why I like Katrien’s bold idea to just waking the world up to an awareness of ‘Hey, the war is over.’ This may be difficult for those Gazans who have become ‘condemned, tracked and raided nobodies’ (Khalida’s poetic words). It’s the gruesome luck of us who have been spared that condition that we are still somebody, perhaps feeling a sense of guilt because we are so much more fortunate, but, as we are not yet ourselves buried under the rubble we are the ones who can help clear the mess and collectively construct new ways forward.

I’m using the word ‘rubble’ literally, as I watch the events in Gaza unfold on my TV screen, and figuratively. What I have learned is that you are under the rubble both while you are dominating others and while you are being dominated. There are people ‘not under the rubble,’ ‘non-Gazans’ in the figurative sense, in the camp of those who are being dominated as well as among the dominators. In addition, there are lots such people not party to the conflict in the immediate sense, though we are all somehow connected to it by varying degrees of association. It helps if those not under the rubble get to know each other better. That’s what I find significant and encouraging in reading the correspondence between Katrien and Khalida. Allow me to join you.