Never the Entire Lake

September 11, engraved in memory, seared in our collective soul. That morning we informed the staff of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching that they were free to return home. We also set up a television in our common area. Remarkably, no one left, as most chose to sit with colleagues and friends, watching in disbelief as the events of that day unfolded. We found ourselves asking why it is important to continue with our work. Why should we keep up the daily tasks of our programs in the face of acts of violence and mass destruction? Of what possible value was "the advancement of teaching" in a world gone mad? And that very work began to offer a few gentle, reassuring answers.

Within a day or two of the horror, the listserv of scholars of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) began to heat up as these extraordinary teachers from colleges and universities all over the nation began to exchange ideas about how they might respond educatively within their individual classrooms and institutions to these events. They wrote about their teaching, their students' thoughts and feelings, and their own sense of loss and responsibility. In their exchanges, we witnessed the burden of the pedagogical imperative in a democratic society: to support the natural expressions of patriotic and nation-building commitments, while striving to sustain the critical and even skeptical thinking that is the hallmark of a liberally educated human being. Through these exchanges, we also witnessed one of the key aims of our CASTL work, the creation of a community of scholars engaged in thoughtful reflection on the acts and experiences of teaching and learning - a learning community that also comes together to make sense of tragedy and to forge new understandings of roles and responsibilities. It is in this area of learning through collaboration - communities of scholars and students striving to build understandings together that would be far more difficult to accomplish in isolation - where I see one of the important possibilities for new directions for the development of human learning in light of September 11 events.

When visiting Beijing a couple of years ago, my former student who is now the Executive Vice President of Peking University, Min Weifang, took me for a walk on the university campus. Pointing out an irregularly shaped lake right in the middle of that campus, he said, "Do you see anything interesting about this lake?" I had no ready answer. He responded, "If you look carefully, you will see that this lake has been designed so that there is no place anyone can stand on the shore and see the entire lake." And I said, "That's a very interesting metaphor for acquiring understanding." He said, "Truly." For me, that lake at the center of a great university is an image of what a learning community of our students could be, a community in which different folks who come to understand different things bring them together to forge new understanding. It's an image of what both our faculties and our student bodies can be. As they collaborate, and as scholars try to understand, improve, and eventually sanctify the kind of learning that goes on in their institutions, they must do so as a collective, interdependent activity, not as the work of individuals alone.

I also began to contemplate the ways in which teaching had been one of the root causes of the terror, and why it therefore must be employed in addressing the eradication of terror, as well. Those who engage in suicide bombings are themselves the products of intentional, carefully designed and monolithically deployed systems of education. In our day, as in centuries past, hatred and extremism are taught explicitly to children in their schools, are modeled in curriculum materials and educational programs, and are fanned in houses of worship. We clearly know enough about the conditions of human learning to form young people into fanatics and fundamentalists. If intentional pedagogies can be used to teach hate and fanaticism, can they also be deployed in the service of tolerance and critical understanding? Or are we, as both species and culture, more readily taught dogma and unilateralism than reason and multiple perspectives? Are principles of learning for dogmatic ends qualitatively different than those for the development of more subtle, prudential human judgment?

These are some of the thoughts about learning that have accompanied me since the horrific events of September 11. I am persuaded that if we are intelligent enough to use pedagogy for destructive ends, we must be wise enough to teach for democratic, humanistic purposes. It is not human nature to be evil; nor is it our nature to be virtuous. We are inherently the species that learns and teaches, that evolves in a Lamarckian manner through the transmission of culture, values and understanding. And we must use the very same pedagogical weapons that have been used to breed hate in the service of restoring humanity.

President, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

January 4, 2002

Bulletin Interactif du Centre International de Recherches et Études Transdisciplinaires n° 16 - Février 2002

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