Friday, January 11, 2019


Having run into the idea of "Threshold Education" which bases itself on the Victor Turner idea of a thought context being like a room with a limen (entrance), space for change, and exit, I got all excited with good reason.

Particularly useful are some of the characteristics listed, like shifting a learner's perception (Transformative), committing to the new way of thinking (Irreversible), access to new conceptual spaces (Boundary breaching).  But on reflection it began to occur to me that education was always supposed to be like this.  It's about the difference between step-and grade learning to a prescribed goal, and path-learning without any goal because it has no end.  The latterdfexc is useful, even desirable, but it is what we have learned to call "secular."

Turner's idea was much more global, emotional, and transforming on a world-meaning scale.  I sorta hate to use the word "spiritual" for fear of shapeless glowing entities.  But then I found this.  

When I was preaching, I often used the metaphor of grass as ideas.  I would contrast even green lawns with the ragged long blades that thrust up through a pile of old discarded boards and suggest that the fact that they were hidden and not particularly valued or forming a whole was fortunate because they weren't noticed and obliterated as a obstacle to order and beauty.  Perhaps I could call it a grass "back loop".  "As observed in ecological systems, the back loop is the phase of life when the structures that constitute one order come apart, making way for others to form.  Stephanie Wakefield suggests we're actually in the back loop of many ecological systems, as much opportunity as loss.

(Googling for "back loop" of systems" will get you a fascinating list of articles, plus more new concepts, like "panarchy" from an article by Howard Silverman, who works at in Portland.)

Reading these articles about the back loop of "civilization" is a fine antidote for the terror-inspiring accounts of disaster we read daily.  But it is practical and worldly more than it offers "meaning" or spirituality.  Still, art, nature, adventure, are all promising.  The connection to what is called "the back loop" enters explicit religion through morality, which many people consider to be the basic component.

"Basic skills are an obvious starting place, and the desire to learn them is omnipresent amongst students. In our class Anthropocene Life, Lang senior Kate Bilezikian explored the power of learning such skills via a memoir of her experience as a camp counselor. Leading eight 11-year-olds through 20 nights together in the woods without phones or electricity, she has both learned and taught what she sees as key lessons: not freaking out; starting a fire; cooking mac n cheese in the woods; being able to predict downpours. After this trial in the ‘cabin environment,’ according to Kate, each camper is more confident, funnier, and closer."

Some of the other strategies were a video, a dance, music, all ways of expressing contexts without using words.  Anthropologists might use the fancy term "ontopolitics" to describe the shift from seeing "other" cultures as different enough to ignore, label sub-human, and persecute.  The phrase used is "being in being".  In our society, in order to proceed with thinking, one needs to have a name for the category under consideration.  So here it is.

It's a commonplace that we all see the future in terms of what exists now, so that most of the films about dystopias for the past few years have really been descriptions of life in the ruined cities of today with sidewalks full of "rough sleepers" and soup kitchens declared illegal because they are offensive.

"Back Loop" experience-based learning to compensate for pre-existing convictions about what is "real," have been around for a while.  In the '70's at Browning Schools but under the auspices of Northern Montana College and ironically emplaced at the Blackfeet Boarding School just outside Browning, Bill Haw -- a high school counselor who came to this ontopolitical point of view through third force psych learned in Detroit in a time of riots -- led a summer workshop for teachers (likely to be white) working with tribal kindergarteners.  The emphasis was on uncovering one's own prejudicial assumptions by using paper-and-pencil self-tests, but more than that it provided some nonverbal ontopolitical experiences.  I've described before (but it is fun to think about again, which is a good indicator of effectiveness) how the class was divided into three groups.  The participants had no idea what might happen to them.  One group was arrested and put in the local jail.  That group included one of the tribal judges, noted for being a "hanging" judge.  

Another group was sent to Moccasin Flats on a scavenger hunt.  At the time some were afraid to enter that unreformed tangle of log-cabins and junk, much less talk to anyone who lived there.  The list of things to "find" was carefully managed to include both common things (coffee grounds) and rare things (the day's newspaper).

The third group was taken out to Starr School, about ten miles out of Browning, and left to find their own way back.  In those days it was legal to ride in the open back of a pickup which is what most people drove, so that's who gave them a ride, along with the driver's dog and children.

The teachers, mostly women, arrived back with pink cheeks and many stories to tell.  I don't know what happened to them after that summer -- whether they were really changed in the way they taught, but it would be fascinating for someone to track them down and investigate.

Quoting "Inhabiting the Anthropocene", "As observed in ecological systems, the back loop is the phase of life when the structures that constitute one order comes apart, making way for others to form.  In contrast to life in the regimes we are leaving behind, where innovation was stifled and influence limited to a few actors with the greatest power, in the back loop, beings and things are released and open to new potential.  The back loop also designates a broader set of shifting baselines of our civilization, including what is true, what being human means, as well as who gets to answer these questions and in what ways."

The paper quoted above was written by Stephanie Wakefield at Eugene Lang College in the 2017-2018 academic year.  A geographer and Urban Studies Foundation Research Fellow at Florida International University in Miami.  Applying it to our present American political state is highly revealing.

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