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Inception, the Constitution, education, and life itself

Paul Grobstein's picture

Interesting intersection this weekend of thoughts from an ongoing summer institute with K12 teachers on Brain, Science, Inquiry, and Education, from seeing Christopher Nolan's new movie Inception, and from a visit to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

The movie is, for me at least, a visually and psychologically imaginative, rich, and engaging illustration of a way of thinking that we've been exploring in other terms in the summer institute. "Inception" uses dreaming as a metaphor for this way of thinking.  In that context, the act of "inception," of one person influencing some one else's dreams, requires some special technology.  But one can, if one chooses, decline the metaphor used by the movie and simply take its story at face value.  We are all at all times "dreaming," in the particular sense that we always experience our own interpretation of what is out there, rather than what is "actually" out there (or in here).  From this perspective, there is no fundamental "reality," no single "real world" that we can use to measure our understanding against.  Instead we each live, as the movie illustrates, in a set of multiple interdependent, interactive realities/worlds that we construct and reconstruct ourselves by noticing differences between our expectations and our experiences, as well as  differences among our expectations and experiences in the different worlds/realities we inhabit.  In so doing, we both are influenced by and influence the worlds/realities of others with whom we interact.    That we can influence the worlds/realities of others, and are in turn influenced by them, requires, on this account, no special technology.  "Inception" is inherent in the human condition, in life itself.

The National Constitution Center provides a comparable visually and psychologically imaginative, rich, and engaging portrayal of the history and ongoing development of the American Constitution, and of associated American political life.   Its a story of  checks and balances, and of how we think of ourselves, both individually and collectively.  But here too one can, if one chooses, decline the metaphor, and see the exhibit more abstractly as an illustration of a way of thinking not unlike that portrayed in "Inception."  That we are all "created equal" can be understood not as we are all "created the same" but rather as an acknowledgment that we each live in our own somewhat different reality/world, and that that diversity is valuable to all of us. And "checks and balances" can be understood as a mechanism to assure it will always be so, that no one world/reality shall ever be allowed to dominate all others.   From this perspective, the American experience can be thought of too as life itself, an ongoing process in which negotiations between individual worlds/realities, and between individual worlds/realities and collective worlds/realities, drives an ongoing exploration of new ways of being that derive from those differences.    

Suppose we took quite seriously and generally the idea that there is no single world/reality, that we are all engaged in a continuing process of revising worlds/realities, both individually and collectively, and, in the process, of creating new ones.  Might such an evolving systems perspective give us a new and useful way to think about a variety of things, education among them?   What would an educational system look like if it was grounded in the objective of giving students the wherewithal to participate in the creation of new worlds/realities, instead of giving them what we think is needed to be successful in a particular one?  In what ways might other social institutions and cultural systems be altered?  In what ways might our own lives be different, if we thought of them not in terms of particular goals and competing with others to achieve them but rather in terms of valuing individual distinctivenesses, our own and that of others, and using those to create worlds/realities, individual and collective, as yet unconceived?  Its worth thinking about.    

"The universe has lost its centre ... and woken up to find it has countless centres. So that each one can now be seen as the centre, or none at all." ... Bertold Brecht, The Life of Galileo



lk's picture

Alice's question about social

Alice's question about social change and collective action seems important to me. I don't think it is as simple as saying that we learn from difference and can act collectively as long as we don't think of our actions as leading to truth. For shared dreams to lead to new realities, some potentials are realized while others are not. In a democracy, some people win, some people lose. In social change, some people lose their positions and their power, and not everyone comes away accepted or validated or buying the dream.

alesnick's picture

individual dreams and shared dreams

I hear Paul calling for a fundamental appreciation of the distinctiveness and value of every individual's dreams, and an accompanying, enhanced fluidity of social relationships and structures to enable these individual dreams to mingle and generate new individual and social dreams outside of systems defined by power.  Do I have that right, Paul?  In case I do, and in case it's of use, I thought to share my felt response in hopes it might provoke others to do likewise.

When I hear this set of ideas, I experience what I've come to call "beleaguered knowing" -- a state of awareness in which I am most responsive, or my imagination is best attuned, to issues of power from a weak or threatened position (myself or via perspective-taking).  From the standpoint of beleaguered knowing,  I worry that if I accept these ideas, I will in effect be letting my guard down, forgetting lessons hard learned, and basically giving into a narrative that obviates necessary vigilance.

At the same time, I can see that this vigilance is, must be, limiting; likely keeps certain images of what constitutes "reality" in place; and makes rigid relationships, systems, and ideas that could be much better and more interesting were they looser and more expansive. 

So -- you can't untie a knot without untying it.  How to think, and speak, about this in a way that opens it for and to people interested in social change towards greater equality and fairness, people not interested in that, people who share egalitarian interests but from vastly different starting points?  How to have a fight about this that isn't violent, isn't war, that lets everyone's dreams alone, in a sense, to continue changing our lives?




Paul Grobstein's picture

on dreaming in a "real" world

Issue very well/thoughtfully put.  Thanks.  Yes, "a fundamental appreciation ... of every individual's dreams, and an accompanying fluidity of social relations and structures to mingle and generate new individual and social dreams ...".  But, a problem ... "if I accept these ideas, I will be in effect letting my guard down ... giving into a narrative that obviates necessary vigilance."

You're not, of course, alone with the "beleaguered knowing" reaction; I feel it too.  There is an appealing place to want to be but its not where most people are.  And if I don't keep an eye on those other people, they'll not only not appreciate "the distinctiveness and value" of my dreams, they'll marginalize me; I'll lose status and power.

My own experience is that that is not only possible but likely.  We live in a culture in which social status and power is based to a large extent on establishing the validity of one's own dreams by exclusion, by successfully challenging the validity of the dreams of others.  To decline to engage in that process is to risk being regarded by many others as weak at best and, at worst, as irrelevant or meaningless.

One way to deal with this, of course, is to dissociate somewhat one's own sense of relevance and meaningfulness from the evaluations of "many others," and I suspect this is a necessary step for anyone seriously interested in social change.  The latter, by its very nature, requires sustaining a dream despite its being different from that of many others.  That's easier, and I suspect healthier, if one can find common cause with at least a few "others." 

A second way to deal with the problem of having simultaneously a dream and beleaguered knowing is to use the tension between the two to motivate some further exploration of one's own aspirations.  Everyone would, to one degree of another, like to feel well-regarded and valued by other people.  But, in this particular culture or social system?  One might, after thinking about it, decide that the time and energy needed to try and assure one's standing and power within a particular social system/culture isn't productive for oneself and one's dreams, that the time and energy could be better spent in other ways.

A third way to deal with the problem, an ingredient of the first two, is to  resist the tendency to reify dichotomies.  One needn't choose between two absolutes: following one's dream or protecting one's power/social status.  Nor between community and no community.  One can see oneself and others more as continua: one shares dreams to varying degrees with various other people, one has varying amounts of standing and power at various times in various communities, one can invest varying amount of energy in various ways depending on the circumstances at various times.  No absolutes, instead interactions with the world (including other human beings) that in turn shape to varying degrees the future directions and aspirations of both oneself and others.

So, back to the original problem.  One might indeed, probably will, lose some status and power in our culture by acting out of and promoting "a fundamental appreciation ... of every individual's dreams, and an accompanying fluidity of social relations and structures to mingle and generate new individual and social dreams ..."  But maybe that's not such a huge concern?  Maybe some loss of status and power in our culture is, on balance, not such a bad thing at any particular time?  Maybe, as you say, it will in the short run open "more expansive possibilities," and, in the long run, contribute to the emergence of societies/cultures in which fewer people are inclined to challenge the validity of the dreams of others, and more people value each other precisely because of their contributions to the generative diversity of dreams?

Untying it is not the only way to "untie a knot."  Sometimes a little unravelling here and there will make it fall apart.  Sometimes you can surprise people less interested in "equality and fairness" by treating them in ways they don't expect, in ways they don't themselves treat other people.  Is this one of those times?  I don't know; social change isn't that predictable.  But, worst comes to worst, one has at least the satisfaction of knowing that one acted out of one's dreams rather than out of one's fears.  In a way "that isn't violent, isn't war, that lets everyone's dreams ... continue changing our lives."

alesnick's picture

more than one way to untie a knot

Oh, I see it now!  Thanks.  That you can sometimes untie a knot other than by untying it reminds me of something I read recently about how nature likes options.  A place where physics and human social life intersect?

Now my thinking going this way.  I can see for my own part accepting the ideas that initially recall me to beleagueredness.  I can reckon the possible costs and payoffs for myself, and measure my own capacity to take the risks entailed.  I also affirm the choice to "act out of one's dreams rather than out of one's fears."  But I am uneasy about recommending this approach to others (though in one guise or another I do so often), because I can't take the measure of what the risks and costs would be to them, particularly if their worlds (seem at least to me to) accommodate their dreams much less well than mine do.  Does this mean I give other people too little credit?  And my powers of persuasion too much?

lk's picture

I think it depends on what

I think it depends on what you think "social change" is. It is not as if social change is monolithic or even unidirectional. There are lots of kinds of change, and people tend to pick the battles that are most comfortable to them. I think you can depend on them for that. What is change or improvement for one group is sometimes to the detriment of another -- that's when social change gets complicated. And of course there are different ways to approach change. Some people will tackle big issues -- economic inequity, intolerance, educational disparity -- and work at the policy level. Others will take more manageable bites -- homelessness in Philadelphia, hunger among children, joblessness among ex-offenders, achievement gap in local schools -- and work at the program level, on the ground. Some people work with just a small number of people they can affect directly -- like a teacher (or professor), or working in a soup kitchen. Others will try to develop a program that can be brought to scale, like a job training center. Still others will take on what some people call "social marketing," but what I think others would see as providing a space -- on the internet for example -- for discourse and the sharing of ideas. Ideas can change people, as can direct interventions and policies. All of this falls under the category of social change.

I take the idea of acting out of one's dreams as taking the approach that fits one's own values, at the level you can handle. And acting with a willingness to compromise or make common cause when it fits what you are trying to do. I also think it means that sometimes you decide not to follow your vision in order to achieve some kind of collaboration that has a better chance of making change. Change is slow and piecemeal, it's spiral rather than linear, and it's incredibly hard work.

alesnick's picture

social change: vision, values, dreams?

I wonder what the overlap and what the differences are between values and dreams in the way we are making use of the words here.  My sense of "dream" from the Inception-prompted start of this thread is that it's wider, less conscious, and more personal/unique than values, which I regard as more rational, conscious, and public.  Values might be byproducts of dreams.  When I think of vision in relation to working for social change, I think of it as hope or faith in the meaningfulness and vitality of the work, despite a sense of the immensity of the challenge and the unlikelihood of the great change needed being realized soon.   Here, vision is a source of energy and stamina, and a guide for when to compromise. 

When it comes to questions of scale, my sense is that we need to know more about how it works in the realm of the human social.  I worry that the idea of "bringing things to scale," or quantifying the impact of different interactions/interventions, is not well worked out -- or, we have worked it out better for purposes of control than of possibility.  It strikes me that everyone affects others both directly and indirectly by the work we do; how, or whether, to quanitify that impact are open questions.

Of course, as a teacher and teacher educator, I am uneasy with characterizing this work as direct service exclusively, though that it is to be sure, and not also as public pollicy work, which I think it also is.

lk's picture

Interesting. I confess I am

Interesting. I confess I am using values and dreams almost interchangeably, and vision in a very different way. I think of values as deeply personal and motivating. I value diversity, I value integrity, I value equity, I value freedom, and those values in turn shape my dreams -- or to be more precise, my choices, my life's work, my aspirations. Vision, on the other hand, I think of as the unusual ability not just to see how things can be but to be able to make it happen. I think of it not in terms of faith but in terms of action. People with vision can see interconnections and possibilities that others can't, and can create systems, rally people, move mountains to get people somewhere different. President Obama has vision. The educational guru Geoffrey Canada has vision. They see a problem, they see a possible broad and complex solution, and they make it happen, understanding when compromise and collaboration are needed.

I think the question of how (and I guess whether) to quantify the impact of interventions is particularly critical, and I agree is not well thought through or understood. And yet, I would argue that it is increasingly important to tackle it and figure out how to keep the promise of scale from snuffing out innovation, how to keep it from simply formalizing power. As a society, we can't accept the disparity in opportunity, the fact that so few people -- usually the elite -- get the best interventions, the best opportunities. We need better answers for more people. And in times of shrinking public (and private) funding, when decisions have to be made about how we as a society move forward, we're going to need some kinds of criteria or ways of evaluating interventions and interactions. Yes, we all affect others both directly and indirectly. But there are people who go out purposely to effect change, and at least at the policy level, we need to know whether that change actually happens and is useful. As citizens, we pay for the implementation of public policy. How do we want our tax dollars to be spent? Does it matter or are all ideas equally worthy of our funding? Do we want our education dollars to go to someone who has never taught before and has no interest in teaching? to someone who has taught but has never managed to keep the students coming back to class? or to someone who has -- by some standard -- inspired and motivated students to think? The argument of course is in the "by some standard" and therein lies the devil. We can admit that it's not going to be "objective" and there isn't going to any "truth" to it -- and yet we have to make choices as a society. And if we don't present some kind of criteria, decisions will continue to be made by politics and power.

Which leads me to Alice's final thought, which is also very interesting. What is "public policy work"? Is all of education in all of its aspects "public policy"? For me, there are 3 components to a policy agenda. There is certainly direct work with policymakers: advocacy and the effort to shape the creation of the rules and guidelines that direct society -- legislation, regulations, standards, the rules by which funds are given, whatever. I would argue that policy can also be seen as outreach and education, the critical piece of teaching citizens (or students) about the issues and how they can advocate for their own interests and rights. And policy is also evident in implementation, in the new programs and approaches that follow from a policy agenda. All of that is connected to policy. But I am not sure I would say that the implementation *is* policy. So for example, a third grade teacher may be implementing a national educational policy in the classroom, but is teaching 3rd graders -- the specific lessons plans, the classroom experience -- the same thing as public policy?

alesnick's picture

faith and action

I think at base there is much we agree on, particularly that the inequities of our society and world are glaring, urgent moral problems, and that it is incredibly important to "create better answers for more people" to questions -- such as, How can I support my family? Where can I live?  How can I get more time for people and work I care about? 

I don't see faith and action as necessarily opposed here.  I don't know about Canada but my sense is that Obama works from faith in himself, in other people (more other people than many have faith in), and in God.  I think he has faith in the power of social forms to create decent settings for people's lives.  And isn't that what the Harlem Children's Zone is about, as well?  And the idea of paying taxes? 

I recognize the need to set priorities for the allocation of scarce resources, but I think our need for better ways to measure, and maybe even to conceive, of program impact is linked to our need for social experiences and ways of knowing that foster the values you cherish: diversity, integrity, freedom, and equity.  Can our modes of assessment and evaluation be better than our ways of knowing and living?

Re: whether all education work is public policy work, I want to ask whether all public policy work is public policy work!  And I want to emphasize that teachers (like other direct service folks) do not simply implement policy made elsewhere; they actively interpret and challenge it, and pursue other policies, according to local context, personal values/history, and other things, and so do their students and their communities.  Curriculum and instruction are shot through with political/power-conditioned concerns, and beyond via curriculum, which, even at its most didactic, is not "delivered" but co-created through interaction, teachers interact as members of the public around explicit and tacit, conflicting policies, with families, communities, professional networks, scholarly life, and a host of other public and policy-connected concerns. 

I wonder if here there is something to explore about the traditional linkage of "public," "policy," "scale," (men?) and "private," "teaching," and limited, local impact (women?). 





lucy's picture

I would never suggest that

I would never suggest that policy is male/for men and direct service is female/for women, nor that policy is in some sense "more valuable" than service.  Working in or with government at the policy level and working on the ground with individuals and communities are equally valid, important, potentially transformational.  They just aren't the same.  Ditto with "scale" vs "local impact."  Big isn't male, small isn't female.  And local isn't limited.  Some interventions work well at the individual or small group level, but are very hard to offer to large numbers of people, to "bring to scale" in that sense.  That doesn't mean they aren't worth doing.  (though it is unfortunately true that government is less likely to fund them.)

Let me give a specific example of what I mean by needing to create better answers for more people -- perhaps that will help explain what I mean by policy.  Say there is a known and effective treatment for drug addiction.  It is offered in upper-class communities to upper-class kids addicted to cocaine.  It's an "answer" that we as a society have.  But it isn't offered to kids in low-income communities because it is expensive and requires highly-trained practitioners.  Those kids are simply thrown out of school and they end up on the streets.  The goal, it seems to me, is to get that successful intervention to those low-income kids so they have the same chances: get that better answer to more people.  Now, say government decides to set a rule, a policy that says that every kid addicted to cocaine, wherever they live, however much money they have, should get that successful treatment.  That becomes public policy.  Now, the practitioner on the ground working with those kids -- that practitioner is doing direct service.  And the advocate who pushes on the legislature to set the rule -- that person is engaged in policy.  We need them both -- the person who helps the kids directly, and the person who works to ensure that all kids have the same opportunities. 

I was recently in a meeting with Linda Katz of the Children's Literacy Initiative where she talked about the need to change policy at the state level around teacher certification.  CLI teaches early literacy teachers directly how to have literacy-rich classrooms. That's the direct work, and she does a great job of it.  She helps teachers improve their practice, and those teachers in turn ensure that children learn to read by the 3rd grade.  That's practice, it seems to me: direct service.  But Linda's advocacy to change the rules around certification, her letters to legislators, her talks before policymakers -- that's policy. 

Obviously it's not always so black and white.  One of the things I do is work with direct service programs to learn from them, to understand what they know from their work on the ground that can inform policy, that can lead to better policy.  There's a deep interaction between the two.  But again, I don't think they are the same thing. 

alesnick's picture

more about intervention, answers, and change

Thanks for these clarifications.  The example about an effective but expensive drug makes sense to me as an "answer" we need to get to more people.  Food, clean water, sanitation, decent schooling and health care, a safe, pleasant  place to live, family-supporting income, and some measure of time for making contact with one's own and others' dreams (via the arts, for example, or time in the wilderness) also strike me as "answers" already out there that must be much more broadly shared.  I see enlarging understanding of this as a problem for education.  I agree that practice and policy work aren't the same, but I am interested in pushing into their "deep interaction" to try to learn more about it and think more about how we could learn from/harness it to help us.  I am thinking that human interaction at an individual, interpersonal level is important and that people, when we deal at this level, have an opportunity to become more open to one anothers' dreams and to the mystery of their differences from ours -- and to the mystery of our own dreams.  To me, a good teacher works to integrate mastery (such as ensuring reading skill), mystery (the unknown and as-yet), and inquiry.  When it comes to answers and interventions, we're working with something bounded and known, as in the anti-addition drug example.  But the scale and depth of social  change needed to mobilize public will in favor of mass access to the good answers we've got, such as this one, depend on more, I think, than this kind of bounded knowing.  They depend on a public sphere in which sincere dialogue is abundant and expected, and on people's facilitating humane interpersonal interaction, in the direction both of policy (something bounded) and further exploration (something not bounded).  Perhaps this is a point of intersection between practitioners and policy makers that could be enlarged. 

lucy's picture

Actually, I wasn't talk about

Actually, I wasn't talk about a drug but a whole recovery treatment -- a direct service project that would probably include counseling, physical activity, skills development, job training, nutrition, a lot of intensive one-on-one work, which is why it would be expensive.  The "answer" is this process, a process of working with people that actually helps them and gets results.  It's a process that may be known among the privileged but not in low-income communities, and it's a process (or an answer in that sense) that should be more widely known.

I was in a meeting today talking about how difficult it is to place out-of-school young adults in jobs.  These are among the most vulnerable youth, usually 18-24, who have typically dropped out of high school, have reading levels of 7-9 grade (if you're lucky), may have a prison record or drug problems, may have young children or siblings they have to care for, could be living on their own, or with family, or be couch surfing or on the street.  They probably haven't been taught that they need to smile when they talk to strangers and look them in the eye when they talk.  And they need to work, they need jobs.  We run a job placement program for these kids.  We have a "job developer" who works with employers to find entry-level jobs that will take them.  We have a "job coach" who works with the kids to help them prepare for jobs, for job interviews, who helps them write their resume, and the thank you letter after the interview. We have clothes for the kids to wear in interviews, and we offer "life skills" to help them prepare for the expectations in the work site.  We try to get them the basic training they need for the kinds of entry-level jobs they can find, that will pay not just an hourly salary but also benefits.  It is incredibly hard to find the jobs for these young people, and even when we do, they often don't stay -- maybe they get fired or maybe they just stop showing up for work.  One of the young men was murdered as he came back from a successful job interview. 

It's a huge problem, because if these youth don't get jobs, they tend to get into trouble.  So today we were talking about how to change the program to do better.  If we had the "answer" -- if we could figure out how to get more of the youth into jobs, and to stay in the jobs -- then we know there are lots of other cities that would want to copy it, because it is a huge problem in every city across the country. 

That's the challenge of practice.  How do we do this work?  How do we do it better?  The policy side is that government pays for our program and has money to help out-of-school youth get jobs.  Contracts pay for the job developers and job coaches, for the clothes and the workshops.  And if we could figure out how to do it better, then we could talk to the policymakers and have them pay for the new ideas.  We could change the policy. 

When I talk about the connection between practice and policy, I am talking about this kind of problem solving, this interaction between how one works on the ground and how we can use government/policy to create broader solutions. 

alesnick's picture


When I read about this example, these thoughts come to mind.  One is to ask how you involve the communities you are serving in the conception and enactment of the jobs program.  When I think of the imagined treatment you describe for addiction, and how it would more readily work for privileged youth, I think about how their social contexts/participant structures are already mobilized to be receptive -- nutritious food easy to come by, medical care for associated issues at the ready, opportunities for physical activities abundant, support for participating in the one-to-one work (transportation, follow-up) already "built" -- and competing responsibilities (childcare, for example) not high.  So much safety netting in place.  This makes me think -- and I am sure you do, too -- about how important community action is in "treatment."  Which puts me in mind of the AA model, in which the addicted person is literally offered a new social context, a new community, and in which those "helping" have been there and are,  by their helping, furthering their own growth and development, explicitly, as part of the rules of engagement.  Are there efforts underway in which government funding is sought to create collaborative participant structures in which different people's and group's "dreams" have mutual interaction?  I haven't studied Canada's programs enough; is this at their base?

lucy's picture

Yeah, it's interesting. 

Yeah, it's interesting.  Actually, I didn't mean that the theoretical recovery treatment couldn't work in a low-income community but just that those kinds of expensive programs aren't always offered fairly -- that's the question about equity and whether good answers are shared fairly across different communities.  So it would work equally well for all youth, but it may not be available to low-income kids because there isn't a fair distribution of resouces -- either money or innovation. 

Your point, though, is right, which is that successful solutions are often embedded in and offered by the communities where the people in need live.  It's the assumption behind the support for grassroots nonprofits, that communities should be supported in solving their own problems.  There is no question that successful recovery programs, ex-offender programs, mentoring programs get some of their power from the involvement of people who have been there and truly understand what the issues are.  And yes, community residents and leaders, parents and teachers, even youth are all involved in planning programs for out-of-school youth, whether jobs programs or back--to-school/alternative education programs.  Sometimes you do it through a broad community engagement effort, and depending on the kind of problem, this can be a very fruitful and exciting process.  Or you can do it by working with an advisory team, by hiring the leadership and staff from the community, etc.  Getting youth voices and perspectives involved in creating youth programs is a big trend.   Even with all that, though, the solutions are tough.  To my mind, the fundamental problem is poverty, and as a society, we haven't figured that one out yet. 

A final thought.  These community-based interventions are indeed the kinds of programs that government has been supporting: money often flows from the federal government to the states, and from the states to the local government, and from local government it gets handed out to nonprofits,and can get to the specific people and communities.  It has been a structure that allows for the local determination of funding, rather than these big mega competitions.  But it is getting harder and harder to support these kinds of small programs at grassroots nonprofits -- partly because the money is drying up and the public doesn't believe in paying taxes for social programs anymore, and partly because these kinds of grassroots community-based programs have difficulty demonstrating their impact, and we live in an evidence-based funding environment.  That's where the questions of evaluation, impact, accountability and scale become so important.  And, of course, these are all policy questions. 

alesnick's picture

more than one way to untie a knot

Oh, I see it now!  Thanks.  That you can sometimes untie a knot other than by untying it reminds me of something I read recently about how nature likes options.  A place where physics and human social life intersect?

Now my thinking going this way.  I can see for my own part accepting the ideas that initially recall me to beleagueredness.  I can reckon the possible costs and payoffs for myself, and measure my own capacity to take the risks entailed.  I also affirm the choice to "act out of one's dreams rather than out of one's fears."  But I am uneasy about recommending this approach to others (though in one guise or another I do so often), because I can't take the measure of what the risks and costs would be to them, particularly if their worlds (seem at least to me to) accommodate their dreams much less well than mine do.  Does this mean I give other people too little credit?  And my powers of persuasion too much?

Paul Grobstein's picture

more on diversity/many worlds, and social change/activism

Glad to have this matter pushed.  Think it helps to disentangle some significant issues, particularly an important difference between individual and collective stories/dreams.

I very much agree that "In social change, some people lose their positions and their power, and not everyone comes away accepted or validated or buying the dream."  Let me though gloss the line a bit, in ways related to the above: "In social change, some people lose their social positions and their social power, and not everyone comes away accepted or validated or buying the social dream."  My point in doing so is to emphasize that "position" and "power" and "dream" (or "story") exist simultaneously in individual and collective realms, and need not be the same in the two.

Inherent in a democratic system is the notion that different individuals have different dreams/stories, and that the best available collective dreams/stories emerge from the interplay of diverse individual dreams/stories.  While this is sometimes understood as a competition among individual dreams/stories, from which one becomes the winner and all others are losers, I think its better thought of as a process in which the interaction of diverse individual dreams/stories yields something new, a collectively preferred collective dream/story that is not the same as any original individual dream/story but draws from all of them.  On this view, there are no "winners" or "losers" among individual dreams/stories; they all both contribute to the collective dream/story, and persist to one degree or another to play a role in the emergence of  future collective dreams/stories.   Individuals may be more or less disappointed by differences between their current individual dream/story and the one collectively agreed upon at any given time but those differences are, it seems to me, best seen as the useful grist for future change in both individual and collective dreams/stories.

To put it differently, I don't think we should be looking for equivalence between individual and collective dreams/stories, much less be using equivalence as a criterion for assessing either validation or acceptance.  We'd all, I think, be better off feeling both validated and accepted by virtue of the continual evolution of our own individual dreams/stories and our ongoing participation in the continuing evolution of collective ones.

Do people, in our culture, "lose their social positions and their social power" because of a lack of equivalence between their individual and existing collective dream/stories?  Yes, of course, but that seems to me an important critique of our culture rather than of the idea that "there is no single world/reality, that we are all engaged in a continuing process of revising worlds/realities."  And it is a critique for which the idea itself may help to provide an antidote. 

Suppose we starting taking seriously the idea that no dream/story, neither our own nor anyone else's nor any collective one, is definitive, that they are all instead contributions to an ongoing creation of new stories, both individual and collective.  Maybe we could then stop thinking of ourselves and each other as competitors, and hence as "winners" or "losers," in the process of social change, and start thinking of ourselves and each other as engaged and mutually supportive participants?  Perhaps that in turn would produce a social change so we could all move towards a culture where people's social positions and social power were less dependent on an equivalence between an individual's dreams/stories and existing collective dreams/stories? Towards instead valuing our distinctive differences, our diversity, and creating cultures of ability rather than of disability?

That seems to me an appealing dream/story.  Yes, there's a downside, of course.  We might, as a result of acting in pursuit of such a dream/story, have to accept some short term loss of social position and social power given the nature of current culture.  But, even in the short term,  there's an upside too.  We could spend less time worrying about social position and social power, both our own and that of others.   And have more time for activities that actually promote change both in our culture and in ourselves. 

We don't need to "give up valuing particular goals" nor a commitment to social change.  All we need to give up is the presumption that our particular goals and commitments derive unequivocally from unshakable principles, and hence that if others don't agree with us there is something wrong with them (or ourselves).   What we might get in return is a fuller and more satisfying engagement in a wider community with a shared commitment to the ongoing elaboration of dreams/stories, both individual and collective.

lucy's picture

I wish I believed that

I wish I believed that democracy was "a process in which the interaction of diverse individual dreams/stories yields something new," but these days I don't.  Or rather, I suppose by definition everything in the future is new -- like a river, you can't stand in the same place twice -- and inevitably represents a set of actions/reactions to things that come before.  But democracy -- or at least electoral politics -- is indeed about winners and losers, as well as about new positions that come about through compromise and consensus building.  The so-called Revolution of 1800, after all, was about the realization that individuals (and parties) could lose elections and governments could still go on.  I suspect part of our problem these days is that people can't stand to lose, don't trust the "will of the people," and can't make compromise work anymore, to the point that they are willing to interfere with the process of governing simply to make a point. 

I'm not sure I understand what Paul means by the distinction between individual and collective "stories," or what it means for there to be (or not be) a lack of "equivalence" between the two, at least as relates to social change.  But I agree that we would all be better off if people were less categorical, less inclined to pose issues in terms of "unshakable principles."  We live in a society with sharply different ideas about the nature and role of government and about people's responsibilities to each other, let alone the nature of marriage, the value of education, and the future of the planet.  How realistic is it to think that people are going to be able to value such seemingly incompatible positions?

What I find particularly intriguing about Paul's utopianism, though, is his presumption that culture is a matter of thought, and that by extension (I think I have this right) social change is a matter of thought too.



Paul Grobstein's picture

more on individual and collective stories

Happy to be thought of as "utopian" if that is understood to mean someone who doesn't believe we live in the best of all possible worlds and is inclined to notice existing problems and think of new ways to try and fix them.  If I seem "utopian" in the sense of believing there is an ideal world, knowing what it is, and trying to get everyone to move there, then I need to be more careful about my rhetoric. 

That said, I do indeed believe that culture can be affected by thought, and so thought can influence social change.  That's a little (or maybe a lot) weaker than "culture in a matter of thought ... social change in a matter of thought too."   Lots of things other than thought play a role in both culture and social change.  And so a "utopian" in the first sense above (in either sense actually) burns out quickly if they don't recognize that new ideas, however carefully thought through, may or may not immediately (or at least in the near term) produce a particular social change.

Its partly for this reason that I think a more deliberate and thoughtful distinction between individual and collective stories would be useful.  We all have some tendency to feel that the failure to transform our own individual story about culture into a collective one is a personal "defeat," one that can be accounted for only by inadequacies either on our own part or that of others in the culture of which we're a part.  I think it would be easier to accept a variety of "seemingly incompatible positions" if we learned to treat them less as challenges to our own personal virtue (and that of other people) and more as the grist from which new stories arise, in ourselves, in other people, and in cultures.  That our current individual stories about culture aren't the current cultural stories doesn't invalidate either.  It represents instead a difference which can be used to conceive new stories both about ourselves and about culture.

Jed's picture

Re: antogonism

I like the idea that Inception can be read more literally than it's filmmakers intended and that people pop into one another's realities on a regular basis. I think it is important to remember though that whenever this happened it necessarily meant that a shoot-out was about to happen. I don't think this is insignificant. I am concerned that "negotiations between worlds/realities" may as often lead people to attack or ignore realities not their own as to drive exploration of new ways of being.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Antagonizing antagonism

Point well taken.  Yep, differing "worlds/realities ... as often lead people to attack or ignore realities not their own as to drive exploration of new ways of being."  From which, of course, follows the question of how one might get more people to more often see differing worlds/realities as something to be valued rather than as something irrelevant or threatening.   The key here, it seems to me, is to give more people more opportunities to discover/experience/enjoy the process of discovering new worlds/realities by interaction with others different from themselves and of contributing to such discoveries by others.  

Maybe this should be a major component of education?  As per Brain, Science, and Inquiry-Based Education: Reflections on Week 1?  Yes, our culture tends to give people the impression they will be more successful if they "attack or ignore realities not their own," but is that actually true?  My sense is that there are a fair number of not entirely happy (and hence not entirely "successful"?) people in our culture.  Maybe its time to look seriously at an alternative, even if it requires changing the culture?  Or precisely because it requires that? 

alesnick's picture

dreaming alone and together?

Yes, I agree that it's worth thinking about!  And I look forward to seeing the movie.  Here I think about how the idea that we all live/dream different worlds relates to the viability of collective movements for social change.  Where is activism, or taking sides, in this vision of embracing diversity and process?  If we give up valuing particular goals, will people who continue to value particular goals that actively oppose or (here I go again) oppress us or people we care about win the day?  Own the terms of the dreaming? 

Paul Grobstein's picture

individual dreaming and collective movements for social change

That we all live/dream in different worlds doesn't, it seems to me, in any way reduce the incentive to make "collective movements for social change."  To the contrary, "Recognizing that we are each at the center of our own universe is, like not finding meaning in the non-human world outside ourselves, part of the incentive to make common cause with others in the creation of meaning." (A fifth loop? randomness, and co-constructive inquiry).   "Activism, or taking sides" is part of the process of learning from difference, as long as we keep in mind that "particular goals" are our own constructions and co-constructions and should be used in the service of new constructions/co-constructions, rather than being taken as fixed, invariant, and justified by eternal truths.  The way to avoid letting anyone "own the terms of the dreaming" is to assure that everyone understands that everyone has their own dreams, and that shared dreams emerge and change in interaction with that.