Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

Writing Descartes:
I Am, and I Can Think, Therefore ...

Story Evolution

excerpted from an exchange of emails triggered by Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...
19 July 2004

Cohen followed by Grobstein

Hi, Paul -

I've read your letter to René and also some of the other dialogues including Anne's set of ruminations. One thing that's really striking me is how we're all bringing our particular and intersecting frameworks of curiosity and understanding--perhaps our prior 'being' and 'thinking' experiences--to the table, that is, to our readings of the piece. This is something I think I know but continually forget in terms of its relevance for the classroom; or at any rate I may know it but have to keep seeking ways to consider this in deliberate ways re: constructing curriculum.

Okay, of course part of what made me so aware of this was attending to my own response--in this case keyed to the idea of 'solid foundation,' a phrase that comes up in readings about Buddhism to indicate what it is we human beings are continually seeking by way of comfort, ground to stand on. It's not there, of course. You also suggest that the notion of solid foundation is slippery and temporary, but as I'm understanding it you go on to posit that if we understand that solid foundations are not really there--that they are instead our creations--then we can use these kind of like a springboard to push off into action and change. This appeals to me, esp. with the caveat that the springboard essentially drifts (disintegrates?) after we've interacted with it in this way.

"I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am". I think I want to make this assertion less, well, less of an assertion; mix it up. This relates back to the idea that we never had a solid foundation, really; this was just a construct. On the other hand, the maxim does speak to a way of thinking about classrooms that I like and 'believe in,' though had never articulated this way--actually, I think it's connected with why i've returned to/stayed with teaching to this point in my life. But I'm also pulling back from it in a sense, from its deliberateness, pointedness. Yes being, yes thinking, yes change, yes choices, but sometimes thinking is happening on one level and something entirely else going on at other levels and I'm not at all sure how it is that change arises from this muddy mix.

Hey, Jody -

Nice to have you on board. I very much share your sense that the issues under discussion are important in classroom contexts, so its wonderful to have some words from someone who thinks even more about things from that particular perspective.

I like VERY much your notion of a foundation as "a springboard to push off into action and change". That seems to me to encapsulate in a useful image the core of the get beyond "solid foundation" idea (which yes has parallels in Buddhism), and to do it in a way with direct relevance to the classroom. We all (students AND teachers) need things to "push off" from; without some kind of content and resulting solidity there is only floundering. But there is a big difference between seeing "content" as the point of the whole classroom experience (to be conveyed, absorbed, and tested on) and seeing it as a "springboard". The latter makes much more sense to me.

Glad too that you see the revised maxim as something that resonates for you in a classroom context, and relates to your own experiences. And perfectly content to admit that the revised form too is "just a construct", needing in turn to be made "less of an assertion". Maybe we could call it too "a springboard" (as Descartes' original maxim was), something to be in turn taken off from? And maybe it is in fact exactly that "thinking is happening at one level and something entirely else is going on at other levels" that eplains why/how "change arises from this muddy mix"?

Thanks again for your thoughts. Looking forward not only to talking more about this but to seeing how it actually plays out in real classrooms (virtual and otherwise).


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