Sam and His New Car, June 2004

Sam Writes Back:
Contributing to the Cathedral--
by "Listening to Oneself"

Story Evolution

A dialogue triggered by Grobstein's
Writing Descartes ...

"Choose a Destination":
The Cathedral at Chartres

A few weeks ago, Anne Dalke wrote her son Sam an extended meditation on the implications, for 21st-century education, of "test-driving" new forms of internet connection. Sam's now writing his mother back....

Perhaps others would care to listen in?
And join the conversation?

August 6, 2004

This may be a bit delayed, but I finally have some time to write down a response to your Writing Sam meditation. While I did not completely comprehend all of its twists, I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially as it made me think (a hard thing to do during the summer when one is a bit rusty) and ask questions. I suppose I'll begin by taking the philosopher's point of view that you most likely assumed I would. I would agree that today's age of technology allows us to share a wealth of knowledge via internet, databases and nicer education institutions than ever before, and with everyone is learning from each other and sharing ideas, people are allowed to branch off into new fields and areas and expand on what is already there. I will call this process "building blocks," or where one person's work is expanded on and furthered by future generations and other people. The advantage of this method is that you can do more than one person could ever do by themselves, like thousands of workers building an awe inspiring cathedral compared to the building of a small shelter by one person.

Yet in coming together, I believe that we have lost the pure genius of being human and thinking for oneself. This is not to say that individuality has become obsolete, but rather it appears much more subtly and usually fits in with the larger ideas instead of being separate, independent ideas. Today's genius would be the man building the stain glass for the cathedral (still unique and separate but influenced and conforming to the larger whole)--juxtaposed with history's genius who would be designing a new structure altogether (albeit smaller and more basic). Because our databases have become so broad and all encompassing, no one stands alone in their thoughts, in their ideas--it is like we are all different cultures confined in the same Petri dish--we may all be different, but our environment, our morals and beliefs that become ingrained in us are becoming ever closer together.

And as our internet, libraries, databases and schools bring us closer together, we will begin to believe in the similar things as we are coming from more similar backgrounds. A person may have new ideas, but they were formed out of the same database, and do not stand truly alone because they are the byproducts of the already existing system. The last major culture to fall did so in the early 50's (New Guinea--thanks Lori Hart and intro to anthro), and everything is continually becoming more mainstream. And the internet and our databases are only speeding this process up.

Think about yourself for a bit, mom--you have a need to read every book, to compile all the information you can and then couple it with your own experiences and take meaning from this process. Strikingly similar to the end of Act IV, Scene II of your letter, where Calvino says, "There is the type of work that, in the attempts to contain everything possible...remains incomplete by its very nature." So incomplete because it attempts to be complete--like beauty.

Beauty is not something that can be purposefully made or created, nothing that is beautiful exists for the sake of being beautiful; beauty exists in the good of a being, resulting from a thing being what it is in the most basic and pure sense. By putting everything together, we are expanding and going into areas never discussed. But we have cut off our bases, cut off the individual genius because now everyone has a similar mindset to begin with. All this reminds me of my age old tree analogy: "So numerous are the imperfections of a tree/Gnarly bark, misshapen leaves, branches running askew/So numerous are the imperfections that in the whole we have perfection."

This recent surge to compile and record everything is again the cathedral analogy--we are creating a giant infrastructure, one made of many parts and resources by many different builders. Three thousand years ago there would have been no cathedral, no single infrastructure that everyone could access and build on. It was a combination of the single man's shelter and the tree metaphor. Instead of the thousands of builders sharing the same information and collaborating, thousands of separate builders existed, with their own separate backgrounds and knowledge, building their own imperfect huts. But each one was more creative, more original, and more wonderful in the small, pure sense that it is human genius. They were reason--pure reason that no longer exists.

When was the last time this world had a revolutionary thinker of the likes of Descartes, Aristotle, Kant, Buddha, Cicero, Shakespeare, or Rumi? Not to say we haven't had our own genius--but they spent their efforts trying to perfect a system, working inside the structure that we are creating. They did not (as I believe they could have) create their own religion, language, philosophy as these other revolutionaries did. Maybe part of the reason is that humans have taken away the need to create something completely new by creating the dominant paradigm of an infrastructure. Our contemporary thinkers take what is in given to them by their past generations and expand-- using the building block method instead of using human reason and genius to create something new. Very similar to the quote at the end of IV, I: "what matters is not the enclosure of the work within a harmonious figure, but the centrifugal force produced by it."

While the centrifugal or outgoing force does matter, and expansion and growth are important, it is more important to still stay separate and create one's own ideas, to create new harmonious figures--or even revamp the enclosure--once in a while. I feel we have lost pure genius and human thought--and if we are losing this, we are losing what it means to be human. "The manifold text replaces the oneness of a thinking 'I'" (Calvino, IV, II).

While Quaker pedagogy teaches listening to others, it also enforces the idea of looking within. Sometimes we just need to put aside the superficial pressures of our lives, many of which come from other people and listen to oneself: why YOU are here, What YOU are doing, etc. We have built up our infrastructure, our cathedral so much that it is becoming top heavy: it is all built up out of the little huts from centuries ago--we have only added on, not restructured our base--an appropriate intro to bioethics and moral issues, but that's a whole new discussion.

It is my fear that we are becoming so similar, so alike that the differences, our differences that define who we are, are dying out. Our various cultures, languages, traits, mannerisms, etc etc are becoming one--as "Sagredo" put in II, IV, the only reason that humans created language was because of our difference; we need our differences--real difference, not one between stain glass window makers and glass blowers--to continue to be what it is to be human, to be free and let your reason and genius flow through you, not be channeled in some mass of compiled information.

In IV, III, you and Calvino ask who each of us is, if not a compilation of what has been put in us....I answer that to be human is to be what we are is to be without all these ideas from others, and the only way to see who we are is to separate oneself--like Descartes does earlier in the play--from others and find out and listen to oneself. Then we can go and discuss.

Just a few thoughts to ponder and discuss. Sorry if it repeats itself or is incoherent at times. I love you and look forward to seeing you soon.

Thanks for writing back, Sam--how nice to philosophize with one's son about the nature of education!

Want to keep going for a bit? Would you try this on for size? It's--maybe?--an alternative to the two choices you offer: pure individual genius building its own small shelter, vs. working with many others to create a larger structure (and so losing one's individuality). It's lifted from the review I did @ the end of the course Paul and I taught last semester on The Story of Evolution/ The Evolution of Stories. Una, the soon-to-be "author" of Ahab's Wife, has just asked Ishmael (the author of Moby-Dick), if he minds if they write the same book. He replies:

"Think of ...the Cathedral of Chartres. Think of its two towers. They do not match at all. Built perhaps a century apart, or more; but without both spires our Chartres would not be Chartres....Small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the finishing to posterity. My whole book is but a draft--nay, but the draft of a draft." [Una responds:] I said I felt the same about my book. (Ahab's Wife,663)

Maybe Ishmael's image gives us a way out of your concern that, by networking more extensely (on the web, etc) we'll all--by sharing the same "database"--come to agreement and thereby lose our individuality? There's a whole lot more about this @ Paul's interim reflection on what he's learned from these ever-growing circles of dialogues. For me, the most important part of his reflection is the idea that the whole point of this process is very different from the search by Quaker bodies (including Haverford College) for "consensus":

listening to stories in a way that has the greatest likelihood of causing changes in ones own...."without needing resolution to differences in perspective." In fact, I think that's essential to cement the idea that story-sharing is NOT an effort to get to a place of "consensus"; its a process that is fueled by difference and is endlessly generative. Its essential as well to give everybody the space to "breathe better". There's no rush to closure, hence plenty of time to learn/share.

What do you think?

Elizabeth Catanese picks up on some of these questions, in "An Effort in Collaboration": Immediacy and the Slowness of Time.

See on-line forum for continuing conversation and to leave your own thoughts.

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