The Adventure of Virtual Education

The transition to virtual education is a new adventure for students, parents, and teachers.  Adventures are difficult and risky.  But that’s their allure.  If it was easy, it wouldn’t be inspiring.  Adventures also involve uncertainty.  This calls for curiosity and creativity.

On the first day of class I asked my students in Zoom how they were feeling.  Some reported anxiety.  But a couple said it might be fun to learn this way.  Let’s build on student’s youthful energy and squeeze something zesty out of our anxiety. 

One teacher explained to me that she feels like an explorer in virtual space.  There are new tools to master.  Old ideas must be reorganized and re-evaluated.  What was once taken for granted is now up for grabs.

Conservative souls will always resist change.  But nimble spirits enjoy the unprecedented and unimagined.  Dynamic minds are ready to adapt.  We find joy in riding the waves of change.  This is the genius of the artist, entrepreneur, and explorer. 

Education is dynamism. It is an art of transformation that cultivates change and nourishes development.  Random change is not good.  It must be guided. Some truths remain perennial.  But evergreen truth is not a fence or a prison.  Redwoods thrive because they bend in the storm.  New growth adapts to new soil.

Boredom and complacency are deadly diseases.  They ruin businesses, marriages, and classrooms.  Repetition dulls the senses.  Bored teachers are, well… boring. 

Most teachers enjoy new challenges.  We are thrilled by each year’s fresh crop of students.  Even though we’ve walked these trails before, new students help us see old terrain with fresh eyes.  Each step takes us somewhere else.

The idea of education as adventure is an old one.  Plato described education as a journey.  It leads us out of darkness and toward the light.  To learn is to wander beyond the familiar.  It takes patience and tenacity to explore, invent, and discover.  It takes courage to leave old habits behind and blaze new trails. 

Alfred North Whitehead celebrated education as adventure.  In his book, The Aims of Education, he insisted that educators embrace the fresh and the new.  He said, “knowledge does not keep any better than fish.”  He described education as an act of the contagious imagination.  The metaphor of passing a torch shows how this works.  Civilization depends upon the torch passers who spread the light.  We also need better torches and new ways to enlighten. 

This process occurs in the service of life.  Whitehead said, “Education is discipline for the adventure of life.”  We might simply say, education is adventure and life. He describes the history of the world as an adventure motivated by “zest.”  Zest can mean both energy and flavor.  A life without zest is dull and tasteless.

Each human culture is a unique adventure of the human spirit.  Art, science, and religion are so many different ways of making meaning and finding flavor.  Whitehead warned that when a civilization loses its taste for adventure, it begins to decay.

There is danger in any journey.  Adventures are unpredictable.  Sometimes we fail to arrive at our anticipated destination.  But even failure can be enlightening.  After all, Columbus got lost on his way to India.

The word “adventure” is related to a word that means to happen or occur.  Philosophers use the word “adventitious” to mean accidental or unintentional.  And for Christians “advent” signifies a time of hope for the birth of something new and wonderful.  Education as adventure is open to the unintended.  It is hopeful about the future.  It courageously embraces the birthing process.

This brings us back to the current transformation.  No one could have imagined the strange birth of online learning from out of a pandemic. Difficulties remain, especially the digital divide. But problems are opportunities.  Let’s set our creative imaginations free.  Let’s stop dreaming of the way things used to be.  Stop complaining about the need to get back to normal. 

The old normal wasn’t perfect.  Why go back, when we can move forward? Let’s cook up something zesty and nutritious.  Learn to bend with the wind.  Find joy in transformation.  And embrace the fact that history will view us as pioneers who explored the great frontier of virtual education.

Perspective gained from the mountaintops

August 9, 2013

Summer trips to the mountains can open important vistas. The mountains provoke a sense of the sublime, offering hints of meaning that inspire reflection. Mountain vistas, oddly enough, provide a source for understanding human dignity.

It is important to occasionally observe the slow work of the glaciers, the relentless rush of waterfalls, and the immense temporal vistas of the starry night. It is edifying to lose yourself before the overpowering sublimity of the natural world. Our lifetimes are insignificant when considered from the vantage point of Half Dome. The length of human history is nothing at all when compared with the history of the planet, the solar system or the galaxy.

Romantic poets and philosophers celebrated the experience of the sublime in nature. It is sobering to know that from the standpoint of glacial time, nothing we do matters. But it is possible to be uplifted and inspired in the face of the relentless forces of nature.

Despite what the mountains tell us about our own insignificance, we know that the only thing that matters to us is this meager existence of ours. The glaciers may not care about our passions and ideas. But for each of us, present awareness is of infinite worth. The sublime contradiction between the fullness of consciousness and the fact of our own finitude is the source of deep wonder and thought.

I often ask students at the beginning of the semester whether they know the names of any of their great-great-grandparents. It is not surprising that, for the most part, they do not. The present generation has little need for remembrance that goes back beyond a few decades. We have too much to do today.

The past recedes quickly as we rush toward the edges of our lives. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will each be forgotten. But the waterfalls will roar and the granite cliffs will silently endure, as the marks we’ve left behind are effaced by the erosion of time.

How does such an awareness of our insignificance and the experience of the sublime connect to our understanding of ethics?

One response to the sublime is to “seize the day.” A sense of your own finitude can drive you to want to live the present moment to the fullest. Time is short. So make the most of every second. But we ought to avoid nihilistic hedonism and egoistic preoccupation. An ethical approach to seizing the day teaches us to live aware and engaged, embracing the totality of experience, without narcissistic self-absorption.

Another response to our fragile mortal existence aims to develop reverence for the past and a sense of gratitude toward those who paved the way. This is a feature of many religious traditions which commemorate ancient stories about those who came before. An ethic of remembrance attempts to slow the onslaughts of time, insisting that the past has meaning.

Awareness of our own mortal frailty should also lead toward deep reverence for life. If this is the one and only opportunity for life that each of us gets, then we should work to make things better, especially for those whose lives are miserable and even shorter than our own.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once suggested that two things filled him with awe and wonder: the starry skies above and the moral law within. The most amazing aspect of the experience of the sublime in nature is that we are able to conceive it. No other creature has a sense of the depths of time, understands the work of the glaciers or recognizes the movements of the planets. Human consciousness is a rare and precious gift in the vast and unconscious cosmos.

Likewise, no other creature is able to think about the meaning of existence and the questions of ethics. We are the only beings in the universe who conceive right and wrong, good and evil. That wonderful capacity for moral reflection is what imbues human life with dignity.

The mountains are majestic. The work of glaciers is awesome. The thundering waterfalls are inspiring. But there is nothing on earth comparable to the majestic and awesome thunder of the human mind that witnesses these wonders.


Adventure Sports, Religion, and Extraordinary Experience

Testing of limits isn’t just for the adventurous

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-09-08

I watched a group of hang gliders launch from Glacier Point a few weeks ago. The gliders leapt into thin air and swooped majestically out across Yosemite Valley. Unfortunately, the last glider in the group clipped a tree just after taking off. The kite spun out of control and careened into the talus slope just above the precipice. The crowd of spectators let out a collective scream.

I scrambled down the rocks to the glider pilot. His face and body were smashed, hanging under the mangled kite. He was groaning, barely conscious. Later, in the meadow below, I chatted with the injured pilot’s friends, imagining the beauty and thrill of the flight, while also recalling the horror of the crash.

I concluded, at the time, that hang gliding was crazy. But just the other day I crashed my mountain bike, flipping head over heels in a boulder field. A dent in my helmet shows where my head hit a rock. My legs and ribs are still aching.

I still love mountain biking and will go again. Even the crash was exciting. Maybe those hang gliders aren’t crazy after all. Or maybe it’s normal to seek risk and to want to defy gravity. Somehow the rewards — the thrill, the challenge, the novelty — outweigh the risks. The same fact might explain why people use drugs and alcohol, and even why people explore religious experience.

Human beings appear to need something more than ordinary experience — more than working, eating, and sleeping. When Karl Marx described religion as the opium of the people, he meant that religion provided an escape and consolation from a world of suffering and injustice. Marx thought that the desire for transcendent experience was the “sigh of the oppressed creature.” The same explanation might be given for drug and alcohol abuse. Real opium can provide an escape from oppression and suffering.

But oppression is not the only explanation. Rather, it seems that human beings are fascinated by the strange, the thrilling, and the extraordinary. We are curious explorers of the world and of consciousness. By pushing the limits of ordinary experience, we hope to experience wonder, joy and meaning.

The link between religion and drug use was explained recently by the neurologist Oliver Sacks in an article in The New Yorker. Sacks explained that we seek “transports that make our consciousness of time and mortality easier to bear. We seek a holiday from our inner and outer restrictions, a more intense sense of the here and now, the beauty and value of the world we live in.”

Sacks’ adventures with drug-induced altered states of consciousness is a cautionary tale. The highs of his drug-fueled “holidays” were followed by a crash: unwanted hallucinations, addictive behavior and possible psychosis.

Is it ethical to pursue such experiences — whether leaping off a cliff, exploring religious experience, or ingesting psychoactive chemicals? Libertarians will argue that you should be free to experiment, so long as you are not harming anyone but yourself.

The question of harm is a vexing one. Risky sports do not seem to pose a harm to others, except when the rescuers have to pull you out of danger. Drug use appears to be a private matter, unless you take the wheel or your loved ones have to deal with addiction and decline. And exploring religious experience seems unproblematic, except for religious experiences that turn fanatical or religious disagreements that disrupt families.

It is important to acknowledge the social aspect of even private choices. We should carefully consider the impacts our choices have on others, especially the strangers and loved ones who pick up the pieces when we crash.

We also need to acknowledge our desire for the extraordinary. Human beings have an exploratory urge and a desire for meaning, euphoria, and value in a short, uncertain life. That urge cannot be denied.

It would be nice to find safe venues for exploring extraordinary experiences. But the thrill of the extraordinary comes from the danger of flouting conventional expectations, defying gravity, and making dangerous leaps of faith. Those who make these leaps help to expand our understanding of what is humanly possible. They also occasionally remind us that what goes up, must come down.