There are two passages from literature which, taken together, illuminate my current understanding of the ground on which we stand today when anticipating the New Universe of Learning.
First comes Antonio in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, urging Sebastian to murder his sleeping father, saying “what’s past is prologue” and suggesting that great things lie ahead if the deed is done. While we have nothing as foul as Antonio’s suggestion in mind, the place where we stand today is indeed on a foundation of previous work and developed knowledge in education and learning science that serves as prologue to the emerging, grand future. We stand on our history and developed knowledge, drawing on it to begin building a bridge to the future.
At the same time, in The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot reminds us that seeing old familiar understandings and assumptions freshly, anew, as we cycle through life, is a critical element of our humanness and stimulates our ability to grow and understand new possibilities.
“We shall not cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Whether applied to those of us trying to understand our own lives, the New Universe, or to future learners who live in and benefit from the opportunities and potential unleashed by the New Universe, Eliot reminds us of the synergistic and sometimes contentious relationship between living and learning, constancy and change.
Just as the weaving in a tapestry has its woof and its warp, so too does our attempt to understand the future. The “woof” of this tapestry is our ability to employ the meaning and learning generated by and from our past. We are standing on familiar ground, focused on learning, knowledge and knowledge extension, understanding the deeper meanings and rhythms of life, and amplifying the chances for social, civic, and economic success for all. In this sense, the past is prologue.
Its “warp,” however, is the exploration and the consequences of that search. So that, when we “arrive where we started,” we will have new understandings, interpretations, and applications; new ways of acting on our old ways of knowing. In that sense, we will “know the place for the first time.” As we imagine the new universe of learning, we need to recognize the value inherent in both lines of thought.
The same dynamic is at work in the life of every learner, including me. As I began to think about Eliot’s phrases and my own personal learning, I recalled dozens of events in my life which, collectively, informed new understandings about myself as well as a new understanding of lifelong learning in all of its forms and how it informs and changes us, repeatedly, throughout life. I have framed that understanding as follows.
Time is the classroom.
Life is the teacher.
We are the learners, dancing with time through our lives.
And, as I considered the implications of my new understandings, I understood my own learning journey anew. As one example, the following event influenced my future and helped ready me for the later challenges.
I first encountered David Flaherty in my sophomore year as the instructor of a preceptorial I was taking. Precepts were a Princeton feature. You sat in a small group of about 8-10 undergraduates with a professor and discussed the week’s lectures and readings. They were a combination of “nowhere to run, nowhere to hide” and “stand and deliver” all rolled into one.
As a sophomore, I was pretty full of myself; super-charged with energy, heady with the experience of becoming a cheerleader and being asked to join a singing group, and not, shall we say, “fully inclined” to do the tedious work that preparation and studying demanded. One day, my combination of wise guy and poor preparation were especially obvious. And after about 30 minutes, David Flaherty threw me out of the precept and told me to wait to speak with him when it was completed.
I remember waiting in the hallway outside the room, anticipating the tongue-lashing that awaited me. But I had no idea of what was to come.
When the precept adjourned, I went back into the room, only to be met by Flaherty inside the doorway. He grabbed me by the shoulders and held me against the wall, his face inches from mine, dark with frustration and anger. “You,” he growled, “have talent and ability. Do not waste them the way so many others do on trivialities and silliness. You can do something with your life if you choose to. Don’t ever again waste my time the way you did today!” And with that, he left me standing there and walked away.
By the time I graduated, David had served as my Qualifying Paper and Thesis Advisor, giving me unrelenting criticism, helping me learn how to research and write, and providing me with his friendship, all at the same time. And I went from being a mediocre student to graduating with high honors. But that is not the important point. More important than the history and the discipline that he taught me, David Flaherty taught me not to run with the crowd and to dare to take myself seriously.
Although it took me years to fully understand what happened that day and over the next two years, it marked the introduction of a new dimension in my life. Personal learning does just that, again and again, if we can only harvest its meaning. What are some examples you have where you’ve harvested meaning and put it to good use?