Friday, January 16, 2015

Transforming History: A New Curriculum for a Planetary Culture by William Irwin Thompson

Yesterday I reported on the educational ideas of Dorothy Sayers, who recommended a return to the Trivium. Today, I’ll review the curriculum of William Irwin Thompson, who, while not mentioning the Trivium or suggesting a return to any past curriculum, has created a curriculum that draws deeply on the past and that looks toward the future. I found it compelling and fascinating. Would it work? In fact, it’s the curriculum of the Ross School in Long Island, so it has current real-world application. 

Looks a bit like a leprechaun but don't be fooled!
For those not acquainted with William Irwin Thompson, he’s a rogue academic. After completing a doctorate at Cornell in cultural history and writing a book about the Easter 1916 uprising in Dublin and how the literary imagination shaped those events, he went to faculty appointments at Syracuse, MIT, and Toronto. But Thompson’s interests were too big and too unorthodox to work in the academic mainstream, and he left academia to found the Lindisfarne Association, which worked to cultivate ideas outside the academic establishment. I was introduced to two of his early works, At the Edge of History: Speculations on the Transformation of Culture (1971)and Passages About Earth: An Exploration of the New Planetary Culture (1973) by Professor John S. Nelson, one of my political theory professors, who defined his field very broadly (and rightly so!). Since then I’ve read a fair amount of Thompson, although there’s much more I’d like to read (but little on Kindle at this point). Thompson ignites intellectual and historical fireworks in his writings. Put simply, Thompson looks deeply into the human past to develop some sense of where we might be headed. Thompson follows trails first laid down by the likes of Barfield and Gebser in his chronicle of changing forms of consciousness and culture. And as reflected in this curriculum, in later years he teamed with mathematician Ralph Abraham to bring a mathematical perspective to complement the literary. 

What Thompson outlines in Transforming History is a comprehensive K-12 curriculum that tracks both the development of the child and the development of human culture. Ontology recreates phylogeny? In Thompson’s sense, they seem to complement one another, at least. Thompson coordinates the developmental abilities of the children to match the curriculum. (He’s apparently aided in this by the perspective of his wife, who was a kindergarten teacher in Switzerland.) Complementing his appreciation of child development are this theories of “complex dynamical systems” and “cultural ecologies”.

We humans have moved from creatures of the African savannah to dwellers in the megacities of the 21st century connected by the internet. (N.B. I write this from the Chinese city of Suzhou that is building skyscrapers as fast as it can.) Thompson explains his perspective: 

A technological innovation is itself deeply embedded in various systems of values and symbols; a new tool can emerge synchronous with a new form of polity, as well as with a new form of spirituality. Cultural history, as opposed to the more linear history of technology, is concerned with the complex dynamical system in which biological natural drift, ecological constraints, and systems of communication and social organization all interact in a process of “dependent co-origination”. 

Irwin, Thompson William (2009-04-01). Transforming History: A New Curriculum for a Planetary Culture (Kindle Locations 170-174). Steiner Books. Kindle Edition.

Thompson, in responding to a paper by Ralph Abraham, describes the scheme he uses: 

I proposed in 1985 that “Western civilization” could be re-described as a development that proceeded through four cultural ecologies—Riverine, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the post-World War II aerospace cultural ecology of the Pacific Rim. Now, I would prefer to re-designate them as Riverine, the Mediterranean, the Oceanic, and the Biospheric. Each of these cultural ecologies was characterized by a mathematical and artistic mentality that brought forth a new worldview.
Id. 175-179

Thompson’s scheme looks at cultural change through a variety of lenses: changes in technology, language, identity, and mathematics. He summarizes: 

Each of the five cultural organizations of Culture, Society, Civilization, Industrialization, and Planetization can also be seen to be enhanced and reinforced by a matrix of identity.
1. Sanguinal [family/kinship] identity
2. Territorial identity
3. Linguistic identity (language and religion)
4. Economic identity (class and nation)
5. Noetic identity (scientific and spiritual) [arising since 1945]
Id. 287-292

Thompson believes that we’re on the cusp of further major changes, not all for the good, as the current industrial nation-state system of political economy begins to fray. Thompson believes that we face an “up or out” cultural transition. He writes: 

Religious fundamentalism and right-wing, nationalistic terrorist reactions to planetization are precisely the sort of heat that is released in these transitions. Like the Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation, which sought to stop and reverse the modernizing forces of the Renaissance and the Reformation, these reactionary explosions can do much damage and deter cultural transformation for centuries. Whether humanity can move up to a transcultural identity in which science and a new kind of post-religious spirituality can reintroduce the fully individuated consciousness of the individual to a multidimensional cosmos is the question of our time. The cultural project of bringing forth this new mentality is certainly what Ralph Abraham and I have been seeking to do in all our books and cultural projects, such as the Lindisfarne Association and the Visual Math Institute.
[N]othing less than truth, goodness, and universal compassion are going to get us through this transition from a global economy to a planetary ecumené. Frankly, I have to admit that it will be easier for humanity to slide down into a dark age than accept such a cultural transformation.
Id. 299-304; 371-373

Having given us a brief tour of his ideas about cultural change and the possible futures that we face, he then turns to “transforming history”, and by this, he also means transforming the school curriculum. Thompson offers (in a nod to H.G. Wells) not an “outline of history” but a “miniaturization of history” to guide the curriculum. Looking at child development, Thompson designs to curriculum to follow certain intervals: 

Because human growth does not unfold in simple linear and accretive sequences, this curriculum is broken up into pulses of organic growth in three-year sequences. Each triad unfolds in a sequence of formative, dominant, and climactic. A formative movement introduces a new element of consciousness; a dominant movement establishes and develops it, and the climactic movement consolidates and finishes it.
Id. 450-453

It is here that that Thompson notes how this outlines tracks with the suggestions of Rudolph Steiner and the Waldorf school movement. (N.B. This book is published by Steiner books.) 

Thompson outlines how math and other subjects, how a “sacred language, like Chinese, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Classical Greek, Latin, or Arabic” can be introduced into the curriculum. So with stories and science. The degree of depth of study is matched the developmental level of the child all through the curriculum. 

In drawing upon his wife’s experience, Thompson sings to praises of the Swiss-German kindergarten. He writes: 

At the source of Origin (in the sense of Jean Gebser’s book Ever-Present Origin), knowledge is integral and not divided into disciplines and technologies. Science and myth, tools and rituals, art and understanding are all together in a cognitive bliss of the sense of the joy, wonder, and fun of being in knowing as a form of being in love—in love with life. Americans tend to view kindergarten as merely babysitting, a time you need to get through as fast as possible until you have got the kids up to speed through reading and computer skills so they can get down to the real work. This is just about as far from the truth as you can get. In fact, what the enlightened adult needs to do is to return to this earlier mind and reachieve it with all the powers that have come from intellectual development. Great scientists and artists have survived their education and have been able to do this, but most people have been beaten into submission and turned into used and abused tools.
           Id. 552-559

He continues: 

Kindergarten is a Zen-like place and time, in the sense that it involves a kind of “mind-to-mind transmission” from the teacher to the students. The being and soul of the parent or teacher is more important than pedagogic philosophy, whether Waldorf, Montessori, or Piaget. What truly matters is the sense of soul presence that embodies knowing and reverence. . . . Because knowledge is integral at this early level (as it should be again at the postdoctoral level), there should be no divisions into disciplines such as science, art, religious studies, and languages.
            Id. 592-598
Thompson, after spending a good deal of time on kindergarten, takes the reader on up through the grade levels, discussing the abilities of the child and the tasks and learning appropriate to each level. Thompson takes students on trips through time and space (i.e., all manner of cultures, civilizations, and times) to match learning and abilities. For the adult reader, it’s vintage Thompson, taking us here and there for insights into the human project. To have learned this as a kid? I think—although perhaps I delude myself—it would have been a real kick. We did something like this studying American Indians or other lands and times, but nothing with the depth and sophistication (age appropriate, of course) that Thompson suggests. Indeed, the remainder of the book, while outlining a very specific curriculum, also serves as a display of Thompson’s unique and fascinating world cultural history from the earliest humans to the present. That’s always a treat. 

Is education wasted on the young? Sometimes it seems so, but Thompson suggests that the seeds of a doctoral dissertation can be planted during kindergarten. Perhaps. While I read this book with great enjoyment as a work of history and cultural criticism, it is a series work of education as well. No system is perfect, there’s no one size fits all. But education, for anyone living, whether having completed formal education, whether with school-age children or not, must be concerned with what schools teach. 

It would be interesting to learn how Ross School graduates (that use this curriculum) fair in the larger world. Thompson reports he home-schooled his son Evan after grade school, and by all indications, that went well. Evan, now a professor in B.C., has just published another book, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy that’s on my to-read list. Seems like a pretty good test run.

If you’re interested in education curriculum or where our world has been and where we’re going, I highly recommend this book and anything by WIT. And if you’re interested in both, you’ve hit the jackpot.