Friday, December 14, 2012

Communities of Learning

Today's tragic slaughter of schoolchildren in Connecticut is almost impossible to think about in its utter senselessness, but we have to think about it all the same. One natural response is to tighten the restrictions on the sorts of weapons used in such slaughtering, and clearly that is a good idea, but superficial. Anyone who could commit such an atrocity must be severely disturbed. Somehow people who are that broken need to be identified and treated appropriately, for their own benefit as well as that of society. This approach goes a bit deeper, but, in dividing the world up into the normal, the pathological, and the institutional authorities who are to enforce such distinctions, I fear it cannot be very effective either. Of course the world has always been subject to incidents of senseless cruelty. But there are surely differences of degree. The only sane way to live is to take as crucial and urgent the responsibility to cultivate compassionate and meaningful lives, as individuals, families, and communities. What makes lives meaningful is relationships. When our lives manifest as the cherishing of each other, the likelihood is vastly reduced of anyone becoming so disconnected as to commit random murders. If somehow a person becomes so deranged as to be capable of such senseless violence, in a community where relationships of cherished, the pathology will be recognized and at least taken on as a struggle. Remote and abstract institutions may have a role, but the primary focus of response can be the community, which can work to keep any sort of weapons out of the hands of such a disturbed individual.

In our time and place, community is a rather ethereal concept. Our modern technologies of communication and transportation seem to have been the primary agents of the dissolution of community. We have ready access to a few hundred million other people, those of us living on the grid, on the network, on the web - pulverizing our relationships to bits, to broken fragments. Such a broken system cannot sustain itself, and indeed the signs of collapse are everywhere. How far we have to fall before we rebuild enough integrity to revitalize our relationships and make richly meaningful lives again normal, that is our crucial and urgent challenge.

Archdruid John Greer proposes that "devising a framework for adult education outside the grip of the current American education industry is one of the most pressing needs of the decade or two right ahead of us." Perhaps it is not going too far to extend this proposal, to see learning as the binding fabric of human community. Learning is life. This points to the real pathology of our science today, which has far too much the smell of death, of an escape from the grappling and tangling with the ambiguities and paradoxes of raw experience, an escape into the pure clean clear realms of the ideal, of mathematics and theory and abstraction.

We need widespread local venues where learning can be shared, learning that promotes engagement with the realities of experience, of daily life. Some of these might be workshops oriented to somewhat specialized crafts. But the general foundation needs to be the cultivation of how to live a sane life. The basic skills of living need to be taught, rooted in our world today and reaching to the world we envision for tomorrow.

Gardening, nutrition, physical exercise, the skills of reading and writing, household finance, home repair, bicycle and automobile repair, computer skills, crafts such as sewing and woodworking, arts like painting, sculpture and music, how to manage interpersonal conflicts, the basics of working with government agencies and other large scale institutions such as insurance companies… these sorts of down to earth basic skills whose sharing can provide not only the raw material for revitalized community but also the context for critical thinking. It is through vital engagement with the substance of experience that the sublime arises, not by chasing after abstractions. Theory and abstraction properly work when they enhance our engagement with experience. They are means, not properly ends.

Let us learn together, to reconnect through the world, to each other.