Beyond the classroom walls: Imagining the future of education, from community schools to communiversities

The book asks readers to adopt a critical and comprehensive view of education (pre-K to lifelong learning) as existing both within classroom walls, and in the surrounding world, including communities and workplaces. It presents an integrated view of online learning, community schools, communiversities, and learning through work.

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Gerbert de Aurillac, a lesson for today?

Gerbert de Aurillac, later known as Pope Sylvester II, was a talented French mathematics teacher who played an important role in bringing mathematics, science, medicine, and new technologies into Europe in the 10th century. These contributions were accompanied by efforts at social advancement, but in both arenas de Aurillac’s ultimate failure offers an important lesson for all of us today.

Pope Sylvester II

De Aurillac’s most important contribution was the decimal system, including the Hindu-Arabic numeral system we use today, but he also (re-)introduced the abacus, study of Arab and Greco-Roman arithmetic, astronomical studies, and the armillary sphere (a physical model of objects in the sky). Some credit him with the invention of the first mechanical clock (at least in Europe), one that used a pendulum to keep track of the time.

These ideas were not created de novo, but developed within a rich cultural milieu. A vibrant culture, nurtured by Islam, flourished in Spain, especially in Andalusia, from the coming of the Arabs in 711 until their expulsion in 1492. Spain was a home for Christians, Jews, and Muslims who interacted peacefully and learned from one another.

De Aurillac most likely studied at the abbey of Santa Maria de Ripoll, in the mountains of northeastern Spain. While there, he encountered texts from the Greek and Roman times, as well as Arabic texts, Visigoth texts, and many others. He recognized the vital role played by the world of Islam and would support what we would call multiculturalism today, as well as the development of a scientific community.

An armillary sphere in a painting by Botticelli

But this was not to last.

De Aurillac, as Sylvester II, was the first Frenchman to become pope. As such, he was deemed a “foreigner,” who did not deserve that position. His celebration of ancient and foreign ideas was no doubt a further obstacle to his acceptance.

But the larger problem he faced was age-old greed and the desire for power. His opponents sought to demonize him.

While he was studying mathematics and astrology in Córdoba and Seville, he was accused of learning sorcery. He supposedly stole a book of spells from an Arab philosopher. The demonization of Sylvester the individual drew from and reinforced the general fear of Islam.

Along with the rejection of “foreigners” and “foreign” culture, there was a rejection of mathematics, science, and new technologies. The magnificent bounty that the Islamic world offered to Europe was largely rejected.

Pope Sylvester II and the Devil

By the end of the 11th century, the new powers within the church and European society enforced a theocracy, instituted the crusades, and before long, the Inquisition. Although the term “dark ages” is not appropriate, there was definitely a loss. Science was retarded, and the rich interchange of ideas diminished. This period lasted half a millennium, until the time of Galileo and Copernicus.

It was no outside force, but Europe itself that brought that on.

What about today? We see a similar xenophobia, the demonization of others, insatiable greed, violent efforts to obtain power, a rejection of science and mathematics, indeed of all forms of learning, and a subordination of civil society to particular religious doctrines.

Gerbert de Aurillac would recognize this pattern well. He failed against the onslaught of forces that cared little about learning, about other cultures, or peaceful, associated life. Will we do the same?

A writer must have a wastepaper basket

In the midst of distressing decrees from the Supreme Court and larger concerns about the health of the US body politic, I seem drawn to words, even those that have little obvious relevance to the daily news.

Today I came across a great sentence by Laura Miller, in her review of How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life, by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman. Speaking about long-time collaborators Elizabeth Anscombe and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Miller writes:

Married to a conscientious objector who had difficulty finding remunerative work after the war, Anscombe was so poor that Wittgenstein paid for her stay in a maternity hospital after the birth of her second child and insisted on furnishing her spartan lodgings, announcing, “You are a writer, you have to have a wastepaper basket.”

I manage to fill both Wittgenstein’s paper basket and the one on my computer quite easily.

Speaking of revision: The online version of the review, from June 5, has the title: “Oxford quartet: The women who took on the philosophical establishment.” Today’s print version is entitled: “First, let’s kill all the logical positivists: Did four young women change the course of Western philosophy?” This makes me wonder: In the shift from “took on” to “kill all” is the New York TImes calling for a more violent response to entrenched interests?

Let’s not endorse the “kill all” approach, even for logical positivists or Supreme Courts, but the wastebasket would be an appropriate location for at least three Court decrees this week.

The Blob

I just watched the original The Blob, starring Steve McQueen. A great movie if there ever was one. See the trailer.

Now I want to go to Phoenixville, PA, one of the sites for the film. This year’s Blobfest will be on July 8-10.

The last four lines are even more relevant during climate crisis:

Dave: They’re flying it to the Arctic. 

Steve: It’s not dead, is it?

Dave: No, it’s not. Just frozen. I don’t think can be killed. But at least we’ve got it stopped. 

Steve: Yeah, as long as the Arctic stays cold.

Realities of community-based learning during lockdown

It was great to see the published paper copy of our article: “Realities of Implementing Community-Based Learning during Lockdown: Lessons from a Troubled Journey.” You can see photos of the authors below.

Saraswoti School, Shikharpa, Nepal

In the Editor’s Introduction to the Schools Studies in Education issue, Andy Kaplan writes,

In “Realities of Implementing Community-Based Learning during Lockdown: Lessons from a Troubled Year,” Raunak Chaudhari, Smriti Karanjit Manandhar, and Bertram C. Bruce examine the fortunes and misfortunes they encountered implementing a program at King’s College in Kathmandu, Nepal. They had conceived the program as a meaningful experiment in education reform, an effort to connect classroom learning to the needs and desires of the world outside the university. Although the onset of the pandemic seriously altered the original design of the course, the course provided many valuable experiences as well as an important example of how the ambitions of integrated learning create conditions of adaptability that are well suited to emergent and emergency circumstances.

Raunak Chaudhari

The Fulbari resort in Pokhara

Fulbari Resort & Spa

The Fulbari Resort and Spa in Pokhara, Nepal, was envisioned as the country’s most luxurious and only 5-star resort. It would re-imagine architectural wonders of the golden age when Newari kings ruled in the Kathmandu Valley, supplemented with a golf course, spas, casino, and other modern amenities. 

Set on a high bluff, with 26 acres, Fulbari, meaning “flower garden,” offers panoramas of Fishtail and Annapurna mountain ranges to the north and the Seti River gorges to the south.

In 2018, we stayed at a much more modest place in Pokhara, but I wish that we had at least visited Fulbari.

It’s now facing foreclosure, a victim of the general economic difficulties in Nepal and recently of Covid-19.

Origin stories

Recent conversations

I’ve had recent conversations with two friends my age. These have led me back to the big 5W’s: Who are we? What is our purpose? Where did we come from? When did the universe, life, and consciousness arise? Why are we here?

One writes

One of my more embarrassing memories from high school was a discussion in which two friends revealed that they were atheists.  I was beyond shocked.  I had never met an atheist before.  I was made to go to church every Sunday.  I couldn’t believe that these excellent friends had gone to the dark side and emphatically told them that the fact that we exist PROVED that there was a god.  I remember one just smiling tolerantly.

Halfway through my freshman year I had an epiphany while reading John Bailey’s Gods and Men: Myths and Legends from the World’s Religions. All that religious nonsense just collapsed in my mind.  What a relief!  I still have the book.

Both of these friends had expressed concern for my recent cancer. But the second one took that concern in an opposite direction. He recommended Sickness, by J. C. Ryle. It answers the question, “How can there be sickness in a world with an omniscient and omnipotent God,” by saying that all sickness arises from sin, a turning away from God.

The friend also recommended re-reading the Gospel of John as a source of solace and inspiration. He suggested that I ask “Is it possible that Jesus is who He said He was?”

I like and respect both of these friends, especially when they let me express my own muddled views.

Asking important questions

I think of philosophy as the process of asking the important questions in life. In that sense, the scientist fascinated by cosmology, but seeking an explanation other than its divine origin, or the evangelical seeking to understand Jesus through studying the Bible are each practicing philosophy in their own way. The same is true of the Daoist trying to understand the nature of reality or to find a moral order to life, the Hindu seeing God in every aspect of life, the follower of Madhyamaka Buddhism focusing on the “middle way,” and the evolutionist exploring Darwin’s “tangled bank.”

Fibonacci spiral

When these paths become dogmatic, their value for philosophical inquiry is diminished. This is essentially the argument of James Carse in The Religious Case Against Belief. Carse is a religion professor at NYU who argues that religion’s greatest value is exactly in those areas where we are uncertain. When it degenerates into fixed beliefs it loses precisely what makes it essential.

On the other hand, when religion stays open to questions, calls forth awe about life and the universe, and helps us understand our common humanity, it becomes our way of making sense of a complex, ever-changing world. Both militant atheism and dogmatic religious beliefs fall short. John Dewey lays out this argument well in A Common Faith.

Seeking new ways of understanding

I may ask each of my conversants to read Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. As a botanist, she has a beautiful way of integrating scientific and indigenous ways of knowing. That integration goes a step beyond Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria” (in Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.)

Another source of insight could come from the Confucius-Mozi debates in early China. Confucius laid out a case for starting with what’s close at hand, e.g., “honor thy father and thy mother.” He imagined ever expanding circles of love. Mozi and his followers challenged the Confucian view. They saw that adherence to family, village, local beliefs, and so on could lead to misunderstanding and disrespecting the cultures of others, and ultimately, violence and war. 

Mozi taught that everyone is equal in the eyes of heaven. Mohists questioned Confucianism’s over-attachment to family and clan structures, arguing instead for the concept of “universal love.” That implies acceptance and valuing of others’ belief systems, and not placing one’s own beliefs above those of others. That could be extended to love of all things in nature.

Confucianists thought that Mozi overestimated what was humanly possible. They said that we always put our own families and culture first. The debate continues today and can unfortunately recurs in endless strife between Christians and Muslims, Protestants and Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists, atheists and believers.

The answer

So, I’m not sure how to answer the 5W’s. Spinoza said it was “God or Nature” in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. He was condemned by many for this work, but it made a lot of sense to me when I first encountered it in Humanities 100 at Rice.

In favor of Spinoza’s formula is the fact that nature is all around us inviting engagement, astonishment, and enlightenment. There is meaning in the journey. We need but open ourselves to its wonders and accept that our understanding can never be more than partial.

Herring on the run

Blueback herring on the Herring River, Wellfleet

The lilacs are blooming and the buttercups brighten the river banks, so the blueback herring are swimming upstream to spawn. We counted 89 in one ten-minute stretch this week, thus honoring World Fish Migration Day.

The herring do surprisingly well, despite the constricted tidal flow in the river. Their biggest problem comes at the culverts. Fortunately for them, the one near our count site did not have a snapping turtle, raccoon, or crow waiting on the upstream side.

Culvert on the Herring River, to be enlarged as part of the project to restore the Herring River estuary.

We love seeing the herring. They tell us that the river, although damaged, is not dead.

A friend and neighbor says that she loves the herring, too, especially when they’re pickled with peppercorns and bay leaves, then served with onions. That was possible in the days when the river flowed freely. Our hope is that fishing, shellfishing, birdwatching, boating, and more can return when the river is restored.

Earth Day: The light flickers

Sammy (age five), who knows about layers of the ocean

For a hundred fathoms the sun rays penetrate
The sea is warm and full of life
Phytoplankton turn the sun’s energy into food.

The sunlight zone is what we know
Where the dolphins play
It’s the ocean blue.

Varying by season and latitude
Fish and seagulls, squids and jellyfish
Tiny copepods feed giant whales.

Below is the twilight zone
Worthy of Rod Serling
It’s dimly lit and cold, but still supports life.

Bioluminescence
Fish eyes are large, directed upwards
Food silhouettes.

Then there is the deep, the midnight zone
Constant darkness, except what creatures themselves provide
Crushing, almost freezing.

Thousands of feet down
The water’s weight presses down
Yet the sperm whale can dive here.

He searches for food
At depths we can’t imagine
He recycles and moves nutrients.

His carcass stores carbon
Providing habitat and food for others
He’s an ecosystem engineer.

He lights up our life
When he leaves the page
We discover the real darkness and cold.

Section hiking the Appalachian Trail

Section hiking the Appalachian Trail means doing a segment at a time, whenever it’s convenient. It’s not as glamorous as a thru-hike, but it’s still a great way to experience the “footpath for the people.”

Unfortunately, my cancer recovery segments are very short. I may need 21,800 segments to complete the 2,180 miles. That’s going to take a while.

But I’ve accomplished a few already. The photo above was taken two days ago near Great Barrington, MA. The one below is near Becket, MA in January.