Who Teaches Whom… and How?

…And let’s not forget,

My involvement with boats has always been intertwined with learning. I don’t think this is unique. Every interaction we have with boats involves some element of learning, sharing skills and passing them along.

Boats teach us, and they catalyze learning. This is one of their greatest powers.

How do we begin to unravel the mess we’ve made of learning? For me, boats seem like a good place to start.

To be clear, this is not about reforming bankrupt institutions whose fundamental principles – even if they were transparently followed – are inimical to what learning could be. This applies across the board and strikes deeply into how we expect to do things. This paucity of useful alternatives within the mainstream is an opportunity, not a problem. There is clarity in knowing that an avenue is closed. We are free to focus elsewhere instead of being trapped in futile attempts to fix things that at their best were meant to enslave us.

Reductio ad absurdum. This is how transparency is restored when a system’s actual purposes are hidden behind a whitewash. Our schools are preparatory academies for prison or the hell of consumerist life-styles. This is what such a system will provide, what it was constructed to provide. Walking away from it is the only way out of the tortured labyrinth it puts in the way of our sorting out how to live.

As sailors say,

“Let’s find clear air!”

There are entry points into what appears to be possible.

Perhaps the best way in would be to describe how certain themes came to me.

Bringing a group of people together nominally to teach an aspect of boat-design and construction provided a wonderful opportunity to expose people to ways of approaching questions they had never experienced before. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to teach a course at MIT. Reuben Smith and I ran a class on boat design and half-model carving during their winter break. We had about a dozen people each year, ranging from undergraduates to alumni, faculty and staff. In a week’s time we exposed them to a process of inquiry and gave them contact with the fugitive and fleeting nature of accuracy, of certainty. We did this through the medium of choosing a hypothetical boat, drawing its form, and then carving a half-model.

We could have used anything as a starting point. But I do think it is significant that it was boats. There is an immediacy of context available when we contemplate boats. Even as this is normally hidden behind various trivial agendas, this immediacy is always right there beneath the surface ready to access.

Ask someone,

“What boat would you like?”

And follow up with,


We are drawn into a point of contact between our most private and unformed yearnings and the unbending requirements of wind and wave. Few other topics bring these together in quite the same way.

This provides a scaffolding. It takes us where consumer culture would never want us to stray. We leave the false freedom of a myriad of choices limited to what fits someone else’s commercial agenda. We are asked to confront, not what’s available, but what do we want?

The further question, “Why?” Is never far away, once we find the quiet beyond haggling and competing agendas. This question energizes our endeavor. It connects with our own motivations. It keep us away from the futility of arbitrary examples, a plague on our customary pedagogy. This example is not arbitrary. It grows out of our own personal lives.

This focus. This sense that, “This matters to me.” Pervades the whole experience. Once we awaken to this, our realization spreads to discover that we can build on it and find bolstering connections that integrate this starting point into our entire experience and how we look at everything we do.

We find traction. We are accustomed to having our inchoate yearnings floating around unanchored as intractable contingency pokes us in the ribs. We have become habituated to keeping the two separate. We retreat into a life disproportionately spent dreaming, or denying our dreams within imposed constraints we call being practical. Neither of these choices is more realistic than the other.

This nominally hypothetical question brings us into contact with a yawning gulf between where we have been and shows us glimmers of how we might treat where we could be.






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s