Avalon, a 106′ Schooner

Avalon is based on the schooners that fished the Grand Banks at the turn of the Twentieth Century. They marked the end-point of an evolution that had been ongoing for some three hundred years. They came to be right at the time engines and oil changed everything.

At the other end of that excursion from sense and responsibility I can’t help but think they could be taken as a starting point for a new evolution. This time not as fishing craft, but as boats with a different purpose.

I keep returning to the space embraced by the hold of such a vessel. Avalon’s hold is thirty-two feet long and twenty feet wide. It’s easy to imagine this space filled with cargo or catch. What if it were a hall as well as a hold? What if this vessel carried meaning to people in far-off ports as well as bringing them things? How could such a vessel, and its crew of up to twenty, do more than just engage in commerce?

Could such a vessel be a school?

Not just for those who travel in her. What if they brought learning wherever they go?

This can be seen as reminiscent of some missionary ministry, spreading a gospel. The world has seen enough of those.

What’s on offer here is something else. Instead of teaching and enforcing certainties of belief this school would involve all who come together aboard and ashore to learn how to relate to uncertainty. Where people learn to navigate uncertainty.

In a week I’ll be traveling to Denmark. Unfortunately the Atlantic Packet is not ready. I’ll be going the conventional way…. I’ll be attending at a school. One of Denmark’s Højskoles. My friend and collaborator Jeppe Graugaard teaches a course called The World Around Us. We will run a session with his students and then we’ll all present to the school the following day. I’m calling this event, Navigating Uncertainty.

It’s exciting to have this opportunity to bring what Jeppe and I have been working on for a long time. It’s been tricky to get our heads around these questions and even harder to find a way to present them to a class. We approached this in the spirit of Negative Geography, as our mutual friend Jeff Shampnois would put it! We begin by defining what is not possible. The long list of futile actions we’ve given-up include explanation. The whole idea that we can change someone’s mind by arguing with them or telling them what is right.

We’ve been aiming at setting the stage for an event to unfold, to emerge. Something everyone involved “teachers and students” participate in together. We begin by colliding with all that we do not know. We find how we might function within uncertainty. We find, at least it’s been my experience, that when we open ourselves to a moment in the way an event is thrust upon us in an emergency; we don’t think about what we should do; we don’t fear doing the wrong thing; we just act.

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In Ry we’ll be about a dozen people with access to a couple of rooms and the surrounding fields and forest. It will all play out within about twenty-four hours. A day’s preparation and then we present something before the entire school body. It will be immersive, quick.

It’s been my experience that pivotal lessons are often not absorbed as they happen. They tend to hit us “out-of-the-blue” and can leave us angry or at least confused at the time. But somehow, if they are important enough, something sticks. Sometimes it takes decades before these lessons catalyze some insight and do their work. It seems even in this there’s a hint at how Navigating Uncertainty operates.

In conventional pedagogy lessons are worked out in advance. A plan delineates how the material will be explained and then there will be activities and, at the end, a test. The whole endeavor is abstracted out of any vital context. Obedience to the arbitrary nature of this odd way of spending our time is a large part of what is taught. The purpose is to control.

As children we participate because we’re made to. We don’t know any different. As adults we comply because, “They’ve got to be taught how to get on.” And so it goes, on and on….

My experiences at MIT and at The Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory might be considered poles apart. I’ve found an interesting continuity between them. Exposing students and members of the MIT community to a crash course in boat design coated in a “How to build a Half-model” class, I found how unfamiliar all of the participants were with uncertainty as it applies to knowing what we want. As well as dealing with uncertainty as we go about finding accuracy in the non-digital world of scale rules and carpenter’s squares. Once the opportunity was presented everyone was eager to dive in.

In Philadelphia, with a group of young teens in an after-school boatbuilding program, I was amazed at how they were already so much more attuned. Right from the start they took on the arcane and often terrifying task of lofting a boat’s plans full-size with aplomb. They made a connection without waiting to have it explained. They did what everyone from school administrators to politicians are so eager to claim should be impossible in their “under-privileged” conditions.

These experiences have percolated with me over the years. They feed what Jeppe and I hope to accomplish in Ry in two weeks time. And, all of these meanders are part of the wider stream that buoys this idea of a school carried in the hold of a vessel like Avalon.

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