Life Learnings: 2010

Last year I posted a list of important understandings I'd gained in 2009.  I think it's important for my reflection process and development that I do the same again this year.

These 'life learnings' are often teachings that I've heard people say for years, but because I only heard people say them, and I never learned the lesson for myself through experience, I'd not been able to internalize their true value until recently.

Bear with me.  I was born an idealist.  Some of these new understandings are indicators of my quickly fading sense of idealism.  I realize many people came to these understandings far before I did.  In any case, at the ages of 26 and 27, these are the real life lessons I internalized (or at least the ones I'm cognizant of) this year.

1) I need to shed my skin constantly to feel alive.

This year I was presented with a major decision: take a new teaching job in NYC or go back to a job I had just outside Seattle.  I took two weeks to make this decision and agonized about it 24/7.  Thus far, it's been the most difficult decision I've had to make in my life.  Ironically, however, when I finally made it, my choice was crystal clear.

What I learned in agonizing over the choice was that it was far less about trying to choose which job I wanted than it was about clarifying what each of the choices represented in my life.  A return to Seattle would have been a return to familiarity - i.e. a staff, community, and group of friends I already knew.  A move to New York meant reinventing myself all over again.  It meant developing new routines, relearning a school, establishing a new social network, etc...   Initially I wanted to go with Seattle, but I think that was because I know how tough it is to move to a new place where you don't know anyone (I've done it three times in the last three and a half years).

When I finally made the decision to move to New York, I made it knowing it was really the only option I would have allowed myself.  I'm not done finding myself yet.  I'm far from being content staying in one place.  I see opportunities for significant growth in massive change, and I'm not ready to stop seeking significant challenges in life.

2) Starting a new school is an enormous undertaking.  It should be done only be experienced educational leaders and only as a last resort.

Policy in NYC has suggested that solving many educational problems is merely a matter of creating small schools and replacing them when they don't meet bureaucrats' expectations.  But starting a school is not something that should be taken lightly.  The opportunity NYC's DOE is providing to virtually anyone who thinks they could start a school to, indeed, start a school is misguided.

New schools, while attempting to educate students, must struggle with piecing together basic systems and creating school-wide culture, each of which takes time, effort, and expertise.  It is an immensely frustrating task and should be given serious consideration prior to implementation.

3) There is a significant difference between superficial and authentic forms of knowledge and understanding.

When I was in high school I used to value trivial knowledge.  I held high regard for those who could go on jeopardy or win every game of trivial pursuit.  "Man, those people are smart," I thought.

In college I began to appreciate an ability to put facts together and create deeper understanding through critical thought.  The way my professors would eschew simple answers and qualify almost everything, while initially frustrating, eventually earned my respect.

In my years as a young adult/professional, I've come to discount (to some degree) knowledge and understanding that's collected through second-hand sources.  This is largely a result of my foray into the DC and NYC public school systems.  Prior to my first-hand experience in these school systems, I'd read about school reform and attempted to analyze many of the arguments for and against it.  I'd come to what I thought was a pretty legitimate conclusion that suggested people like Michelle Rhee were taking us in the proper direction.  However, it wasn't until I had the opportunity to experience how her policies were affecting public schools first-hand that I began to formulate new understandings about how schools work and what's good for them.

I now recognize that while reading, analyzing, discussing, and writing about issues can lend one a degree of knowledge about a topic (unless that topic is the practice of reading, analyzing, discussing, and writing) the knowledge you're gaining is necessarily second-hand, and therefore superficial to some degree.

Authentic knowledge, the kind I now value most, comes from experiencing, reflecting, and acting.

This has done a great deal to inform my teaching practice.  In any given area of pedagogy, there are layers of understanding that must build on one another, but if we deny students the opportunity to create and reflect on authentic knowledge they generate themselves through experience, we deny them the opportunity to truly learn and act in the world meaningfully.  This is one of the reasons standardized tests are so frustrating.

4) Major media outlets are not only an example of superficial knowledge, they're often so embedded in politics and money that they offer virtually no valuable information at all.

On my way to Colorado for winter break this year, I was sitting in JFK waiting to board my flight to Denver while watching the mainstream media for the first time in months.  I learned that a hooker was murdered in Las Vegas, that Snooky is a controversial figure in pop-culture, and somebody had recently added a video of a high school football game to youtube that had become very popular.

It's often a good idea to base the utility of something on the degree to which is moves you toward the ends for which it was established.  As far as I'm concerned, the media should make me a more informed citizen.  It should make me more capable of acting in my democracy and empowering useful government.  The mainstream media does not do that.  Even when CNN, MSNBC, CBS, and ABC report on events happening in our world, they often do so with barely enough information that the viewer is even aware those events happened.  There is simply no way an individual could learn even a modicum of what they need to know to be informed citizens from our major media outlets (and the worst part about this is that we actually have tv stations that do nothing except for news ALL DAY LONG).

This tragedy is partly a result of our demand for trash television, partly a result of our busy schedules, partly a result of a lack of ethics on the part of journalists, and partly a result of media companies being players in the political world.  My experience with the Washington Post last winter and spring taught me that if I wanted to get the stories that mattered to my community, I would have to go far beyond anything the mainstream media was offering me.  I would have to search blogs, talk to people, read books, go to city council hearings, etc...

The failure of big media in this country distresses me on an ongoing basis.

5) Really understanding a complicated issue takes more than a lifetime, and even then, one is almost certainly left with holes and misinterpretations.

I've heard that the amount of information offered in The New York Times on a daily basis is more information that the average individual would have come across in his/her lifetime in 1750.  The advent of internet technology increases the amount of available information and new ideas exponentially.  Truly understanding a complex issue does not happen in a year or two of study.  It happens over a lifetime of thoughtful and reflective engagement with millions of reference points and careful devotion to challenging one's cognitive biases.

What's even more perplexing is attempting to grapple with incredibly complex issues that are inextricably intermeshed with one another.  There is nobody in the world who understands why it (the world) works the way that it does.  We have theories, some of which seem more rational than others, but we're largely ignorant of most of the forces that shape the events that affect our daily lives.  We may have a relatively tenable grasp on one or two of those forces, but beyond that, it's more like playing a game of pictionary - only you're not allowed to open your eyes.

Unfortunately, if we're going to attempt to act rationally in our world, we must attempt to understand the many millions of factors that influence our daily lives.  This reality spawns heated and often violent disagreement about how we should live, especially when it's intertwined with varying cultural understandings of ethics and morality.  It's like watching a free safety in a professional football game through binoculars without being able to see any of the other players and then attempting to explain and defend/criticize his actions - only it's about a billion times more complex than that.

This leads me to conclude that, in the grand scheme of things, our constant (and slowly alterable) dearth of information renders us as chickens with our heads cut off.  In terms of moving our global community toward a common and beneficial end, it seems a lot like being on a boat in the middle of the pacific without a compass and praying you'll end up on shore sooner than latter.

Wow - a lot of analogies there.

6) There are no easy answers.

Well - that's not entirely true.  It depends on the question.  But the most important questions we can ask ourselves do not lend themselves to short answers, or even answers at all.  Such questions serve as points for focus and the generation of thought and discussion.  The minute they are approached as answerable, you can be pretty sure that the approacher is either not much of a critical thinker or the holder of an agenda that lacks truth as a priority (I'm thinking corporate/ideological/personal interestes here).

7) My learnings this year have a theme.

It appears as though I've primarily been grappling with methods of thinking about and understanding enormously complex problems this year.  While this path of life inquiry doesn't lend itself immediately to sheer happiness, I do think it has helped me appreciate the little things in life.  Rather than putting the emphasis on the answer, I place the emphasis on the thinking.  It's not about the end; it's about the journey. After all, a life unexamined is not worth living.

And I think I'll leave it at that.

Happy New Year everyone!


  1. "6) There are no easy answers."
    I seem to be repeating this every 10 minutes. Maybe only easy questions - lots of them.

    As for your major decision- we are glad - and lucky - to have someone who thinks seriously about educational issues here in NYC. Hope you stick around and get to hang out with other like minded people.

    Happy New Year!


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