Over the past several years, my teaching has cultivated critical dialogue amongst students on social issues–education, gender, ethnic/racial conflict, classism, and so on. I raise questions; that’s what I do. Truth be told, my personal agenda is clearly a progressive one; although, I am very careful not to stack the deck against students with contrary world-views or inculcate them with my own views. I simply raise questions, qualify my own politics as necessary, and invite open and honest discussion and writing. We talk about things that are of great importance in our world, and yet I always end up dissatisfied at the end of the semester–as if nothing of any real value was accomplished. The thing is as much as I would like to think otherwise, the foundation of the course experience has been that conversation–in class and through reading and writing. Don’t get my wrong, I value conversation very highly. People don’t do it very well anymore, and I tend to believe that much of what’s wrong with our world could be traced back to a lack of conversation–on a fundamental level where people connect, share, listen, and seek mutual understanding. Conversation is key, but now I feel that in the 17 weeks I have each semester with my students, it’s not enough. This semester, I promised myself, would be based on ACTION. So, I’m moving forward clumsily with what one might call service/activist learning.

systems not machines; relationships not objects

To kick things off with my students, we read a piece by Fritjof Capra from his book The Web of Life where he talks about the importance of ecological literacy or systems thinking. This was shortly after we tossed a ball of yarn around the room (by way of cheesy ice breaker), creating our own human web to demonstrate the interconnectedness of the members in our class. (Yank one end of that string and we’d all feel it.) I wish I got a picture of my class all tangled up in this web of yarn. While the dean would likely disapprove of me tying my class up, the visual metaphor actually was pretty compelling by the time were done. Anyway, Capra distinguishes between a mechanistic or reductionist way of understanding the world where we tend to isolate what we want to study versus systems thinking where we recognize that we can best understand things by understanding their relationships to other things–by understanding the web of systems and processes in which all things are intertwined. He calls this understanding ecological literacy. Check out what he has to say in the video below.

Capra’s talking about much more than biological or environmental matters; he’s talking about matters of life itself. Life itself–social, cultural, economical, environmental–is interconnected. An action to one part affects the others. The whole is worth more than the sum of its parts.

there are no others, there is only us

Another powerful metaphor for this concept of relationships that define life is a short film by Marc Silver entitled There Are No Others, There Is Only Us. It’s pretty amazing really if one can slow down long enough to watch the full ten minutes. The patterns are intricate and powerful. It’s a moving statement about crowds and what it means to be a part of the whole in the natural world of which we as human beings are integral part.

I played this film in the background as my students were working in small groups, discussing the Fritjof Capra essay and working to define the concept of sustainability. I said nothing, but before long everyone’s eyes were glued to the screen. They were amazed at what they were seeing. It offered opportunity for deeper conversation about our interconnections.

concern is not enough

So, it’s cool that we get we’re all connected. Bringing my students this far has been fun, but still just this understanding is not enough without action. This is why my students are presently in the midst of designing their own service or activism projects. The idea is that these projects will put us all into action so that we can make a very real and meaningful impact to an issue of great concern (as identified by the students themselves). Now, I’m new to this whole service/activist learning thing. Unlike many schools, my college does not have an office of service learning, so I’m a rogue here working with very little formal institutional support. So be it. We’ll get something done this semester. I am sure of that.

Dave Eggers wrote a story entitled “What It Means When a Crowd in a Faraway Nation Takes a Soldier Representing Your Own Nation, Shoots Him, Drags Him From His Vehicle, and Then Mutilates Him in the Dust.” We read this in my class. It’s about a man who is deeply concerned about matters in his world, and yet he sits at home just thinking about it. He’s not apathetic. He cares. But he does not act. The final line of the story reads…

The man at home feels this way too often now. He feels tunneled, wrapped, desiccated. His eyes feel the strain of trying for too long to see in the dark. The man is watching the smoke from the factory, and though there are many things he could do that day, he will do none of them.

I don’t want to be that man. I don’t think any of us really want that. Today, we will do something.