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The Twin Virtues of Trust and Uncertainty
Higher Ed, take one
This week I had occasion to stand, arms spread, in the warm Texas sun, a welcome reprieve from the deep damp autumn that has now overtaken the Pacific Northwest. I had brisket at Terry Black’s barbecue in Austin. I had tacos on a screened porch with the woman who is my oldest, dearest friend in the world. I walked along the Colorado River with brand new friends. I stood in a gorgeous home at a razor’s edge—between highly refined and cultured beauty, and wildness, which refuses refinement. I spoke about the past, present, and future of higher ed with many people. And then I flew to another state that is not my own, and drove, and crossed into something far darker and stormier than what Texas had brought. I saw quail—seven of them, over and over again. I saw seals, and they saw me. And in the immediate aftermath of a particularly raging squall, I watched a solitary swan land in an ocean full of white caps. Even the seals seemed surprised.
I planned to share a new piece this week on higher education, in the wake of the launch of the University of Austin last week, but it wants more work, more consideration, before I make it public. Next week, probably. In the meantime, I am sharing instead this piece that I wrote in 2018, about the experience of teaching, and learning to teach, the extraordinary people who were my students at Evergreen. It was posted originally on Medium.
In my first conversation with Dave, I learned that, before becoming my student, he had spent many years as a small town police chief. But he had fallen in love with wolves, and had come back to school to study them. He would go on to spend several Winters in Yellowstone photographing them, integrating our work on evolution, ecology and compassion with his artist’s eye. Later in my 15 year tenure teaching undergraduates, I met a young man who had grown up so poor his mother had often served roadkill stew, playing “name the meat,” which piqued his interest in biodiversity. There were, too, the Russian animator, the woman who brought her legally concealed firearm to a tour of the Grand Coulee dam not too long after 9/11, the backcountry firefighter. People who took carefully constructed gap years, or more haphazard gap decades, single mothers, people who had been homeschooled or unschooled, veterans of Afghanistan and of Iraq. There were, of course, also many students who fit the more standard academic mold, having been in school since they were five, arriving in college straight from high school. Among them, the developmental diversity was perhaps more subtle, but no less important.
These remarkable students were at a public, liberal arts college, not an elite institution. It is imagined that elite colleges, being selective in who they accept, are inherently better places at which to get an education. I will argue here that selectivity in admissions does not inherently make for a better educational experience, for anyone. Classrooms full of “good students” tend to be predictable places, where rules aren’t broken. They’re easier for faculty, I suppose, but learning ought to include the unexpected, and often.
There was a wild and woolly experiment in education happening at The Evergreen State College for several decades, and while the college appears to be intent on destroying itself, and I am no longer a part of it, the experiment was an amazing one. The combination of full-time programs, in which there was time for everyone to actually come to know each other; faculty autonomy to teach creatively and uniquely; and a self-selecting group of students who ranged from top-of-their-academic-class to still-considering-whether-to-get-their-shit-together, could be, and often was, magical.
Some readers will wonder how I can possibly defend a student body that produced the riots of the Spring of 2017. That story is for another time, but for now I will say this: the protests were instigated by people behind the scenes, and the number of students participating in those protests was actually quite small.
Evergreen is not selective — it accepts more than 95% of its applicants — but that doesn’t mean that many of its students aren’t extremely capable. Many of the students whom I knew there — and many whom I did not — have made it clear that they do not appreciate having their degrees devalued by the antics of a few. So please, dear reader, assume that most Evergreen students are what I saw, repeatedly and reliably, right up until the mob was allowed to take over last Spring — students who were eager for a challenge, finally, after having been coddled for too long. I am confident that there are many more people out there, raised on the academic equivalent of ice cream — easy and pleasurable, but long-term, not satisfying — who upon being offered a rich and succulent meal of, say, stew and salad, find that, without knowing it, they were craving the full meal all along.
Under such circumstances, imagine a professor setting out to destabilize students’ preconceptions, to make them uncomfortable with what they think they know, and to force confrontations with self, with perception, with authority. In a classroom that is truly diverse, along spectra of not just race and sexual orientation, but also geographic origin and socioeconomic background, and relationship with and beliefs about school, family, country, and religion, exposing students to ideological diversity requires only creating enough trust in the room that everyone feels safe to speak. “Emotional safety” is a much abused concept on campuses now; in the context of my classrooms, feeling safe to speak meant that we do not conflate words with the person speaking them: disagreement with words does not imply dislike of the person speaking.
Creating such trust might well be impossible to do in a lecture hall of 400, but in classes of 25 or 50, it was easily enough done. Creating trust does not turn out to be difficult, if the faculty believes, fundamentally, in the humanity of their students. Show people respect, and trust builds. Once trust is established, risk taking is possible, and with intellectual risk comes expansion of worldview. My job was perhaps made easier by the fact that, as an evolutionary biologist and animal behaviorist, both population and individual were already live concepts in my classrooms. Understanding populations — how to describe them and infer pattern from them, both scientifically and statistically — is important, but ultimately, we must treat people not as representatives of populations, but as individuals, with untapped potential.
Evergreen students are expected to reflect on their own work when programs come to a close. I was always heartened to find an embrace of uncertainty in those final thoughts from my students. One young woman, who had been an exemplary student her entire life, wrote “I tend to take the same path over and over, even if it’s not the most efficient, just because it’s the one I’m used to.” Now, however, for the first time, “I felt like I was in a free-fall, because I had no idea what I was doing and I was grasping at anything that looked like a handhold. It was refreshing though.” While breaking old habits that were constraining her, she did ever more thoughtful, rigorous, and creative work over the many quarters that I worked with her.
“I feel lost, and more than a little bewildered,” begins one young man’s self-evaluation. He goes on to explore the role that video games have played in his life, and how he hopes to mitigate their primacy moving forward. This particular man is on the autism spectrum, incisive and brilliant, but sometimes unaware of the social concerns of others. He writes, “How many times have I referenced a tidbit of evolutionary knowledge outside of class?…I have found my ancestors, and the wisdom they offer me. I can deduce the meaning behind my behaviors, physical traits, social quirks, and maladaptations, and that has helped me greatly. I discovered a group that shares my passions; we seek to nurture them into the future.” And he’s right — he did find a social group who shared his passions. And while he often spoke out of turn, and tended to go on at length, and I developed hand gestures specifically to signal him, which the entire class came to recognize, he was respected by his peers as someone who brought insight. He brought insight in part because he was a smart autodidact, but he also brought insight because he was not like his peers, and they were open enough to learn from him.
As each of them, in turn, were not like the others in some way. Nearly everyone in a classroom has something to teach the rest of us. By learning from individuals, we can delight in our messy diversity; by categorizing and learning to define and recognize pattern, we can revel in our shared humanity. Half of us are women, and some are Latin American. Some of us are short, and a few are trans. Some are physically adept and dyslexic, some are first-borns and risk-averse. Some grew up on the streets. Some are trying to kick various habits — and at this, some are successful, and some are not. Some come from family wealth, from fundamentalist churches, from the South.
A Native American student, who had never before been outside of the Pacific Northwest, said of his time in Panama with our class, “my most memorable moments were my long days alone in the woods with my snakes.” Wrote another student, a woman in her mid-20s, “this quarter has been about recognizing flaws in my cognitive journey and giving myself grace before moving past them.” Because we were in educational community together, their intellectual journeys became part of their peers’ educations as well. Not all of their peers may have signed up to learn about snakes, or self-forgiveness, but learn about them they did, without me explicitly including such lessons in the curriculum (although, truth be told, I did tend to include snakes in the curriculum).
Most people are too comfortable with what they know. This puts them at considerable risk — of being gamed, of getting angry, of becoming incoherent — when the world does not look as they have been led to expect.
Knowledge is everywhere, streamed continuously from every technological portal, and in such a world it might seem foolish to exist in a state of not-knowing. We are taught in school that if you don’t know, you should rectify that fact, or hide it. But not knowing, and persisting in not knowing, is actually a better route to becoming a rigorous, logical thinker, than is filling your head with easily looked up facts.
The problem is: insight and growth do not happen when you are comfortable with what you know. You can add knowledge to your foundation, like bricks in the wall of a house you are building, and when you are done, your house will look pretty much like what the foundation implied. For most of us, though, that foundation that we arrived on the cusp of adulthood with is not necessarily the base of the intellectual house that we want to live in.
Those bricks in the wall — they kill off creativity. They kill off curiosity. Their existence makes it seem like starting from scratch, perhaps with no blueprints or foundation at all, is impossible. They keep us comfortable, those bricks. It’s easy to keep piling bricks up, higher and higher.
The brick-in-the-wall model creates minds that are all alike, minds that are ever less capable of generating or considering strange new ideas, minds that are outraged by confusion, and by uncertainty.
Nearly every student I taught was, in the end, game to be challenged, actually challenged — told when they were wrong, when I was wrong, and told that they needed to learn to pose real questions and then sit in the not-knowing for long enough to figure out how one might figure it out. One “easy” way to reveal this is to take students places where there is no internet, and no library — the scablands of eastern Washington, Kuna Yala in Panama, the Ecuadoran Amazon. For instance. Once there, questions can be posed — How did these rocks get here? How do the local people catch fish? What are those parrots doing? — which are answerable, but the students will need to learn to use logic, first principles, and rigor to do so. Once they can do that, they are becoming educated. And they are, increasingly, educable.
What is it to see, I would ask my students after they had spent two hours sitting still in nature, observing. How much did you actually see, I would ask them, and how much did you think you saw, your inference about meaning overlaid on the actual world almost before your senses even picked it up?
This exercise was one that I gave at the beginning of nearly every one of my undergraduate programs, whether the students were first years or seniors, people intent on becoming scientists or those who were scared of science. It entails taking students out to a natural place, and depositing each of them out of sight of anyone else, with the promise of return two hours later. Students have a notebook and a pen, but nothing else. And they are asked to observe, focusing on that which is outside of their own head, with the recognition that their brains will be yelling for attention most of the time. Then they write down questions — optimally, twenty questions — that they have about what they observe.
Later, the class reconvenes and, in small groups, they cull and categorize their questions. For questions that are mechanistic (how does it work?) or adaptive (why is it the way that it is?), students generate hypotheses that might explain the observations, and tests that could distinguish between alternative hypotheses. The all-class discussion that follows is always messy and contentious, some people wanting quick answers to questions, others feeling ownership of their hypotheses, nobody fully confident that they’ve got this one in the bag. It’s not possible for an individual to know even a small fraction of the explanations for the patterns one can observe in nature. This, in and of itself, is a revelation: We know much, and there is much that we do not know. Both things are true. The scientific method provides us a beautiful toolkit for understanding the world, but applying it is something of an art. Before they know it, students are hip deep in epistemology, trying to sort out not just what is true, but on what basis we make claims of truth.
The fact of science being a messy and creative process, even as it aspires to order, logic, and quantification, comes as a surprise to most students. They are generally not surprised to learn that statistics, when used correctly, help reduce error in the human interpretation of data. But when asked how hypotheses are derived, even after doing the 20-questions exercise, they imagine there must be a formula. But as great mathematician and philosopher of science Henri Poincaré wrote over 100 years ago, “It is by logic we prove, it is by intuition that we invent.” Hypotheses are inventions of human brains — some of which turn out be true.
How, then, do we educate students to hone their intuitions and be experienced enough in the world to reliably recognize pattern, return to first principles when trying to explain observed phenomena, and reject authority-based explanations?
It takes time together, to build relationship. Extended time — as on field trips — is a particular luxury, which not all faculty have. It takes being willing to say to students who may have been told all their lives that everything they do is commendable, “no, that’s wrong, here’s why.” It takes being willing to be wrong yourself, to look foolish, to take risks and sometimes come back to the class later and fix your own errors. Modeling for students the actual process by which ideas emerge, are refined, are tested, are rejected or accepted, allows them to move away from the linear models of knowledge acquisition that most of their schooling, and nearly every textbook, has inculcated in them.
We did read in my classes — the primary scientific literature, books of many types, essays, fiction — and some of what we read contradicted other things we read. But building a toolkit, educating minds to assess the world actively and with confidence when new ideas or data arrived, that required getting away from texts. We went outside and engaged with the physical world, and its myriad evolved inhabitants. Louis Agassiz, one of the 19th century’s preeminent naturalists, urged people to “go to nature, take the facts into your own hands, and see for yourself.” By creating opportunity to go into nature — regardless of what your discipline is, and what you are trying to teach — you allow students to begin to trust themselves, rather than taking other people’s words for what is true. And with a broadly diverse student body, the questions that students ask of the world will be richly varied as well.
Focusing on developmental and life history diversity sounds like something that colleges and universities are already doing — there are offices, initiatives, and grants to support first generation college students, low-income students, historically underrepresented students, and ever more accommodations for students with learning differences. Put aside for the moment whether or not those offices are actually effective at helping the populations they claim to be helping. Even if they are, they aren’t changing much about what happens in classrooms. Faculty, for the most part, teach the way they were themselves taught, and change is slow. Most faculty, even at liberal arts colleges where teaching is supposed to be paramount, do not apply their creative and intellectual chops to truly reaching students. There isn’t enough time, and great teaching is rarely rewarded. Administrators have a far easier time finding money, and starting new initiatives, than they do wrangling faculty into doing new kinds of work.
Education should be about teaching students to find meaning and motivation within themselves, to find their tastes and passions, such that they cannot stop themselves from pursuing more insight into what they are now passionate about.
But the youth, especially the first-year students straight from high school, they may show up scared, breathless, and cooler-than-thou. In classrooms they sit, idle, waiting for life to happen. One of the last times I taught an all-freshman class, things did not proceed as smoothly as I had become accustomed to. Nearly all of my students were not just new to college, but also fresh from American high schools. Early on I thought, wrongly, that I knew them. I assumed that they were there, in my classroom, on my field trips, in college, to figure out who they were, and who they wanted to become.
“You must be looking for your passions,” I presumed aloud, mid-quarter, to the class.
“Naw,” one of the girls replied. “We’re good.”
“What are you doing here, then, in college?” I persisted. I was, by then, a bit exasperated. They had signed up for a field- and observation- intensive program that required that they spend a lot of time in nature, let their senses tell them what to focus on, and let their brains tell them how to interpret what they were experiencing. Then they would use scientific tools and methods to figure out how they could distinguish their own biases, the lies their brains told them, from reality. You might imagine that this is where we got hung up — that they weren’t yet able to discriminate between hypotheses and predictions, to separate independent from dependent variables, but no. We hadn’t gotten that far. We were hung up on the fact that many of them weren’t bothering to go outside when it was time to do so.
“Why are you here, in this program, if the first and most fundamental activity that is required of you is something you’re unwilling to do?” They squirmed in their seats. I was at a loss. I had never before, and would never again, have a program that failed to gel like this one had. My carefully architected curriculum didn’t have a critical mass of students who were participating fully. Too few students were willing to play, so the rest weren’t able to observe how it was done, the playful, logical, conversational back-and-forth in which ideas are generated, honed, rejected. Meanwhile, the administration was alerting faculty to the reality that enrollments were falling, and that we had a “retention problem.” This was the moment that I advised my students to drop out of college.
“If you can’t tell me what you’re doing here, in college, you aren’t yet ready to be here,” I told them. That got their attention.
The first words I had given my students in this program were these: “The natural world exists with or without humanity’s interpretation of it. As observers, and users of symbols, it is easy to mistake ourselves for the creators and masters of what we are trying to explain. We will focus on observation as central to a careful, critical, and creative understanding of our world. We will learn the disappearing art of unitasking, of clear undivided focus. In this program, we will learn through direct experience of nature. Evolutionary explanations for nature’s complexity will be prominent.”
Even though the program was not coalescing as I had hoped, we had spent many days and nights together on field trips. After we searched for tailed frogs in the Columbia River Gorge, or watched birds migrating up the Washington coast, or climbed Mount Constitution on Orcas Island, we also played Frisbee together, ate together, sat around camp fires and shared stories together.
So when I told my class of a couple dozen 18 and 19 year olds that they should seriously consider dropping out of college, they listened to what I had to say next. What they didn’t do, however, was drop out of college. None of them. Every one of them enrolled the next Fall, no mean feat on a campus where attrition was high.
The speech that I gave the students was this:
“You are wasting your time here. The opportunity cost of being in college is high. If you dislike what we are doing, if you find it mundane or uninteresting for whatever reason, that would be one thing. But you tell me that this is not what is going on. If instead, you are not internally motivated enough to take advantage of the curriculum, why pay tuition — or have your parents pay tuition, or force your later self to pay off your loans for years? College should be an active choice, not your default position, and there is no shame if it is not the right one for you. Life isn’t going to show up in front of you — you have to pursue it.” They listened, silent. I continued.
“It is risky to claim passion, when your peers may mock you for caring too deeply. Many of you seem wrapped in your protective cloak, grasping for social currency but not, for the most part, grasping for meaning. What is the point of education if it is not a search for meaning — of self, of the universe, of anything and everything in between?”
When you teach a small number of students, intensively, for two or three quarters at a stretch, as I did, education becomes personal. I told students things they did not expect:
We need metaphor to understand complex systems.
You are not here as consumers, and I am not selling anything.
Reality is not democratic.
And I did not accept generic responses from them in return. I poked and prodded them, intellectually. They were forced to stretch, because repeating material back to me wasn’t going to cut it, and I wanted to know something about every single one of them, so that I, too, could learn from them.
Why on Earth are we training students to be cogs? Another professor once told me, without irony, that he saw it as his job to teach the students to be cogs, because, after all, that was their fate. With beliefs like that in circulation, one sometimes has to give up on fellow faculty. They should know better. With students it’s different. Seduction and education are etymological sisters. Students may think that they want to be seduced, led astray by false praise, as it feels good in the moment. But most whom I met wanted to be educated, led forth from narrow, faith-based belief, into intellectual self-sufficiency, where they could assess the world, and the claims in it, from first principles, with respect and compassion for all.
In a classroom at an elite institution, nearly everyone already knows how to play the game (and those who don’t may have a particularly difficult time figuring out the rules). Compare that to my classrooms. One of them included a heroin addict who couldn’t kick the habit, but wrote a lucid and deep analysis of the evolutionary history and function of human laughter. She had never before been told by a professor that actually, she was damned smart and capable. She sure didn’t know the rules, but that doesn’t mean she was incapable of playing the game. Her peers watched her succeed, intellectually, even as many of them knew what she was wrestling with in her personal life. They learned from her about nuance, and about character. In her case, I lost touch, and I do not know her fate. Many other past students I know still, however, know that they are living engaged, creative, productive lives, full of richness and the potential of being alive, of being human.
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