Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Humanist Civic Movement - Debunking is not enough

I have just come back from two weeks of discussing the nature of civic society and citizenship at Tufts university. It was a remarkable experience, full of new, challenging ideas and extremely smart people.

Perhaps the most striking element of the two weeks was my growing feeling that Humanists must come together to create a new civic movement to change society for the better. Why "civic" movement, and why do it at all?

There are already organisations which lobby for political change on behalf of the non-religious, and some, like the Council for Secular Humanism, which have a broader purview. What I have not seen, however, is a national movement attempting to bring Humanism into the everyday lives of people, filling those gaps which the erosion of religious observance has left.

What Humanists need to recognize is that religious institutions offer all sorts of valuable social goods to the people who frequent them. They have access to physical spaces, common rituals, artistic traditions etc. which serve to build social ties between people in a community, bringing people of different generations together, encouraging people of different social class, race, and ethnicity to share in common experiences. This is extremely valuable, in my view, for individual human beings and for the communities in which they live. We all derive significance and meaning from our interactions with others, and religious organisations provide opportunities for us to connect.

With the decline of religious observance, no secular alternative to these organizations has arisen, and this may be part of the "crisis of civic life" that some (like Harvard Professor Robert Putnam) think is occurring in many parts of the western world. People are segregating themselves on the basis of money, class more forcefully than before, and there are few safe spaces in which they can come together and appreciate each other, discussing important questions about what it means to live together with others.

I've seen (as a teacher) the effect of communities that do not have a shared identity or a common space in which to discuss existential questions. There is an almost palpable lack of "connectedness", of moral sensibility, of feelings of responsibility for others. I've also seen the powerful effect of bringing people together in a non-religious context to share an experience, most notably as a prison educator. Indeed, I've seen the value of the religious institutions "from the inside" (as a choirboy for many years). But I believe that not only do such institutions not have to be religious, but they may be even more effective if they are not, since you then eradicate the final barrier - that between people of different faiths.

In short, humanism / secularism / atheism is often presented as a negative position. We're "against" god, "against" irrationalism etc. And we often spend much of our time debunking things - religious arguments, homeopathy, pseudoscience, cults etc. Instead, we absolutely must spend more time building positive institutions to achieve social change. If we really believe that a society in which reason, rational method, clear thinking, and respect for all human beings would be a better society, we have to go out and
build it. Debunking is not enough.

Monday, July 6, 2009

27 Seconds Too Short for Art

"Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice" at Boston's MFA is remarkable, particularly for the way it has chosen to present the magnificent works it houses. Instead of lining them up in chronological order, or separating them by artist, they are organized thematically, so the visitor can see how each artist's treatment of a similar subject differs (or not).

This is an interesting curatorial decision, as it affords many opportunities for learning if one is willing to take the time over each painting - but you have to spend the time!. A number of empirical studies have shown that, in general, visitors to museums spend strikingly little time looking at individual paintings. Here's an extract from the abstract of a 2001 study:

The mean time spent viewing a work of art was found to be 27.2 seconds, with a median time of 17.0 seconds. Viewing time was not related to gender or age, but was strongly related to group size, with larger groups spending more time. There were also significant differences among paintings. (Smith and Smith, 2001)

In order to counter such tendencies, researchers (Steve Seidel and others) at Harvard's Project Zero strategies for investigating art that aim to help people learn more from the experience. Following these principles, I spent considerable time in each room observing each painting very closely. I asked myself "What do I see in this painting?" (making no interpretive or quality judgments), "What questions do I have about this painting?" (for example, "why does the upper left hand corner of the painting seem unfinished?"), and "What hypotheses do I have about the answers to my questions?" Of course, I refrained from reading the commentaries that accompanied each painting.

This was an enlightening experience. By the end of my visit, I could I found myself able to predict, occassionally, which artist was responsible for a given painting. I had identified for myself stylistic differences and similarities. I had correctly identified that some works were unfinished, and where the unfinished sections occurred in the canvas. All this from looking and thinking.

Perhaps, when you are next at an art exhibition, take longer than those 27 seconds! It can be extremely rewarding...

Friday, June 19, 2009

Teaching on the Dance Floor

On Tuesday I found myself on the dance floor in a Salsa club, celebrating my girlfriend's birthday. I'm not much of a Salsa dancer (my style is more "crazy post-modern interpretive"), so I had some time to observe others on the dance floor. What I saw was extremely interesting, from an arts-learning standpoint.

After every song, most dancers would change partners, frequently dancing with people they have not danced with before, . In a certain sense, every new partnership requires some element of learning: no two dancers will have exactly the same way of leading, no two dancers will know the same moves or execute them in the same way, and it is likely that many partnerships will have unequal distribution of ability and experience. It can be assumed that there will be a few moments of "calibration" as new pairs get the measure of each other, and that some dancers deal with this uncertainty better than others. It would be interesting to investigate the characteristics of those dancers capable of fitting seamlessly into new partnerships - they might be considered effective "learners" in this new, uncertain situation. Regardless, we can be sure that some sort of learning must occur if the partners, unknown to each other before this dance, come to dance effectively with each other - often all during a single short song!

We can also zoom out of the situation, considering the whole room rather than the single dancer. During each dance both partners will undergo a particular dancing experience. As Dewey notes, each experience we undergo colours our future experiences - crudely, we learn something from everything we experience. Perhaps a dancer learns a new move, or a new sequence. Perhaps they are led in a slightly different way than they have been led before. Whatever their new experience, each dancer carries it with them to their next partnership.

Imagine looking down at the dance floor from above - focus on the lady in the red dress. Watch as she moves from partner to partner, learning a little something each time, each new partnership coloured by the one before. Now zoom out again and observe all the shifting partnerships as they evolve throughout the night. We might conceive this as a social web of informal micro-learning, in which different individuals collaborate to create an experience that is fulfilling for all.

Finally, I noticed some less experience dancers being offered assistance from veterans - one gentleman in particular was helping other couples develop their Salsa skills. This is an interesting phenomenon - a peripatetic pedagogue, presumably with no formal training, offering his services for free simply because he knew things other people wanted to know.

I wonder if any studies have been done on the learning-dynamics of the dance floor? This is REALLY informal learning!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A broader stage...

I've slightly altered the description of this blog in order to highlight a change in perspective: instead of "just" investigating theatre, I intend now to discuss broader issues of human culture and human development. This change reflects the broader nature of my current research. I'll begin soon with some thoughts about informal education.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Around What Can Humanists Congregate?

If we humanists cannot congregate around religion, around what can we congregate? This is a question I frequently return to when thinking what it might mean to create a humanist community. For it is clear that, despite the religious paraphernalia, religious institutions offer a means by which people can satisfy fundamental human desires: the desire for community, to address significant issues (birth, death, marriage), to think deep thoughts and generally to attempt to make meaning out of the world in which we live. The ritual of church-going, with its sermons, music, communal speaking and opportunity to sit together with friends and enemies has much value, and there is a danger that a secular worldview might fail to realise the importance of such spaces.

One possible answer to this conundrum struck home forcefully this evening, as I watched Joss Whedon receive the 2009 Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism – we can congregate around art. Art, especially the narrative arts, can provide an arena for the exploration and appreciation of life’s complexities without needing to claim the mantle of “truth”. We can all agree that Whedon’s narratives, in “Buffy” or “Firefly” for instance, are not real. We have no need to believe them. And yet we can learn from them, use them as stimuli for discussion, to get to the heart of the issues we wish to face.

Of course, many people do this already on coaches across the world. Book clubs come together to discuss novels, and film clubs convene over movies. But what would it mean to take these congregations to the next level? Could we have “secular sermons” based around some work of art or performance that is experienced communally, and then open discussion around the themes involved? I think the opportunity for discussion would be essential – the point is not to “receive wisdom” from the artist but to use the work as a starting point for deeper engagement with meaningful questions.

This is precisely what I witnessed this evening as people asked meaningful, penetrating questions in response to Whedon’s TV work. It may seem odd that Buffy the Vampire Slayer should be the catalyst for ruminations on human mortality, but why should it not be? It was effective enough tonight.