Fall foliage fills the day with color. Rich reds and yellows appear all around me as I drive around town collecting tools and parts, a would-be repairman. Maria Montessori’s been on my mind lately. I’ve been reading a handbook she wrote for American parents and teachers, originally published in 1914. Her approach to teaching, the famous Montessori Method, involved introduction of didactic material into children’s playhouses. Good to a point, I suppose — but I’d rather be playing multi-dimensional chess. Fredric Jameson likens our present reality to the latter in his new book Allegory and Ideology. The game is one where “a number of distinct chessboards coexist simultaneously with distinct configurations of forces on each, so that a move on any one of these boards has distinct but unforeseeable consequences for the configurations and the relative power-relations on the others” (191). Similar games appear in Sun Ra’s Space is the Place and Brian C. Short’s novel New People of the Flat Earth. “We live in just such a world,” Jameson writes, “just such a totality” (191).
What happens when, as an experiment, we treat moments of our lives as “encounters”? What were people doing when they joined T-groups, encounter groups, and consciousness-raising groups in the 60s and 70s at places like Esalen? How were these groups organized? Did facilitators exercise claims to authority in these groups? Were they like teachers? Workshop leaders? Pastors? Counselors? Therapists? Gurus? A bit of all of the above, I suppose. Groups fulfill needs of an emotional, psychological, and spiritual sort among people who have come free of traditional affiliations: disaffected subjects seeking re-enchantment, players in search of new games. Such people arrive at these groups and games as they wander markets, festivals, circuits, and arcades. The encounter groups of the 60s and 70s were sites where “role-playing” got its start. Games like Dungeons & Dragons emerged in roughly the same moment and milieu. What’s interesting about encounter groups is that participants trust their feelings to “a bunch of strangers,” rather than to uniformed technocrats, “experts,” priests, and elites. The encounter group is also interesting in that it births group consciousness through use of cybernetic feedback mechanisms. Group members are observed by facilitators. The facilitator reports these observations back to the group. The latter then react to the reports and the cycle begins anew, in much the same way “rounds” occur in D&D. Thomas R. Verney describes two favorite techniques of role-play used by Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls during the latter’s time at Esalen in the 60s and 70s: the “two chair” technique and another called “play the projection.” Could techniques of that sort have a place, I wonder, in one of my courses? Verny’s book Inside Groups: A Practical Guide to Encounter Groups & Group Therapy answers many of my questions. The least authoritarian of the leaders he describes are those he calls “T-group trainers.” The T-group trainer, he writes, “is usually described as a facilitator and a catalyst” (28). Leadership of this sort involves paraphrasing what is said by the group, acting as a mirroring instrument so that members can know themselves and the group can self-actualize. Encounter group leaders are a bit more unpredictable, their methods and techniques less subject to professionalization and external supervision. As for the techniques themselves, Verny writes, these are primarily “verbal and nonverbal confrontation, psychodrama, Gestalt, and sensory awareness,” as well as “fantasy, meditation, and transactional analysis” (34-35).
Students and I grow together as heads by reading and discussing literature about consciousness. Minds throughout the ages trying to know themselves. This is literature about education and enlightenment, minds as they undergo alteration and metamorphosis. Patterns disclose themselves, meaningful coincidences compound over time — formal and thematic resonances that defy existing paradigms. By attempting to interpret these, we arrive at new conceptions, new understandings beyond existing enclosures of possibility.
How might the insights of West Coast humanistic psychologists of the 60s and 70s inform our work today as educators? How do we grow together? How do we help each other self-actualize? By that term, the humanists of the 60s and 70s meant a variety of things: realizing hopes and aspirations, exercising full potential, living joyfully, gratefully, lovingly, practicing therapy, repairing the traumas we carry with us as personal and collective bodies, finding happiness, living well. Those who report having achieved peak-experiences, those who seem to have begun to self-actualize, don’t shrivel up into themselves, claimed theorists like Maslow. Rather, they become better adjusted, less begrudging comrades. They join together with companions, forming co-evolving communities committed to giving and receiving care. Look at the support networks that form among mothers. Friends and acquaintances near and far have come to our aid of late, passing along boxloads of hand-me-downs: maternity wear, baby gear, short-sleeve onesies, long-sleeve onesies, pajamas, burp cloths, the works. We feel like characters from the Equals song, “Michael and the Slipper Tree,” or Olu Dara’s “Okra.”
Let us hold this experience near to us as we return to our classrooms. Carl Rogers suggested one model for applying the principles of humanistic psychology to education in his 1969 essay “Freedom to Learn.” And some of these principles informed experiments with encounter groups and sensitivity training sessions at places like Kresge College at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I sit on the top step of my front stoop after dark, diffusing momentarily into imaginative union with the sounds of the night, a lush chorus of locusts and crickets. Afterwards I feel recharged, replenished, senses open, receptive. I thumb through Ali Smith’s introduction to Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet astounded. Hardt and Negri’s Assembly takes shape soon thereafter, pages propped open, their words released into consciousness with another sturdy thumbs up.
The second part of the 1990 documentary Berkeley in the Sixties is titled “Confronting America.” After the victory of the Free Speech movement on the Berkeley campus, the world transforms from black-and-white to color. Students decide to commit themselves to naming and controlling the system, else it destroy the world. They start to change: new ideas, new music, new hair, new groups, new consciousness. The counterculture enters the equation. More and more people start to turn on. They start to gather and collaborate in liberated territories. They march, they don helmets, they defend themselves from attacks by police. This gives way to “Part Three: Confronting History,” where armed revolutionary organizations like the Black Panthers step onstage and revolutionary confrontations occur in France, Japan, Mexico, and Czechoslovakia. “So much life, so much death,” as Michael Rossman notes in retrospect, “so much possibility, so much impossibility.” Now that all of these kids are at the table, what happens next? How do we let ourselves go and speak freely? How do we deactivate internal censors? Sons of Champlin sing in reply, “Get High.” Lovely midsection built around bells and vibes. Out of it we emerge giggling, “Where are we?” This new dawn looks fantastic. My students are bright and interesting. We spent the day together deconstructing and rebuilding our classroom in the spirit of power-sharing egalitarianism. The air feels rich with possibility. A voice speaks up and teaches, “Open doors, look around you: we’ve all been blessed with wings!”
Life unfolds in installments of day and night. For work I review the documentary Berkeley in the Sixties, a film I’ve watched and taught many times over the years. The first section of the film is titled “Confronting the University.” Berkeley President Clark Kerr appears before an audience attempting to rebrand the public university as an appendage of the “knowledge industry” and a focal point of fiscal growth for the state economy. Against him rise students like Jack Weinberg and Jackie Goldberg, young people who arrived to the university looking for truth and meaning. The university came to operate for them and for the other members of the Free Speech movement as a site for live, immediate, direct, hands-on transformation of society. As viewers we watch with some surprise as the movement succeeds in growing and repeatedly mobilizing a large coalition of members. The “children of affluence,” the future managers of the society realize in the thousands that their education has been designed to ruin them. The battle over free speech evolves into something more generalizable, something much more meaningful and appealing: a battle against dehumanization. The war of humanity against unchecked bureaucracy. Students at Berkeley made the radical choice to live, to revolt, to actively push back and participate in co-creation of the future through occupation of buildings. They gather in the agora of the auditorium and laugh and boo at and surround and confront the bald head of the head of the university, President Kerr. They talk about sitting down together and re-planning the whole structure of the university with a new conception of the purpose of education. They realize that the mechanisms that the Free Speech movement attempted to change are mechanisms operating throughout the society. As audience members, we realize the same is true today. Their story thus confronts us with the question, “What would WE say, how would WE behave, if we abolished hierarchy and suspended authority? What if we did that, here and now, in our classrooms?”
I should breathe and meditate and practice a yoga of writing, I tell myself. Work on centering. Like M.C. Richards, I should try in the first meetings of my classes this semester to develop with students “a sense of fellowship and mutual service” (Centering, p. 108). How do I encourage these strangers to speak directly to one another? Help them recognize the interrelation of each other’s temperaments. Richards captures this sense of interrelation through an “ecosystem” metaphor. “A class with different levels of aptitude and many kinds of response may bloom like a garden, full of color and texture. Every one has something to give the others. Every one may learn to receive from others. An atmosphere of helpfulness and realism may flourish” (108). Above all, I need to approach education as a craft. Be warm and trusting. Behave with loving kindness. Practice metamorphosis. Learn to serve the world. Richards’s book is the best statement on pedagogy I’ve ever read. “Let us teach in our classes,” she recommends, “the connection between who we think man is on the inside and what the atmosphere is like on the outside” (113). What do all of these slogans equate to, however, in terms of technique? Let us be supple enough to yield to the invasion of a new reality, and let us grow. Let there be dialogue. Let students share in the labors of community. As Richards notes, this is the demonstration of the value of the mode of pedagogy explored and practiced during her time teaching at Black Mountain College: “After attending such a school, no young adult is surprised to learn that food has to be provided, dishes done, sheets laundered, cows milked, milk skimmed and cooled, floors mopped, roads maintained, roofs repaired, children loved, guests housed, crises met, books mended, windows caulked, solitude respected, differences enjoyed, cooperation required, spontaneity used, judgments made and revised, help given by all to all, patience won” (121). I have to build into my course opportunities for students to engage in acts of making. “In making,” Richards writes, “we develop a feel for materials, for the play between purpose and accident and inspiration, for gestalt, for instrument, for becoming, for death as physical process essential to creation; and we are filled with wonder” (122).