Imagining & Discovering

I took a friend and her daughter, a prospective student, on a tour of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) yesterday. I have a long history with RISD — as a student, alumni, teacher and, for several years, administrator — and since graduating in 1988 I’ve held some ambivalence about the place. My quarrels went public a decade ago, so none of that’s a secret. And in the classroom, with RISD students’ excellent skills of analysis and critique, my concerns often get amplified by their current experience. But my concerns are also a story I’ve told often enough that they’ve become part of a script. Walking around campus, answering questions, popping into parts of the school that are off my (currently very narrow) path, I saw the place through fresh eyes. When asked whether I’d make the same choice to attend today that I made in 1984, I tried to equivocate. But the more I spoke, the more I had to admit how tightly my identity is woven into my relationship with this institution. It was disorienting to recognize the depth of my loyalty and respect for the place — and perhaps even more to confront my debt.

Over lunch, my friend and I both commiserated over our desire to be able to immerse ourselves in college at this stage of life. We joked about getting another degree. But the pursuit of advanced study wasn’t at the heart of my yearning. RISD has a Foundation Studies program that’s based in principles of art and design. It’s the place I learned to solve problems in a dynamic, non-linear way. Those skills have been the most valuable in my career, because they’ve allowed me to see beyond the linearity inherent in other forms of education. The problem-solving methods embedded in the scientific method and the five-paragraph essay surely have space for creativity, but they inherently follow a line. As my mentor, the education reformer Ted Sizer, once reflected to me, I solve problems by visualizing information on a field, and after careful (sometimes brooding) analysis things start to connect for me, ultimately snapping into place. 

I don’t need another degree. And I certainly don’t need to submit myself to the orthodoxies and ideologies of another graduate program. I know how to teach and I know how to learn. Whether I know how to make space for my own learning, whether I can protect my time enough to go deeply into new terrain… well, those are fair questions.

In yesterday’s post I wrote about feeling my age. But I think I was really writing about the drudgery of maintaining and managing the status quo. So much of middle age is focused on getting the job done and treading water. What I’m yearning for is a period of imagining and discovering. A myth in American culture is that education ends with graduation, sometimes after a sequence of graduations. But there’s so much more to learn. 

So there’s my challenge: chart and shape a period of deep learning. Maybe find some new learning buddies… And definitely put up firewalls. 

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