Holding Babies.— and other Near Life Experiences
Excerpts from AAHESGIT Posting by Steven W. Gilbert, June 18, 1996
A few days ago my younger brother sent me a photo of him holding his first child, now 3 weeks old. It was remarkably similar to a picture of me holding my first son, now 20 years old. So I've been thinking again of "near-life experiences," this "holding babies" story and trying to understand why it keeps coming back into my mind when I try to help people use information technology more effectively in education.
We need to understand both how information technology may be among the causes and among the solutions of the problem of growing fragmentation that characterizes much of our daily lives, especially in higher education. Can information technology be used in education to build better "vertical" connections across age groups and generations? better "horizontal" connections across groups of people who have different roles, wealth, race, etc.?
In our colleges and universities, our schools, our cities, our nations, we see frightening examples of the growing separation of people based on race, gender, wealth, and age. Robert Putnam's recent writings suggest that our society is moving from being characterized by joiners to being characterized by loners. Putnam conjectures that television may be in part responsible for this trend and that new telecommunications technologies may accelerate it. Edward M. Hallowell in an essay on "Connectedness" [pp. 193-209 in Finding the Heart of the Child, Association of Independent Schools in New England, Inc. 1993] describes some of the ways in which different forms of connectedness are possible, important, and at risk: familial, historical, social, institutional/organizational, informational (ideas), religious/transcendent. He defines "connectedness":
"What is connectedness? It is a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself. It is a sense of belonging, or a sense of accompaniment. It is that feeling in your bones that you are not alone. It is a sense that, no matter how scary things may become, there is a hand for you in the dark. While ambition drives us to achieve, connectedness is my word for the force that urges us to ally, to affiliate, to enter into mutual relationships, to take strength and to grow through cooperative behavior." [p. 196]
In higher education, we see many examples of growing separation and many opportunities to offer different forms of "connectedness" to all who participate -- students, faculty, administration and support staff, alumni, publishers, vendors, and other partners. Information technology appears to provide the possibility of increasing the fragmentation or the connectedness.
1. Vertical Connections -- Holding Babies
On December 17, 1995 I had the great pleasure of participating in a volunteer effort to wrap "shoe boxes" of basic supplies for distribution at homeless shelters during the year-end holiday season. My ten-year old daughter, and even younger children were working alongside octogenarians. And some of us had to help hold the babies. I was reminded of a conversation I'd had several months ago.
On the first day of a school/college conference I happened to sit next to a women who was director of the upper school (grades 9-12) of a well-known private independent school in New England. After our mutual introductions, I recalled that I had done some consulting at that school many years ago, and asked about any recent major changes. She answered that they had just added a pre-school. When I asked how "pre" that pre-school was, she explained that they were offering some daycare, and that the youngest "student" was 6 weeks old! As we talked further, I asked if adding the pre-school was having any unexpected effects.
She said, "I've discovered that whenever I notice an upper school student who seems a bit mopey and sad, I can ask that student to go 'help' in the pre-school with the youngest children. After a few minutes of holding a baby, the older students feel better. When they return to their regular activities and responsibilities, they're less upset and better able to cope with the usual pressures of adolescence."
As I notice more books and stories about "near death experiences," I've been wondering if we might have more to gain from paying attention to "near life experiences" -- to being around babies. Holding a baby offers a link to our deepest feelings of trust, hope, and human potential. Babies trust completely. Every baby offers the promise of making the world a better place. Except in the most depraved circumstances, when you hold a baby and focus on this new human being you have to regain at least a fleeting sense of hope for what life might be about.
It is hard to imagine someone going from holding a baby to doing violence to another human being. It is hard to imagine going from holding a baby to making a decision to diminish the lives of other people. It is easy to imagine that, over the years, those who hold the babies -- and the babies who get held --feel strong bonds to the institution that held them both.
The need for human beings of all ages to learn is obvious from observing the activities of young children, listening to increasingly anxious reports about the need for educated workers (especially "knowledge workers"), and seeing the rise in retirees' enrollment in courses of various kinds. I believe there is an equally compelling and legitimate need for people to teach -- to pass along to individuals and to future generations some of the things we have managed to understand about the world around us and how to live in it. Teaching and learning are both "near life experiences."
Our individual lives will be enriched and our society healthier if more of our institutions offer more "near life experiences"; even if those experiences don't connect all the way down to infancy. In education, we have better opportunities than most institutions to connect people across the usual "vertical" barriers of age and generation: older to younger, experienced to beginner, wise to naive, and teacher to learner. Activities in which people of different ages and status work together toward common goals seem especially valuable in building feelings of commitment and community. And it appears that new applications of information technology and telecommunications can be used to enable better communication and collaborative work across these vertical boundaries -- if we attach a high priority to those functions. The tools for facilitating group communication and collaboration, especially via the Internet, are improving rapidly.
2. Horizontal Connections
It has become quite clear that efforts to improve teaching and learning through more effective use of information technology while controlling costs fail when institutional planning does not include effective representation and participation of all the key stakeholders. All those who can help understand changing patterns and current trends in student and faculty behavior are needed. All those whose skills, knowledge, and resources will be essential to support new combinations of teaching approach, applications of information technology, instructional materials, etc. are also needed. Traditional "horizontal" boundaries, turf battles, and rivalries for scarce budget allocations must be subordinated to the need for "de-fragmented" planning and support efforts across functional categories: faculty; students; librarians; computing, telecommunications, and other media professionals; faculty development professionals; bookstore managers; alumni; and, perhaps even some of those outside the institution -- publishers of books, software, and other media. This is what our Teaching, Learning, and Technology Roundtables are supposed to be about.
The most profoundly growth-supporting educational communities with the greatest likelihood of long-term retention of their members will provide both horizontal and vertical integration -- across functional categories and age/generational categories. The goal is to achieve collaboration while striving for "connectedness". I hope we have the will to make information technology help achieve this goal.