Occupy the Middle

Today during the meeting of my extracurricular service group – MushieMushie – a group of 11-to-16-year-olds discussed how to merchandise products using our mascot and hero, MushieMan, designed by a NIST alumnus some 5 years ago.

mushieman.jpg

While he’s cute, the point of the blog post is not to show off MushieMan. It’s prompted by this comment one of the students made:

Wait, so you want us to be like one of the evil corporations?

He made this comment because we discussed marketing techniques like creating collectibles, offering discounts for repeat customers, and branding. We were getting excited by the prospect of generating profits to benefit Freeland Foundation. But there was an almost palpable feeling of guilt in the room. Can we, a bunch of good-doers, do what the ‘bad guys’ do to us all the time?

Truly, his comment is very reflective of the binary way in which we often view our world:

  • Charities = good! Businesses = bad!

  • Democracy = good! Dictatorship = bad!

  • Environmental Activists = good! Poachers = bad!

And so on.

Education is partly responsible for this. In this student’s case, I have no doubt a lot of what he’s studied throughout school has led him to be inspired by a lot of the items I mentioned first in the list above, while criticizing the second items.

But the potential unintended effect is that students start to develop a dichotomous view of the world; a view that’s comprised largely of:

This or That

Them or Us

And that is the fundamental cause of so many problems that we have in our world. We create our identities, form judgements, and make choices based on notions of false boundaries. We see the world in black and white and take a stand on one side or the other when we really need to see both.

To be more aware, better educated citizens who are equipped to truly understand our world, we need to shift from this type of linear, mutually opposing type of thinking, to a more systems and cyclical, mutually supporting type of thinking.

This or AND That

Them or AND Us

To do this, we have to close the loop. Embrace complexity. Teach our students and ourselves examples of those who build bridges, innovate, and use the best of all fields and approaches. Social enterprises are good examples of this type of embrace across traditional lines:

folie2

 

Interdisciplinary units and learning in education are another way to show students the true connected nature of understanding and problem solving.

northeasternuniv

 

Margaret Wertheim’s (now pretty old) TED talk from 2009 about the beautiful integration of crocheting, hyperbolic geometry, and coral reefs remains one of my very favorite examples of how much beauty, grace and understanding can come from bridging loops and gaps:

 

Let’s stop thinking of math v. arts; us v. them; economic success v. social justice.

Let’s occupy the middle. And teach our students to do the same.

 

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