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Day 05/11/2012

Rethinking…* Learning ~ Transmission as Discovery of the Inexpressible

Our freight.

The bringing together of what has been parted

makes a language quiver.

Across millennia and the village street

through tundra and forests

by farewells and bridges

towards the city of our child

everything must be carried.



Last week, I had an interesting discussion with my father about what type of knowledge should be taught in schools and what the quickly changing practices of learning and teaching might come to look like in the near future. This conversation highlighted an interesting dichotomy between knowing and learning in today’s world. The ‘Googleability’ of questions is forcing teachers and educators to question and rethink not only their own roles but the very definition of education itself in this age saturated by technology and information accessible virtually anywhere and at any time. What is a Googleable question and, more importantly, what is its opposite? How can we start to think about the nature of non-Googleable questions?

Obviously these are loaded questions which affect a wide spectrum of stakeholders and require deep collective rethinking. Our conversation ended with these questions left open-ended and unresolved. But the binary struck me and has been gnawing at me for the past week. What does a learning practice outside the realm of ‘knowing’ look like? How might it be expressed? While I certainly haven’t come close to an answer, I had an insight today, which helped me frame this tension in a new way.


Today is art critic, social historian, poet, novelist, and one of my biggest heroes–John Berger—‘s birthday. Berger is a prolific thinker and writer concerned above all with the nature and experience of the human condition. And like most of my other ‘virtual’ mentors–some of which I have already mentioned here on Dan EldonMartin AmisChristopher HitchensAlberto GiacomettiW.H. Auden–I was introduced to John Berger’s life and work by my father.

In fact, most of my worldviews and understanding of my self and reality have been shaped by these myriad conversations with my father throughout the years. I would tell him about the new ideas I encountered at school that excited me and he would mention books, people, studies and films that provided different perspectives on that idea and enabled me to push and refine my thinking about it. He helped me explore my interests and taught me to learn. These conversations were much more than a way to pass the time or communicate information. They form a core part of our bond. I know, and have known for a long time now, that these conversations are an act and expression of love. By being interested, listening and encouraging me to push my thinking about these ideas and the connections that arise between them, my father was shaping my worldview, learning, knowledge and our relationship.

This idea of transmission as both an act of learning and love is key to the paradox of learning versus knowing in today’s world. I do not mean to oversimplify or fall prey to easy binaries, but I do think there is value in distinguishing the concept of transmission from that of communication. Transmission is not separate from communication, but constitutes a specific aspect of the communication process. Communication refers to the entire process of encoding data into discrete, dispersible vessels that can be transferred to and decoded by another person. It refers to the entire process of encoding, decoding, dispersing, receiving, and interpreting, as well as the result of the process: A sends B a message, meaning X; B receives the message and interprets it, either successfully as X, or not. Transmission, on the other hand, refers more specifically to design; to intent.

Transmission is the most complexly human part of the communication process. It is the reflection and decisions that go into not only which data and information to encode, but also, and perhaps more importantly, how to encode this information so as to optimize and enhance the decoding experience for the receiver of our message. It is the art of imparting essential and often inexpressible ‘truths’ of life. For example, we teach character primarily through transmission. Schools have ethics programs and moral codes for their students. They have strategies such as rewards and punishments to communicate and teach ideals and behaviors such as empathy, self-control, or grit. But these are often experienced as exterior constraints by the students subjected to such programs. Transmission is about communicating these same ideals and social codes in ‘hypodermic’ ways. Transmission is the act of expressing indescribable truths by creating the experience of discovery for someone else and leading them through it.

I think that as we enter into the full swing of what Daniel Pink has called the Conceptual Age, an era of (nearly universal) ubiquitous access to technology, automation and abundance, the acts of teaching and learning will have to become more human and more empathetic. While teachers and parents do not have the same responsibilities or emotional investments towards their students, I think teaching and learning will have to become increasingly about transmission–design, ethics and the human factor of our experiences. For although we hoard our knowledge in museums and libraries, accumulate it and worry about passing it on to our children, it too perishes in the face of time. Ideas are killed off, proven wrong, taken in new directions. But what does endure is our need to seek knowledge, our ache to understand the world and our place within it. When I was growing up Pluto was a planet, now it’s not. But my father taught me that when someone point at the sky, only the idiot looks at the finger. Learning will have to become increasingly about nurturing the impulse to look beyond and about transmitting the sense of vast and endless possibilities that the act of looking creates.


Perhaps this idea is best articulated by John Berger’s poem Separation, found in his book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, a virtuosic merging and exploration of the many themes–art, time, space, reality, perception, love subjectivity, ethics—that run across Berger’s vast opus.


We with our vagrant language
we with our incorrigible accents
and another word for milk
we who come by train
and embrace on platforms
we and our wagons
we whose voice in our absence
is framed on a bedroom wall
we who share everything
and nothing–
this nothing which we break in two
and wash down with a gulp
from the only bottle,
we whom the cuckoo
taught to count,
into what currency
have they changed our singing?
What in our single beds
do we know of poetry?

We are experts in presents
both wrapped ones
and the others left surreptitiously.
Before leaving we hide our eyes our feet our backs.
What we take is for the luggage rack.
We leave our eyes behind
in the window frames and mirrors
our feet behind
on the carpet by the bed
our backs
in the mortar of the walls
and the doors hung on their hinges.
The door closed behind us
and the noise of the wagon wheels.

We are experts too in taking.
We take with us anniversaries
the shape of a fingernail
the silence of the child asleep
the taste of your celery
and the word for milk.
What in our single beds
do we know of poetry?

Single track, junction and
marshalling yards
read out loud to us.
No poem has longer lines
than those we have taken.
Like horsedealers we know how
to look a distance in the mouth
and judge its pain by its teeth.

With mules, on foot
by airliners and lorries
in our hearts
we carry everything,
harvests, coffins, water,
oil, hydrogen, roads,
flowering lilac and
the earth thrown into the mass grave.

We with our bad foreign news
and another word for milk
what in our single beds
do we know of poetry?

We know as well as the midwives
how women carry children
and give birth,
we know as well as the scholars
what makes a language quiver.

Our freight.
The bringing together of what has been parted
makes a language quiver.
Across millennia and the village street
through tundra and forests
by farewells and bridges
towards the city of our child
everything must be carried.

We contain poetry
as the cattle trucks of the world
carry cattle.
Soon in the sidings
they will sluice them down.

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