Dialog/The place

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The place

As we enter the place to study, let's pause in its entryway, to note the layout and the modes through which study takes place. An actual place is where ideas, potentialities, possibilities take place, where they come into the present, here and now, as lived experience. Often the immediacy of the place can mask the reach of the ideas embedded in it, especially with small beginnings. So here pause to note the ideas embedded in the place, before rushing up to engage their beginnings there. Let's open the door and imagine the place as an actual space, for that lends tangibility to its conception.

V 1 — Hey, R, get this wide corridor, SPURS TO STUDY on the left side and FOCI FOR STUDY to the right, with big doorways running down the corridor. I've peeked into CONCERNS here. It's large and rather bare. Are all the rooms the same? What takes place in them? Five on each side have labels, but there's more further on without any.

R 2 — Associates and visitors have all these spaces to study in. As we pursue our self-formation and liberal learning in them, the rooms will fill out with resources we find useful and commentaries on their meanings and value, but right now they have little in them because the initial construction is just finishing up and we haven't opened them yet. We've scattered a few samples in each room. In due course, associates really work out what they find worthy of their study and they might even decide to get rid of what's now there, although I'd be surprised if they did.

V 3 — So we have room for the five spurs and the five foci, but there are more doorways further down. What are those for?.

R 4 — Remember, we are working here to disclose a commons to be shared by all, created by volunteered effort. The unmarked doors open to spaces that participants will define as their studies progress. Right now, it's empty workspace, needing to be defined.

V 5 — Hmm. Things look pretty solid here. The inscriptions over the doorways seem chiseled in stone. But I get the sense you expect ongoing changes as colleagues work and find they need to accommodate new possibilities and adapt established ones.

R 6 — Of course. Most of the place hasn't been built yet. It's just space. We have carved the inscriptions for the Spurs and Foci to last, however, not expecting their permanence, but recognizing that self-formation and liberal learning are highly continuous and develop in historical time, perhaps in units of full human lifetimes.

V 7 — Don't you think the Internet and all that comes with it have sped things up drastically? I'm not yet 25 and feel my expectations have repeatedly been upended before they've fully formed.

R 8 — That keeps happening, all too rapidly. We do estimate change and stability by how frequently we find unexpected developments force us to adapt our expectations, but I've come to suspect that that has more to do with historical churn, not historical change. Maybe the ease with which our expectations get upended does not tell us about the pace of change, but something else.

V 9 — What would that be?

R 10 — Maybe the pace of historical change is a near constant. Maybe the variable is the stuff from which we form our expectations and the process through which we form them. As a result, the expectations might be poorly grounded and easily broken under strain.

V 11 — So you are suggesting that people may form more stable, resilient life expectations by attending in a sustained way to their self-formation and liberal learning and thereby judge their historical situation differently. That's a big hope!

R 12 — We've discussed how in the past only a few people have had real opportunities to study self-formation and liberal learning. Here we are building a digital space and in principle everyone can join in and participate. But we won't know who will do so until they volunteer themselves.

V 13 — Isn't that a little passive? Especially if we are talking about affecting how we judge our historical situation. You're sharing the digital world with powerful organizations that want to corral people's allegiance and attention, and have means with which to do it. They are driving how we form our life expectations. with immense power.

R 14 — Time will tell. How much of their power is substantial and how much a function of the lack of alternatives. People who calibrate their attention to the time of journalism, marketing, and politics may be oblivious to what is taking place on more extended time scales. In constructing a commons, in this case a place for all to study self-formation and liberal learning, we need to set in motion adaptive procedures that will permit unlimited inclusive growth while preserving the form and function of the place.

V 15 — Yeah. That's what you hope the Symposia over on the reflective side will facilitate, no? I'm curious how that will develop. But we're here where participants in the commons will engage in study. Tell me quickly how you have initially fitted out the rooms. Give me a quick run down on what you hope members will do here in the near future. Then I'll go check out the different rooms.

R 16 — OK. Let's concentrate on Masterwork as an instance of all of them. I'll indicate what's initially there, and why, and explain how we imagine associates might work with it and start building that room up. Then you can check out the other rooms and see what's in them to begin with and figure out how participants might work with it.

V 17 — Sounds good. I see the work of a few figures there. Those are the starter materials, I take it. It is pretty sparse. Among big thinkers, Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. Literary greats, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare. An artist, Leonardo. No surprises there. But it sees Wollstonecraft is the only woman!

R 18 — It's a bit embarrassing and we trust there will be many more. We don't want to get defensive about this initial set. It is here for illustration, without rational justification. Remember, this is a place to work in, to study, not simply a place to come and get something.

V 19 — In calling the room Masterwork, what are you implying about what users might expect to find in it? I don't think you mean to suggest that users will find here models that they should copy literally in living own lives.

R 20 — That's true. We think it is a good strategy in self-culture and liberal learning to get to know very well the work of one or more figures whom you've decided are really worthwhile, to know their work, not as a specialist in their thought, but as an appreciator, an amateur, in a strong sense, not a dabble, but someone who forms a strong, sustained involvement with the work. In that way, they become stable figures, personal resources, in our interior discourse. First off, users will find in the room the work of a selection of such figures.

V 21 — I'll ask — "Is that all?" — knowing that that is already quite a bit! But I suspect you are not just going to say, "Here. Go study!"

R 22 — One could do worse. But you are right. Suffice it for now to say that we want participants to add illuminating criticism and interpretation of the value and uses of each figure's work. And I must again add, criticism and interpretation, not as an impersonal specialist, but as an appreciator of it not afraid to bring out how the work affects his inward capacities for humane experience, good and bad.

V 23 — So we are not simply talking about what I see stashed in here. It is a place for the collaborative study of how bodies of work people might call Masterwork can serve as resources in a person's efforts at self-formation and liberal learning. I imagine that this basic function of the room is fairly fixed. But tell me more about what's going into it and why, and who thinks what about it. How will activity in the room develop?

R 24 — Well, we want participants to decide a lot of that. They should periodically set the number of figures featured as Masterworker on the Goldilocks principle — neither too many nor too few. Participants should adopt, and regularly revise, criteria for determining who to feature and collaboratively adjust the Masterwork room by together selecting from a much wider set of possibilities to whom they devote interpretive attention as well. Until participants have set the first round of criteria and made choices from the possibilities, one should take what's featured in the room merely as a working illustration.

V 25 — Got it! But the illustration includes some names I wonder about. For instance, Izaak Walton—who was he and why do you have him in there?

R 26 — Walton's an unusual 17th century character, remembered for The Compleat Angler, a charming dialogue about fishing first, then hunting, and some falconing — he grew it through many editions through his life. It's a book that one can keep coming back to. It is not only the great figures of literature, thought, and art who achieve masterworks.

V 27 — OK. And what about the Grimm Brothers. Why them?

R 28 — They were part of a movement in the late 18th and early 19th century, particularly in Germany, to collect folktales. They're a wonderful source—"Hansel and Gretel," "Cinderella," "Snow-white," The Golden Goose," and a couple hundred more. We don't really know at what age people might start in A Place to Study, and we are not waiting for Disney's versions to dribble out of copyright.

V 29 — So you are suggesting that "Masterwork" can take many shapes for many different people.

R 30 — Yes, strongly. Like the term "ecumenical," liberal learning should broaden out to encompass the learning "belonging to the whole world, universal, general, world-wide" that fosters autonomous judgment. Recently, www.grimmstories.com popped up in the digital commons with the full set of Grimm's tales in Danish, German, English, Spanish, Finnish, French, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Turkish, Vietnamese, and Chinese!

V 31 — Interesting. In addition to breadth of resources, what about their depth. You don't want lots of specialist scholarship, but what do you want. For instance, let's assume things get going and in a year or two Rousseau gets selected to be included here. What do you anticipate will be featured here by and about him?

R 32 — That's really up to participants to determine through what they choose to do. But I plan on participating by working on Rousseau myself. Here's what I'd like to see done. To begin with we should offer good digital editions of his work in French and English and maybe some of his works in other languages too. Émile is there now, but it should include his major works and some more minor ones. We should develop a good guide into and through the enormous secondary literature on Rousseau, but being cutting edge in that is not the point What we don't have so much now, here or elsewhere, is a body of critical and interpretive material on Rousseau from the point of view of self-cultivation and liberal learning. I'd like to join with other participants in developing that, a stimulating round-table on Rousseau as educator. And I hope to be hale and full witted long enough to do a really good study of his own self-formation — he did it his way!

V 33 — That gives me an initial sense of what would be happening here in the Masterwork room. I imagine I could get a explanation of what happens in other rooms by visiting them, but before I do that, Let me ask something different. I looked at my User area. In addition to space to work on My canon and My project, it has a space labeled The place, just like here, and it had what I might called alcoves, labeled in the same way as these rooms with one, like here, for Masterwork. What's the connection?

R 34 — Remember when I once noted that the participant's User areas would be integral parts of the whole site? What you are asking about now points to how that might work.

V 35 — So what I do in my Masterwork alcove will somehow hook to what happens in this big room here.

R 36 — Yeah. I'm glad you said "somehow." Like a lot around here, how to do that is an open question.