Hubert Dreyfus 1929-2017

A treasured teacher of mine, Hubert Dreyfus, died this week.

I never met him in person. But his undergraduate course on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, given at the University of California at Berkeley and made available online, deeply inspired me.

Dreyfus was professor at Berkeley from 1968, after tenures at Brandeis and MIT, and was probably the most important interpreter of Heidegger we’ve known in the English language. He took what might otherwise be considered a confusing, marginal work and explained what he came to see through it with clarity, elegance, good humour and no shortage of critical thinking.

Through Dreyfus a deep and more humane understanding of what it is to be human has been made available to us. His work has had impact on many fields – medicine, therapy, education, anthropology, sociology, computer science and, I can say with gratitude, the particular field of coaching and adult development which has been a central project of my own life these last 12 years.

What I appreciate most, though, about Hubert Dreyfus is the love of teaching and learning of which he was an expression. In the recordings of his 2007 lecture course (which, for quite some while, was among the most popular available on iTunes University) it’s clear that this was not a man who had settled on a rigid understanding of his field, nor someone who considered himself ‘done’. Even after 30 or so years of studying and teaching Heidegger’s work, the lectures show him questioning himself with both wonder and joy, revising his understanding as he goes, being honest about what still mystified him and – most importantly – learning from his students. In the lecture that I love the most a student’s question leads him to decides he’s misunderstood a central principle in Heidegger’s work for decades. Hearing him revise his understanding mid-lecture is simply thrilling to hear.

According to his colleague, Sean Kelly, Dreyfus was committed to the profoundly risky and courageous project of only teaching what he did not yet understand. He clearly saw that teaching and learning are not separate activities.  In his hands, as you’ll hear if you ever take the opportunity to listen or if you watch him in the lovely documentary Being in the World, teaching was an opportunity to bring all of himself and to invite us to bring all of ourselves to our endeavours too. It was an opportunity to be alive together.

So it’s no wonder that his lectures were often full to capacity. It’s rare in our culture to find a teacher who could combine such wisdom with such love, and who was so open to being changed and brought to life by his students and by the subject he was teaching.

The perfect mistake

My school German teacher would not tolerate mistakes. His way of teaching was to interrupt us, every time, if we made a grammatical error, even if we were halfway through a sentence. And so while I learned German just fine as an academic subject, a detached exercise in reading and writing, I never learned to speak with any facility. My body – faced with a real German-speaking human being – simply wouldn’t do it.

It’s this that clearly illuminates the difference between learning about a subject and developing ongoing, embodied skilfulness to do something with it. Learning a skill always requires risk and the possibility of getting it wrong. Indeed, we become skilful in the very process of messing up, feeling ashamed and confused, and then trying again in the light of what happened. Making mistakes, and the possibility of shame, call from us the kind of engaged involvement that’s required for our activity to have sufficient power to disorganise and reorganise us, which is the mark of any lasting learning.

As Hubert Dreyfus argues in On the Internet, this is why online learning (now so in vogue in the world of organisations) is fabulous for learning facts but not good at all for learning to master any complex or sophisticated skill – there simply is not enough contact with the bodily presence of others and insufficient social risk to have our mistakes (or the risk of mistakes) affect us.

It’s also why author William Westney argues (in The Perfect Wrong Note) that our fumbling errors made when learning a musical instrument are so constructive, useful, and enlightening, especially if they happen in the presence of a teacher or group of peers.

And it’s why my teacher showed us German, brilliantly, as an exam subject but did not – because he would not let us fail – teach us how to speak.

Photo Credit: Aleksandr Startsev Flickr via Compfight cc

Humanities

It’s not just that fear is easy, that it makes us feel important, and that it sells.

When it’s unaddressed it also turns us away from our humanity.

When our society turns to fear as the background mood, the humanities themselves come under such assault. We’re turning away from the study of literature and poetry, art and philosophy, music, language and culture as ends in themselves. When we’re afraid and in denial about our fear, as so many of us are, we want just that which will demonstrably help us go faster, complete more, make the money, hit the targets, beat the competition, keep out the outsider, make us feel safe.

The humanities do none of those, at least not in obvious ways. They won’t settle, or soothe, or rush us into action. They’ll take their time. They’ll trouble us, stir us, have us ask bigger and deeper questions than we’re asking. They’ll open the horizon and the wide sky, connecting us with the wisdom and humanity of those who have come before (who may have a thing or two to teach us about our current circumstances), making us feel our vulnerability and possibility, opening us to others, inspiring us, and reminding us what a store of depth and capacity we human beings have to respond to life. This is the very depth and capacity which, as Marilynne Robinson writes in her latest book, might well be ‘the most wonderful thing in the world, very probably the most wonderful thing in the universe’.

When we turn away from the humanities as a serious path, and allow ourselves to be possessed by our fear, we reduce ourselves in profound ways. And, when our democracies and our organisations turn this way, we lose the very thing that makes both democracy and organising together work: our trust in the capacity and dignity of the other human beings with whom we share the places in which we live.

The humanities teach us how vital, how possible, it is to live and work with other people even when we disagree – and how much we must be prepared to learn from others, both those living now and those long gone, if the world is to be bigger, and better, than that tiny and narrowing patch of land we each defend at all costs simply because it’s the only remaining patch of land on which we don’t feel afraid.

The intersection of philosophy, family, and the lives we live

I’m thrilled that the latest episode of the New Ventures West podcast features me exploring the intersection of philosophy, family, and the lives we live.

Over the course of 26 minutes I talk with my colleagues Adam Klein and Joy Reichart about how philosophy can help us inquire into the mostly invisible background of practice and culture that shapes our lives, how our early families play a part in this, and how we might expand our ways of taking care of the world and of others in the light of what we find.

Along the way we explore the legacy of the philosopher Rene Descartes and the consequences of his powerful method for inquiry on our education system and our sense of ourselves; how more recent philosophers have sought to develop more inclusive and complete accounts of what it is to be a human being; the intersection of philosophy and science; and what all of this means for how we live our lives with meaning and dignity.

I’m delighted with the way this has turned out. I hope you will be too.

You can listen online here, or subscribe to the podcast (which features many of my colleagues) through iTunes here.

Stepping In Podcast

I’m excited to announce that my friends and colleagues at New Ventures West have launched a new podcast today.

Stepping In is an inquiry into life’s biggest challenges with one of the oldest and most distinguished coaching schools in the world. In a spirit of curiosity, compassion, and honesty, we delve into how Integral Development Coaching can address some of the most pressing issues we face as individuals, as communities, and as stewards of our planet. We’ll explore what it takes to develop the sensitivity and capacity required to live and thrive in an increasingly complex world.”

The first episode, ‘The Importance of the Body‘ with Ken Kirby, is available today on the New Ventures West website and on iTunes.

More episodes will follow, and will in all likelihood include my own which addresses how our early origins shape us, and how philosophy can be a vital, living force in helping us to work productively with our own and others’ development.

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Learning how to learn

It’s becoming more clear to me, as I go about my work in the world of organisations, that so many of us have never learned how to learn.

We know how to find out about facts, yes, and models – we know how to do that. But knowing how to do the learning that changes us, up-ends us, opens up new possibilities for understanding, action and relationship? Or working with the many emotions and difficulties that come when we step into something new? What about understanding our inner worlds with enough discernment that we can catch on to the hidden commitments (to stay safe, to look good) that compete with our stated wishes? We’re generally not so skilled at that.

I’ve started to lay out over recent days how our societal commitment to detached understanding (the ‘cartesian’ world, our schooling) might be contributing to this. It’s important because an ability to learn is probably what we need most right now, as the world continues to shift and change around us.

The good news is that it is possible to learn how to learn. We can do it as adults. And we can certainly make it possible for our children, if only we’ll be brave enough.

To support you in getting started: three wonderful resources from people who have thought about this a lot:

1. Stop Stealing Dreams A downloadable, shareable pdf by Seth Godin

A passionate, provocative manifesto about education, about the industrial-scale uniformity so easily brought about by our education system, and packed with ideas about what we might do about it all. Soaring, inspiring reading – I think a must for any teacher, manager, leader, or parent. You can download it from Seth’s blog here, and you can watch Seth talk about it here.

2. Do Schools Kill Creativity? A TED talk by Ken Robinson

A moving and intelligently argued plea for an education system that nurtures creativity instead of constraining it. Filled with many arguments that apply equally to our universities, institutions and organisations.

3. Free to Learn A book by Peter Gray

The author, a distinguished developmental psychologist, draws on wide ranging and convincing research to argue why our way of thinking about education so often stifles real learning, and why we need to entrust children with steering their own learning and development if we want them to thrive in today’s world.

Photo Credit: Photographing Travis via Compfight cc

10 year celebration, 21st May, London

It’s ten years since I put down the tools of my former life (computer programming tools, mostly) to see what would become possible if I responded to an insistent, mysterious, and much more uncertain but genuine vocational call – attending to the possibility of human life more fully and genuinely lived through coaching, teaching, organisation development and writing.

And it was from this putting down and taking up that thirdspacethe organisation I founded, was born. For the past ten years we’ve committed ourselves to the development of others and, for the last seven, to teaching others to do, with as much integrity and skill as possible, the kind of work we love so deeply. It’s been a blessing to be surrounded by clients, teachers, colleagues, faculty and friends who embody such deep shared commitment to the repair of what’s broken in the world.

And to celebrate all of this we’re holding an evening workshop on Music and Vocation in London, at 7pm on 21st May, with the wonderful Dubravko Lapaine. Du was pursuing a PhD in mathematics when he heard and responded to a very different call. He’s now a highly talented and respected didgeridoo player. He’ll be with us for the evening, playing, in conversation, and exploring what it is to follow a vocational path of this kind.

As well as a celebration, and a chance to learn, it’s our first foray into the world of the arts. It’s been a long held ambition of mine to bring art, development, learning and music together.

Maybe some of you will join us.

I’d love that.

All the details are here.