Three Rivers (from the Future)
This paper has been incredibly difficult for me to write! I have had an entirely troublesome time writing about myself from the future. Although the reader may find it rambling and incoherent, which I can completely understand, I have found the process itself enlightening. What will I be like in the future? Where will my life's path lead me? Why the heck am I working on the Doctoral degree? All of these questions and more have been swimming around in me. I come away from the exercise with the notion that intelligence is one part in our transformational potential. Another very important piece of the puzzle is our environment. If we have fundamental needs that are not being met -- for example, lack of: loving relationships; safe environments; nutritious food; clean water and air -- we will never, in my own mind, reach our optimal potential. This explains why so many people who are very intelligent end up having difficulty in society or doing incredibly destructive things. Thus, in order to develop a mature ethical perspective we must first have our basic needs fulfilled. At the same time, we must have the intellect to see the world for what it is and to be reflective about our place in it. These ideas all come together, at least in a loose way, in this paper. I hope you enjoy, but will not be offended if it ends up in the recycling bin or to start a fire. Indeed, it is not written in a completely linear way. It is written more from intuitive intention. This may be why the reader often may find her or himself wondering where I happen to be in time and where I happen to be going. So be it. It has, nevertheless, been cathartic for me and an important exercise in clearing my head. Thanks much for this terribly troublesome task. It has upended me entirely! ~GH
In my memory, it is a very warm day in Phoenix, Arizona and I am struggling to keep cool in the incredibly dry Sonoran heat. As I look around, I can see a tall wrap of glass and steel buildings in the distance. Beyond, through the dusty brown haze, I can see Camelback Mountain to the northeast, and beyond to the Superstition Mountains where modern day gold hunters search for imagined treasure. To the southwest I can see South Mountain and from there I scan toward the Estrella Mountain Park where, at Tres Rios, the Spaniards set a survey marker atop a nearby hill to indicate the importance of that confluence of water in such a dry part of the world. The Agua Fria, the Salt, and the Hassayampa converge there to flow languidly forth toward the Gulf of Mexico. To the west is Los Angeles, some three hundred miles over the horizon. My skin is more brown that I have ever seen it in my entire life, and I'm sure that when my family next sees me they will note internally that I have changed in my appearance.
My bones are healing now. Although my clavicle still protrudes sharply under the skin over my heart, and almost seems to desire to punch forth out of my body, it seems to be receding now. Finally! When I touch it's sharpness I wonder about the few ounces of pressure it must have been from punching into the world beyond. My ribs have invisibly healed underneath now as it no longer hurts to cough, and the long pink line up my stomach is tucked unnoticed under my thin t-shirt.
Sam has taught me so much down here in the obnoxious heat of this unusual place. He is well schooled in what we are doing, knowing the proper tools and words to use. Wearing long sleeve white shirts and broad brim hat, Sam understands what I need to know and how to get the job done. I am grateful to my professor for sending me here. It is such a wonderful experience to work on a fascinatingly interesting project like this. But, I move slowly now, and the crew chief makes sure I am taken care of well. No one lets me lift anything heavy anymore!
As I go back to my work, I reflect on how much I have changed from the brash, conceited, and severe young man that I was growing up. I didn't realize then how much things were weighing upon me. I remember the video clips of solders in the jungle. The dreams of being there, in the lucid overhang of vines and leaves, with some strange warped consciousness watching from behind the curtains of verdant life, are etched in me deeply. A shadowy world, archaic in its energy and form, lurked deeply behind and within. Fall-out shelters brought me down, and I looked out on the horizon in the evening, sometimes, and imagined what inter-continental ballistic missiles would look like streaming in from the northern horizon.
Sam is tucked, bent over a pithouse floor, slowly and methodically following its boundary. A few small bleached white shells, each with a tiny hole, pierced through at the same angle in the terminus of their spiraled outside edge, lay quietly nearby on the thick, ancient, desert wall. The hearth has been located and someone will be over soon to carefully pedestal a plug from its burnt rim, encasing it in plaster, making sure it is marked very accurately with north, and sent back to Fort Collins in a carefully wrapped box to be magnetically dated by my professor and his assistants. My guess is around nine hundred years ago or so. We'll see. I regain my focus and my brush gently sweeps sand and grit again from the bones of a child buried gently beneath an unknown family's pithouse floor around the time that Macbeth murdered Duncan.
Until this summer I gnawed at life, chewing at its edges and fighting back. I wonder now if Dr. Eighmy knew that this experience would change me thus. To be honest, I doubt it. How could he have predicted the powerful confluence of circumstance that would affect such a personal transformation? Still, to this day, I don't recall thanking him for the opportunity to be cooked and dried in this sandy place. But perhaps I have. It does seem I have lost some of my memory. Head trauma can do that to a person.
In truth, during my doctoral degree, I wasn't sure where I was headed, but was really quite enamored with three rivers of academic thought: depth psychology, cultural anthropology, and sustainability ethics. To be sure, in my head, often I couldn't fiddle my way out of the complex web of thoughts and experiences that were building inside of me and shifting very perceptibly my actions and desires in life. However, over time as a student at CIIS I began to realize that the transformations I experienced in the desert via my intimate relation with an earlier culture and the trauma of almost losing my life were not the only necessary ingredients for deep transformation. Through exploring several cases of young student's lives and experiences, I began to realize that my own transformation was the lucky confluence of several important ingredients, not least of which was the relative lack of significant
At the time of starting to write my dissertation, Three Rivers: Exploring the Confluence of Culture, Education, and Sustainability, I was trying to understand where I could fit into the world as a scholar. I had learned in adult transformative learning theory, how Mesirow has discussed the "disorienting dilemma" which can lead to personal transformation. This connected well to how in cultural anthropology, Anthony Wallace had expanded upon what he called "mazeway resynthesis", a radical shift in one's perception of reality and understanding of the world, which then, in rare individuals, leads to hugely altered ways of navigating in one's particular cultural environment. I was interested in Wallace's exploration of how individual transformation in strong leaders can lead to cultural transformation. Then, I happened across Otto Fenichel who introduced me to the psychologist's perception of "cathexis" where, in one's mind or actions, a person may be brought back over and over again to the same thoughts or unconscious motivations. Fenichel argued that this cathexis is the root of neurosis. I began to think about cultural neurosis and cultural illness, as if a culture, or what anthropologists have called a "lifeway", could be neurotic or psychotic and how to leverage or affect cultural transformation.
My interest in what Fenichel and Jung discussed followed on to Neumann, Adler, Rank, Progoff, Maslow, Kegan, Bateson, Fromm, Assagioli, and others. In my own way, I began to see the integral connections between my studies as an undergraduate in cultural anthropology and archaeology, and my graduate studies in cross cultural education and transforming systems. I especially was moved during this time by such disparate perspectives and writings of the depth psychologists as juxtaposed against Jiddu Krishnamurti and Pablo Naruda, and how indeed our reality is informed by our place in the world and perceptions of it. In particular, at this time, I was lucky enough to come across the fantastically important work and actions of Joanna Macy, Fridjof Capra, Riane Eisler, and the Center for Ecoliteracy.
Finally, a student in the doctoral program asked if I knew about ecopsychology. After reading some of my journal writing and thought papers, she suggested exploring, especially, Theodore Roszak and other ecopsychologists. One of the most significantly inspiring moments of my doctoral program was this realization that, after talking and discussing issues with people from many different parts of the country and world, there was this small cadre of thinkers and activists who were thinking and promoting action very similar to myself. I was incredibly reassuring to find a field of praxis that aligned so congruently with my own interests as a scholar and educator.
What I began to realize at that time was that, as an adolescent boy growing up in our western, consumer-based society, I unconsciously perceived how "we" as a culture were moving in a neurotic and pathological direction by growing our economies in search of ecologically unsustainable capital gain and wealth, and by following paths of violence, war, and toxicity. What I didn't know at that time, nor could put into words was an anxiety about the future and the well-being of the world I was born into. This unconscious cathectic circling around worry and fear welled up in me as dreams, outbursts, tension with the culture around me, and a not-knowing how to act and what to do. I realized during this time that, as a youngster, I projected anger toward adults in positions of power: teachers, parents, and police. I began to wonder about youngsters who may be experiencing the same kind of emotions related to the often terrible news that we hear about the plight of the planet, climate change, poverty, injustice, and the rest.
As I grew into adulthood, and finally into a mature scholar, I began to attempt purposefully to synthesize the disparate points of view from what most might consider very esoteric fields of thought, in order to develop simple praxis and action in the search for sustainable lifeways in our complex world, as well as ways to support young, bright students who struggle to find meaning in what is certainly a most troubled world. I began to sense that there may be a link between intelligence in children and their existential perceptions of the world.
This focus informed my dissertation where I looked specifically through individual case studies with students at the interrelation between levels of intelligence as measured by standard evaluation techniques, environmental conditions, and student's desire to transform the world around them. Interestingly, this focus all came together for me in one week during the winter of 2008. During that particular week, on Monday I had met with a seven year old boy who was diagnosed as "emotionally impaired", but also had performed extremely well on certain batteries of a very common assessment of intelligence. For some time, I had suspected that this fellow had been confronted with emotional trauma at home when he was quite young, and that possibly it was continuing. So, on that particular day, I asked the boy to write down an answer to the question: "If there would be any one way that you could transform the world or you life, and you had the power to make this happen, how would you transform the world?" Surprisingly, the little fellow wrote: "Not have to live with my mother for six years." This struck me tremendously. How many children, at seven years of age, are in the position in our world of not feeling safe at home, or feeling scared?
I had witnessed this kind of thing prior with a family of boys in the Phoenix area who were all very bright. However, one of the boys, the youngest, rarely talked. He simply would follow with me during my rounds on the playground everyday. Although he rarely made a peep, he would often bring me neat little rocks and other interesting things he had found on his way to school. I found out after I had known him for some time that, at three, his mother had tied him up and locked him under the stairs of the house for a significant length of time. Perhaps it was because of something he said, I don't know. But, is it any wonder that this little guy didn't speak very often? He had experienced an incredible trauma early in his life and it had, I'm quite sure, transformed his personality and actions profoundly.
All of this was on my mind on the Friday of the same week when a package arrived from a purveyor of intelligence assessments. One of the gold standards in the field of evaluating intelligence and neuropsychological assessment had arrived in my office. Something clicked. I had often been wondering why very intelligent people didn't all act in ethical ways and didn't always see things in the same way. Rivers of thought came together in a very simple hypothesis. I was sure that there was a connection between the level of intelligence of the individual, one's environment, and transformative potential. Anthony Wallace's "mazeway resynthesis" and Jack Mezirow's "tranformative learning" had to, in my way of thinking, be linked to intelligence. Yet, because I was more interested in the child's desire to transform the world around and within them, rather than adults, I focused my study on children. It occurred to me that there must be a link between childhood and the adult transformative leaders they have the potential to become. A very simple study fell together in my head that Friday which became the seed of my dissertation study. My hypothesis was that in order to have the desire to transform the world or environment, children first needed a certain level of intelligence, and second, require the satisfaction of particular fundamental needs in order to free the necessary mental energy that it takes to focus on developing and synthesizing ethical thinking. My guess was that young students who exhibited desires to transform the world in significant ways fell into a relatively small group with two major characteristics: first, a relatively strong intelligence; and second, having basic environmental and emotional needs fulfilled. The third piece to this puzzle, I realized, appeared to be family and cultural perception of the value of cultural or environmental transformation.
The gathering of data for the dissertation took some time but it linked easily with my work professionally. At my school district, I arranged for teachers of students between the ages of five and fourteen years to be referred to me if they displayed characteristics of talented thinkers, excellent problem solvers, or simply quite able in their school work. In the end, there were approximately two hundred students referred for the study. I sent letters to all of these families requesting authorization to assess each student with the Cognitive Abilities Test, a well-respected assessment of general intellectual ability for children who speak the English language. As well, I asked each student the same question I had asked the seven year old boy earlier: "If there was one way you could transform the world, and you had the power to make it happen, what would you transform?" There were many different answers to the question. Some students wanted to change the shape of the planet, or make candy grow from trees. Others, however, exhibited much more profound awareness of existential dilemma in their lives or the world around them. One student answered that he would like to end death. Others wanted to clean up the rivers, or the planet, or to end all wars. A few wanted to change family life or craved to change the amount of money that their parents made. Was there a clear relationship between level of intelligence and the ways the students wanted to transform the world or their lives? You'll have to read the dissertation itself to find out the answer to this question! Nevertheless, I learned quite a bit about the formal analysis of intelligence, as well as how a child's desires in life are integrally linked to whether or not they are finding that their most fundamental needs are being satisfied. The findings are striking indeed!
At first, after the publication of the dissertation, I was not met with great success in traditional terms, especially by my colleagues in the general field of education. It seemed that most simply could not "see" the way I saw things, and my dissertation was read by only a few. It was very strange and disheartening to be met with blank stares and watch people blink off suggestions of deep transformation or even small shifts in the way we do things. Others often counseled with the mantra: "Change is not easy!" and I could feel it down into my bones. Especially remarkable to me was the perceptions of elitism that I was confronted with when I discussed the link between intelligence and desires to transform the world. Many people did not want to talk about the ways that intelligence and fundamental needs effect the perception of children. Nevertheless, a small number of folks seemed interested in what I was doing and I found great satisfaction in building relationships with them.
Over time, I matured as a practitioner of purposeful transformation in the world around me and I continued to find people who had similar ways of being in the world. My search for understanding and ways to affect the kind of change in the world that I dreamed about as a young romantic idealist sifting sand in the desert, filled with broken bones and lost memories, began to take form and be fruitful. No longer was I taking the weight of the world onto my shoulders and worrying about what I could do to change the whole plight of the planet. Rather, as I grew as a scholar, I kept in mind the notion that, especially in very complex systems, even small changes or transformation on one level (in my case, with children), can lead to incredibly far reaching changes at another level. I found that, over time, my young students became adults, and some of them kept in touch with me, and became extremely effective servant leaders and agents for transformation in the world. I found significant inspiration in knowing that the seeds of transformation had been planted. Some have even come back as adults to teach with me at our school
My Ph.D. led to greater accomplishments, deeper relationships, and the opening of many doors. I have always felt that the most significant turning point in my life as a professional (after earning my Ph.D.) was becoming the director of our own green magnet school which was rooted - from its architecture and building materials, to the curriculum design and teaching methods, and even to the food and processes used to give sustenance - in the principles of ecological sustainability and global ethical responsibility. Our mission has been to give intelligent students who have been removed from their families for neglect or abuse, a safe environment to grow, and the tools they will need to be effective leaders in the transformation of global culture and environment.
Thus, today, even though I am now almost seventy-three, my eyes light up when I hear one of our students talk about how to reduce her ecological footprint, or when a faculty member in our school promotes creativity that is ethical and sustainable. Discussions of complex systems are the root of almost every conversation that is had in our school even to this day, and students and faculty consistently amaze me with novel, compassionate, and creative solutions to questions they have generated or problems that confront us. Although most of my friends have retired now, I still wake up wanting to be at our profoundly different kind of lab school where I can rub elbows with our bright young students with incredible potential, and even often find myself in the greenhouse nibbling an impromptu salad. My three main rivers of interest have come together to sustain my desire to support intelligence and transformation in neglected and abused children of our shared world. I can see now how far I have come!
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Updated: December 5, 2008