What Is “Burning Man Education” and Why? A Manifesto

When Burning Man started offering “educational programming” or “educational content” depends on what you think that is. The first survival guide was launched in 2001, while the first Regional Network conference was in 2006. On the other hand, I hear Danger Ranger once helped teach someone how to change a tire on their truck in 1993.

The point is it’s been a while, and the longer it’s gone on the more important “education” became to the mission of the Burning Man organization — first the LLC, then the Burning Man Project non-profit.  Indeed, Burning Man’s formal education program began in 2013, with the establishment of the non-profit.  I worked there as its lead writer and researcher from the beginning of 2016 to the end of 2018.

And in all this time, across many events — Global Leadership Conferences, Theme Camp Symposiums, Philosophical happenings at Esalen, on playa gatherings – no one has ever been able to clearly articulate an answer to the question, “What is Burning Man education?”

Indeed, it’s always seemed to me (and to be clear, I said this to my colleagues’ faces when I worked there) that Burning Man knew it needed an education program, but never figured out why.

What is education for, in the context of Burning Man culture? What does it do? And, based on those answers, what does it look like? Surely it’s different from what people already have — university classes and online seminars and TEDx talks, right? Otherwise why do we even need to do it? Otherwise, what are people asking for that they don’t already have? If Burning Man education is simply a platform for content about Burning Man, how is it any different than a Facebook group in which people share links?

If one writes an academic paper about Burning Man, is that also a Burning Man way of educating? Or does the idea of “Burning Man education” have a particular meaning beyond just the topic?  And why?

The following short manifesto is my first attempt to answer that question to my own satisfaction, or at least to start a discussion that might help bring meaningful light to this question.  It’s likely the first in a series.

How We’ve Learned Together – and What It Suggests

When Larry Harvey and Jerry James first built a life-sized wooden man to burn on Baker Beach, they were applying skills they’d spent a lifetime developing to a task they’d never done before.

When the Cacophony Society took Burning Man out to the Black Rock Desert, no one knew what they were getting into. Michael Mikel drew a line in the dust, and they crossed it, placing themselves in a dangerous environment where they needed to pull together to survive and thrive and make something amazing happen.  Even if, especially if, they didn’t exactly know what it was, yet.

In both instances, “learning” was inseparable from the situation they had placed themselves in and the tasks they had set themselves to.  Learning at early Burning Man was as much a bodily process as a mental one: the very first component was not “thinking about something,” but “being there.”

Learning meant “exploring” — putting yourself entirely in situations and engaging with tasks that you didn’t know how to do — and it meant “helping”: teaching someone who was in that place with you, engaged in such a task, what they needed to know to keep going. The result was open ended: no one actually knew what was going to happen next. They were finding out together.

The Survival Guide was Burning Man’s first written homework, providing a practical knowledge base that could be picked up and put down outside of the environment in which Burning Man happened. But the Survival Guide did not exist for its own sake, and it did not exist in a vacuum: one read it only to get to Burning Man and to place oneself in that environment of exploring, doing, and helping specific people with specific tasks.

It was only years later, a decade later, that “learning” at Burning Man became a more abstract process — that there were seminars, discussion groups, expert panels, videos, conferences, and even curricula.  These were not just useful developments, but inevitable ones: Burning Man had grown from being an experiment and a frontier to a global culture, and cultures require greater levels of abstraction in order to function.

But even as these formats and topics grow more diverse — dealing with finances and leadership and organizational structures, with philosophy and government relations and storytelling — they nevertheless retain the essential character of the survival guide. At their best they exist not to “teach someone something” but to help someone put themselves in that state of exploration, and to bodily cross a line. Whether at Burning Man or anywhere else.

Burning Man has an education program because people around the world told us, “I’ve gone to the desert, I’ve gone to a Regional, and I want to do this in my life, but I don’t know how.” Such people are not “students,” they are not passive receptacles of knowledge whose work can be graded objectively; rather, they are trying to be explorers in a frontier of their own choosing. They are trying to bodily cross a line in the dust, and throw themselves into tasks they do not know how to do, and whose success they alone can best measure. They have had an existential experience, and are trying to act on it.

These moments — of exploring and helping others explore, of throwing oneself purposefully into an open-ended endeavor — are what Burning Man values in education. At their apex, these are embodied processes: doing something, creating something, in community. That is what we strive to help people do. Not just “learning to weld” but “learning to weld while creating a piece of art with friends — right now — that will be shared with community when you’re finished.”  

Practicality prevents every learning experience from reaching that level: there is now a need for online courses, for seminars, for videos, for trainings, that are not directly connected to genuine exploration and crossing bodily into new frontiers. But we must strive to keep as little distance as possible between the abstracted delivery of knowledge and the explorative, creative, embodied tasks that Burners engage in.

There is a danger that having panel discussions and creating curricula will become tasks that are performed for their own sakes, justified by the production of more “knowledge” in the general sense rather than the specific activities of specific people. There is a danger that in attempting to teach people things about Burning Man, we become more concerned with measuring what people have learned than we are with the experience they are having.

Dissemination of knowledge and clear thinking for their own sake is a good, but Burning Man education means helping people who are crossing lines in the dust, and inspiring others to draw their own lines, cross them, and see what they can accomplish on the other side. At our best we do that with them, hand in hand, creating and supporting physical situations and communities — not tests or simulations — in which “learning” and “teaching” are both open-ended “helping” in a common purpose.

Learning that is asocial and abstracted tends to create students who are spectators, rather than active co-creators. To “teach” in a Burning Man way is to “inspire” and “support” someone in their endeavor, making it a common one, rather than to inform in the abstract or from above looking down. The further education is removed from a bodily engagement, let alone a radically inclusive, radically expressive, participatory and communal struggle, the less like Burning Man it is.

But perhaps the most significant aspect of Burning Man education in this regard is something that has been implied by these elements, but not yet directly stated: Burning Man education involves taking a risk.  To cross a line in the dust, across which everything is different; to throw oneself bodily into a shared task; to start an open-ended endeavor; to connect with strangers over new ideas … to give a damn and refuse to be a spectator … is to take a risk. You cannot do any of these things if you are sticking with what you know, playing it safe, or only doing what you’ve done before.

The Characteristics of “Burning Man Education” 

Here, then, we have a meaningful sense — rooted in Burning Man’s past and Principles — of what it means for education to be Burning Man, rather than to be about Burning Man. To do Burning Man education, one is ideally:

  • bodily engaged
  • with a specific community
  • working on a shared endeavor
  • working on an open-ended endeavor, rather than with a prescribed outcome
  • taking risks.

The more whatever you’re doing is like that, the more it is like Burning Man education. The less whatever you’re doing is like that — well, your content may still be good.  It may still be important.  It may still be worth doing. But it’s not very Burning Man. Even if it’s about Burning Man.

And herein lies the paradox of much of the Burning Man Project’s own educational initiatives: they have been far more about Burning Man than they have been like Burning Man education. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing, but it’s important to understand: the further away we let ourselves get from educational experiences that are like Burning Man, the harder we make it for people to really experience what we’re about.  Indeed, the easier we make it for them, through no fault of their own, to miss what our culture does.

Using all the tools conventional education offers us is essential, but the more we rely on them, and the more we label any content about Burning Man an example of Burning Man education, the more we water down the very minds we hope to ignite.

Top photo: “We Come in Peace” by Adam Ebel (Photo by Ian Lauder)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

5 Comments on “What Is “Burning Man Education” and Why? A Manifesto

  • The Hustler says:

    I was part of a Burning Man education project about decommodification a while back, which was pretty damn fun. The project accompanied your points, except it wasn’t very risky.

    I like how you introduce or maybe define a process where we understand on our own … I’m having trouble articulating what I’m thinking, which is a good thing. If something is difficult to define in standard bullet points and common terms, it’s likely you’re doing it right. Ok, I wouldn’t want to ride my bike over a bridge where the engineers freestyled the design and took risks, but Burning Man is different. It’s abstract: it’s more than the physical location, but completely enclosed in the location … I’m stopping the tangent here.

    I love how Burning Man doesn’t really make much sense, but it also does in the most logical of ways. I love how I can have a profound conversation but then go participate in a war that actually serves the common good.

    I’m wrapping up my undergrad communication degree (FINALLY! – one more week) but I’m thinking about continuing my education more, the ideas of decommodification, slow media and how they overlap and how they relate to communication have been rolling around in my head (and photography as a language, but that’s another story) for a while now. Burning Man has been an influence on my undergrad coursework in a variety of ways and in my non-academic life.

    I hope for two things: That I never have it all figured out; and, that I can use what I learn to help the Burning Man community and can be part of proudly fucking it all up and learning to do better.

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  • Linzee says:

    I want to know what Great Attractor is, curiosity is just killing me.

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  • Top Shelf says:

    The medium is the message.

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  • Steve Hunt says:

    Caveat, This seems like the first in a series of posts. Where do we go from here? If we agree, “too much about Burning Man” what is the remedy? How do we educate “like Burning Man” when it is not “about Burning Man”? Is there a reluctance to expend Burning Man Projects resources on events that are not about Burning Man on Playa?

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  • When Burning Man started offering “educational programming” or “educational content” depends on …

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