This will probably be my last piece on Burning Man “education” for a while, as I think it’s the last thing I have to say on the topic that might be both true and useful.
But I do think it’s worth saying.
Thus far we’ve speculated that the distinguishing features of “education” in a Burning Man context are that:
- Education is intrinsically motivated — we’re not interested in teaching people who don’t want to learn, we’re interested in helping people who want to learn figure things out. If someone genuinely doesn’t want to learn what we have to offer, they should definitely go do something they care about. If they want to learn, we want to help.
- Education is contextual — it’s about applying oneself to the problems one actually has and the issues one actually faces. It’s about learning to do (or be) specific things, rather than an abstract application of knowledge for its own sake.
- Education is communal — like most art projects and theme camps, it involves a group of people. One’s individual learning is connected to the community one’s in, and the problems and opportunities they have
- Education is open ended — there is no clear set outcome that will result. On the contrary: you’re entering an unexplored territory together, in pursuit of something you care about. Who the hell knows what’s going to happen?
Put all this together and one isn’t just “learning to weld,” one is “learning to weld to help the Dereliction crew build a giant winged snake that will be a gift to the public park, if we can get it to work.” And it just so happens that those skills and experiences can be used elsewhere, and might even change your life.
How Do You Program For That?
This, of course, represents a significant challenge to any kind of programmatic education: people who are intrinsically motivated don’t necessarily want to learn what you want to teach them. In fact, people who are intrinsically motivated to learn are the least likely people to sit passively and absorb whatever you tell them. Your lecture series or online class might not directly address the issues they are dealing with. Open-ended educational experiences are unpredictable in ways that make designing syllabuses, learning outcomes, and course requirements difficult, if not absurd. And authentic community is, frankly, hard to come by.
People who are intrinsically motivated to learn are the least likely people to sit passively and absorb whatever you tell them.
And … I need to emphasize this here … I’m not saying that this is the only kind of education that’s worthwhile, or that people need. “Education” as a whole is much bigger than Burning Man’s particular corner of it. But if we want to have educational programming that “feels like Burning Man,” or if we want to understand what it is that people are doing in a Burning Man context that is different from what they might do anywhere else, this is what we’re talking about. Not all that is good and right in education as a whole, just what it means here.
It’s Not About Facts – It’s About Relationships
The more I look at how people learn through Burning Man culture — when it goes right — the more I come back to an idea that we explored in the discussion about the 2019 Burning Man theme, Metamorphoses. Specifically, the idea of the “transformative relationship.” A relationship in which the “mentor” or teacher figure is simultaneously wholly honest — no hidden agendas, no suppressed feelings, open and easy to read — and holds the “student” figure in “unconditional positive regard:” their regard and appreciation for the “student” as a person is unshakeable, even if they disagree or argue.
When you have these factors both in play at once — which is paradoxical and difficult, but still possible — you create an environment in which the “student” feels safe enough to be as honest and open as their mentor, and to be open to meaningful risks and the possibility of change.
American psychologist Carl Rogers, whose work I was following in the Metamorphoses series, described it in education this way:
“Learning will be facilitated, it would seem, if the teacher is congruent. This involves the teacher’s being the person that he is, and being openly aware of the attitudes he holds. It means that he feels acceptant toward his own real feelings. Thus he becomes a real person in the relationship with his students. He can be enthusiastic about subjects he likes, and bored by topics he does not like. He can be angry, but he can also be sensitive sympathetic. Because he accepts his feelings as his feelings, he has no need to impose them on his students, or to insist that they feel the same way. He is a person, not a faceless embodiment of a curricular requirement, or a sterile pipe through which knowledge is passed from one generation to the next.”
“Another implication for the teacher is that significant learning may take place if the teacher can accept the student as he is, and can understand the feelings he possesses.”
“It should be clear form this that (the teacher’s) basic reliance would be upon the self-actualizing tendency in his students. The hypothesis upon which he would build is that students who are in real contact with life problems wish to learn, want to grow, seek to find out, hope to master, desire to create. He would see his function as that of developing such a personal relationship with his students, and such a climate in his classroom, that these natural tendencies could come to their fruition.”
In a Burning Man context, I think it’s not so much that people feel like they have this transformative relationship with another person, a specific teacher or mentor, as that they have it with the community — they both believe that the people around them are being exceptionally honest and authentic, and that they welcome and support that authenticity in other community members, even if it isn’t something they personally agree with.
You create an environment in which the “student” feels safe enough to be as honest and open as their mentor, and to be open to meaningful risks and the possibility of change.
In that environment, it seems to me, people learn differently — and are open to, even excited about, opportunities to learn that they might otherwise shy away from.
Separate Out “Training” From “Education”
If this is true — and, as always, I could be wrong — then it has significant implications for how we would try to design effective educational programming and “Burning Man learning experiences.”
Specifically, I think we need to separate out “training” and “education” far more than we do. Right now, we tend to treat them as if they were the same thing, when in fact, in a Burning Man context, they are vastly different.
“Training” — if we really want to do it — involves everything that Burning Man education is not. These are things we need you to learn, and what matters is that you can pass a test or regurgitate specific knowledge back on command. This can, and should, be handled as efficiently, practically, and painlessly as possible. If we can’t make it “Burning Man” because it’s not open ended, because it’s not driven by what the student wants to learn but by what we need them to know, because it’s not something that an authentic community puts its members through, because it’s not about what they’re dealing with in their lives but an extra layer of stuff we’re putting on them for our institutional needs — then let’s not pretend it has anything to do with Burning Man. Or that if we dress it up in a costume or call it by a theme camp name that it is any more “Burning Man.”
That kind of bullshit doesn’t make it any more palatable, any more “Burning Man,” and in fact pretending it does dishonors and tarnishes the actual communities we’re trying to make and the experiences we really want people to have. Let us at least be honest about this: if it’s not open-ended, focused on people’s intrinsic motivations, contextually relevant to their lives, and authentically communal, it’s not a Burning Man educational experience. We’re doing something else. And maybe we have to do something else — that’s fine, that’s legitimate — but it’s not Burning Man.
So when we have to train, let’s make it as painless and easy as possible. Put that shit up online, let people pursue it at their own pace, make the evaluations simple and accessible, and keep it free of pretense. Simple and easy wherever possible.
What we’re trying to do — I think — is to create authentic learning communities.
But when we’re trying to create an actual “educational” experience? Then what we’re trying to do, I think — this is my best thinking on the subject, and if you have a better idea or can advance this further than I have, please share it — we are trying to create authentic learning communities. Groups of people who are there voluntarily, who include experts in a variety of different subjects and beginners in others, who together have problems they are looking for help to solve, things they want to accomplish … and who feel they can be their authentic selves with one another, which includes calling “bullshit” when they see it.
It’s Actually Easy — When We Get Out of Our Own Way
Does this seem like a tall order? Maybe — but it happens all the damn time. In fact, I think it’s what Burning Man culture tends to do naturally. It seems to me that we are actually pretty bad at trying to do on purpose what we end up doing almost by accident when Burners are left to their own devices. The thesis of Burning Man Education (which I am just making up right now and is entirely unofficial, just so we’re clear) is that if you create spaces where experts and learners alike can be authentic and supported even in failure and disagreement, then learning will naturally occur because people want to learn and grow and solve their problems.
Isn’t that what we do all the time?
We can do it deliberately — but that will mostly happen when we abandon the notion of controlling the educational outcome, and instead invite people to come learn with us, offer them tools, and then ask “how can I help?”
If we do it right, transformative relationships may gradually occur — at which point, the students can lead. They often know exactly where they want to go. The challenge for those of us trying to create “Burning Man education” isn’t “can we lead” but can we inspire and then follow.
Top photo: Tree of Ténéré by Alexander Green, Zachary Smith, and Patrick Deegan (photo by Guy Prives)