What if “Burning Man Education” Is More About Relationships Than Training?

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)

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 if “Burning Man Education” Is More About Relationships Than Training?

  • Geomom says:

    Thanks for differentiating education from training. Both are necessary, but as you stated, almost opposite in approach.

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  • SinglePly says:

    tabula rasa

    [ˈtäbyo͝olə ˈräsə, ˈräzə]


    an absence of preconceived ideas or predetermined goals; a clean slate.

    the human mind, especially at birth, viewed as having no innate ideas.

    Remember Larry Harvey’s tabula rasa vision about Burning Man and Black Rock City? Seeing Larry describe his vision became one of the main reasons I first participated in Black Rock City. It turned out that Larry’s vision and actualization is perhaps one of the most powerful in recent human history. The creators are the participants and the participants create Black Rock City. And then the participants go home and work on creating the next Black Rock City. A kind of endless tabula rasa. It doesn’t need to evolve. It doesn’t need to be the best or worst Burning Man ever. It just is the way it is…

    Black Rock City does need the Burning Man Project to coordinate the event in order to maintain civility and allow participants to create it annually into the future. All the Project really needs to do is build the Man and Center Camp and leave the rest to everyone else (and, of course provide portable toilets, coffee, ice, baby sit the placed camps, and help crack down on the ruinous oligarchs because someone needs to do it, thank you!). Even naming the annual theme and honorarium money is suspect to me. Should the Project be so involved in directing how the clean slate is filled in? After Larry Harvey past on, I think the participants should determine the annual theme instead of the Project’s intelligentsia.

    If Burning Man and Black Rock City is an absence of preconceived ideas or predetermined goals; a clean slate, then why do we need to be educated and lead by the Burning Man Project? Isn’t Burning Man leadership and education an oxymoron?


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  • Steve Hunt (Pine) says:

    1st, thanks for this “Burning Man Education” series. Keep it coming I am soaking it up.

    Some thoughts:
    1. Is there a 3rd category of Education Event, i.e. strategizing and planning? It seems to me that this is the natural next step after Education and Training and gives the other activities meaning.
    2. I would like to hear your thoughts on specific Burning Man planned educational opportunities such as Kindle, Fly Ranch Symposiums, and Regional Burns.
    3. What can we do, in the spirit of inclusion, to increase the frequency and quality of virtual meetings? Such as:
    a. Set up regional meeting points that are linked electronically
    b. Open up some of the Playa events to online participation
    c. Set aside 20% of Educational Event time for participation by virtual attendees
    d. Hold a second version of Educational Events structured for 100% virtual attendance
    4. What about having an Educational Event (preferably virtual attendance) devoted to conducting frequent and high quality Educational Events?
    5. In light of the recent postponement of Kindle, what is the proper trade-off between Event quality and urgency of need for the event?

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  • Tina says:

    Good reason to cut down on the number of relationships you have. You’ll need less training and education.

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  • Jason Bellenger says:

    Personally: training is better than education. It’s easier for training to be invented and maintained by and among a rag-tag bunch and put to good effect. Education… edifice… that’s too complicated. It’s a vital contrast though, ivory towers cast the clearest shadows in the dark.

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