I was thinking the other day about memory and what it meant to re-member. It’s a little like the day I took the word en-courage apart and its meaning suddenly changed from a word that had a multitude of warm and fuzzy attributes to a word that signified courage. When a teacher encourages children to learn, they create a circumstance that allows a child to take on courage. It is through those acts of personal courage that fundamental learning change happens. After that moment, thinking about the meaning of “en-couragement” with regards to teaching meant far more to me than it ever had before in my professional (and personal) life.
The same shift in perspective is now true with the word “remember.” Cognitively, the complexity of our conceptual structures is rivaled only by the intricacy of their interconnectedness. I never thought I would live to see actual neurological connections. Their photographic reality is now just another google image event. We remember things sometimes in the most roundabout fashion. Everyone knows this. We can’t remember a name, but we do remember the last place we saw the person whose name we are trying to recall. They had a dog – a pug. The pug was in their kitchen during the time the room was filled with the delicious, sweet, cinnamon laced odor of a baking apple pie and zingo! “Hight” – the name of the folks you were trying to recall – turns on in your mind like you are turning the knob of a controlled intensity bedlamp. Going from the pug to the family name traced a path of hard-wired, interconnected neural connections across how many schematic constructions of thought, language, emotion, and sensation; all of it engineered by your own smart decision to consciously direct your recall process just to the left – or right – of the real target. You got to your friend’s name by imagining the Pug in her home. You constructed a virtual cognitive journey that put together again – re-membered – her name from incredibly layered and intimately elaborated cognitive schema. In this cognitive system, two plus two equals about fourteen. The result occurs because the parts coming together is way bigger and more profound than any one of those memories traces taken singly. Once assembled, schematic wiring becomes much more than any one of its neuronic members.
That’s the way it is with my elementary education program. Who we are and what we’ve built over twenty years of almost daily activity has created a program of highly complex, incredibly layered and personally constructed processes of people, places, purposes, and products. Thought rationally arrived at, the structures currently in place – faculty roles, student assignments, mentoring relationships, portfolio entries, program principles, internship classrooms, friendships both personal and professional – are highly elaborated and intertwined and in some ways, arational. Their current reality in many ways take on a life of their own, different from what was created, different and often better. These structures are constructed and tended by groups of people and across time, and are hard wired into our system in complicated ways.
What’s most interesting is that like memory, they do not work by themselves. They have no use by themselves. The program works because the people who created the structures tend to it. When a faculty member creates a structural component for a program in a school, part of that act of creation occurs because of the respect school people have for that person’s knowledge, skills, and yes, values. You don’t mentor students year after year because someone tells you things will work out; you mentor a student because you know – an evidentiary condition – that when things don’t work out, the “program” will be there to sort out the difficulties and make the uncomfortable decisions required by the situation. At their very basic level, programs are nothing more, well, not much more, than the people who make them work. And that’s where the analogy to memory comes in.
When people leave programs, whether by pink slip, retirement, or even by means of one’s good fortune, programs are dismembered. And you cannot re-member them by simply putting the students affected by loss in another class or shifting an experience to a new site or adding a new graduate student to take over the dis-membered functions of the organization. My program is membered. We the members of the faculty who built it, for better or for worse, have membered our program. Pink slips dis-member the program; re-membering it, because of the relational quality of its constructive process, is close to if not impossible, especially when the process of dismembering approaches catastrophic proportions.
So let us be clear here. We are not monitoring changes and adjusting processes, we are dismembering a program which is for all intents and purposes, ending it as it is currently known. If we end up at the close of the day with forty percent fewer faculty and increasing student numbers, we will have undergone a programmatic lobotomy. Our future will bear little connection or relationship to our past. We may well possess virtual memories that will undoubtedly get better over time…they always do. What we will be doing, if anything, will bear little resemblance to what we have accomplished to date.
And that will be cause for deep embarrassment. Embarrassment. Em-barrassment. Hmmm. Now that’s an interesting word… .