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Myth: Bliss - Learning as Mythological Transformation

Joseph Campbell contributed a wide variety of valuable that explore the many dimensions of myth and personal transformation. While often left unmentioned with respect to learning, he captures the core of what learning can be. The recent release of Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation is no exception. If the essence of learning is in some manner about personal growth and transformation, then the role of myth as Campbell describes it speaks to that essence...

Let me briefly touch once again on the functions that a traditional mythology (and its functions) remains in our lives today. The first function is awakening in the individual a sense of awe and mystery and gratitude for the ultimate mystery of being. In the old traditions—the very old ones—the accent was on saying yea to the world as it is. That's not easy; you look at the world, and you see creatures eating each other, killing each other, and you realize that life is something that eats itself. You may have the feeling that some have had that this cannibalism is just too horrible to bear: "I will not cooperate, I will not play." This change in thinking I call the Great Reversal. Historically, it comes along about the sixth century B.C. with the Buddha's statement, "All life is sorrowful." Well, there is escape from sorrow. "I won't play." "Okay. Pull out. Take your bat and ball and go home." So here we have two main attitudes toward the central horrific mystery, this thing beyond good and evil: affirmation and negation...

- Campbell, Joseph. Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation

Awakening: The problem with many theories of learning is that they are just that, theories. We hear mundane statements like, "We learn by doing." Doing what? We create redundancies through adjectives as found in the nonsensical phrase, "lifelong learning." How can it be anything less? Perhaps these catch-phrases and adjectives are attempts to recover something that were already present by default.

It is surprising to see the number of these mundane descriptions and phrases about learning that are completely absent of a human story - a narrative of personal growth and transformation over the course of a lifetime. Any such narrative would indeed include the name of a real person and insights into the nature of their own personal and unique path of growth and transformation. This is, to me, what imbues learning with an essential universal quality and a deep sense of global connectedness across all people.

In Myth: Personal Myth and Everyday Life I explored a few narratives that that embrace learning as a form of growth and transformation. If we accept that "the first function [of myth] is awakening in the individual a sense of awe and mystery and gratitude for the ultimate mystery of being" then we ask ourselves, "What is the nature of this awakening?"

Stephen Biko: In The Testimony of Steve Biko, it is clear that the "cannibalism" was not too horrible to bear, and in fact I would suggest Biko completely embraced the reality that "life eats itself" and in doing so awakened his mind, body and spirit. The "cannabalism" here is apartheid, and Biko's response was clearly one of fearless affirmation.

A good introduction into the life of Stephen Biko is Black Consciousness in South Africa. I would also suggest Cry Freedom (DVD), a wonderful movie directed by Richard Attenborough in which Denzel Washington delivers an inspired performance as Biko. Finally, Peter Gabriel's tribute to Biko can be viewed on Biko on Peter Gabriel: The Videos (DVD) - which I thankfully acquired through a gift from my daughter and son [MP3: Gabriel, Peter: Biko]. And, of course, Joseph Campbell's Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation serves as an underlying ground in the exploration of Biko's life as growth and personal transformation.

Delusions: In How Children Learn John Holt states:

We teachers - perhaps all human beings - are in the grip of an astonishing delusion. We think that we can take a picture, a structure, a working model of something, constructed in our minds out of long experience and familiarity, and by turning that model into a string of words, transplant it whole into the mind of someone else.

Perhaps once in a thousand times, when the explanation is extraordinary good, and the listener extraordinary experienced and skillful at turning word strings into non-verbal reality, and when the explainer and listener share in common many of the experiences being talked about, the process may work, and some real meaning may be communicated. Most of the time, explaining does not increase understanding, and may even lessen it.
- How Children Learn

It is interesting to consider how much of the teaching we have received comes not from personal, authentic experiences of the part of the teacher, but on a secondary description, abstraction or explanation of something that the teacher has never personally experienced. This is not a criticism of teachers or teaching for it is clear that this kind of delusional mental modelling, as Holt might refer to it, is precisely what is demanded of them via curriculum, instruction and evaluation. And if teachers do not deliver it, then test scores will suffer and indeed perhaps their own job. The problem, or the delusion, is that we believe we understand something simply because we have created a mental model of it, when in fact the mental model might be completely debilitating.

While reading Holt's comments the individual that came immediately to mind was Erik Weihenmayer. His own personal narrative, as wonderfully described in Touch The Top Of The World: A Blind Man's Journey To Climb Farther Than The Eye Can See is in dramatic contrast to the problem or "delusion" described by John Holt. In fact, Erik clearly describes some of these delusions with respect to his own schooling, and how he overcame them. The context, situations and circumstances of Erik's life are dramatically different from Stephen Biko's, but this sense of awakening as described by Joseph Campbell is just as precious.

Of course, these messages can never be shared here, but each of them reminded me of The Power of Myth, of the need to remove the "delusion" Holt mentions, to enourage Campbell's "affirmation," to preserve and embrace Biko's "consciousness" regardless of race, and to embrace Weihenmayer's "I want to summit."

Without this mythological centre, learning becomes something less than itself.

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