Monday, July 29, 2013

Pondering the Past

I recently completed another Coursera course entitled "Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets" featuring Sue Alcock and a bevy of her graduate students, production crew, other archaeologists, and many other helpers. It was a wonderful experience because it really showed the potential of MOOCs and showcased how even the humanities can be broken down into manageable units with interactive elements. As I mentioned in an earlier post, a large swath of the MOOC landscape seems to be relegated to the hard sciences, computer programming, and math. My hope is that the dearth of humanities courses on MOOC websites is due to a lack of marketing rather than a fear from humanities instructors that the mission and execution of MOOCs is incompatible with the teaching and learning of said humanities. A well executed humanities MOOC such as ADSL foments the same curiosity, interrogation, discussion, deep thinking, and comparative analysis that any great teacher in a classroom could ever hope to foster.

We talked a lot about context. Context gives meaning to things; a piece of pottery found in isolation means nothing, but with its surroundings it gains new meaning. I think this idea of context is important in our increasingly fragmented and decontextualized world. Standardized tests increasingly demand mastery of diverse scintillae of facts; teachers are increasingly told to teach more with less time, so that a triage of information occurs where only those facts most essential for the test are saved and anything else is left on the cutting floor. Marketers ask us to choose product A or B without explaining why it matters in the first place. All around us, our collective forest is disappearing and, not only do we not see the trees, we only see the single leaf that someone else told us was important.

People tend to look forward for improvement and innovation. Yet this is only half of the work. Without investigating the past, how and why do we improve and innovate? From what insufficient past must we create a more sufficient future? As George Santayana has written:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Context allows us to progress. It is my hope that, as we push forward into the brave new world of tech integration, streamlined processes, big data, and super-specialized knowledge, we don't lose sight of the arc of history. Though the MOOC I took was essentially a beginner's guide to archaeology, it has reinvigorated in me, and I hope in many others, the larger import of context in our daily lives.

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