My letter to Egypt

Tomorrow morning at the crack of dawn, our son leaves for 3.5 weeks in Egypt. I’m fairly certainly he was six years old last week, with a wonderful high voice. Now there’s this 18-year old bass who’s just finished his second year of full-time college classes at UMM, graduates from high school at the end of this month, and is off to Hampshire College in August.

And has packed his bags for Egypt.

He’s going on a UMM course “Pyramids and politics on the Nile” led by UMM Poli Sci faculty Sheri Breen and UMM librarian Jayne Blodgett, both super cool people. This is a pretty structured experience (full itinerary as a PDF) using Cairo as their primary base but with trips down the Nile to Luxor and Aswan, visits to Alexandria, and time at a desert research station.

One of their requirements is to keep a journal during the trip, and they all had to write a “Letter to Cairo” before departing as their first entry, and I thought I’d play along.

Dear Cairo,

Please take good care of our son. I really wanted to start with something more profound, but to be honest this is the first thing that I thought of. I’m genuinely not worried. His mother and I survived a number of great study abroad experiences which did so much to define who we are, and we’re sure he’ll have an amazing and glorious time. Still, it’s an exciting time to be in Egypt, and I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d play nice.

Inspire some wonderful writing. People keep telling him to take lots of pictures, but they’re really barking up the wrong tree, as he doesn’t really do that. (Here the apple fell on a slope and rolled well away and down the hill.) Tom is much more likely to digest and record his experience in words than images. It probably won’t be straightforward journaling, however, and instead be more indirectly represented in his poetry. “Vulcan’s bed”, for example, is a response to his time with me in Lava Beds National Monument two years ago; it is his version of all my photos. So while I know that he’ll have phenomenal experiences in Egypt, I hope to see them creep (or smash) into his poetry and other writings.

Open some doors; I’m sure he’ll walk through them. Morris has been a wonderful town for Tom to grow up in, but it’s a pretty small world. Thomas has had the huge advantage of living in the UK twice, and travelling in Europe on both of those trips, but it’s still been a very European life. You represent such a fascinating crossroads of history and culture: Mediterranean and Arab and African and Islamic and pharaonic and crowded and vibrant and changing and old and new. In 3.5 weeks he’ll only be able to sample such a feast, probably taking more than he realizes in some ways and less in others. When he comes back, though, I suspect he’ll never quite see things the same, sometimes in ways that may take years to fully realize.

I know that he’ll be a tiny mite on the huge organism that is Cairo, so odds are that you’ll never even notice he was there. You’ll loom huge for him, however, and we appreciate all you have to offer.

Best wishes,

    Nic aka Thomas’s Dad

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Education is about interaction, not content

The scarcity of content through much of human history (remember when they used to chain books to shelves in libraries?) has allowed us to collectively confuse education with the delivery of content. It was about the lecture, in which rare and wondrous knowledge was imparted to eager young minds, not about the experience of discussing, wrestling with ideas, and building artifacts (be they papers or dance or sculpture or lab apparatus) that changed both us and our world.

The overwhelming flood of content that we are now drowning in clearly puts paid to those assumptions. The content is out there, free, waiting for us to find it and stuff it in our heads, with more on the way. “Free on-line class shakes up photo education” from Wired is a nice example of how the content space is changing dramatically, as well as implying that traditional face-to-face education is perhaps a doomed beast:

“I think we’re heading towards a place where we’ll no longer be able to charge for content,” says Worth. “And that scares the shit out of academic institutions.”

This does indeed scare academics and administrators, and excites lots of entrepreneurs who (often rightly) feel that they compete with traditional institutions in the content space. Those, both in and out of the academy, who worry are ultimately missing the point. Content was never what we should have been charging for, and if that’s all we were doing we were frankly doing it wrong. Our real value is in the life changing experiences. When I talk to our alumni, they rarely reminisce about specific courses, and even less often about particular content. What they remember are the things they built and the experiences they shared. They remember the love Margaret Edson talks about so eloquently in this 2008 graduation speech at Smith College:

2008 Smith College Commencement Margaret Edson from Smith College on Vimeo.

So those of us in the Academy need to get over our fascination with content and focus on the business of trying to make a difference in the lives of our students. And students and parents need to become smarter shoppers and look for schools that will give them the experiences that will make a difference in their lives. Any school can give you names and dates, facts and figures, drills and exercises. And so can the Internet. A good school challenges you to discuss, write, build, experience, and understand, which is something that people are a hell of a lot better at than books or web pages.

P.S. The Academy isn’t the only place where we’re struggling to figure out The Point. This excellent post by Vaguery on what coworking is and isn’t is extremely relevant and comes to many of the same conclusions: Experience and community matter. Hop on and stoke the engines, peeps; we’ve got places to go and things to do.

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