Dialog:The vestibule

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The vestibule

As we enter the place to study, let's pause in its vestibule, to note the layout and the modes through which study takes place. An actual place is where ideas, potentialities, possibilities take place, where they come into the present, here and now, as lived experience. Often the immediacy of the place can mask the reach of the ideas embedded in it, especially with small beginnings. Let us pause here briefly to note the ideas embedded in the place, before rushing up to engage their beginnings there.


V 1 — Hey, R, I see big doorways in front and to the sides—Masterwork and Exemplars on this wall, Concepts and Verbs on that, and what we've discussed, Concerns, Predicaments, Control, and Aspirations, on the back. I've peeked in each and it's large but a little bare. What takes place here?

R 2 — Here's where you can study self-formation and liberal learning, but it is all pretty empty because the initial construction is just finishing up and we haven't opened it to participants yet. We've scattered a few samples in each room. In due course, participants will fill it up with what they find worthy of their study and they might even decide to get rid of what's now there, although I'd be surprised if they did.

V 3 — What's that big doorway straight ahead with no name above it? I haven't looked in that yet.

R 4 — This is a commons to be shared by all, created by volunteered effort. That door opens to a long corridor leading to spaces that participants will define as their studies progress. Right now, it's just a big doorway leading to a long corridor.

V 5 — How long is it? I just glanced in and it seemed dark and couldn't see where it goes.

R 6 — Of course. Most of it hasn't been built. We've discussed how in the past only a few people have had real opportunities to study self-formation and liberal learning. Here we are building a digital space and in principle everyone can join in and participate. But we won't know who will do so until they volunteer themselves.

V 7 — Isn't that a little passive? You're sharing the digital world with powerful organizations that want to corral people's allegiance and attention, and have means with which to do it.

R 8 — Time will tell. People who calibrate their attention to the time of journalism, marketing, and politics may be oblivious to what is taking place on more extended time scales. In constructing a commons, in this case a place for all to study self-formation and liberal learning, we need to set in motion adaptive procedures that will permit unlimited inclusive growth while preserving the form and function of the place.

V 9 — Yeah. That's what you hope the Symposia over on the reflective side will facilitate, no? But we're here where participants will engage in study. Tell me quickly how you have initially fitted out the rooms. What's Masterwork now about?

R 10 — OK. Let's concentrate on it and I'll indicate what's initially there and why and explain how we imagine participants should work with it and start building that room up. Then you can check out the other rooms and see what's in them to begin with and figure out how participants might work with it.

V 11 — Sounds good. I see the work of a few figures there. Those are the starter materials, I take it. It is pretty sparse. Among big thinkers, Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. Literary greats, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare. An artist, Leonardo. No surprises there. But it sees Wollstonecraft is the only woman!

R 12 — It's a bit embarrassing and we trust there will be many more. We don't want to get defensive about this initial set. It is here for illustration, without rational justification. Remember, this is a place to work in, to study, not simply a place to come and get something.

V 13 — In calling the room Masterwork, what are you implying about what users might expect to find in it? I don't think you mean to suggest that users will find here models that they should copy literally in living own lives.

R 14 — That's true. We think it is a good strategy in self-culture and liberal learning to get to know very well the work of one or more figures whom you've decided are really worthwhile, to know their work, not as a specialist in their thought, but as an appreciator, an amateur. In that way, they become stable figures, personal resources, in your interior discourse. First off, users will find in the room the work of a selection of such figures.

V 15 — I'll ask—"Is that all?"—knowing that that is already quite a bit! But I suspect you are not just going to say, "Here. Go study!"

R 16 — One could do worse. But you are right. Suffice it for now to say that we want participants to add illuminating criticism and interpretation of the value and uses of each figure's work.

V 17 — So we are not simply talking about what I see stashed in here. It is a place for the collaborative study of how bodies of work people might call Masterwork can serve as resources in a person's efforts at self-formation and liberal learning. I imagine that this basic function of the room is fairly fixed. But tell me more about what's going into it and why, and who thinks what about it How will the place develop?

R 18 — Well, we want participants to decide a lot of that. They should periodically set the number of figures featured as Masterworkers on the Goldilocks principle—neither too many nor too few. Participants should adopt, and regularly revise, criteria for determining who to feature and collaboratively adjust the Masterwork room by together selecting from a much wider set of possibilities. Until participants have set the first round of criteria and made choices from the possibilities, one should take what's featured in the room merely as a working illustration.

V 19 — Got it! But the illustration includes some names I wonder about. For instance, Izaak Walton—who was he and why do you have him in there?

R 20 — Walton's an unusual 17th century character, remembered for The Compleat Angler, a charming dialogue about fishing first, then hunting, and some falconing—he grew it through many editions through his life. It's a book that one can keep coming back to. It is not only the great figures of literature, thought, and art who achieve masterworks.

V 21 — OK. And what about the Grimm Brothers. Why them?

R 22 — They were part of a movement in the late 18th and early 19th century, particularly in Germany, to collect folktales. They're a wonderful source—"Hansel and Gretel," "Cinderella," "Snow-white," The Golden Goose," and a couple hundred more. We don't really know at what age people might start in A Place to Study, and we are not waiting Disney's versions to dribble out of copyright.

V 23 — So you are suggesting that "masterworks" can take many shapes for many different people.

R 24 — Yes, strongly. Like the term "ecumenical," liberal learning should broaden out to encompass the learning "belonging to the whole world, universal, general, world-wide" that fosters autonomous judgment. Recently, www.grimmstories.com popped up in the digital commons with the full set of Grimm's tales in Danish, German, English, Spanish, Finnish, French, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Turkish, Vietnamese, and Chinese!

V 25 — Interesting. In addition to breadth of resources, what about their depth. You don't want lots of specialist scholarship, but what do you want. For instance, let's assume things get going and in a year or two Rousseau gets selected to be included here. What do you anticipate will be featured here by and about him?

R 26 — That really up to participants to determine through what they choose to do. But I plan on participating by working on Rousseau myself. Here's what I'd like to see done. To begin with we should offer good digital editions of his work in French and English and maybe some of his works in other languages too. Émile is there now, but it should include his major works and some more minor ones. We should develop a good guide into and through the enormous secondary literature on Rousseau, but being cutting edge in that is not the point What we don't have so much now, here or elsewhere, is a body of critical and interpretive material on Rousseau from the point of view of self-cultivation and liberal learning. Particiapnts should work to develop that. I hope to be hale and full witted long enough to do a really good study of his own self-formation—he did it his way!

V 27 — That gives me an initial sense of what would be happening here in the Masterwork room. I imagine I could get a explanation of what happens in other rooms by visiting them, but before I do that, Let me ask something different. I looked at my User area. In addition to space to work on My canon and My project, it has a space labeled The place, just like here, and it had what I might called alcoves, labeled in the same way as these rooms with one, like here, for Masterwork. What's the connection?

R 28 — Remember when I once noted that the participant's User areas would be integral parts of the whole site? What you are asking about now points to how that might work.

V 29 — So what I do in my Masterwork alcove will somehow hook to what happens in this big room here. But you include some names I wonder about. Izaak Walton—who was he and why is he there? We study a variety of matters in various different modes. Among the modes, we begin, we advance, we continue, we shift, we tire, we culminate.