Teaching for Overstanding: Wisdom from a Rastaman on How to Bridge the Liberal Arts vs. Edtech Divide

As much as I welcome all the recent talk about how the “barriers are crumbling” between the humanities and sciences, how the liberal arts are critical to the technology economy, and how the academic “fuzzies” and the entrepreneurial “techies” now get along - I’m not yet seeing it.  The edtech folks continue to lob their “disruption” bombs at the liberal arts defenders, who huddle entrenched in their department meetings and conferences, feverishly penning new works defending the “virtues” and the relevance of their academic fields. 

Even at the more promising innovation gatherings of early-adopter types like the Reimagine Education Awards or SWSXedu, I observe that most of the time that the technologists and the humanists are still talking past each other. 

I would like to suggest, however, that the ancient concept of “wisdom” might offer these two sides a common goal - a unifying framework for the reconciliation of edtech and the liberal arts. To make this case, if you will indulge me, I need to engage in some Caribbean storytelling…

I grew up on the small West Indian island of Antigua.  My siblings and I were the only white kids in a rough neighborhood of misfits and outcasts. Our walled missionary compound sat in between a drug house and the home of an obeah woman, just down the street from the island’s largest brothel. Directly behind our backyard was a hamlet of shacks and gardens that made up a small rastafarian commune – close enough that I would often fall asleep to a soundtrack of nyabinghi chants and drumming.

I have a vivid memory at around age six or seven of a towering rastaman with dreadlocks to his waist and arms in the air like an Old Testament prophet walking past our house and calling out a judgment of “fire burn Babylon” over our gated compound.  However, this same rasta prophet then waved me over to the front gate where in a serious whisper he instructed, “Likkle buoy, you must smoke de herb! De ‘wisdom weed’…Fire go burn Babylon.” 

Overlooking the talk of apocalyptic fire and illicit drugs, I considered this man my friend, perhaps because in spite of my affiliation with the “Babylon system”, he treated me with respect and was trying to communicate a truth he saw as critically important. This rastaman prophet was offering me an invitation to see the world through his eyes, to embrace a worldview larger than that of my American “Babylon” compound.[i]

One of the aspects of rasta culture that I came to admire was their creative reimagining of the English language. (For example, one should never talk of “falling in love,” but rather aim for “standing in love.”) The way I saw it, this wasn’t “broken English” (as my teachers labeled it), but rather a kind of poetic, evolved English.

One of those richly reimagined words was the replacement of the word “understanding” with “overstanding.”  From a rasta philosophical viewpoint, one should not have to stand “under” an idea.  Since God had created man, man was superior to ideas.  One should take knowledge, absorb it, and then put it to work in an empowering “overstanding” of that knowledge. [ii]

Overstanding is, in essence, a reframing of the ancient concept of WISDOM, a virtue which has been at the heart of all great religions and philosophies.  Wisdom is often defined as “the right practice of knowledge,” or “knowledge matched with experience.” The Latin word for wisdom, sapientia, is related to the verb sapere – to taste, to be wise (i.e. wisdom comes as we taste the world). Sapientia is also where we get the Latin nomenclature Linnæus used to name humans.  Homo sapiens – or Wise Man - suggests that it is wisdom that separates us from the animal kingdom.

Wisdom is the character that is forged when the rich wealth of human knowledge meets the fire of real-world relationships and experience.  Or to put it in the terms of this discussion, wisdom is shaped when the knowledge of the liberal arts meets real-world engagement, producing wisdom-infused “scholar-entrepreneurs” or “scholar-practitioners.”  (Wisdom is perhaps what Steve Jobs had in mind when he said that “technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing").

The challenge we face in higher ed is that our organizational structures are not always conducive to this integration of knowledge and experience.  Our liberal arts programs, in spite of all their talk of wisdom, fail to demonstrate their value and are vulnerable to extinction - in part because we have divorced those programs from real-world experience.  We are good at “understanding” issues, but in reality don’t get students out of the classroom and engaged with society enough to be able to teach for “overstanding.” 

Equally problematic, our technologists promise to make knowledge more accessible and more connected to the “real world” – but their approach can also prove quite shallow.  Our disruptive tech solutions will fail to nurture wisdom when they neglect the deeply human elements of reflective practice, dialogue in community, and attention to virtue and history that are embedded in a liberal arts approach to education. 

As Joshua Kim noted in his Technology and Learning blog last year, “Perhaps the gap between the promise and the reality of educational technology has less to do with the specific technologies, and more to do with a failure to talk first about values.

Wisdom is both a key employability skill as well as a foundational humanistic virtue.  What would it look like if we came together and focused our shared energies on creating new pedagogies are conducive to teaching for wisdom and overstanding? What if we leveraged technology to support a praxis-oriented approach to higher education where the liberal arts were constantly being put into practice in society?  High-impact practices like service-learning, study abroad, and project-based learning show promise as human-engaged, wisdom-shaping models of education, but we need to reimagine higher education in a way that places this pursuit of wisdom at the center, rather than the periphery, or our university experience (whether that is traditional undergraduate liberal arts education or online learning).

Like my rasta friend, we need to offer the other side an invitation to come out of our huddles and engage in a common pursuit of wisdom.  As the book of Proverbs in the Jewish and Christian traditions advocates, “Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7).

[In future posts I'll highlight some programs which I think show promise for accomplishing this kind liberal arts and edtech integration].

[i] Cultural note: In rasta religious practice, one smokes “the herb” as a way to partake of the Holy Spirit, who then uses the scriptures to illuminate truth and wisdom.  My assumption is that my rasta friend was not actually trying to get me as a six-year-old to smoke, but rather inviting me to see things from his perspective and suggesting that I allow the Holy Spirit to show me truth that went beyond the blind spots of my white American culture...
[ii]  For those of Jewish and Christian faith, this is what is sometimes referred to as being "co-creators with God."
Paul WaiteComment