More on Stories, More on “Goods”

I’ve been thinking more about story since writing this recent post, and I’ve come across some more reading and thinking that I’m trying to make sense of. (If you haven’t read that post, this one will make much more sense if you do.) So in the spirit of blogging my way to greater understanding…

Next week marks the release here in the US of a new Will Storr book titled The Science of Storytelling, and from the reviews that I’ve come across so far, I’m intrigued enough to have queued up the download on my Kindle when it comes out. One of the most interesting reviews of the book comes from Big Think, where I was struck by this particular description of Storr’s thesis:

In his latest book, “The Science of Storytelling,” journalist and novelist Will Storr opens with a simple yet disconcerting message: “Humans might be in unique possession of the knowledge that our existence is essentially meaningless, but we carry on as if in ignorance of it.” This is why we’re all hallucinating. We’re not living reality as much as constructing one based on personal history and environment. Over 7 billion human animals walking around, telling ourselves stories about ourselves, using them as emotional shields to guard against the ravages of an indifferent universe. That’s how powerful stories are.

I think the reason that “Humans might be…” part strikes me so much is that it’s unpleasant truth-telling, which is pretty obviously the phase that I’m in when it comes to life and particularly education. And because it again goes back to that Harari quote from my previous post about almost everything being a fiction. It’s all narrative. And we create the narratives and fictions we need to find some in the moment meaning to our existences, even though one outcome to all of this could very well be that we’re all just dust in the end. (Which, while somewhat depressing is also somewhat freeing.)

Our Stories

Anyway, it’s good to be reminded that we are always telling stories about ourselves, and that our stories really are the way that we make sense of life. Without story, it would be a pretty bleak existence. Thing is, we choose the stories we tell about ourselves and one another and our institutions. If you’re a Bernie supporter, you’ve chosen a much different story from all those Trump supporters out there, and vice versa. And that’s because the story you’ve chosen resonates more closely with your own personal framing. But neither is necessarily “right,” although it feels like we need one or the other to be. In the case of schools, if you think an education is something you “get,” then you tell the traditional story of school. If you think an education is something you “learn,” then your story is vastly different. And honestly, I’m not sure there’s more space in-between those two than there is between Bernie and Donald.

Good stories require that a character (or an institution) changes. At some point, according to Big Think’s review, “the protagonist faces an ultimate challenge which forces them to confront life-altering change.” And I can’t help but think about schools as I read that. I think schools are on the brink of an existential challenge, one that goes to the heart of “Why School?” It doesn’t get more foundational than “Why do schools exist?” yet I don’t think many educators are asking that question. And I don’t think we can effectively craft a new story until we’ve done that. If you go back to my previous post again, I talk about David Labaree’s distinction between two narratives of schooling, that of being a “public good” whose role is to help children become good citizens and problem solvers and humans, and that of being a “private good” whose role is to create or maintain status and access to a greater degree of personal success rather than societal improvement.

That in and of itself is great conversation to be having in schools right now. Not just in the sense of articulating as a community which story you want the school experience to be about but also owning which story you are actually living. (So much discomfort there.)

Ambiguity Sucks

Storr also writes about how we can’t live with stories that are incomplete. Our brains require us to fill in the gaps because we just hate ambiguity (especially true when dealing with stories that revolve around our young.) And, importantly, he says that we want to be in control of the story, even though, again, control is just a fiction as well. Our fatal flaw as individuals and institutions is that we don’t understand that we really aren’t in control of much of anything, and not acting with that understanding. I mean, do schools act as if they understand that they really aren’t in control of what kids are learning?

It’s interesting, and there’s more that I’ll try to sort out in later posts, perhaps after I’ve actually read the book itself.

But I want to briefly capture one other molecule-shifting idea that I found this morning after tracking down more information on a mention Storr made of “eudaimonic happiness” in his TedX Talk on “The Science of Storytelling.” Defined, a eudaimonic life is “to be had whenever we are in pursuit of fulfilling our potential,” which leads us to finding “more meaning and purpose in life.” It’s based on the Aristotelian view that we are innately driven to pursue our potential, to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be.

But here’s a bit of an extended snip from a Psychology Today article that focuses on “eudaimonic happiness” with some added emphasis:

But to realize our potential, we need what Aristotle called “real goods.” By real goods, he meant those things necessary for the development of our potential, such as shelter, clothing, food, and friends, but also arts, music, literature, and culture. In the modern world, there are certain things that we need to be able to do in the pursuit of fulfilling our individual potential, and, in this sense, real goods are defined by their necessity to us as individuals.

The obvious example is that we need money, and so it becomes a real good. But there is also what Aristotle referred to as the “golden mean,” which is the right amount of the good: too little and we are in deficit of what we need to pursue our potential, as in times of famine when people’s potential is literally thwarted; too much and what was a real good becomes an “apparent good”—something we don’t need.

Apparent goods are the things we simply don’t need. They may give us pleasure, but we don’t actually need them. The important thing is not to confuse them with real goods, which can lead us to think we do need them.

Modern-day positive psychologists are now taking these ideas based on ancient Greek philosophy very seriously in their quest to understand what seems most important for a good life.

The eudaimonic view is a different way of thinking about happiness than the view we are bombarded with in our daily lives by advertisements that seek to define modern life and sell us apparent goods as if they were real goods. Seen this way, modern life makes it hard to find happiness because we end up striving for, and investing our energies in the quest for, apparent goods. In short, we seek pleasure and joy at the expense of meaning and purpose.

Is anyone else seeing the connection here to what David Labaree has been writing about? The tension between public/real goods as the most important needs and aspirations in our work and private/apparent goods as the things that we don’t really need but which our stories tell us we do? Anyone?

Honestly, I’m still trying to think this through. But there is some resonance there. At the core, what is actually necessary for us to develop our potentials? To engage in true “eudaimonic happiness”? And how do schools support those “real goods”? Or do schools cater to the “apparent goods” which may provide “pleasure and joy (and status) at the expense of meaning and purpose?”

One More Thing…

In the current edition of the Atlantic, the inimitable George Packer has a piece titled The President Is Winning His War on American Institutions. And yes, it’s pretty scary. And yes, you probably are already in that story tent if it does feel scary.

But in the midst of all of the stories of how much has and is changing under Trump’s regime, I couldn’t help but stop cold on this line that was describing one reason why so few people saw these changes coming:

But the adults’ greatest miscalculation was to overestimate themselves—particularly in believing that other Americans saw them as selfless public servants, their stature derived from a high-minded commitment to the good of the nation.

I can’t help but wonder the extent to which the “private good” drivers that we have in our schools today is a huge reason for this miscalculation. The “good of the nation” intentions that schools were first formed around have been “re-formed” by the consumer’s desire for “good for self” outcomes. So why should we be shocked when so many don’t see a “high-minded commitment to the good of the nation” as something to be admired and respected? That’s not been our emphasis. That’s not what we’ve been living in schools.



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