Culling the Net: A Lesson on the Dark Side
Copyright 1994 by Jamie McKenzie
When you haul your nets aboard, like any good fishing folk, you must then sort through the collection to find what's worth keeping - what's worth carrying back to port and ultimately what's going to sell in the marketplace of ideas. Of course, even when your haul is safe in the ship's belly, the journey has just begun. Your catch must be "processed" and packed for shipping. Once at the market it must be propped up and put on display in an eye-catching (or mind-catching) manner so that someone will "buy into" your thinking. Closed minds can be coaxed open to relinquish bias, bigotry and ignorance. If you have done your job well, the insight you (or your students) have achieved will be infectious. Others may come to see and understand what you have grasped. Illumination. Revelation. A community of shared meaning.
Not so long ago, the hard and time-consuming part of research was the gathering of information. Today that is the easiest part. Internet and electronic encyclopedias offer mountains of data and information (much of it info-garbage) which can be swiftly downloaded and stored on one's own desktop. A fourth grader conducting a Veronica search on Internet for files covering ancient Egypt may suddenly find a menu of 1200 or more documents ready for reading . . . and culling.Ê It can be overwhelming, especially if one has no toolkit for culling.
Gone are the days of simple copying onto note cards. Remember the "change one word in every sentence" rule? Now we have small children carrying around hundreds of pages of text on diskettes which fit in their pockets. Can you imagine a young woman offering to carry a young man's diskette home from school? Hardly a romantic notion!
So . . . This is an article devoted to the skill of culling. It flows developmentally out of an article entitled "Grazing the Net" which first appeared in From Now On in December. Since culling is a subset of a larger family of skills associated with "synthesis," for those who love sequence and order, it may pay to read the other article first. On the other hand, if you sometimes plunge into the middle in order to hop around and through someone else's thinking, if you enjoy grazing and surprise, you might as well jump right in. Save the big picture for later.
1. Avoiding Darkness
Schools have generally paid too little attention to darkness in the past. The sage on the stage shares insight. Students commit memory, scribbling down furiously whatever is deemed "noteworthy." There are far too few opportunities to explore the unknown or make meaning.
School learning is too often like the man searching for his car keys at the edge of the parking lot under the street lamp. When asked if he lost his keys nearby, he answers, "No, but I am looking here because the light is good."
We feed students certainties, scientific laws and shopworn truths unlikely to survive the rapid change of the Information Age, remaining within the comforting glow of the street lamp, while we should be showing them how to search for meaning in the shadows.
2. Probing Darkness
Because the creation of insight requires the building of answers rather than the finding of answers, a true investigator or researcher spends a good deal of time probing darkness, exploring regions and realms of thought which may have escaped prior scrutiny. There are few signposts, route maps or tour guides to show the way. The pioneer blazes a trail where no human thought may have trod. It is not unusual to get lost, suffer fog and lose heart.
In some ways, the search for meaning and truth is parallel to the hero's journey. Illumination is rarely gained without first suffering pain, disillusionment and defeat. Somehow they usually fail to teach us that in school.
3. Darkness and Culling
What does darkness have to do with culling?
When you don't know what you don't know, it is difficult to determine what it is you need to explore or what you can safely throw away. When we fish from the concrete piers of our certainties, we hook mostly bottom fish of the most ordinary kind. It is when we head for the open seas with our lines trolling behind us that we are apt to land the big fish like Hemingway's Old Man.
How do we sort through a menu of thousands of files? Since bias and personal comfort both rely upon the screening of information to match misconceptions, it is easy to fall into the trap of opening and retaining only those articles which support our point of view.
If we hate the timber interests, we delete their data, their research and their papers like rotten bottom fish. "Don't confuse my mind with facts." If we hate the environmentalists, we delete whatever the Sierra Club posts over Internet. We keep searching for keys where there is already light.
4. Discipline, Courage and Intuition
The search for truth requires discipline, courage and intuitive skill.
As an element of a student's disciplined inquiry, persistence figures in mightily. Now that it takes just a few moments to identify hundreds of pages of "stuff," it will be tempting to stop there. The student must stick with the search until the net is filled with "the right stuff." The "right stuff" is that collection of ideas, data and information which is structured broadly and deeply enough to support illumination.
Catford and Ray (1991, The path of the everyday hero. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.) draw a close parallel between the stages of the hero's journey and the six stages of the creative process:
We are not likely to achieve illumination without experiencing frustration. We are unlikely to move past frustration if we do not know how to incubate and strategize.
Historically speaking, student research in schools, generally topical in nature, has not required extensive work on the six stages listed above. Courage is required to maintain commitment and optimism even when insight in hidden somewhere in the darkness.
While logic is helpful in structuring searches, intuition is even more important when exploring darkness. Intuition - "a sense of something not evident or deducible" (American Heritage Dictionary, 1969) - is a talent employed by artists but neglected by the population (and schools) at large. Intuition leaps across a long menu or list to grasp unusual connections and relationships. Intuition holds a passionate regard for surprise and mild contempt for the obvious. Intuition prefers darkness and shadow to bright light.
Recent attempts to improve mathematics have come squarely into conflict with a long history of teaching students to follow set procedures. The parallel with research on the Internet is evident:
Michael T. Battista "Teacher Beliefs and the Reform Movement in Mathematics" Education Phi Delta Kappan, March, 1994, p. 467.
5. Culling the Net for Darkness
Knowing that I might search for "darkness" in the collections of poetry and song lyrics on the Net, an hour's fishing resulted in a word processing file with more than 200 pages of poems and songs. But this first collection was just the beginning. Opening the file with a word processing program, I began searching for the word "darkness" in order to decide which poems and songs might actually prove illuminating.
It did not take long to realize that I was searching through great hunks of words which had very little to do with darkness. Some of the poems were very long, while the references to darkness might be minor. The song lyrics came as entire albums. Perhaps one song dealt with darkness. So I began eliminating and culling.
200 pages soon became 50 pages. The list of poets and song writers included the following:
Even 50 pages of poems seemed overwhelming. How might I glean the most insight from this collection?
The next step was to reduce the mass further by compiling key phrases and sentences. Now I was finally down to three pages of fragments.
Scanning this new document, I was suddenly struck by how little wisdom remained. In taking lines from context, I had reduced import. Instead of distilling and condensing, I had fragmented. The list was manageable, but the ideas had turned abruptly petty and pedestrian. My reliance upon logic and analysis had killed the art. Insight fled for cover.
Backpedaling rapidly, I loaded the CD player with a Jane Siberry disk and cranked up the volume. Insight crept out of hiding, new ideas began to incubate and the journey toward illumination was underway.
I had discovered the limits of culling. In our rush for meaning, we can too easily discard and eliminate. We can carve up the ideas so that they cease breathing and speaking.
6. Constructing New Ideas: No Wine Before It's Time
Over the course of several weeks I played with the idea of darkness as I drove around town, ran, read various books and took a 4 year old friend for walks at night. The Internet songs and poems set my mind in motion. Given time and a bit of old-fashioned reverie, the ideas began to dance and weave, forming new associations and relationships. Some even spawned children.
Miroslav Holub's poem about Prometheus and the gift of fire reminded me that powerful forces (the gods, the citizens of Athens, the mind police) have always tried to keep humans from lighting their own fires of illumination. What will they do to shape our children's experience with the Internet?
The vast majority of the poems and songs painted darkness as some kind of enemy to be avoided or conquered. The Prince of Darkness was a favorite character in rock music, with groups like the Indigo Girls warning us to resist his power:
If the Latin root of "educate" means "lead out of," can we equip students with the kind of "sight" the Indigo Girls mention in their song? Or must it be through some gift of grace?
At the same time, several poets and song writers seemed to encourage familiarity with darkness:
Bruce Springsteen . . .
They associate darkness with dreams and passion.
Jane Siberry even suggests that all the candles in the world . . .
. . . as she is about to kneel in prayer. Darkness, thus, is associated with depths of feeling, faith and soul. As Shakespeare poses the question:
Jane Siberry states the challenge as " . . . piercing the darkness into the light."
Across the collection there is the suggestion that salvation involves some kind of struggle against the forces of darkness. Revelation lifts the soul from the grasp of the Prince.
Shakespeare, in "The Rape of Lucrece," paints an especially harsh picture of night:
7. Moving Far Afield - Adding Resources
Limiting thought to the materials on the Internet would be folly. In my own exploration of darkness it was the interplay between electronic text and other experiences and resources which led to the most profound insights. The folks at SYNECTICS, a creative problem-solving consulting firm in Cambridge, teach the power of excursions to enrich the production of teams. We might bear that in mind as we set up investigations for students. What is a healthy and provocative mixture of real world, multi-sensory experience, grazing on the Net, enjoyment of art and reading of books?
a. Excursion into Darkness - In January I spent several evenings exploring my neighborhood with a 4 year old after nightfall. I handed Sam a big 6 volt flashlight and let him lead the way. His curiosity led him to peer down alleyways and stoop low to shine his light into the root system of a large bank of shrubs. An unusually fearless child to begin with, he was an avid consumer of darkness, piercing the deepest blackness with his electric spear.
Two months later the image of Sam crouching over with his flashlight keeps stimulating my thinking about darkness. I wonder about flashlights. We are warned to walk through the forest without them so our eyes may "grow used to the darkness." What meaning is there in this advice for students and the Internet? Is an intensely focused search likely to miss more than it finds?
b. Excursion into Traditional Text - Once I began my inquiry in earnest, I kept encountering reading which touched upon darkness in one way or another. In Soul Mates, Thomas Moore advocates a closer relationship with darkness:
Mindful of the tendency of the majority culture to portray darkness and blackness negatively, I also turned to Langston Hughes to find warmer, kinder images.
8. Conclusion: Culling Must Be Informed by Insight
I discovered during this exploration of darkness that my culling skills were flawed and my blades too sharp, too quick to cut and eliminate. I emerged realizing that I knew too little at the outset to cut away material wisely. I found myself returning to the biggest, unculled file to see what I had missed with my first cut.
The lesson for those who work with students is the value of teaching them to "muck around" a bit in the material before eliminating and cutting. We must encourage them to open and read poems or articles which appear irrelevant. All too often, it is the surprises which inform the mind most powerfully. The irony is that culling becomes most meaningful as one begins to develop new insights.
It is only by beginning to discover what we do not know that we become open to learning more about it. We are, otherwise, too much like the small boy exploring the night with a powerful flashlight. The beam creates the illusion of understanding, but it is far too narrow in its focus. We do better shutting off such beams and relying upon our night vision. We do better lighting candles.