There’s No Doctor in This House, Just Someone Who Asks a lot of Questions: Where I’m Headed, Part One

“…for most [people], the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school.” (Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, 1970 p.xix)

I’m an unabashed generalist. A near novice in any field. Now that I’ve left my teaching position, I’m no longer qualified for it–I couldn’t even apply, wouldn’t make the interview round. No joke. A bona fide outsider. After all, the theory goes, you wouldn’t want a non-degreed, non-licensed doctor to operate on you. So if you are shelling out $50,000 a year on college, you don’t want anything but a certified expert in the classroom. And I’m no Doctor.


Don’t get me wrong. I know many spectacularly gifted PhDs who do fabulous teaching and research, who push my own thinking every time I encounter their work, who are incredible, imaginative learners. We need specialists. But not only specialists.

I could never imagine myself studying any one thing exclusively–I majored in art history, did a Masters in English, am deeply interested in creative expression, Irish Studies, multimedia narrative, 21st-century learning, gardens, architecture, digital art, food in culture, sustainable communities, the history and theory of education, photography–all kinds of subjects. I wanted it all, fluidly, simultaneously. I never wanted to teach the same course semester upon semester (in spite of agreeing with Gardner Campbell that every semester opens as a tabula rasa). Increasingly, I didn’t want to teach with a syllabus at all but to wander about a subject as a group of learners needed and wanted, exploring from as many angles, histories, perspectives as possible, veering off topic altogether when that was what we needed to do.

I even proposed to the college that I would be happy to continue teaching from the new center I was designing, as long as students could be released from the semesterized, campus-ized model, coming down instead to the center in intensive bursts when relevant collaborations, mini-courses, projects presented themselves there; when not at the center, they would graze freely on the myriad open-course opportunities on the Web, pulling together a mosaic of study: reading, conversing and reflecting online, creating, working in tutorial and/or in small groups, taking whatever time (within reason–deadlines have their use) made sense to complete that “course.” Some students could get the credit fast, in a few weeks; others might take a year or grow a single course into multiple credits. That idea went over…well...not so much.

Which makes sense because whereas the ability to work and learn and live this way has once again become possible (in a newly rich, global-as-well-as-purely-local way), the fear of the miscellaneous and anarchy and chaos–loss of control–has led to our time out of school looking more and more like school and our neighborhoods no longer about neighbors at all.


I was quite aware of breaking the rules of the Academy, and that I was a puzzlement to my students–who was this odd duck with neither PhD nor string of important books? No books? How did someone like me get to a place like this? (Well, I was only sort of in “a place like this”–a lecturer, never a professor, I inhabited the margins of this place.) I’d explain that I was lucky, an anomaly. Couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Couldn’t be known. And for a long time, I couldn’t see how it could get any better: I could be in school but not of school. I could hang onto my rebel cred WHILE reaping the benefits of a life in college.

So, why ever would I leave if I’d never be able to return?

Hypocrite hypocrite.

Reading Illich, hooks, Rose, Greene, Arendt, Gomez-Pena, Sontag, Freire, and more recently Gee, Wellman, Levy, Hawisher & Selfe, Tuan, and Weinberger and, well, so many others, and right now some fantastic bloggers engaged in continuous, dynamic conversation of the now in the now, made me uneasy about staying. I was troubled when I read what string theorist Brian Greene wrote in an op-ed piece for The International Herald Tribune:
“We rob science education of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems and recite facts without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars.”

And when he said that “America’s educational system fails to teach science in a way that allows students to integrate it into their lives.” Integration and imagination take time and opportunities to speculate, to dream, to play with what-ifs.

Of course in 1970, Ivan Illich wrote (once again in Deschooling Society): “…the deep fear which school has implanted within us, a fear which makes us censorious.” (p.18 ) How can learners dare reach beyond themselves, beyond the stars if they are blocked, bounded by fear?

Michael Pollan gets at the same dilemma of over-specialization and fear–in his case, as it pertains to how and what we eat–in his new book, In Defense of Food, (you can read the introduction on his website). He shows us the promise of this particular moment: “We are entering a postindustrial era of food; for the first time in a generation it is possible to leave behind the Western diet without having also to leave behind civilization. And the more eaters who vote with their forks for a different kind of food, the more commonplace and accessible such food will become. Among other things, this book is an eater’s manifesto, an invitation to join the movement that is renovating our food system in the name of health—health in the very broadest sense of that word.”

But is the answer to go back? Or to go forward in a new way?

In spite of my growing unease I stayed. For years. I complained a lot, sometimes loudly, mumbling something about the importance of working from within the system, about influencing the next generation of leaders. To ask them thee questions. To point at these dilemmas.

And anyway, go where?

Everywhere. Anywhere. Both back to very old ways of doing things and forward into cyberspace. Post-industrial?

Into town. Downtown. Back into town. AND wherever in the world we need to go.

Solving the World's Problems

Now that we can harness the creative and connective powers of the Web and the open education resources of some of our great universities, why ever stay within the confines of a single school? Why shell out up to $50,000 a year for fancy digs when for no money at all we can reap the full benefits (sans credit) of such courses as the one George Siemens and Stephen Downes are offering? How long will the cachet of a degree from elite institutions and the attendant uber-important connections be enough to trump the limits of single-school-in-place-with-limited number-of-course-offerings-and-departments-and-majors? It was time to make the leap.


The community digital learning centers I am planning (slowly) are being conceived in the spirit of the miscellaneous, of emergence, of collective intelligence, of de-schooling, of edupunk, of slow-food (slow communities now too). Yup. All of those.

after rain

With my merry band of cohorts I’m exploring how to marry collaborative Web practices to the lived-in, traditional community to open our notions of learning–when and what and how. Right now we’re thinking about four-five pilot sites across the country, ranging from small rural communities, to suburbs to small cities. These physical centers will be places where people from across a community’s spectrum gather in person to discuss and learn and explore and share the connected and expressive practices of the Web. Within this neutral non-school people can shuck their fear of trying out these tools and practices within the workplace. People with no computer or internet access at home can hang out in the lab. Kids and the elderly can swap stories as they teach one another invaluable lessons about life. Nonprofits and agencies can gather to learn from one another and help one another both online and in person. Individuals can avail themselves of the computers, the space, the mentors to engage in hybrid learning.

Is it possible that these Web practices, instead of potentially polarizing us into affinity groups and spaces as some contend, can be used to ease community divides? To help solve community problems? To engage children and adults together in deep learning that is contextualized, shared, and personally relevant? To give people a chance to experience the power and joy and fun of the creativity and storytelling and feelings of belonging unleashed by some of these practices? What does the new digitized community learning center look like? Who is there? Why? How is it sustained? How do the practices of de-schooling, online learning, and informal f2f learning inform one another?

These aren’t new ideas. Hardly. But there are so few initiatives in rural places, at least, that are fusing the online and off, bringing people together into contact zones within a center and then moving out into the world online. We have few community computing centers, few internet cafes, even, and fewer centers seeking simultaneously a return to the slow while rejoicing in the fast. Rather, we have roaming workshops and consultants blasting in and out–a great, bonding time online or off, and then you’re on your own. Is that sustainable? Does it actually work? I’d rather work from inside communities to ease the participatory gap, one along the lines of what 826 Valencia or The Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center or The Purple Thistle Center are modeling (funny that these are all in intensely urban areas) but in smaller communities, and with a decidedly Web bent and with an open, generalist’s slate of offerings–each center will be of that community for that community and so will, I imagine, function quite differently from other centers.

I’d love to hear about initiatives/centers from which I could learn–I am in the gathering information, writing vision statements & strategic plans (and grants) stage.

Even from you doctors out there. 😉


15 Responses

  1. Barbara,

    It’s good to have you back on the internets. And while I hope you don’t effectively eliminate all the Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s in the US, I think your plan articulates so many of the things that have to not o nly be talked about, but experimented with.

    The idea of a physical digital community center is key to start re-working how we learn together locally and beyond. It’s funny how obvious it seems after you have laid it out, but how hard it is to see the forest for the trees when you remain within the blogosphere for too long. We are always trying to build the next community site or web 2.0 service, while remaining locked away in the cubicles that can often be mistaken for our homes. The point of stepping out and mixing it up within a community that is not unilaterally dictated by Ph.D.s is very important. Your comments on this idea of a degree and the university certainly exposes one of element of diversity that sees impossible to argue for in these institutions. Diversity of degrees, interests, and unconventional experience seems to be of no count to this institutions, what does that say about them?

    I’m not sure, for I do love working with the folks at UMW, but the digital community centers you are framing here open up a heterogeneous space that fascinates me for all kinds of reasons. I have been thinking a lot about Black Mountain College, and the educational experiment of just providing a space for people to commune, think, and follow their own interests within a supportive community of thinkers. No classes, no official curriculum, just a library, some cool folks, and a whole lot of intellectual energy.

    You future experiments intrigue me to no end, and I would love to be on the ground floor of one of these centers locally in Virginia. So, I’m tuning in to see where this all leads, and how we might be able to act on some of these ideas, and forge somehing I have been missing for what seems like decades.

  2. Barbara,

    Glad to see you’ve returned to your blog and are deep in the throes of creating/thinking about your new project(s). You continually challenge my reflexive, “cyber-based-communities-tend-to-alienate-us” thinking and I’m beginning to believe that (like in your classroom) the mixture of digital/face-to-face learning could be the defining feature of a progressive education in the coming years. The internet has been so widely associated with globalization and vast physical distances that it is intriguing to see, in the past couple of years, people who have begun work on ways in which we can connect on a more local (and as you inferred, more sustainable) level.

    Let me know what your new, non-institutionalized e-mail address is Barbara and I’ll fill you in on what I’ve been up to. I was actually at 826 Valencia the other day and picked up a copy of one of their anthologies. Very neat place (pirate-theme aside).

  3. Jim and Kyle, thanks for the feedback!

    Jim, I much appreciate the encouragement–it means the world to have my own mentors in this work find it promising!!

    I agree that we are often swept away by our enthusiasm for all that can be done online, for all of the learning opportunities, the promise of what James Paul Gee calls “passion communities” engaging more learners more effectively. Witnessing the inspiring creative, innovative digital work of students like Kyle (his comment follows yours), coupled with their healthy skepticism about the draw of the internet and their insistence on being present, active, listening in class–but wanting the freedom to explore there, slowly, over time, helped me come to this incredibly simple idea. I, too, have been thinking about Black Mountain and other educational experiments such as Summerhill and Foxfire–I have a daughter at Hampshire, and so have been observing with great interest that model as well. I’ll keep thinking aloud.

    Kyle, as I just wrote to Jim, you and your peers have pushed me to this new work as I have learned from you as you forge a new way through the undergraduate years in spite of the odds. I look forward to watching/hearing about your work in India this coming year. And I am glad to see you continuing to think about the ways in which the internet does offer us positive connections.

  4. Barbara – you probably weren’t looking to Groucho as a soul mate, but perhaps doing so will show the comedy of it all.

    You asked: “But is the answer to go back? Or to go forward in a new way?”

    I’d go back, but for the limitation of deja vu and the tedium of repetition. The new way offers more challenge.

    Nicholas Kristof calls it an encore career. It seems like you’re in good company with that and it’s the prior accomplishment rather than the degree that matters.

  5. […] alternatives? Is such a move irreversible? I don’t know, but when I read Barbara Ganley and trace her thought I do have hope for different models of thinking about teaching and learning within a digital […]

  6. […] alternatives? Is such a move irreversible? I don’t know, but when I read Barbara Ganley and trace her thought I do have hope for different models of thinking about teaching and learning within a digital […]

  7. […] of those ideas is in any way unique to me. To name but one obvious influence, there’s the way Barbara Ganley talks about and dwells within blogs in her teaching. (The first time I heard Barbara talk about […]

  8. I see you have started blogging again…and so I am going to take this opportunity to ask you what your non-school e-mail address is. I sent you an e-mail at your school address a while back, but after reading your recent posts and not hearing back) I would assume that you are longer using it. Part of the e-mail was a story I wrote after coming back home (taking you up on your invitation to send you a “final project” after the school year ended) and the other parts was discussing the short story writers you recommended (so far I’ve read Jesus’ Son and the rest of Colum McCann collection, along with William Trevor, Richard Bausch, and García Márquez.)

    That being said, after reading these posts I’m extremely interested in where you plan to go with these digital learning centers (and the multitude of ideas floating around in posts.) I don’t have the link, but the NY Times recently published an article discussing the pros and cons of the Internet when it comes to reading and absorbing information–this has apparently become a rather prominent issue, and I’ve read other articles about it as well. I have no idea where to begin searching for an equilibrium between the Internet and less recent sources of information, but needless to say I’m interested in where you plan to go in regards to digital learning centers and other assorted things.

    – Sean

  9. […] been hard to stay out of the fray, as there been so much fine bloggery from Stephen, Barbara, Alec, Jim, D’Arcy, Laura, Martin, and Gardner… just to rattle off a few posts that […]

  10. I love that you are thinking outside the box and coming up with some good ideas. It will be interesting to see where they go.

    I do need to pick a bone with two of the people that you quoted. First of all – Brian Greene. Does he live in the same America that I do? I taught 8th grade Science for 2 years, and I can vouch that every Science standard I have ever read, even up to the national level, REQUIRES science teachers to teach science “in a way that allows students to integrate it into their lives.” And most Science teachers that I know also do that. I have never heard of that NOT happening, except in the few cases where teachers get tired of trying to force students to do hands-on learning (oh yeas, some students…. even entire classes… some how end up being utterly rebellious to the idea of hands-on learning. I had one class that just whined over and over again “can’t you just lecture to us? I hate thinking….”)

    You have to be careful quoting scientists. There is this thing called “new science”…. which is basically the old creationism vs. evolutionism debate taken to a new front. When creationists were able to come up with sound logical arguments about evolutionism become a fact (because you can’t observe it happening), the evolutionists began to chunk scientific fact out the window. You no longer had to prove something true for it to be a fact – you had to prove that it is most likely “not false.” This is dangerous in real life, because by the time that you are taking that new headache medicine, you have probably hundreds of theories stacked on top of each other to prove that it is “most likely” not dangerous for you. But what happens when one of those theories beats the odds and does prove to be false? You get these major problems you hear about in the headlines.

    So, when the “new” scientists ran in to the policy makers at schools saying “ummmm… you haven’t proven this as a fact because you haven’t observed it yet” they countered that by attacking what is being taught in schools. There isn’t really a problem, at least in Science, with what is being taught is schools. It has always been open, fluid, and pretty exploratory by nature. The problem was a political and ideological battle was raging – who cares about facts?

    I also have to disagree with Illich. Neither school nor college put any fear of any of that in me. That statement is total rubbish in my experience. My teachers always taught me to learn, to grow, to question. I had to check that date on him to see if he had been watching too much Dead Poet’s Society, assuming all schools are like the one depicted there.

    Also, I’ve read a few articles recently about schools that are offering degrees that let students design their own degree plan. Apparently, it is becoming a very popular option with school administrators. Unfortunately, it is also apparently failing to capture much student interest. That makes me wonder. I’ve also noticed that the EduPunk movement is much more popular with instructors than students. I hope that we just don’t end up with another Montessori debacle on our hands. Fluid, wandering classes have never proven to be popular with the students. I know – I was in one of those in high school. We called it “gifted and talented” back then. Boring. They even made the mistake of letting us design our own curriculum. What did we do? Watched the lasted hit movies for six weeks straight (until someone finally wised up and pulled the plug on us). “If there is a new way, I’ll be the first in line…. but it better work this time.”

  11. Lanny and Sean,

    Thanks for your comments. Lanny, I love to be included in Groucho’s company, and I do think the notion of “an encore career” quite intriguing though I’m not sure I like the term. It seems a little like an afterthought, the after-the-main-event career rather than just the next step in a life. I don’t see myself changing careers at all, just daring to grow the career into something more inclusive of all the parts of my life and thinking, if that makes sense.

    Sean, that article hit a nerve with a lot of people; I find it simplistic and obvious. many are writing about how they worry that their own ability to read deeply has been compromised. I wish people would use their common sense–I shut off the distractors when I need to concentrate, whatever they are, digital or not. To read a poem or a story or a novel necessitates focus, attention, presence of mind. It also takes practice and mindfulness and determination.


    Ah, you take me on here. I’m delighted! I agree with you that science has been one of the few subjects taught in a way that is “open, fluid, and pretty exploratory” but only relatively speaking. My own science education–from primary school through undergraduate biology courses was deadening. Not a single teacher contextualized the theory, the formulas, the facts within our everyday lives. My daughter-the physics-major felt her college science classes pretty stultifying. All kinds of people I know found science intimidating rather than welcoming or illuminating in school. Good teachers open the doors to the imagination and exploration and possibility no matter what the subject. But too many are burdened by numbers of students, requirements, curricula, and inert administrations.

    As for Illich–my response to you will have to wait for a blogpost–too much to say on that score.

  12. Good morning, Barbara.

    Yours is the first blog I’ve ever spent time with, and the process has been exhilarating. I’m interested both because it feels like a highly promising approach for the “portrait of a Vermont town” course Diane, you, and I discussed and because it feels like an energizing next step with my own writing. So I’d like to share these first impressions of the blog as a medium, then offer a few thoughts about your educational outlook as it’s stated here.

    I love the fluidity of this blog, in which the context of a particular posting is embedded in its content. If we’re really open to the process, or “braiding,” of our writing, we’ll be much more likely to produce something true to ourselves and valuable to others. As a teacher who’s always incorporated journals into classes and who values conversation much more than lectures, this approach feels like an exciting next step. Thank you for opening the door!

    One reason for my not plunging into blogging before this has been a fear that the technology would prove distracting for me and/or my students. But with help from you and other tech-savvy friends I’m ready to go for it. Your references to Illich and Freire, among others, offer a useful philosophical framework, as well.

    So thanks a lot for the inspiring example. I intend to make blogging central to both my class and my personal writing this fall, and will definitely stay in touch with you about that.

    On to the question of how your own exemplary writing and teaching relate to a liberal arts college like, say, Middlebury. After 35 years here, and with just a couple of semesters left on this faculty, I definitely have some reflections to share with you. The first is that it’s great that you’ve made this break into a much more fluid role as a teacher. The energy of your voice makes the rightness of your choice totally clear. Many individuals and communities will profit from this new chapter of your work. At the same time, I want to offer a sense of the enormous value of a place like Middlebury. Not that I’m assuming you’d argue with anything I’m about to say, but simply to complement your points in this posting.

    It’s true that credits, expense, specialization, competition, and professionalization are all deadly serious dangers to the playful and creative life of the mind that should be our goal. Students and faculty alike often operate under too many atmospheres of pressure to enjoy ourselves or do our best work.

    I also have to say, though, that this pressure-cooker of a college has again and again turned out to be a place where the most memorable and nourishing conversations have taken place for me and my students. Exchanges where literature comes alive, and where we long to see each other and take the next step in our understanding and our delight in the world. There’s often a necessary feeling of defiance about this aspect of education within a traditional college–a willingness to jettison the syllabus or miss the next scheduled event.

    But I feel that such tension–between what Dave Smith calls desire and dailiness–can itself itself intensify our awareness of what’s really important. Contrast-value can be essential to staying awake. When I think back to recent classes on “Michael” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” or to class trips to hear Jean Ritchie sing or to climb Mt. Abe, I feel grateful to Middlebury for offering an educational structure from which these experiences of a life-time blasted off.

    I guess my conclusion is that, while traditional institutions and structures can be oppressive, they can (and must) also be enlivened. Curricula, theology, and law can slump into dead weights indeed, but when overtaken by discovery, grace, and compassion can start to breathe again. And to dance.

    I’ll be trying to learn some new dance steps at Middlebury this fall, thanks to your own bold explorations as a teacher.

    In friendship,

  13. […] Comments John Elder on There’s No Doctor in Thi…bgblogging on There’s No Doctor in Thi…Matt Crosslin on There’s No Doctor in […]

  14. […] since Thoreau wrote those words. I also could not help but connect it to Barbara Ganley, who is exploring the idea of “uncommon schools” as we […]

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