Lee’s Stories

Lee’s Stories

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posted on August 5, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
Assumptions, Points of View, and Fundamental Operating Principles

I created this assignment in 1985
for a course in Human Ecology for
third and fourth-year non-scientists. 

The assignment
to an important new
book about sustainability I had asked
them to read, but that particular book is
incidental.  The importance of the assignment
is not in the book, but in the opportunity
offered to reflect on
their own home
disciplines.  The referent could
have been anything that
led to similar

It is one of many
kinds of attempts to help students
recognize and appreciate the unity of all
knowledge, of their own knowledge,
and of interactions between

In this
case, I introduced
a significant problem at a level
of abstraction unfamiliar to them, then
asked them to reflect on that and comment on
For nearly everyone, responding ade-
quately to the challenge was difficult in several
ways and required significant intellect-
ual and usually emotional
growth as well.


It would
be difficult to deny
that everything seen by a
human being is seen from a
point of view, every thought
rests on beliefs about reality,
everything done is done
from a set
of operating principles that guide,
direct, or even determine
the consequences
of action. 

A simple extension
of this idea is that all
observers, thinkers, speakers
and actors exist in relation to other
observers, thinkers, speakers and actors,
all of whom are embedded in a cultural matrix
of diverse and often incompatible points of view.
Cultures may rest on different fundamentals and
so may subcultures within them, like professions and
academic disciplines.
This diversity of fundamentals
generates  rich and interesting interactions, and
policy is generally generated by groups rather
than individuals, this intensifies the challenge
of trying to
manage a complex and
interconnected world.

This challenge is
heightened by the fact that the
deepest beliefs tend to be subconscious
and show mainly in indirect, implicit, extremely
powerful ways
– deep unarticulated biases are cultural
‘backgrounds of obviousness’ underlying rational behaviour
and characterize whole fields of human endeavor and the
people working in them. T
o the extent these biases remain
subconscious & unquestioned, our universes of ‘obvious’
reality remain separate.  We act automatically with-
in our differently biased realities, and rarely
really see other views of the world,
let alone imagine they are as

real as our own.

It is reasonable
to conclude, then,
revealing and questioning
in ourselves and others
opens potential
for powerfully constructive,
creative, powerfully cooperative
that may be
impossible otherwise.

Our Common Future
calls for many circumstances
to be changed, quickly and dramatically all
over the world for our common good, and suggests
this will require greatly increased local participation
in regionally, nationally, and globally significant
decisions, which implies collective decision
making that includes, ultimately,
all human beings. 

We may
wonder how individuals
who live in separate realities can
collaborate constructively in this way.
This will be the subject of your essay.
It will
be a critical examination of your own academic
discipline, profession, or your calling in life.  Your
objective will be to use the challenges of Our Common
Future as opportunities to discover, describe, and
explore the consequences of the background
of obviousness, or backgrounds,
against which your
field operates. 

You are already
aware of many assumptions
and commonly accepted operating
principles in your discipline, I am sure,
but there are many more to discover when
you look honestly in the mirror of your discipline
and speak clearly  about what you see. 
Discover them.
Describe them in your own writing, neither to defend nor
to criticize your home, though your writing
may contain
elements of either, but
critically to examine its roots.
Nor should it critique Our Common Future
or its assumptions, though it may
contain elements of that.

Your paper
will be less formal academic
exercise than personal exploration
of your discipline, though it will contain
many elements of formal writing and scholar-
Your essay will be from your personal
point of view and that is what we want.
Please make it your best writing
ever about anything.

that I suggested no
particular examples or kinds
of examples for their arguments
and didn’t care.  I had no business
caring, either, because I had only
but my own prejudices to tell
me what they would find

I wanted
them to look in the
mirror of their own prior
experience, look at the commit-
ments they’d made, see them deeply,
perhaps for the first time, and tell me
honestly what they saw. 
I also wanted
them to learn things they didn’t already
know about their own disciplines
and change somehow in
the process.

Is that too much to expect
from a writing assignment?

This, like
most of my more
successful experiments in
education, was ambiguous enough
in its instructions to invite creativity in
interpreting the assignment and develop-
ing and tuning their responses to it.
This, and
the fact that students in the course were from
everywhere but science drew a broad range
of responses from them and required
similar breadth of comments
from my assistant
and me.

Inevitably, the
assignment led to a series
of class discussions.  Given the diversity
of backgrounds, an important one was about
barriers between disciplines and how to reduce them,
particularly in the very broad domain of Human Ecology,
which in our view included all of them. 
Some were spontan-
eous.  Others, once I started them with a comment or question,
evolved by themselves with no
intervention. I played a more
active role in other discussions, as when research teams
were stuck, having difficulty in their work, when my
experience of my own research could help,
sometimes with brief suggestions.
Even so, I had to remember
four things:

Don’t try to solve unclear problems.
Don’t intervene without good reason.
Don’t dominate any part of discussions.
Don’t compete in any way with students.


One reason
to stay out of students’
way is that not only do they
need clear problems to solve, but
they need to learn to identify, clarify,
and solve those problems in their work,
outside the course, outside the university,
for the rest of their lives. 
They need
to make mistakes to learn from
them. and teachers can’t do
any of that for them. 

All we
can do to assist them
in that kind of learning is set up
situations, invite students to engage with
them, watch what happens, and learn from it,
putting our oar in where we have to.
In summary,
students learned a lot about themselves and each
other through the assignment, and about their
own and each other’s disciplines.  I
learned a lot too.

that happens often
in deeply immersive experi-
ences like this is that individuals reach
turning points in their lives.  They decide things
like changing disciplines,  changing professions,
changing relationships, hopefully for all, changing
how they think about things and how they do
them. They decide to take the concept of
Human Ecology more seriously
and decide what to
do about it.


In the case
I’m thinking of at
the moment, a very bright,
accomplished economics student
headed for graduate school discovered
through this assignment that he wanted
nothing more to do with major assumptions
underlying what had until then been his love,
macroeconomics.  Instead, he went to grad
school in the brand-new discipline
of ecological economics and
I happily helped him
get there.

a psychology student
decided not to be a psychologist
and get a graduate degree in forestry.  A
Yale colleague who studied hummingbirds in my
lab every year talked with her, and she went there
for graduate level forestry with the intention of
applying what she’d learned in psych
to real world challenges of
managing forests.

I said things like ‘Please
make it your best writing ever’
often.  Often enough to remind them that
I expect the best from them in everything
they do, every time, and expect them to expect
that from themselves as well.
What a thing to do to
people! Sometimes I feel almost guilty about it but I
usually think it’s my job.
I did expect it from them,
always, just as I expect it from myself, and they
knew it, so my request was a reminder of things
they already knew: life is short, university life
shorter, my course much shorter than that,
and it was time, once again, to perform
beyond their limits and knew
I would catch them if
they didn’t.

One other
thing is worth mentioning
about this exercise.  There was no
content in it, other than the content students
brought to it from their disciplines.  The exercise
is about process.  Specifically, it is about the process
of reflecting on one’s own field of study and implied
field of employment after, telling the truth about
what they see there, and considering what that
might mean for what they do in the future
to make their way in the world.  Is
too much to expect from a writing
assignment?  I don’t think so.

Edited May 2022.

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