Story posted September 01, 2004
"On Learning as Deep Play"
David A. Collings, Professor of English
September 1, 2004
Bowdoin College's 203rd Convocation was held Wednesday, September 1, 2004, in Pickard Theater. Following is the text of Professor David Collings' address.
President Mills, faculty colleagues, staff, students, and members of the community,
It is an honor to speak to you today on the occasion of the opening of a new year at Bowdoin College. Although no one here truly wants the summer break to come to an end, it is still a joyous occasion when we gather as a community to take up once again the rewarding tasks of teaching, learning, and working together. I am especially honored to address members of the incoming class on the verge of your first day in the college's classrooms, and I join with my colleagues in celebrating your arrival and your entry into the life of the college. With the permission of my other listeners, I am going to speak primarily to you today, in the hope that doing so might enable the rest of us, by extension, to reflect anew on our own purposes at the college as well.
This is a moment for celebration in no small part because you students of the incoming class are poised at last to begin the process of changing your lives. As you know, having been told as much by parents, teachers, counselors, and now many of us at Bowdoin, college changes you: you meet a host of new people, encounter a wide variety of new ideas and disciplines, consider new ideas on how you might live, and prepare yourself for an adult life as a literate and curious citizen of the world. But consider the implications of this prospect. If you are truly open to what you might learn here, there is no telling what might happen. You might come planning to be a lawyer, but eventually become a geologist or a historian of China; you might journey here from California and decide, upon graduation, to settle down in Maine; you might arrive hoping to join the soccer team, but end up devoting much of your time to the Outing Club or the Bowdoin Women's Association. Or you might delve further into an area in which you'd been interested for years, but discover that it entails ideas and experiences you had never envisioned. You never know. That's the way college is: if it promises to change you, it is more than a little dangerous to all your best-laid plans, to the identity you bring with you as you begin. You could come out a very different person, largely unrecognizable, not at all the person you hoped to become, nor, perhaps, what your friends or family expected.
This promise, or this danger, is clear from what you've been told about the college experience. Yet you have come here nevertheless. You deserve credit for your willingness to live a little dangerously, to put yourselves at risk, to leave yourself open to surprise. By coming to a liberal arts college that is designed precisely for this adventure, you've clearly chosen not to embrace other models of learning. You've decided, for example, that learning is not a matter simply of accumulating knowledge, as if you were a container that could be stuffed with a neutral substance. Instead, you've opted for a school that believes that learning, far from something that you can contain, is something that alters you; it demands an active exchange, a process that might lead you to reject some ideas, absorb others into your very identity, and in moments of truly inspired encounter, might cause you to undergo a genuine metamorphosis. Similarly, you know that learning is not simply a process that prepares you to succeed in a profession you have chosen in advance. You know that if that were its central purpose, it would fail to fulfill a more important, if mysterious, goal: to discover ways of thinking and living you had never previously suspected and to see even the most familiar things in an entirely new light. So you have opted for a college of another sort, one that accepts the ironies of education, the possibility that learning can happen not only through slow and steady growth but also through self-abandonment or confusion, enchantment or disorientation - through a constructive disharmony between what you thought you'd learn and what you actually experience.
While on some level you know all this, I'd like to invite you to think a bit more about what this decision means for you and to embrace it even more consciously. Learning is paradoxical: on the one hand, it requires that you choose to dedicate yourself to particular areas of study - specific classes, for example - with genuine commitment. On the other hand, you can't choose them with full consciousness of what you have chosen, precisely because you have not yet learned what those courses will teach you. So you are in the position of choosing something at least partly unknown, giving yourself over to something largely unpredictable. Learning is thus innately open and experimental: you can only know the value of what you've chosen after the fact. But then the process begins again; you choose more courses, take more risks, and judge their value, once again, retrospectively. The further along you get, the more you revise what you've learned before; as you gain knowledge, you also accumulate those occasions when you've rethought everything you previously knew, when in retrospect even the beginning stages of your thinking become strange and new. The only way to find a home in such a situation is to embrace this very openness, to accept as your own a deliberately experimental life, a comfort in insecurity.
If all this is so, then it is truly strange to decide to go to a liberal arts college, for in that choice, you accept the paradox of choosing to become someone other than you are, someone whose face you cannot see. What metaphor best captures the strangeness of that choice?
Let's try out the metaphor of high-stakes gambling for a moment. In learning, as in gambling, you submit yourself to an external procedure, to the roll of the dice or to the constructive discomforts of your education, without knowing the result, in the hope of transforming the very foundations of your life. But this metaphor doesn't work entirely. In a high-stakes gamble, you might well lose everything and walk away empty-handed. In education, on the contrary, you know in advance that you will inevitably change; you're bound to lose much of who you are. The only question is what you'll become instead. In this gamble, you give up your present in the confidence you'll receive a future that is more interesting. Perhaps, then, the best analogy is a strange sort of game in which you risk something you know only to get something entirely different in return, where you sacrifice a precious theory of the world to get an even more convincing one in return. In earlier centuries, people called high-stakes gambling "deep play," for in such play aristocrats could gain or lose entire fortunes at a single throw. But learning involves even deeper play; while an aristocrat at least knew what he stood to gain or lose, as a student you cannot know what you might gain. It's as if you stake money in dollars, only to win in zlotys or rupees - as if you stake a home in the suburbs, and get in return an outpost near the Serengheti plain. You never know; learning is like that.
But to participate in this kind of deep play, to embrace the unknown, to dance with an unforeseeable future, is not a matter of what we normally consider recklessness. It's not about rebellion, or frivolous play, or drinking a keg of beer all by yourself. Paradoxically, once you deepen play by risking yourself, you alter the nature of the risk you take: the gamble only works if you're paying attention, intent on coming to grasp that unknown thing; it transforms you only if you are truly at stake in what you ask. The more intent you are in your gamble, the greater the discovery. This kind of risk, it seems, is a form of serious play - so serious, in fact, that if you aren't giving your full attention on every level of your being to what you are learning, you may miss the moment when your real calling becomes clear. You wouldn't want to be in the position, as an old saying has it, of gaining the whole world and losing your own soul.
But this seriousness isn't the kind we normally imagine, either. It's not just about working hard, of studying for exams, of grinding it out when you have to do so. It involves all of that, of course, but requires something else as well. This is a playful seriousness, a resolute kind of challenge and risk, one that listens for a certain unmistakable element in what you learn, demanding that it give you back something even more valuable than you have given up, that it disclose a secret that makes all your effort worthwhile.
Such a relation to learning can often be difficult to sustain. Despite the choice that inspired you to come to a college like this, you can easily submit to a different mode of learning once you are here. It is very easy to accept the spirit and the rhythm of the semester passively, to do your duties as a student, an athlete, a friend as if they are all part of a happy and absorbing routine. If you live that way, you'll do well enough; you'll survive the onslaughts and enjoy a busy and interesting collegiate life. But you may never truly take the measure of what the college can offer you, nor will you mount as deep a challenge to the college as you should. I thus respectfully suggest that you cultivate a disciplined fearlessness, through which you explore areas of learning that seem as if they could never interest you; through which you demand to know the ultimate stakes of what your courses are teaching you; through which you accept in advance the pains and traumas of intellectual and personal growth, and come to expect and perhaps even welcome these moments of constructive difficulty; through which you seek out people who disagree with you, so that, through some hard discussion and hours of close listening, you might come to change, or at least deepen, your mind. In short, I challenge you not only to conceive of your overall endeavor at the college as a marvellous, rewarding gamble, but to turn your ordinary experience in the classroom and dormitory, on the playing field and in the dining hall, into a sustained and respectful challenge to yourself and others. This kind of challenge will work only if it is savvy, strategic, and kind, if it gives due place to the limitations of yourself and others. Thus it will never become a question of confrontation, or risk-taking, for its own sake. It might often bear fruit in silence and solitude, as you reflect on the life around you and reach new judgments about where you want to go. If you think deliberately about the risks you choose to take, carefully absorb the results, respect the people you challenge, and nurture relationships of mutual critique, you will grow much more than you would think possible, packing many years of transformation into these short four years, and along the way, you will also make this college a far more dynamic community than it would otherwise be.
What effect will this respectful risk-taking have on your ordinary life at the college? For one thing, you'll soon see that this way of learning is inherent to the academic disciplines themselves. A form of serious play is at the heart of every intellectual enterprise. The rigorous creativity of the arts, for example, the path-breaking interpretations required in literary criticism or history, the speculative inventiveness of philosophy, and the precise experimentation or hypothesis testing of the natural and social sciences, all testify to a knowing openness, a strategy to tempt the world to yield up its secrets, to disclose the logic of its magic. The more you cultivate a form of deep play, the more quickly you'll get what each discipline is about and the more pleasure you will take in every area of your education.
For another thing, if you pursue this kind of learning, you will be willing to ask the stupid question in class, however embarrassing it may be. At most institutions dedicated to higher learning, there is immense social pressure to be smart, to look smart, to sound smart. This is understandable: after all, you have to be pretty smart to be admitted to Bowdoin and to get a college degree here, as well. But if everybody were so smart, they wouldn't really need to be here in the first place. So I suggest that you defy this little rule about not looking dumb and cultivate a very different image instead - that of the person who is, on occasion, a total dunce. For only those who freely admit to their stupidity will provoke knowledge to make itself clear: only those who ask the stupid question, which more often than not is truly the brilliant and difficult question, will get the answers they seek.
What else will happen if you see learning as deep play? You will also see that the contrast between academic and extracurricular activities may not hold true, at least not in the familiar way. We often contrast schoolwork and athletics, for example. And to some extent this contrast must hold true. But if learning is deep play, it shares a great deal with the practiced spontaneity of a sporting contest. In both cases, what is required is the disciplined fearlessness I have spoken of, a willingness to put oneself at stake in the face of a precise challenge. If that is the case, then it is foolish to condescend to athletes. But it is equally foolish to assume that one should not work too hard at one's coursework, dismissing those who do so as nerds, boring people, or conformists. To dismiss serious intellectual endeavor is just a way of disguising the fear of how you'd look if you truly abandoned yourself to an idea you love. To give yourself joyously to an intellectual task is no more ridiculous than giving your all in the heat of a close game.
The contrast between academic and social life also breaks down if we look at it from the perspective of deep play. Of course, this contrast is true up to a point; we will always need the distinction between classwork and leisure time. But it's also clear that you are attending a residential college for a reason. On one level, your living together makes it easier for you to talk with your teachers and peers in person, face to face, making learning into an ongoing and intimate exchange. But your sharing living space has deeper implications as well. Where else in our societies can young adults live in a communal arrangement without direct parental supervision? Because colleges are so familiar, we easily forget how gloriously unique their living arrangements are: for most of you, only for these few years in your entire lives will you be able to create your own alternatives to the living spaces of the family, the couple, or the single adult. The college is like a vast commune - admittedly a commune of a certain sort: you live together, eat, sleep, and learn together, play and fight together. But the college is even more unusual than a commune would be, for you come here from a vast variety of backgrounds, bringing with you a host of contrasting life stories, attitudes, and beliefs. Thus the social arrangements of a liberal arts college like this pose a great question for you: what do you want to do with this unique social setting? How will you personally take advantage of the presence of so many other lives in an arena so open to your creativity? It is inevitable, and good, for you to find a home here with a number of close friends and a circle of acquaintances, for you to establish a zone to which you can retreat and relax. But if you stop there, you'll let too many possibilities pass by. If you wished to live out your four years entirely in the comfort of a close group, why did you come to a place like this? The best response is to venture forth from this zone of comfort as often as you can, to embrace those aspects of social life that are newest and most difficult for you, to cultivate relationships that promise to change you deeply - in short, to make just as serious an endeavor out of your social life as you do out of your academic learning. If you take these risks - as many of you already have, simply by choosing to come to Bowdoin - you might eventually discover the value of social discomfort and even begin to feel at home even when you are out of place. You can ultimately make the social life of the college into a vast classroom in which you will cultivate yet another way of becoming a different kind of person by the time you leave, learning not only from your teachers and friends, but from apparent strangers as well.
Finally, you will learn to give the uniqueness of a college experience its appropriate value. Students at Bowdoin often speak disdainfully of "the Bowdoin bubble," mocking what they see as the unreality of academic life. But without protecting you at least in part from the pressures of adult life, the college would make it nearly impossible for you to think of learning as a form of deep play. For you to abandon yourselves to an unforeseeable future, you must be set apart from the concerns of a utilitarian present. Does this make the college a bubble, something that can be popped with the gentlest pin-prick? Not at all: this separation is, in fact, profoundly empowering, enabling you not to ignore reality, but eventually to embrace it with much greater inventiveness and resourcefulness. For in the end, it will have taught you to conceive of life outside the college as a further extension of the learning you do here: your entire life can become a form of deep play, of respectful defiance. The college separates you from what might seem to be real life to free you of the illusion that there has ever been, or could be, a self-contained thing we could call "reality" to which you must eventually submit. On the contrary, the life of learning suggests that the nature and significance of reality will always be up for grabs, that it has not yet achieved, and fortunately will never achieve, its final shape - that it is, at least in part, a field that you can transform in your future labors. The welcome to Bowdoin, if rightly understood, welcomes you not simply to this campus, or to your endeavor over the next few years, but to a way of life: it invites you ultimately to become a participant in the re-creation of the world, to become your own version of a gentle and respectful revolutionary.
This, then, is my invitation to you: you have come to college to learn. Very well, then: learn. You've chosen to make a risky, perhaps even dangerous wager. You have chosen well. As you become aware of the costs of your choice, choose it again, and even more deliberately. When it seems as if you have lost your gamble, when you find yourself in darkness or in grief, keep going: never fear. If you do so, there is no saying what abundance might surprise you, what lives you might discover, what strange worlds might await you, what kind of society you might make possible. I am honored to be here with you today on the occasion of your great wager; welcome to the life of deep play.