Saturday, November 16, 2013

It Is About Time

by Andy

This time of year is a big transition time for the garden. The ground freezes and the crops die and the nature of the work changes. It is also a big transition time for the gardeners. It is a mental transition as well as a physical one. We are no longer bound to the relentless rhythm of weekly harvests, and we have long since given up on planting and weeding. The dictates of the land become less immediate. We need enough wood for maple syrup. We need to prepare the ski trails for winter. We need to monitor the storage produce. There is time to think about new projects and choose work based on interest more than urgency.

As I was reviewing the Land School blog this morning I realized that the number of posts has fluctuated significantly from month to month. I would like to write every day. Certainly I do compose essays in my head on most days; or I take mental snapshots, wishing I had my camera along, so I could post photos. But as I looked at the pattern of when I post more or less, I noticed that there are two conditions when I do not post: when I don't feel I have enough time, and when I feel I have too much time. That I am controlled by my sense of time is no surprise to me, but this is a moment when that awareness gives me pause for reflection. As a teacher, I tend to incorporate my own learning about myself directly into an expanded understanding of human universals. My picture of human universals also puts me in touch with Montessorians everywhere, who are always looking to reveal the true nature of the child. This brings me to the question: "Is time real?"

Time certainly feels real to me. As a child, I had certain adults in my life who were very concerned about time. My parents wanted us to be places "on time," and when we were traveling somewhere we could feel good when we were "making good time." Punctuality was also praised by my teachers, who wanted us to get our homework done "on time," and who provided an example for us by beginning and ending classes based on what time it was. As I moved into the world of adulthood, in my first jobs I was asked to punch a clock when I arrived at work and when I left. The breaks of these jobs were timed as well. I had also internalized my parents' and teachers' directives about being on time and I began to budget my time, much like money (don't get me started on money). When I wake up in the morning the first thing I wonder is "what time is it?"  From my childhood onward, counting linear time has been a very real companion.

I was first exposed to the idea that time might not be real during college. Between conversations with friends and some revealing books, I came to believe that, in theory, time was just a human construct. Of course in practice, I continued to treat time as a real phenomenon. A second blow to time came when I was in the Peace Corps in Central America. There were many situations where my Midwestern United Statesian view of time was not applicable in the slightest. If there are different cultural conceptions of time, then maybe it is a practical human construct. As a Montessorian I am also aware that at least for Children's House and Elementary age children, the ideal is to have long uninterrupted work cycles, where children can become immersed in their chosen work and lose the sense of time. As a craftsperson, I also know that when I am truly engaged in a wood-working or writing project, I lose awareness of linear time as my "flow state" is activated. However, I don't last very long in the timeless flow state, and when I do return to my day-to-day time sensitivity, it feels familiar and safe.

If linear time is a sort of useful collective delusion, then I have two questions. First I want to know why linear time is so important in this place and point in history. And second I want to know what is actually true about how humans and "time" interact.

Here are some thoughts on the first question. I think linear time and the whole concept of measuring things in a linear fashion both mesh very well with industrial capitalism. When people as a whole moved to a factory model for industrial-age life, predictability became very important. The assembly line has to start and finish simultaneously. Products needed to be measurably uniform and up to a minimum standard. Items that are alike are able to be labeled as commodities and traded interchangeably. Time itself has also become a commodity that can be used, traded, maximized, or wasted. Traditional school as we know it coincides nicely with the measurable quality of linear time. Many of the meta lessons of traditional school prepare us to participate in capitalist society. Children begin to punch the clock in kindergarten and soon learn to apply themselves in the pursuit of meeting external standards at a pace dictated by external authority. I personally thrived in traditional school, partly because I had internalized early on the dictates of measurable linear time.

The second question is more complicated. What is our natural relationship to time? I think agrarian and hunter-gatherer people are acutely aware that linear time is seldom the way of nature. Things do not grow in a linear fashion, but rather there is a logarithmic nature to growth. For instance, corn does not grow one inch every day. Instead, for the first 3 weeks it grows to about 4 inches, and then in the course of the next two weeks it might grow 1 foot, and then in the 6th week, if the weather is right, it might grow 2 feet. In the insect world, development does not proceed at a linear pace, but rather through quantum stages and metamorphoses. Farmers do not plant based on what date it is, but rather based on the conditions and phenology. And in farming, tasks are not usually circumscribed exclusively by the time of day, but rather they are bordered by the actual completion of the work (this week our corn farming neighbors have been out harvesting all night with the headlights on the combines). So in nature and in agriculture there seems to be different sense of time, that can seem to slow down or speed up depending on the situation. In nature, uniqueness also seems to trump uniformity and thus standardization is less important. For agrarian and hunter-gatherer people I can only imagine that the concept of "using" time would be different and flexible depending on the task.

Take a moment and listen to Radiolab for a while if you want. Then come back to indulge me (once again) in a little dream analysis.

I awoke this morning with memories of a dream where I was left behind on the Junior High Odyssey because I had not tracked the time well. Specifically in the dream, I did know what time it was, but I wasn't aware that people were going to leave at a certain time and also that they were not going to come around and collect me. There was a sense of shame and urgency around the rest of the dream. I was ashamed because I had missed the bus and I was also urgent to rectify the situation. This situation mirrors my day-to-day reality when I feel have a lot to do, urgent about time and some shame about what I don't accomplish. Despite my agrarian lifestyle, I continue to have urgency around time that I carry around with me. This urgency is useful when it helps me to prioritize and get to market on time. However, it is not useful all of the time. In fact, I do appreciate times when I am free from the constant need to be aware of how well I am using my time. I like long bus or plane rides, when the nothing is required or even possible for me to accomplish. I like a Saturday morning, when I wake up early and can write random musings for the blog, or read a book, or do nothing, all without urgency. I like working with young people on the land especially when we forget about the time and dig into the project at hand. I love cooking when the end point is not the timer going off, but rather the food actually being ready. Time is sometimes real for me, but not always. There are cracks in the foundation.

I believe that industrial capitalism contains inherent oppressive structures, and that systems of education based on the industrial mindset can be equally oppressive. Although I live an agrarian life and I teach for a Montessori learning environment which is explicitly focused on the liberation of the child, I am acutely aware that I remain partially in the thrall of linear time and the mindset of constantly needing to use my time well. I am aware that I am a model for my students and and my own values can be easily transmitted without my intention. Awareness is a first step.

It is not so simple as just giving up linear time and living in the charmed flow state all the time. According to my understanding of Montessori theory, the task of the Adolescent is to discover who he or she is in a social sense. In this process, the Adolescent discovers his or her worth in terms of society in a process Montessori called "valorization." Quite literally, the young person comes to a sense of his or her own value through experiences of making recognized contributions to community. This learning process is a cycle of cause and effect, and it reminds me suspiciously of linear time. So this is telling me that we might need both. How do we reconcile the need to keep in touch with our true nature, with the need to live in our particular world with our particular social mores? This is an essential question if Montessori adolescent education is going to be a "school in the elements of social life," as she described it in her essay in From Childhood to Adolescence. How much do we educate young people to find a place in this world without undermining their true nature?

This brings me full circle to my initial observation that my blog output seems to go down both when I feel like there is not enough time and when I feel I have too much time. After a summer and fall packed to the gills with action, the open ended nature of winter can overwhelm me. There are fewer boundaries to help me prioritize my actions. Winter is beautiful, and I do have time to pursue hobbies and interests, but sometimes motivation is hard to muster. As an educator, I am also suspicious of completely open-ended curriculum. The gift of the Land School is to ground the curriculum in agricultural time, seasonal time, phenology, and food. I will continue to relish my own interaction with the land and the resulting time shifts, and I will also continue to bring awareness to the urgency of linear time and the ungrounded amorphous nature of off time.

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