Archive for January, 2013

The title of this post is explained at the end, so read on to find out – or skip to the bottom.

After a sprint through several Personal Development workshops in January, both at Henley and in several European countries, it’s perhaps time for a breather to see what needs to be noticed. A while ago I might have just said “time to reflect”, as a lot us do, as if the act of reflection was somehow predicated on a deliberate switch from one mode or model of thinking to another. I’m now no longer sure this is a helpful way to look at it. And even less sure that it’s truly accurate. I’m using some of this post as a space for ideas to work themselves around each other, and so want to ask whether there are any things to do with reflection about which one can be sure. The short list below covers some of what has been occurring to me lately:

1. It struck me the other day that the senses are not five in number but actually one, in sum. Our demarcation of one sense from another in perception is artificial. This makes perfect sense to me, though I think the idea would need expansion to convince anyone else. This means that reflection, like all perception, is actually a systemic process, not a systematic one. Unless we understand how systems work, we will never understand the function that reflection has in our learning. I think that the ideas of many of the seminal originators of reflection, in their own ways acknowledge this. But those complex ideas tend to become worn smooth over time by constant reproduction, reinterpretation and simplification by others.

2. What we call reflection is just our punctuation of what is actually a constant flow of experience. We can’t easily prevent ourselves doing this since we hold very dearly to the idea that conscious purpose is, to borrow Sellar and Yeatman’s memorable phrase, “a good thing”. The need to know “to what end?” drives many different varieties of and purposes for reflection, but in every case the process we use is much the same. While helpful in the short-term and therefore essential in formal learning among adults, ultimately our attachment to and affection for conscious purpose in reflection may be counter-productive and in error (right now, this is just a hunch!).

3. Two common denominators seem to anchor everyone’s experience of reflection. The first is that it involves some form of noticing a difference, and the second is that the difference noticed will relate in some way to “unfinished business”. I hope I will be able to expand on this (even explain it…) in future blog postings.

So, that’s my current bedside thinking and my rehearsal of big ideas. The workshops this month have been really fantastic to run. They have, I think, really hit the spot with their place in the curriculum, and are in tune with the collective experience of the intakes at that point. I think this makes all the difference. There are just some things that would be pointless to say at the start (unless one was planning to dump an “I told you so” on people later) but which are liberating to play with later on. For example, I’m glad we don’t start the MBA with lots of goal setting, but with a challenge to how people behave, think and see themselves. If you don’t get that bit right, then the planning would probably resemble the shape of the past, not the future. Also, talking about what “career” means doesn’t make much sense too early in the MBA. Generally, people who are in mid-career don’t need to make any decisions about career steps and goals until they have a certain vocabulary, fluency and confidence which is attained through hard work by about the mid-point. That is actually when career things tend to happen anyway. So I’m glad that the thoughtful approach seems to be paying off. Still, there are always ways in which this could be better, and I’m aware that there is more that is needed in order for the MBA experience to be something remarkable.

This month I was also able to start playing with application of ideas and thinking from the PhD for the first time. This is to a group which was less restricted than in the context of the MBA, and therefore a good challenge because that particular audience was not a captive one (the venue, Gam3 in Copenhagen was unusual too, and it’s worth checking out their web site to see why).

It went pretty much as I had hoped, though I talked more than I let them talk. I was left also wondering whether I could do such a thing without having PowerPoint blazing away in the background. I do try to use it as a graphic guide or creative prompt, and not as just a horribly magnified set of speaker notes, but even so. The best speakers on TED seem to be the ones who just, well, speak, and who hold the audience with the power of imagination and the eloquence of their choice of words. Have I become so entrenched in believing that “it is done this way” (and the PD workshops are no different – the tyranny of the slide pack is also part of the expectation of the group) that I may be missing something here…?

So, the title of this blog is my understanding of the Laws of Jante (10 rules set out originally in the 1930s in a novel by Aksel Sandemose), which amount to a cultural explanation of the collective attitude in Danish society toward the delicate relationship between the individual success and the group identity. “You’re not to think you are anything special” is the first of these, and they are deliberately written in a rather negative overtone. I don’t think this is the same as the English sentiment of not “acting above your station” because that’s an affirmation of a society with rigid class divides and appropriate behaviours at each level. The Danes are very protective, it seems, of everyone’s right to object to the idea of anyone else telling them what to think or behaving as if they were better than anyone else. I’m not sure if this means they like to “cut people down to size” who are “too big for their boots” (see how metaphor gets us from one idea to another without Passing Go…).

Anyway, I quite liked the atmosphere in Copenhagen, so they must be doing something right.


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I suspect only those who have lived (or are living through) a Civil War can know what that is like. The rest of us live through them only vicariously, at best. The protracted and bloody conflict in Syria is an example of one such nightmare, but there have been others. In a land where division and mistrust of neighbour lives in paradoxical proximity to a strong sense of camaraderie and innate hospitality, the short and bloody conflict in Ireland following the War of Independence (1917 – 1921) is one. I have in earlier posts written something about the family involvement in this, and also in the Civil War after Collins’ death.

Civil Wars are toxic, and they invariably feed themselves from poisonous antecedents. When they are over it is perhaps not surprising, yet very damaging, that they are very often not spoken of again. They become buried into the national unconscious, and into family systems. Civil Wars force splits that reverberate across the generations just as much as they cross the garden fences and shopping aisles of the everyday life of a community. They also leave unanswered questions and incomplete sentences, so to speak, in the grammar of community well-being.

I have never seen or been part of a Civil conflict, but when RTE, Ireland’s main broadcasting company, recently aired an edition of a programme presented by Eddie Hobbs called “My Civil War” I suddenly found my grandfather’s name implicated in one of the three incidents under scrutiny – albeit without any evidence in support of that implicit connection – a notorious event of the Irish Civil War in Dublin in late 1922. The incident involved the murder of three teenagers from the Drumcondra district of north Dublin. Their bullet-ridden bodies were discovered in lying in waste ground at an intersection called Red Cow in the late summer of 1922, in the midst of the Civil War which had pitted former comrades in arms into factions of pro and anti-treaty alliances. The pro-treaty forces had formed the first independent government in Ireland and were in the process of establishing the many systems required for statehood. The anti-treaty forces were much smaller, a guerilla force of perhaps a few thousand, with some additional popular support gathered around the controversial figure of Eamon de Valera.

This sounds like a history book, but history – even in extraordinary times – is made mostly by ordinary people. I could criticise the programme for several things, not least the rather tired “Who do you think you are?” format of following people around while they scroll through old records and revisit the places and spaces where their ancestors had been. That’s not to belittle the experience of the three families in search of answers about the fate of their great uncles or aunts – this is quite an important thing to do when there has been something “unspoken” in the family past – but the programme absolutely failed to deliver any answers or any closure beyond the sort which says “this was the spot where…” and “we’re not quite sure why what happened, happened” etc.  Place is important, naming is important, but all in all it was very shallow documentary making, though perhaps it was well intentioned.

My grandfather, Charlie, was named as the officer in charge of the arresting party in the Red Cow incident (four people were arrested in Drumcondra for putting up anti-treaty posters). The implication left hanging (the programme said “there are no official records of what happened next”) in the audience’s mind must surely have been that Charlie, a local lad much the same age, had a connection with the three teenagers deaths later that night. But hold on, there are indeed official records of what happened next. There was also an inquiry. There were records of the three young lads being discharged from custody three hours after arrest in the evening. Charlie was one of the arresting officers, but not the senior one present. He was not involved in their interrogation. No evidence was ever offered that he was involved. The programme failed to make most of these points, and they are surely not nontrivial if you are naming an officer so prominently in an incident which you are making a film about precisely because it has remained a mystery to this day what actually happened to the victims.

Voices are silenced over time in conflict. In Civil conflict, this is made worse by the shame and festering of close contact turning on close contact. But if you are going to get to the bottom of what happened, if you are going to do justice to those who cannot speak for themselves, then you need to have facts, or find them. RTE is guilty of pandering to a kind of confessional sentimentalism and sensationalism that is now a genre: “ancest-reality” TV.

The RTE program is on YouTube and can be watched here.

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