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2012 Fall Issue 5 (October 19, 2012)

Unity, Duty, Destiny

October 19, 2012
By Stuart Urback

When I was in middle school I loved Bionicle. I collected nearly every character and comic, played the games, watched the movies, and even got on message boards whenever I could. Bionicle was a multi-media LEGO brand that existed from 2001 to 2010.  It was named after Biological-Technical and centered around the story of 6 heroes who protected their villages from evil and explored their world for clues to their existence. I was obsessed. 

The theme of the series was unity, duty, and destiny. Now as a college student, I’ve started thinking about how the themes present in Bionicle relate to the educational challenges I have seen at Carleton.  The concept of duty, while omnipresent in the Bionicle universe, is almost entirely lacking in modern day educational curriculum.

In Jane McGonigal’s first TED talk, she argues that there are 4 important parts to happiness.  They are:
1. Having satisfying work to do.
2. Experience of being good at something.
3. Time spent with people we like. 

The Carleton curriculum does an excellent job at these first three, topics are fun, there is a lot of support to make us feel successful, and the people are great.  According to Ms. Mcgonigal, humans also desire a fourth: the chance to be a part of something bigger (sounds a lot like duty to me).  This is where current curriculum is the most lacking.

I think it’s incredibly ironic that many college students spend approximately 16 years in an education system whose curriculum purposefully removes them from actively engaging or being responsible for any part of a community.  We learn calculus, write papers, and study history on our own.  Sure, we might get help from someone else, but the work we do is only really for our personal benefit.  (This seems especially absurd when compared to the healthcare industry where one of the main challenges is getting patients to follow regimens that will have a direct impact on their health and well-being!)  Then, at the end of those 16 years, during commencement, the graduates are promptly reminded of the major problems in the world that need fixing.

About that...

While my flowery rhetoric might be viewed as a critique against the system as a whole, it’s not.  I am poking fun at the sometimes incredibly frustrating elements of a system that is already incredibly successful (3 out of 4 ain’t bad).   

The problem is this: removing students from social contexts in their learning, removes part of the impulse to learn as well as an important part of the process of the generation of knowledge.  But more importantly, it also makes reintroducing that knowledge into social contexts especially difficult.  How can a person talk about how Marx makes him a better doctor when he hasn’t even explained what Marx means to him within the context of his class? 

Understanding the ins and outs of being a part of a community of knowledge (rather than just a bastion of facts) fundamentally changes our understanding of the material we are studying.  Introducing communities of knowledge and practice would prepare students to think about the world not just in terms of how they see it but also in terms of how others see the world (This certainly happens a lot outside of class!).

Classrooms are already a space for this type of learning; class discussions or presentations are excellent examples.  It would be useful to expand this interaction and integrate it more fundamentally as a method of teaching.  That way the discussions and presentations wouldn’t be a respite from the “real work”  (the papers and projects); instead, both would be a way of producing knowledge as a part of a community of practice (the class as a whole).

While Bionicle seems like an utterly silly way of discussing the topic, its themes of unity, duty, and destiny are all important parts of a college education (we just call them by different names).  Maybe it’s time to look at how successful media and entertainment franchises engage users.  Perhaps colleges could even learn a thing or two? 

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