When I was in school, I loved the precision and tidiness of it—each class a container with a tidy list of assignments by week. All these fascinating subjects, like chests full of jewels, and if we only sign up and listen, we might uncover some of those jewels. Looking at new syllabi at the beginning of a semester, going out and purchasing new books at the bookstore. The whole process was exciting and full of fresh adrenaline—like gifts would lie behind that door, for sure. But often, the sense of excitement turned into a bit of drudgery, as we slogged through the material and assignments…until finally, at the end I just wanted the whole thing to be over.
When I finished my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, I was so burnt out on reading that the sight of a book or words on a page made me physically sick to my stomach. Even the words on the back of a cereal box swam in front of my face and made me nauseas. So I gathered together the stacks of notes, literature, and rough drafts related to my dissertation, and dumped them into the massive recycling container at the Berkeley recycling center. I stood on top of the ladder and watched as seven years of academic research dropped away in front of me, never to be seen again. Throwing away all this work gave me nightmares for quite awhile. “Surely,” I anguished, “I must have thrown away something that I would need?”
After my dissertation, the only direction I could turn was into the creative arts. I took pottery and creative writing classes, bought paints and started painting. The creative arts made me feel spacious and free—they gave me life. And when I started teaching, I found myself split—on one hand was the art, image, beauty and creative process that I loved so much; and on the other hand, teaching and learning which I also loved. They seemed hopelessly separated. Over the years, as I’ve continued to pursue the question of human learning, those two hands have come together.
Decades of research has clearly demonstrated that creative process and metaphoric images are our native language. “Men sang before they spoke” and they learned the language of water, fire and clouds before they produced more formal and sophisticated language systems,” writes Harry S. Broudy in Reflections from the Heart of Educational Inquiry.
There was a profound wisdom in discarding my books and academic papers. Although I eventually returned to academia and academic research, a very determined part of me yearned to tap into a deeper level of human experience…having a conversation with the metaphoric images that lie below our rational thinking process.