I choose to approach life with a wide lens. Whenever possible, I prefer to seek and gain knowledge via holistic, broad-picture comprehension rather than focus on specific rules. An example: cooking. This is one of my talents, and something I do nearly every day. However, I don’t like the question, “What’s for dinner?” Not only do I usually not know before I start how a dish will evolve, but even after I make it, I am often not sure what to call it. My dishes are rarely repeats, always drawn from what is available and considerations of the moment, such as time constraints, my own mood, stash management, triage of what needs to be used, and the tastes of those I happen to be feeding. Like a griot’s story, my cooking flexes and bends depending on situation and audience. I generally create without recipes, but based on prior experience and the knowledge gained from having read many. I experiment and try to be present to different ways of using the flavors on hand. This kind of responsiveness can be more complex, and more rewarding, than following a recipe.
I arrived at my current level of cooking ability indirectly, through a combination of need, work, play, and interest. Unlike, say, enrolling in a course at a culinary school, my skill development in kitchen matters was not linear, and largely unintentional. This is the way I prefer to learn things – naturally, rather than confined to a fixed, pre-determined, impersonal path. I see the linear way children are expected to learn in school, the way I was brought up to learn, as closely tied to the Cartesian paradigm and disciplinarity, and only one of many ways to attain knowledge and aptitude.
As Jean Houston puts it, “Concept louses up percept.” Abstracting and generalizing according to culturally-conditioned categories actually dulls our insights and intuition and keeps us from fully experiencing the world’s complexity. How much less fulfilled of a person I would be if I did not, despite my lack of formal dance training, consider myself a dancer and dance as a form of expression and meditation. How limited I would feel if I thought I needed voice or guitar lessons in order to perform and make an album, or to be a distinguished poet before including verse in my writing. The rules of an individual discipline, which set out a set sequence of concepts to be mastered, may be useful as an entry point and foundation for a student with no prior connection to that subject matter. But I think of them more like a crutch, something that is best done away with as soon as one is able to stand and get by on one’s own.
My preference for nonlinear skill development does not imply a decreased respect for aptitude, ability, or effectiveness. On the contrary, I have found that learning with a wide lens, starting with the assumption of “I can” and filling in knowledge gaps in a specific subject where needed, can actually make one a more competent person, able to master things more quickly. This was the approach I took to learning the Azerbaijani language and to picking up percussion skills.
Upon arriving at my rural site in Northern Togo, where I had been looking forward to learning drumming skills from the locals, villagers instead came to me and asked to teach them to play. However, I admit that my approach to learning and creating does involve a different skill set than more standardized paths. Key skills for nonlinear learning are: adaptability, self-knowledge, ability to recognize patterns and quickly understand essences, and ability to draw connections, synthesize and abstract. The narrower gaze of linear learning, in contrast, would privilege obedience, precise replication, attention to detail, memorization, and repetition.
I see reliance on linear learning as directly related to the way that people are treated as consumers, rather than citizens, by the media. Like television audiences, students in traditional classrooms are expected to be passive recipients of knowledge. Their education is growingly standardized, corporatized, and delocalized, with the goal to generate the greatest return on investment rather than open up possibilities for human development or community engagement. I believe nonlinear education gives students more opportunity for questioning, arguably the keystone of intellectual development and democracy. In other words, nonlinear learning creates students more likely to challenge the status quo – citizens, not consumers.
That I have found nonlinear learning a preferable path in my own recent individual learning is perhaps in no small part due to my linear cultural conditioning and privilege in access to formal educational opportunities, which have made the wider lens of nonlinearity an especially valuable counterbalance for my own personal development. However, I believe that it is that very nonlinear approach, with its wider lens of focus, that has enabled me to expand outward from the self in my recent work and tackle themes and issues that stem from the world and people around me.
—Carla Seidl, 2013