Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Black Swans and Blue Grasshoppers

By now the term “Black Swan” is part of common parlance, gaining a toehold in American English with the financial crisis and subsequent publication of Nassim Taleb's book of that title. A black swan is an event that no one predicted, but after its occurrence seems to have been inevitable. Tagging something as a black swan seems to serve two purposes: to indicate how complex the recent past has been, and to embark on an effort to turn that complexity into something understandable by explaining how the black swan appeared. So Black swan-ing is everywhere it seems—in the effort to explain the meltdown of the derivative markets and block its re-occurrance, in the explanation of the Gulf Oil spill and our response, in any event where someone in power vows “never again.”

Blue grasshopper events are less noted in the culture at large. I’m taking the term from Lewis Richmond’s book, Work as a Spiritual Practice. In its first chapter he tells the story of a blue grasshopper that arrived in the middle of a sesshin, and proceeded to slowly make its way across the zendo. It eventually encountered a statue of the Buddha, climbed its body, alighting on the head of the Enlightened One. The grasshopper seemed to change things, to portend something, though the change and the meaning were complex, unsettled, and thus worthy of repeated reflection.

I’ve been wondering about the roles of Black Swans and Blue Grasshoppers in learning. Black Swans change curricula. Business schools across the world are scrambling to respond to the lessons of the financial crisis—beefing up ethics programs, improving the quantitative skills of students, retraining executives in hard-to-grasp corners of the economy. Colleges and universities will ramp up immediately to respond to the Gulf Crisis. The unexpected success of Sputnik spurred the growth of engineering in the 1960s, a decade before the Cold War did the same for mathematics, physics, and language instruction.

But while Black Swans change curriculum they preserve the fundamental mindset of higher education. They suggest that all big things are understandable and need to be understood—in other words they seek to make inevitability become predictability.

It seems like Blue Grasshoppers—the unexpected, fraught, small, meaningful stories that make the world seem strange—ought to have a similar place in learning. If you talk to anyone about how they came to their current point in life they will almost always point to a Blue Grasshopper event. One day something happened that made life to that point strange. And since they have been pursuing the meaning, for them, in that strangeness.

But the impulse to make sense of Black Swans seems to overwhelm Blue Grasshoppers. They get explained away as coincidences, or spirituality, and therefore recede into the private parts of people’s lives. And so schools go ahead overlooking this key part of human life and with it the richness that comes out of musing on the strangeness of being alive.

1 comment:

Peter Ingle said...

I would really like to read the book about the blue grasshoppers.