25 March 2014

Common Knowledge, Part 2 of 2

"Interruption"     Artist:  Kuldar Leement (digital art)
Despite my statement of what I thought was "obvious" (i.e., common knowledge) -- "OK. We're starting late so if you would quickly come up and join me onstage..." -- it took almost 2 minutes for nine students to travel the 20 feet between their seats and the stage (two of them wandered out of the room). Once onstage, however, eight of them quickly responded and followed my instructions to scatter themselves evenly in the space.

The ninth student, a young man who had been first to arrive, took a seat in one of four chairs at the back of the stage. The first activity involved assuming a posture and then making a gesture that illustrated a word I spoke in a neutral tone. The list of words included "shiny," "angry," "smooth," "confused," etc. By the time I gave them the third word, the young man had approached me to confess "I don't really do this kind of stuff because I only have one attitude and I just do that one all the time." I thanked him for his confession and redirected my attention to the rest of the group.

"Living the Dream", Artist:  Mikey Parillo
What more could I say? In the 20 years since I first started this work, a lack of enthusiasm or outright resistance by a young black male participant has been commonplace. To date I have not closely analyzed my intuitive understanding of this phenomenon though it intrigues me... 

I decided it was likely that this young man did not "know" what I knew:  that the work is based in play and humans are innately inclined toward play; that I'd tailored the workshop design to have maximum appeal to "unsophisticated, small town young adults"; and that I have a long track record of engaging people who "don't do this kind of stuff."

As it turned out, my heart thrilled to observe his transformation over the next half hour. With each successive large group activity, his commitment to the process grew. By the time I introduced an activity that required four volunteers, he was the second person to step forward.

Around this time, we learned that another group had reserved the auditorium space and would arrive momentarily to displace us. We would have to relocate to the usual classroom.

To my way of thinking, common sense/knowledge during the event planning phase would have included making sure the venue was available for the full length of the event.  Still, perhaps the choice of venues evolved in a spirit of improvisation. As improvisation is the lifeblood of my work, I can understand the choice. My brand of common sense (or is it "common courtesy"?), however, would have moved me to inform the facilitator of the possible need to relocate in the middle of the workshop.

"Go with the Flow"   Artist: SuicideBySafetyPin   (digital fractal image)
Although the wandering students eventually returned and the final contingent of stragglers arrived before we left the auditorium, by the time we reached the classroom only eight of eleven students were on hand and the instructor had excused herself to tend to other tasks.

I view it as testimony to my love of this work that I count the whole experience as positive. I believe the transformation of that young man's "attitude" is proof of the inherent value and power of the work. The instructor sent an email the other day saying she'd received "nothing but positive" reviews from the students in the days since.

Many years ago, I came upon an adage suggesting that you can rely on people to be themselves. I added it immediately to a bundle of guiding principles for living. The way each of us presents -- what comes out of our mouths, our opinions, our behavior, our values -- all of it is informed by what we "know" about living and the world. 

I believe there are things, like "The sun will come up tomorrow" and "Water is wet" that might be
considered "common knowledge" but a substantial portion of each person's operating manual is subjective and particular, comprised of beliefs and assumptions and dubious secondhand information, frequently imparted with an ulterior motive, e.g., "good children are seen and not heard" in hopes of getting the kids to be quiet so you can finish your tax return; "God will reward you if you give 10% of your earnings to the Church" with an eye to increasing church revenue; "You need a college degree to get a good job" for the ego boost of boasting (or complaining about) putting a son or daughter through college; and "White people are all racist" to rationalize an attitude of unrelenting rage.

Based on how often I hear statements like "How could she do that?!" and "What kind of a person would..." and "Nobody in their right mind would...", it would seem that many of us assume there is such a thing as common knowledge. Maybe a full grasp of the chaotic lack of conformity governing our hearts and minds would scare us.

I'm not saying there's no such thing as common knowledge I'm just less and less sure of what it is.