Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Invention of the Human

In his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, literary critic Harold Bloom makes the argument that the great storyteller literally invented the modern human being. It's a grandiose claim, one that crosses the line into ridiculous, but at the same time, it's undeniable that the telling and re-telling of his stories has had an outsized influence on Western civilization. His language has become our language. It's almost impossible to speak English without relying upon metaphors, turns-of-phrase, and linguistic concepts of Shakespeare's invention. His characters like Hamlet, Falstaff, Juliet, Shylock and the Nurse have become archetypes around which we spin most of the stories we tell today. His plots are, both consciously and unconsciously, not only the soil from which contemporary plots emerge, but form a foundation for the stories of ourselves and others.

Of course, human storytelling predates Shakespeare by millennia. Indeed, Homo sapiens have been telling stories since the invention of language, and probably even before, making sense of our world, placing our experiences in context, weaving them into narratives that inform and create and explain and question. These stories invented not just Shakespeare himself, but all of us. In other words, Bloom is not wrong when he asserts that Shakespeare invented the human, he just leaves out the part about how every single one of us is a storyteller and as such we are all the inventors of "the human."

There are stories we tell and stories that tell us. And they are all part of the same story. 

We are born into the story of our mothers, our parents, our families, each of whom was born into the story of their mothers, parents, and families. It's the first story that begins to tell us, but even before we have language, we also begin to tell our own story within those stories. For most of us, the stories our families tell us become our own stories, for better or worse: they are stories of love and hate, fear and comfort, discovery and loss. We live our entire lives in many cases without ever knowing the extent to which those stories have told us. Yet we are the creators as well. We each view existence from a unique perspective and even when we consciously try to re-tell the old stories, we cannot help but alter them, to shape them into our own stories, to make them fit or to make them new, to invent a human unlike any other that has ever existed, which in turn becomes part of the story of everyone we touch.

In her conversation with Sally at The Play First Summit, Suzanne Axelsson asserts, "Education is a series of stories," a profound declaration, one that calls us to consciously step outside of our own stories and listen with curiosity to the stories of the important children in our lives. Too often, she says, we as adults are so focused on telling our own stories, upon insisting upon the primacy of the stories we already know, that we fail to attend to the stories of those we are here to serve. I've found that when I remind myself to listen with my "whole being" as educator Eleanor Duckworth phrases it, blocking out the noise of all those other stories, I find myself swept up in the children's stories which are, without exception, as powerful and inventive as anything Shakespeare ever wrote. When I listen like this, the children's stories, even their non-verbal stories, become part of my story, which in turn becomes a part of the ongoing story of humanity. And it is the listening that makes it so.

Axelsson goes on to talk about the difference between dialog and debate, saying that the former is about listening to understand, while the later is about listening only in order to respond. We all love telling our own stories, making our own arguments, but when that's all we do, we never learn anything new. As Axelsson says, it's only through dialog that we find ourselves saying, "I've never thought of that before," which is the epiphany that stands at the heart of education. When we listen to the stories around us, be they the stories of children or adults, our own stories become bigger. When we open ourselves to the stories of others, especially the stories of people who are not like us, our own stories become richer, more complex, more meaningful, and more true. We don't have to agree with everyone, but that's beside the point: the point is understanding and weaving the understanding into our own stories.

Listening to the 20 stories that emerge from the conversations that form the content of the summit, they become part of my own story and through me the stories of those who listen to my stories and so on. And I am not alone. Over the course of this week, one of my goals is to read every single one of the hundreds of conversation threads on our Facebook page, not with the intent to respond, but rather in the spirit of curiosity, dialog, and understanding. Tens of thousands of stories, all in the process of being told, from around the world, came together last week. I am committed to really listen to the new story we are beginning to tell together. And this story made from all of our stories is how we, together, will will become like Shakespeare, the inventors of the human.


Although the summit is over, you can still join the dialog. Go to The Play First Summit page, register for free, then choose the all-access pass that is right for you. You will then have unlimited lifetime access to our conversations with twenty of the world's top early childhood and parenting thought leaders, including Janet Lansbury, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Ijumaa Jordan, Maggie Dent, and Cheng Xuequin (Anji Play). This is not just another series of lectures, but rather a collection of conversations about our challenging times, how they are impacting young children and families, what we can do about it, and how we might seize this moment to transform the early years into what they ought to be for children everywhere. 

Also, Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

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