Harvard Educational Review
  1. Learning as a Way of Being

    Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water

    By Peter B. Vaill

    San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996. 212 pp. $26.00.

    Peter Vaill's Learning as a Way of Being is a book whose relevance extends well beyond the realm of its intended audience. The book focuses primarily on the turbulent environments of modern organizations in the rat-race of the information age, and thus is meant for readers holding or interested in managerial roles, in the industrial, cultural, or economic spheres. In essence, it addresses fundamental issues beyond rapid organizational and social reformation; that is, the issues of learning and being, education and self-cultivation. It should therefore also be of interest to educators and teachers, particularly those who are overwhelmed by the instability of the educational system.

    Vaill takes today's pace of change and turbulence seriously, as he graphically portrays in the book's subtitle, Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water. The strengths of the book, however, lie not so much in the "strategies" or "hands-on" approaches offered for adaptation in torrential waters. Vaill's intention, as one reads between the lines, is to render a new perception and attitude toward the seemingly bleak and chaotic situation. Take the situation of organizational life, for example. Vaill rejects the pessimistic sentiment that efficiency and productivity in this kind of setting need to be achieved at the expense of interpersonal relationships. Instead, he emphasizes how one may reconceptualize the meanings of organizations in relation to human motivation, group behavior, and communication. The main theme of his book focuses more on the diagnostic than on the prescriptive. His rendition of the dynamic aspects of learning and being, analogous to that of navigating and exploring, calls for reflection rather than for a rigid application of ready-made solutions. Consider one of his many reflective paragraphs:

    It is the nonexplorers who rather naively assume that once they have a clear sharp picture in mind of where they are going, they can trust that picture through to the end. To be an explorer is to not know where, precisely and concretely, one is going. . . . The explorer feels your uncertainty and your fear and even sometimes your fury. However, he or she does not think these states of mind can be escaped. Instead, they are part of what the explorer explores. Perhaps that is the difference between the explorer and you. (p. 45)

    Vaill consistently emphasizes that learning should incorporate multiple aspects of our being, namely the cultural, emotional, recreational, and spiritual. This emphasis becomes more evident as he identifies seven aspects of Learning as a Way of Being (LWB). He affirms the relevance of self-directed learning (LWB1), in contrast to prestructured, rigid mass indoctrination. A systematic self-directedness is crucial in understanding the problems to be addressed and the learning entailed in the process of solving them. Thus, Vaill's agenda includes, not unexpectedly, six other educative processes. Creative learning (LWB2) is an exploratory and inventive learning process. Expressive learning (LWB3) is concerned with "real" experimentation. Vaill coins this term to contrast it with conventional classroom learning, which is, in his opinion, demonstration at best. He argues that in real experimentation, learners often do not know what is going to happen, whereas prestructured classroom demonstration filters out the complexity. The fragmented nature of classroom learning often deters learners from seeing how different parts of the learning processes relate to each other and to the whole.

    Feeling learning (LWB4) validates the feelings — curiosity, patience, courage, uncertainty, self-esteem, sense of control — that arise in the learning process, embracing them as part of the learning experience, and calling into question a false dichotomy between cognitive and affective learning. Somewhat in line with other characteristics of the learning put forth thus far, on-line learning (LWB5) and continual learning (LWB6) differ from institutionalized and sheltered learning. Learning, in this light, is an ongoing lifelong process, constantly occurring in the midst of working and living. And reflexive learning (LWB7), which somewhat resembles the buzzword meta-cognition in learning theory today, signifies thinking about one's learning process. This type of learning captures the concept that "human consciousness is naturally reflexive. It notices itself, and it notices itself noticing itself" (p. 85).

    So, what is new about all these labels about learning and being? Some would argue that what Vaill has proposed in this book has in various contexts been proposed more convincingly by other thinkers, such as Whitehead in The Aim of Education; Dewey in Education and Experience; Bruner in The Culture of Education; or Gardner in Frames of Mind and The Unschooled Mind. I would agree with this sentiment, but Vaill did not set out to write a book on education per se.

    Vaill's book nevertheless has its own merits. Its strengths lie in a genuine sense of urgency and relevance. In the process of reading and reflecting on his ideas, I have come to ask myself many questions. For example, in reading his thoughts on self-directed learning, I ask: How can I, living with and facing a sense of inadequacy in the midst of larger social forces not controllable within my area of concentration, transform my sense of futility and generate intrinsic motivation for learning and being? And as I read his analysis on the relationship between spiritual resources and self-cultivation, I ask: How can I develop a new sense of holism in the midst of characteristic atomistic thinking patterns pervasive in every realm of human endeavor in this information age? I am quite sure that, as you read this book, you will be invited to ask your own questions.


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Book Notes

Growing Up African American in Catholic Schools
Edited by Jacqueline Jordan Irvine and Michèle Foster

The Jobless Future
By Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio

Learning as a Way of Being
By Peter B. Vaill

The Other Angels
By Patricia L. Walsh

Reversing Underachievement Among Gifted Black Students
By Donna Y. Ford

The Timetables of Women's History
By Karen Greenspan

Migrancy, Culture, Identity
By Iain Chambers

Pushing Boundaries
By Olga A. Vasquez, Lucinda Pease-Alvarez, and Sheila M. Shannon

Focus Group Interviews in Education and Psychology
By Sharon Vaughn, Jeanne Shay, and Jane Sinagub

The New Second Generation
Edited by Alejandro Portes