During her presentation at Burning Man headquarters last night, Nicole Radziwill gave an example of the way she’s trying to integrate the 10 Principles into her classroom at James Madison University. (“The Burning Mind Project”)
“I was trying to figure out how to emphasize Gifting,” she said (I’m quoting from memory, so this is inexact). “When we came to a point in my Artificial Intelligence class when I’d have them do projects, I told them ‘All right, you can do projects alone or in groups, but before you do that I want you to ask yourself: ‘what do I have that I can give to a group project? What important thing do I have to offer?’ Think about that, find your answer, and in another class we’re going to present it to everyone together.”
What happened next, she said, was that students got up and told personal stories about the work they’d done in the past and the work they wanted to do in the future, and what they were passionate about offering if they could. Other students started responding. “They said ‘hey, I did something similar once, and if we put those things together we could do this really amazing thing,’” she remembers – and suddenly she had groups of students coming together to work on projects they cared deeply about.
It sounds like an amazing experience, and shows the potential that an activity like “bringing the 10 Principles into the classroom” has to inspire meaningful change. It’s the kind of effort we’re going to see a lot more of in the next few years. After hearing Burning Mind present, there’s no question in my mind that they’re blazing important trails. An audience member asked her Burning Mind co-founder Morgan Benton, who has classes where he’s given up the power to grade altogether in order to liberate his students’ capacity for self-expression: how do you know it’s working? How do you know they’re getting the message?
Well every student isn’t, he admitted – they’re still working on what to do about the slackers – but so many of them do get the message and it’s obvious that they do because suddenly your classroom is alive and engaged and vibrant – and he’s right, that change is unmistakable. We all instinctively recognize the difference between people who are intrinsically motivated (“I want to do this cool thing and discover”) and people who are extrinsically motivated (“I want to get at least a B-“).
It also happens, as I’ve made quite clear, that I strongly disagree with their stated interpretation of the 10 Principles – the very principles that they’re working so hard to bring into the classroom. To the extent what they’ve written on their website expresses their thinking about what the 10 Principles are and how they work, I think such analysis needs to be challenged and refuted. (Benton, incidentally, has said he plans to adjust that approach in the future as a result of this dialogue.)
But … but … here’s the really interesting part: when it comes to the actual work they’re doing, it doesn’t matter. Their interpretations of the 10 Principles are irrelevant: all I see is a really cool thing, and all I want to do is ask “How can I help?”
And that moment – that moment right there – is most of what we need to know about what Burning Man is and why it works so well.
Burning Man has never presented an official encyclical on exactly how the 10 Principles work or interact – and it’s one of the smartest things they never did. Because Burners aren’t really united by the 10 Principles: most of us can’t even name all 10, let alone agree on what they are and how they work. Virtually none of us came to Burning Man because we said “You know what I need in my life? 10 really good principles. Who’s got that?”
We came because we saw something amazing – we felt its potential all the way down in our bones, sometimes from the other side of the earth – and were called to be part of it. Later, maybe, we learned it has 10 Principles, and we started looking to them as a way to aspire to what we were already inspired by.
As I’ve said before: Burning Man is an active phenomenon. “Burning” is a verb that is best understood as a living principle. It inspires the passion it does because it relates to us on an active level. We are united by what we do and the experience we have, not what we think.
This was immediately apparent when I asked Radziwill and Benton: “why the 10 Principles?” There are any number of radical educational pedagogies out there: Paulo Freire, Alfred North Whitehead, the Marxists … if you want to critique academia, you don’t have to go all the way to Burning Man to do it. So why was it the 10 Principles of Burning Man, which don’t mention education once, that they’d chosen to bring into the classroom and stake their reputations on?
Radziwill replied: “The way it makes me feel. That’s really it. The Marxists, all the rest, they’re there, but they don’t inspire me this way. They don’t make me feel the way I do with the 10 Principles. That’s all.”
Right there. That’s it. That’s the experience. That’s Burning Man as an active phenomenon. She was inspired in a way that only makes sense as a lived experience. It doesn’t matter that Burning Man doesn’t have anything in particular to say about education: she’s inspired to burn in the sphere she knows and cares most about, so she struggles to figure out what that means. That’s why it works.
Burning Man inspires her. Burning Man has 10 Principles. She takes the 10 Principles to her classroom, where her passion for them and ability to express them as a walk she walks rather than just a talk she talks inspires her students. Later I see what they’re doing together, and want to know “How can I help?”
Does it matter that we disagree strongly about what these principles actually mean? Well, up to a point, yes: it matters inasmuch as if any doctrinal interpretation of Burning Man becomes dominant it will impact the way the world sees us and the way the people we connect with see us, and eventually the way we see ourselves. A Burning Man catechism, to the extent one is allowed to develop, is bad news for intrinsic motivation, as well as self-expression, inclusion, and eight other things as they can be lived.
But that’s all that it matters. The reaction of her students, and of fellow teachers, and of Burners who see that and think “How can I help?” or “what can I do?” or “how can I bring that energy into my life?” are what tell us it’s working in the way that matters to us, no matter how far it strays from an accepted understanding of the 10 Principles.
By contrast the lack of those qualities, no matter how tightly they adhere to what we think we know about the 10 Principles, would be a pretty clear sign of failure. If Radziwill agreed with my interpretation of the 10 Principles entirely but wasn’t inspiring her classroom it wouldn’t be an improvement.
The fact that we can be inspired by people we disagree with – that we can even want to help them achieve their goals – how cool is that? It’s the essence of “radical inclusion” and “community.” It doesn’t have to happen every time – if freedom means anything it means the freedom not to take a man on a fuzzy bicycle seriously – but if it’s not happening at all, we’re not doing it right.
I bring all this up because this is just one of the first of many attempts we’ll see in the future to “bring the 10 Principles into such-and-such.” Education will come up a lot, as will environmental efforts, and maybe even social justice movements (Occupy Wall Street was often identified, erroneously in my opinion, as a kind of off-shoot of Burning Man culture). Yet Burning Man itself has almost nothing to say about education per see, or environmentalism (beyond “Leave No Trace”), or social justice, or nearly any other cause. Exactly what our principles mean when applied to social issues is an enormous question mark that will first be straightened out by the people applying them.
Some of these things will be initiated by the Burning Man Project. Others, like the Burning Mind Project, will be initiated by Burners who take on the mantle for themselves.
People being people, some of them will be colossal failures put forward by well meaning idiots; some of them will be transparent attempts to cash in on Burning Man’s cache. We’re surely, surely, going to need to distance ourselves from some of them. Going to need to point at some lunatic’s project to bring the 10 Principles to sex offenders by hiring them at day cares and say “yeah, he’s not with us.”
Or, even if we don’t, we’ll surely be asked by others – especially the media and academics – “are they with you?” and “Are they doing it right? Is that the correct way to apply your 10 Principles?”
How do we answer these questions?
The temptation … the immediate temptation, the easiest of all routes … will be to come up with an intellectualized answer that suits the needs of the present. To develop a doctrine that is easily accessible to the media and the public who have never been here, that conveniently includes who we want to include and doesn’t who we don’t in this moment. And that, inadvertently but inevitably, sets up a rule for others to follow … that will soon in turn be followed by other rules about how to “correctly” apply the 10 Principles to your organization or cause.
That’s the temptation we have to resist.
We can’t have a template that says “if you are inspired by Burning Man, this is what you do, this is what it will look like.” That takes the intrinsic motivation right out of it. Make it more concerned with checklists and doctrinal purity than the lived spirit of Burning Man.
On the contrary. If you are inspired by Burning Man, follow your inspiration.
It’s a Burning Man thing if it’s inspired. It’s a Burning Man thing if it inspires others to radical self-expression, inclusion, gifting, immediacy, and the rest, in the ways that are meaningful to them. It’s a Burning Man thing if, upon seeing it, we’re moved to ask “How can I help?” It’s a Burning Man thing, or not, based on how it is lived.
The vast majority of the time, we can tell the difference between projects that are living out an inspiration, and projects that are trying to get at least a B-.
I’ll argue the “meaning” of Burning Man with anyone until the sun don’t shine, but that’s only relevant inasmuch as that effort gives amazing projects the chance to breathe.
“Burning Mind” breathes. It’s alive, inspired, and inspiring. The rest is just footnotes. I hope it’s a taste of what we’re going to see in the future, as more and more people “apply the 10 Principles to …”
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com