For some reason, this is the item that immediately came to mind when I read Kimberly, Alma and Joycelyn’s invitation last week. For those of you unfamiliar with post-Soviet retro kitsch, this is a lovingly rendered model of an early space ship, procured at a flea market outside Moscow about fifty years after the vessels that inspired it were first launched. Thinking about how this Sputnik “represents my work” brings up obvious resonances with one of my favorite courses – Soviet history. The space program and the Soviet Union’s commitment to using technology to master the heavens as well as the earth, and to remake “man” along the way, is one of the main themes of the course. And the drama and global interest in the early chapters of the space race remain compelling for 21st-century learners. Like the Russian Revolution and World War II, the space race is something most people think they “know” something about, but are often surprised when that “knowledge” evolves considerably with a bit of study, encouragement, and reflection. So the model Sputnik represents my work because it is anchored to particular historical context, created in a different historical situation, and invites learners of all ages (in a third historical context) to engage with the intellectual, material, and cultural legacy of one of the great proxy struggles of the Cold War.
When I started reading Ivan Illich, I was pretty sure I would need to find a different artifact. (Once again our reading for this week completely captivated me! Every week I think that this course has maxed out its potential to get my happy, creative, “I love my job” juices flowing…and every week, I’m wrong. What a great feeling!) I found much in “Deschooling Society” that made me question how accessible the artifacts of education are, and wonder how best to make “educational equipment” more accessible for self-directed learning 24/7. And I could (should?) write a whole separate post about Illich’s perspectives on the student-teacher relationship – I’m still struggling with what often seems to be a reductive understanding of learning as “skills.” But in the end, I’m sticking with my little wooden sputnik. For as any learning web would quickly discover, the model is both more and less than what it appears to be. Using a combination of careful inspection (Why are there little wooden dogs inside the model? Why does the model look a lot like an egg?) and skilled consultation with peers and other educators (Which space ship is this supposed to be? Why is that important?), we realize that although the model falls way short of historical accuracy and museum-quality craftsmanship, it represents a grand vision, and a salient moment when the learning webs of a forward-thinking cohort of scientists forever altered the way humanity sees life on Earth.