Thursday, December 13th, 2012...4:47 am

Innovation Exchange: Re-Imagining America

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Cerru Innovation Exchange

Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated. -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

CERRU, the Center for Ethnic, Racial, & Religious Understanding, hosted its first annual Innovation Exchange panel featuring eleven notable professionals in today’s progressing world.  The format for the exchange was, in honor of the date 12-12-12, a twelve minute lecture from each of these inspirational figures.  Topics discussed ranged from religion, economics, social, and cultural matters.

Here is a link to a youtube playlist of all of the speakers from this event!

For clarity’s sake, and to practice a little bit of self-editing, I would like discuss one of the main issues that I saw echoed throughout many of the speakers – making a change to our current education structure.  Though they were mostly focusing on higher education, I think many of these practices and fundamental elements can come into good use even on the lower levels of elementary and secondary education.

James Stellar, the Provost of Queens College, gave a lecture called, “The Brain, Experiential Education, and Tolerance.”  As a PhD James Stellarin Behavioral Neuroscience, Stellar has a vast knowledge of how the human brain, in particular, works and suggests how we can take this knowledge of one of our most vital organs, and apply it to the field of education.  In brief, there are three levels of the human brain: the reptilian, the mammalian, and the primate.  The reptilian level is the lowest of the three and controls our involuntary functions and reflexes.  Stellar gave the example of a baby grasping a mother’s finger – this is not a form of love, but simply an act of testing out its reflexes.  The second level, the mammalian, is our subconscious emotional level.  It is here that we experience excitement when we see something that we like, and from where we derive pleasure.  It is finally our primate level that allows us to speak and analyze and be intellectuals.

Stellar’s argument is that education is focusing too heavily on only the primate level of our brain.  Yes, it is important to learn facts and information in the setting that we currently do, but it is leaving out an entire area that our brains connect with.  Experiential learning, or taking learning out of the classroom, is one thing that Stellar says needs to be introduced increasingly to college classes.  I say, though this may be true, it is more important for this fundamental way of learning to be integrated into elementary and secondary education, creating a stronger foundation for the future.

This idea of experiential learning was brought up several other times within the program.  Alexandra Ruiz, the founding director of Immigration Advocacy Matters (I.A.M.), talked about the struggle for white Americans to understand the hardships of immigrants – whether illegal or not – in her lecture “The Power of Dialogue in Immigrant Integration.”  Examples of programs that I.A.M. has Immigration Advocacy Matterssponsored include conversations between ESL students and English speaking college students, fostering a sense of community and understanding.  The exchange between students allows both participants to more strongly appreciate where the other is coming from, and the experience is a learning one for everyone.  There were certain practice of I.A.M. that reminded me of some programs that my high school had run for the ESL community there, such as field trips to college campuses and the like, but this important one is glaringly absent in hindsight.  As a white American who doesn’t know much about the lives of immigrants, and as an English speaking student, who would have loved to form friendships with ESL students, I think that this is an important program to implement in schools with ESL departments.  The program, an experiential one, doesn’t only foster positive relationships, but it allows the teaching of other cultures, other view points, and even social and political issues.

Mark Rosenblum, Director of CERRU and of the QC Center for Jewish Studies, in “Breakthrough not Breakdown: A New Model for Mark RosenblumTeaching the Middle East,” also talks about fostering a conversation between different, and often conflicting, groups.  In one of the classes he teaches about the Middle East conflict, specifically the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, he asks his students to learn not about the stance they take, but about the opposing views.  Students have to go out into the real world and converse with actual people involved in the issue, and learn from their experiences and opinions.  Rosenblum also leads several international programs with American students, taking them to the Middle East to countries such as Oman, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.  By going on educational trips like these, students are able to experience first hand the conflict that we hear about in the news.

Another great innovator who wants to bring change to the education system at the higher learning level is Matthew Abrams, founder of the Mycelium School for Social Enterprise.  In “Regenerative Entrepreneurship,” Abrams mentioned an interesting phenomenon.  So many students are jobless after leaving college, and so many business are looking to hire well trained employees. These two faMatthew Abramscts seem to contradict each other – why are students jobless when there are jobs that need to be filled?  According to Abrams, when asked what stands in the way between an idea for a business enterprise and its fruition, an entrepreneur will answer with “good employees.”  People are leaving college without any experience.  Paraphrasing Abrams, they are sitting in front of a television screen watching basketball for four years, and then go into the world thinking they will be able to play.  In the Mycelium School for Social Enterprise, he brings to reality this quote by Richard Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  The school is a 9-month program that allows students age 18-35 the opportunity to build a meaningful (key word!) enterprise.  The school won’t only teach the dry basics of how to create a business from the ground up, but it will educate the students on sustainability and social awareness.  I thought it extremely inspiring that Abrams found a connection between capitalism and social justice and awareness.  It is a topic that is very important and should be recognized – businesses can do things for others while still maintaining a profit.

And let us not forget what’s obviously missing nowadays from public schools, especially in elementary and secondary education: arts.  Ron Russell, co-founder and director of Company Development at Epic Theatre Ensemble, talked about the misconceptions of arts and theatre, and how these misconceptions are harming our youth.  According to Russell in “Re-Imagining the Role of Theatre in Civic Engagement,” theatre is not entertainment, but a platform for social justice and change.  He mentions four fallacies of the theatre:

  1. Mirror up to nature.
    Theatre is not meant to be realistic.  Paraphrasing Russell, a play about Einstein with an actor that looks like Einstein isn’tRon Russell a play.  It’s something else – a bad documentary performed live.  Theatre is a form of art expression that takes social/political/economic issues and tries to convey an important message to the audience.
  2. The arts don’t work if they’re compulsory.
    He disagrees with this statement strongly.  If art isn’t introduced at an elementary level, children are going to grow up without any appreciation.  I agree with this wholeheartedly.  It is apparent, even today, that those who aren’t brought up with any cultural (art, theatre, music) experiences, end up struggling to understand the form of expression.  And this is a downfall because art should be there to educate us – we’re losing a huge facet of education.
  3. If you build it, they will come.
    You can’t assume that because you put on an Indian play, that the Indian-American population will swarm the theatre.  We need to do outreach and introduce communities to this form of information giving.  We also need to re-think what American theatre is.  As Russell postulated, maybe theatre shouldn’t start at 8:00 PM.  These are the kinds of questions we need to pose when trying to broaden theatre’s scope and demographic.
  4. Art should be universal.
    All of the greatest pieces of artwork are rooted in time periods, historical periods, and regional areas.  Art should be targeted to specific audiences in order to get certain messages and ideas across.

Ron Russell wants art to empower a national discussion or conversation.  I think every single speaker tonight, in his or her own way, wants to spark a conversation.  Question the norm, and think: what can I do to bring change to America and make it what it claims to be.

CERRU’s First Annual Innovation Exchange: Re-Imagining America
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
4:00PM – 9:00 PM
LeFrak Concert Hall, Queens College

Marina B. Nebro

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