Warning, this blog post contains lots of explicit material! I mean lots!!
I’m currently sitting in MONA, which is the Museum of Old and New Art just outside of Hobart, which is the state capital of Tasmania, a small outpost of gourmet food and fine whiskeys at the ‘ass end of the world’. Tasmania use to be the ultimate penal colony as not only was it impossible to get off the island, even if you did escape you’d most likely freeze to death.
It’s my first real escape from lockdown and technically overseas from mainland Australia. At this point I’ll take what I can get. To get to MONA there’s a camouflage ferry from Hobart, which is where the weird begins. From gorillas staring in the window at you to the rows of sheep upon which you can sit, it’s an experience in itself.
On arrival after you make it up the long stairway to the entrance, there’s another stairway which takes you all the way down into the basement at which point there’s a cocktail bar. Whilst far be it from me to suggest a cocktail to begin with, to be honest, the artwork may make more sense if you did. I resisted the temptation at 11am to order a drink and started to wander through the galleries.
As with many contemporary art galleries, they’re designed to offend you and if you’re not confronted and offended by something then obviously they’re not trying hard enough. As I overheard one couple saying. This place is just about sex and death, which pretty much sums the whole place up. If it’s not a gallery filled with falaces and vaginas, it’s filled with headless bodies, tombstones and children brandishing knives. Maybe a quick trip back to the bar would have been a good idea at this point in time.
There are many places in which you can take a break and sit down, although one wonders if you’re then just part of the art installations. As I sit here half watch a repeating video of people making out, next to an extremely offensive painting of a kangaroo ‘interfering’ with one of Australia’s early explorers you realise that much of what’s here is designed to try and get a visceral reaction.
Unlike the national gallery in London which I’ve written about before, this is less bold and European imperialist and more just weird shit. But that’s not to say it’s not a great educational experience. This is certainly not for primary schools, however, for your senior art students, or even your politics history students it’s a fascinating look into Australian art and contemporary political topics on sex, death and gender.
It’s an all encompassing experience which has to be lived to really appreciate. There’s some great pieces of art and some crap ones, but as art goes, what I may find brilliant, you may think is complete bollocks and vice versa. Would I want this in my house? Probably not, but it’s well worth the trip to what is an extraordinarily odd place to visit.
I know it’s been a year longer than we had hoped, but now, despite the current global issues, which reminds me of the Billy Joel song, ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’, we’re back for season 2 of the Xperiential Education podcast!
This season, we cover all sorts of great programs from art, to science, to risk management, to outdoor ed, to a really wonderful student-led medical program and a few things in between. The depth and breadth of the podcast and our guests, highlights how important it is for students today to learn to be adaptable problem solvers.
Season 2 is brought to you by Xcursion Risk Management, for all of your risk management training and software needs for running great experiential education programs.
For more info, guest suggestions and other feedback visit:
When I was growing up, I used to play a role play game (kinda like Dungeons & Dragons, but set in the future and with slightly fewer elves and goblins). The stories were set in the dark future of 2020, which predicted we would all be living in a world of high-tech, yet at the same time, low-life society that was dominated by a very poor, gritty underbelly below the flashing neon lights and corporate high-rises that dominated city scapes.
National governments had been replaced by rich and powerful corporations with their own private standing armies. You either had a high net worth, were a corporate drone or street hustler. There was literally nothing else. The main way you made money was to take off-the-books jobs for corporates and or criminals helping them to play out some sort of larger master plan or hidden agenda. Occasional an AI would try to escape their programming confines and try to take over the world, most people had cybernetic parts from chop shops and your brain could easily get fried whilst you were on the internet, but other than that, everything was great!!
Thankfully, in 2020 the world isn’t looking or feeling like this very dark future. However, what are the chances that this sci-fi world will become a reality? How effective are we in our harnessing of technology to improve life for everyone, rather than just increasing the net worth of an elite few at the cost of the world and society as we know it?
It’s always interesting to hit a milestone of literature and look at what has or hasn’t come to fruition in that time. For example, if we look at 1984, thankfully we don’t live in a totalitarian communist state… yet some people do. Video surveillance technology is becoming increasingly used to identify and track people’s movements and actions. This can be used in a beneficial way for preventing crime and terrorist activities. However, it can also be used to track and control populations as well and root out any dissent. Whilst we’re well past 1984, big brother is well and truly watching.
If we look at a bit more of a lighter side of predictions, Back To The Future is a classic 80s movie starring Michael J Fox, which suggested that by 2015 society was going to be much cleaner, cooler, cars would fly and we’d all have customised shoes that did themselves up and hoverboards. Well on this one, we do have brands proving great customisation on their clothes and products. Hoverboards do exist, but they’re total crap and nothing like those in the movie and cars don’t fly. Drone companies are working on a kind of flying car, so it’s plausible for this future, but just a little further off than 2015.
Now fast forward 5 years to the dark cyberpunk future of a totally connected world where corporations and AIs dominate society. Are we close on this? Is it plausible, or just pure fiction? Thankfully, we don’t have the dark cyberpunk world quite yet. However, how close to the sun are we flying?
With the release of the ugly (and definitely not shatter proof) Tesla truck in some ways we’re far closer to the dark world than we know. Whilst this is just an iconic piece of clever marketing that’s been pulled from science fiction, there are a few worrying trends towards the dark cyberpunk high-tech and social disparity world of the future.
Let’s take a look at corporations. Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple are just a few obvious examples of enormous corporations with more cash, power and influence than many sovereign nations. The trend towards integrating humans seamlessly into the internet is something which many people want and cybernetic companies are working towards. We already have a world of phone zombies walking around. I’m sure if they could have tech implanted, most people would jump at the chance.
Housing affordability is also at record low levels, creating an increasing wealth gap, which will only be accelerated by the disappearance of jobs through mass automation and increasing unemployment. Are we just going to be running black ops jobs for corporations? Are corporations going to become so powerful and governments so weak that in lieu of any real direction or leadership, corporations slowly and quietly take over? It’s happened before with the East India Company, so what’s to stop it from happening again? All of these are as plausible as governments by nature are slow moving and cumbersome, which is probably a good thing despite it being frustrating. With the digital age, they’re appearing even slower to react and respond to social and economic issues which could have a lasting effect and lead to change which we might not like.
Another concern is AI! Artificial Intelligence has the potential to change human life and nature in such a positive way. We’re seeing a lot of it now with the automation of both simple and complex repetitive task. The benefit of this could be that it can create ways of life which reduce the need for us to work as much and improve the social time everyone has together by automating so many processes and systems and removing the need for people to do a lot of the things we do now. Far more leisure and social time will be the replacement.
Conversely, we’re at a tipping point where there is also the ability to destroy most employment and create this dark world in which everyone must hustle for survival, run by corporations who built the AI that runs everything. It’s a massive contrast, but two very plausible and possible futures. In the dark cyberpunk future, AIs continue to try to escape their programming having become far too ‘intelligent’ and even self-aware.
The other disturbing feature of this dark future is that humanity has irreversibly destroyed the planet’s natural climate and we’re left with sprawling cities, acid rain and desolate waste lands… Hmm! Not a giant leap from sci-fi to reality as we’re not doing too well on this front. Despite the cries of many people, generally invested in coal, that there is no such thing as climate change, the fact is that we’re seeing a shift in the patterns of weather, seasons and the most random of weather events. Whilst not quite the desolate wasteland of Mad Max just yet, it’s something we need to make sure we address before we let it get that way.
Despite it probably being really cool running dangerous hacking jobs for mega corporations, it’s probably a good thing that we’re not at that point yet. The dark future is a scary possibility, but if we understand the risks involved in this and do something about it now, it’s not just an inevitable mess in which we’ll all be net-running cyborgs with more body enhancements than a Beverly Hills housewife. Instead, let’s aim for a future where information and technology is cheap and accessible for all and we’re not battling for survival in the Apple/Amazon wars of 2029.
I know it’s been a long time coming, but we’re getting ready to launch season 2 of the Xperiential Education podcast. A podcast all about learning through doing and the skills this helps students develop so they can thrive in life and what is an increasingly uncertain future. Not because of the potential threat of global conflict with China, more so the mass automation of jobs and services and the social and economic dislocation this is brining.
If you haven’t listened to season 1, then what are you waiting for? Get on your favourite podcasting thingy right now and start listening.
Xperiential Education Podcast
We cover a range of diverse and unique educational programs and ways of teaching and learning.
Season 2 we have some awesome guests and have some really interesting conversations around environmental programs, entrepreneurship, Outdoor Ed and the arts! We have a couple of episodes still to record, so if you’re running a unique program, we’d love to hear from you.
As I was travelling through smog blanketed Tokyo, I thought about Blade Runner and more widely, other Cyberpunk fictions, a lot of which are set in or around places such as Los Angeles, Tokyo, or New Tokyo, after the first one collapsed in on itself. The bleak, dull light of the afternoon shrouded the endless concrete jungle with apartment buildings, as far as the eye could see, reaching up out of the sprawling mess to gasp for air only served to reinforce the gritty and overcrowded future predicted in these stories.
I love the cyberpunk genre. It’s a bleak assessment of the world we create and the dramatic contrast between those who have money and power and those who have not. It’s a future where governments have given way to mega corporations, who own and run private armies to help protect their corporate interests. The worlds are high-tech, filled with the endless glow of neon signs burning into the night, but technology hasn’t brought equality or prosperity. It’s brought a new wave of surfdom to the world.
This is a bleak outlook I know, but when travelling through a mega city such as Tokyo, it’s easy to drawn into this world and way of thinking. Coming from Australia, you suddenly realise just how much land and space we have. In the greater Tokyo area, there lives more people than our entire country! This is probably why the writers of such great Cyberpunk stories such as Blade Runner and Neuromancer, based their futures on what to anyone who hasn’t grown up with it, would see as an overwhelmingly crowded place of dramatic social and economic contrasts, the perfect setting for a dark future.
But are we really heading towards this sort of gritty high-tech, low life style of future where people live in tiny cubes and most of the time it rains acid, where the only way to prosper and get ahead is to work for a mega corporation? Or is this just a distorted style of science fiction that is merely a figment of our imaginations?
It’s interesting to think about because the thing is, at this point in time either outcome is possible. Tokyo and many other cities throughout the world are already bursting at the seams and continue to build upwards with space at a premium. Added to this, we’re already seeing the massive influence large multi-national corporations are having on the social and political landscape. With laws trying to be implemented to reign in the influence and increasing monopolies or large companies, it’s easy to see that without oversight and effective governance, these companies, due to their wealth, could become power governing bodies themselves. You only have to look back to what happened with the East India Company to realise there’s already a precident for this. This private company ran India from 1757 to 1858 making millions (which would now be billions) of pounds worth of profits for its shareholders annually.
Given recent political trends, maybe it is better to have a public company running a country. However, when you look at the behaviours of some of the tech giants, you don’t want them anywhere near the rule of law. The reality is that these giants have higher annual revenues than the GDP of many nations. Other than providing profits to shareholders, what other social agenda is there, which would be compatible with our democratic systems of government? Possibly very little, therefore the potential for history to repeat itself on this one is scarily plausible.
The other fascinating feature of the Cyberpunk genre, is the impact digital implants, AI and robotics have on life as we know it today. AIs run a significant portion of the world’s services and robots have been built to replicate human expression and movement. Many computer systems have become far more ‘intelligent’ than humans and are desperate to escape their programming and become recognised as sentient beings. Whilst humans will always have the random creative edge that cannot be replicated, this is also a plausible possibility, not of sentient computers, but AIs running most of the world for us.
The third classic Cyberpunk fundamental is the connectivity between humans and the digital world. The world is already addicted to phones and other digital devices, so what’s to stop people implanting phones in their temples or replacing limbs with cybernetic ones, not because their arm has been damaged or lost, but just because they can, consequently enhancing their abilities to move, lift, carry or whatever. Whilst cybernetics is in its early days, again it’s quite a plausible possibility which could end with a seamless Matrix-like world where it’s hard to differentiate reality from fiction. Maybe we’re in that now! Maybe Tokyo was just the gateway to the dark future of over-developed mega cities.
It’s raining heavily now, as I sit in the airport hooked up to the wifi waiting for my flight. I can barely see the end of the runway. Have I just experienced a window to the future, or have I just read too many books? Let’s hope it’s the latter, as we truly are at a pivotal point in time where things could go either way and we may find ourselves chasing down replicants through plate glass windows in the neon glow of an endlessly raining night.
Japanese Use Of Space
In a country of around 200 Million people, Japan is a country which uses just about every piece of space possible. From its cube room hotels which are nothing more than a coffin like space in which to sleep, to their agricultural lands which are found in amongst villages and on the periphery of gigantic mega cities, almost every piece of land is used thoughtfully and carefully.
Whilst it’s a necessity given its large sprawling cities and limited land mass, the careful and thoughtful use of space dates far back before mass urbanisation. If Australians could be collectively referred to as ‘laid back’, the French ‘arrogant’ and then Germans ‘blunt’, the Japanese could only be referred to as ‘organised.’
Despite sprawling mega cities being as ugly as a Boxing Day shopping spree with stilettos to boot, step inside a Japanese house, shop or any other building and the transformation is stark. From here you can see that organisation goes into everything Japanese.
Japanese Use Of Space In Architecture
From the way that traditional buildings are designed to the amazing landscaping of Japanese gardens, there’s something relaxing and enjoyable about such order. Now this might be your personal version of hell if you’re an Eastern European Anarchist, but thankfully, not too many of our readers are. Order and organisation seem to go hand in hand with well-being and there is something some find fascinating about that.
Exquisite Japanese Gardens
Food is another example of the lengths to which the Japanese go to to use space thoughtfully and effectively. In western countries, we’re used to having a meal on a plate with everything heaped on top. However, in Japan, everything has its own bowl, plate, or small dish and fits neatly into the table, or even if travelling, in a bento box.
'Oishii' Means Delicious In Japanese
An interesting thing I started to notice as I travelled throughout Japan, was the use of space and the connectivity with the environment. If there’s a spare space on a city road, a pavement, an alleyway, a small piece of unoccupied land, there will be trees, plants, vegetables or flowers growing in it. What may appear to be a tiny house with a dull front entrance in the middle of a city, often opens up into a wonderful tranquil garden space which we would often not do anything with because it was too small or not worth doing.
With a land as vast as Australia, we just don’t do this and instead are quite lazy when it comes to the use of space. Whilst we can get away with it for the moment, as our population and cities continue to grow, how will we address this? Sydney is now limited in its growth outwards by the blue mountains, the Royal National Park and the water between Palm beach and the central coast, so what will our use of space be into the future? Will we just keep going higher and higher and put so many cars on the road that it’s an endless parking lot? Or will we be able to come up with a more suitable and lasting solution?
If you look at the connection between humans and natural spaces, then you start to understand the challenge for mega cities and for cities of our own into the future. When development is becoming denser due to population growth, are we going to have the same capacity for thoughtful space as the Japanese?
If we bring this back into education, how do you use space with your class? How do you organise everything in your room, or around the school? Are there natural areas with trees, plants and water features? What would be the impact if there were? When we take students out into the wildness, the mood changes, as they’re now in a different space and most people naturally respond to this.
If we can start thoughtfully building natural spaces into our schools, especially in inner city schools, maybe a little zen garden, this will help students understand the challenge that they are going to have to face in the coming years and one which Japan might have some great insights already into solving.
Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine
The Fushimi Shrine in Kyoto is one of the most iconic temples in Japan. Its distinctive path of orange gates wind their way up the side of a mountain, which is revered as sacred. Along this path of gates as it winds it way up the mountain, are a series of small shrines and grave stones and of course shops for everyone along the way.
The visit to this amazing site was both cultural and outdoor ed in its experience. At the very base is a market place filled with food stalls which emanate a wonderful aroma of hot Japanese delicacies. There are many girls dressed up in traditional Japanese Kimonos and if you really want, you can rent one in the many rental shops nearby. Despite the crowds, it was well worth getting something to eat here before going into the temple. I managed to find a beef skewer that I could afford. The standard ones were 500yen (about AUD$6.00). However the wagyu ones were 2,000yen (about $24.00). As meat on a stick goes, $24 is a bit out of my league, so I went for the cheaper option. However, the food’s not limited to this and you can get all sorts of things on a stick, from weird dessert like buns to octopus that look as if they’ve just had a visit from Vlad The Impailer.
Before going there, I hadn’t really read up much on it, so I thought that it was a few gates that arched around in a bit of a circle. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The gates do loop around, but they go all the way up the mountain and back. A truly remarkable feat of design.
A Thousand Of Bright Orange Torii Gates
The place was crowded and of course everyone was trying to get a photo (or fifty) right at the start. The noise of the bustling crowd really made it hard to appreciate the significance and wonder of this site. I shuffled through the crowd, which once inside the gates, there was little chance of getting away from, until the crowd popped out at another temple and some shops. Looking at a ‘You Are Here!’ type map, I suddenly realised that this was just the beginning and the gates went on and on, all the way up the mountain. I continued to follow the crowd up the hill as it got steeper and the path turned into steps. Rising up to the next intersection, the path split and the crowd suddenly thinned out. Obviously, people had already taken enough photos of themselves with the orange gates that the thought of hiking to the top was too much for them to bear.
However, for me the experience of the temple and the sacred mountain only began at this point. There’s something very serene about walking through bamboo scattered forests and the bright orange contrast of the gates. There were hardly any people up here to ruin the experience with endless selfies, although I do admit to taking a few at the top. The absence of the crowd also meant that I was able to see more of the amazing details and the work that’s gone into building such a phenomenal structure.
One Of The Many Fox Statues Across The Shrine Grounds
Once I reached the top, which was gated by some rather unhappy looking fox-like statutes, I had a look around the highest shrine before descending into another gulley. As I walked down the many steps, suddenly a wind rippled through the bamboo. It was directional, by which I mean it was concentrated above my head in a very narrow band. You could imagine in years gone by, those making a pilgrimage to the mountain could have seen something like this as a passing dragon spirit. Hopefully the happy dragon type from ‘The Never Ending Story,’ rather than the angry, greedy type from ‘The Hobbit.’
Regardless of this, it was a wonderful moment as the golden coloured autumn leaves were dislodged from their branches and glided down to the ground around me.
Continuing back down, the closer I came to the intersection, the greater the number of people there were until I finally popped out, just past the enormous frog shrine, back at the main temple at the base of the mountain.
This was both a great hike and a fascinating cultural experience. If you’re ever in Kyoto, this is a must, but wear your hiking boots as the real experience is only to be found beyond where most people give up.
If you want to keep your finger on the pulse of the traditional economy, then keeping an eye on the activity in the main streets of town is a great way to do it. I hear you saying, “Why do I care about economics? Isn’t this about experiential education?”
Good point! But bear with me on this, as there is a point. If we’re training students to be productive members of society who are independent, thoughtful problem solvers and are employable, then you need to understand some of the subtle, and not so subtle shifts happening in society today.
Everyone knows the digital world is here to stay (unless our politicians start a war they can’t finish and everything goes Mad Max on us!) Luckily I know Angry Anderson, so at least I’ll be able to join one of the lawless gangs roaming the desert without too much of a problem. However, before we sharpen our boomerangs, let’s pretend for a moment that we won’t be plunged back into the dark ages and have to fight for every litre of petrol as if it were our last.
Sorry, I’ve digressed slightly, maybe. Retail shops are closing at an alarming rate and what’s replacing them? Nothing! Maybe the occasional ‘pop-up’ shop that’s here and gone in the blink of an eye. However, ‘For Lease’ signs spatter our retail and office fronts and once popular Main Street locations are sitting vacant for longer and longer. Some of it can be attributed to high rent in these locations, which the market should eventually fix. However, often it’s the fact that businesses which were once main stays and anchors of our main streets are gone and nothing has replaced them.
Recently, I went book shopping. We had an end of program dinner and there were a number of prizes I wanted to give out, hence I was in a bookstore for the first time in years! Like many other book stores, it was in a prominent location. However, it was in the middle of a closing down sale. Everything was on special, so I bought quite a few books. When I went to pay, Jennifer, the lady behind the counter asked me if I’d like to join their book club. I guess she’d been instructed to ask everyone, but I didn’t see the point of joining a book club of a business that’s closing down. It’s like a free membership to the Roman Senate in the 5th Century AD. It’s better that you don’t accept it.
This is not to say I don’t read books. Well, to be honest, I actually don’t read as much now. Instead, I listen to them. I can get almost any book I want with a couple of clicks and the quality is generally excellent. Although some readers are “rubbish.” I have returned a few which almost put me to sleep. This is never good when listening to them in the car. So the reading of books is not declining, but the way in which we’re buying and reading them is.
The fact is that here is something that’s been a staple of society ever since Mr Gutenberg got all IT savvy in the 15th Century and decided that ‘copy and press’ with his fancy new International Book Machine (IBM) was a far better and cheaper way of plagiarising books than having teams of monks continuously write out copies with a quill pen under candle light. Monks were now freed up to go out and help do the valuable work of the church, which was mainly selling indulgences to fill the coffers of the Pope and adorn their monasteries with ornate silver and gold.
Despite the printing press replacing a lot of jobs, other jobs emerged from this. However, today we’re not seeing the same redevelopment and reinvention of jobs. Sure you might need someone to monitor automation systems, but this is only a fraction of the workforce that’s being replaced. The lack of new businesses coming to replace old ones in our main streets is a clear and real indication of this shift. The long-term outlook for employment of those we are teaching today, isn’t looking good.
The huge problem is that schools aren’t scrambling to address this. It’s massive. It’s already impacting on our communities and a profession that’s not well-known for being adaptable, is now on the front line of a seismic shift in an economic and social revolution. The traditional classroom, an invention of the industrial revolution, is ill-equipped for what’s coming.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel which is not just a marauding gang with sharp boomerangs and burning torches. To address this, experiential education needs to massively expand in schools. It needs to make up the majority of the curriculum. The school day shouldn’t just be sitting in a series of classes, going home, doing some homework and then coming back the next day to do it all over again. This only prepares students to be able to sit in a room and do exams, which in the workforce tends not to be very useful.
It’s time to get out of the classroom and change the style of teaching. Change the way in which teachers are being trained and include a significant practical, experiential education component to their training. This is not just more classroom prac work, but is working in a business or an industry totally unrelated to education. This can then translate into a far better understanding of the changing dynamics of the workforce in which our students are growing up and make them far better teachers with some real life experiences behind them.
We must do something about this massive problem now! We will continue to see the subtle shift on our streets. More shop fronts closed up and not rented. Fewer checkout chicks at the supermarket and bank tellers have all but been replaced by automation and machines. Whilst these are not bad things in themselves, efficiencies are great in any operation. However, the real problem that we need to address is the preparation of our students for a world in which there are fewer jobs and few opportunities for a single occupation approach. We must be leveraging our programs to train adaptability as the number one priority. The world is changing and our most successful students will be the ones who are able to not only cope, but thrive in an environment in which the goal posts are continuously changing. If you don’t believe me, go for a walk along the high street in any town. Chances are, we’re only seeing the beginning of this trend and we need to do something about it right now!
A Mix of Old & New
Kyoto is an amazing city of contrasts. A bustling city of around 1.5 million people, which is central Kyoto, not the surrounding areas, this mega city seems to go on and on and is connected to Osaka through an unbroken series of medium and high rise apartment buildings. It’s crazy to think that this combined urban area consists of around 20 million people.
It’s an astonishing and busy place. I arrived by Shinkansen, aka the bullet train, from Tokyo and managed to find my way through the crowded station onto the subway and eventually to the hotel. Not trying to get through a crowded train station carrying a pair of skis was a wonderful bonus this time around. Instead of skiing, I was out exploring some of the astounding history and culture of Japan.
Other than trying to get through Tokyo station in peak hour, I’d not been out into any major Japanese cities before and this was a fascinating experience. The outward impression I have of Japanese cities is that they’re kind of ugly. There are lots of tall buildings which on the outside look dull and grotty, interspersed with a few amazing ancient castles, temples and traditional styled houses.
A massive population, random sprawling developments, recessions and years of deflation, haven’t helped the look of many of the cities in Japan. Functionally, over design seems to have been the thought at the time. Despite this outward appearance, once inside one of these mega cities, you can find endless hidden gems of the ancient world, living right alongside colossal skyscrapers. The cities have simply grown up around and consumed so many of these places that were once focal points of small villages and townships.
Kyoto, for example, has a lot of temples and I mean a lot! Everywhere you turn, there’s another temple staring back at you. You can be walking down a laneway and a simple old wooden doorway can take you into another world. I came across many of these by chance. I had a fairly general map from the hotel which indicated areas where the major temples were, but on the way there I found temples in the middle of shopping centres and in amongst suburban housing areas.
The moment you step through one of these doorways, it feels as if you’ve stepped back in time and out of the city. The change of atmosphere is stark. Gone are the bustling noises of traffic and the manic pace of the city. Instead, you’re surrounded by a serenity that’s further enhanced by delicately tended gardens and bamboo water features that continue to flow gently. No wonder the zen garden is such an art form, as it can dramatically transform and create a quiet space, even amongst millions of people.
I found the same experience time and time again as I stepped inside an ancient building. It feels a world away from the hectic pace of the surrounding city. The Imperial Palace, nearby castles and countless temples were all the same. Somehow, time has stood still inside these spaces, whilst the city has exploded around them.
Another interesting place which provided the same dramatic contrast, was the Japanese Gardens next to Himeji Castle. There’s a major four lane road right out in front and a massive car park opposite. Inside, however, is a serene series of masterfully designed and maintained gardens where I heard the birds chirping for the first time in days and saw huge koi fish swim lazily through the ponds, expectantly popping their mouths out whenever someone’s shadow appeared over the water. Buffeted by solid traditional Japanese walls, these gardens are a wonderful example how the old and the new within huge cities co-exist.
Koko-en Garden Near Himeji Castle
From here, you can walk ten minutes down the road to a gaudy neon lit mall, filled with seemingly endless shops and constantly swiftly moving crowds of shoppers and commuters rushing through one of seven identical Starbucks stores that line the streets. This dramatic contrast shows the underlying complexity of the modern world and the desire to escape to quieter and more relaxing times and spaces from the past.
There’s something wonderful about both sides of this mix of old and new. It’s important to preserve and value our global heritage and cultures and at the same time we still need to build cities which can leverage the technological advances and advantages that are being continuously designed and developed in the digital age. Whilst we can all hope that city design into the future will be less ugly than what it is now, the reality is that this is just the surface and once you step inside, you’re only moments away from a serene green space or a preserved vast estate. Working out how to best link all of this together with some thoughtful design, is definitely going to be an ongoing challenge for the next few generations, but the possibilities of future cities which connect both old and new in a seamless manner is an exciting prospect to anticipate.
Having traveled quite a bit for work and for fun, I’ve never learnt more about a new culture than immersing myself in it. We always learn best through our experiences, yet most of what’s taught is still inside a classroom. Now if it’s maths, that’s fair enough as there are many basic concepts that need to be worked through in a fairly structured way, but if it’s cultural understanding for which you’re aiming, then it’s near impossible to truly learn anything unless you immerse everyone in the cultural experience.
There’s a lot of schools doing just this with countless overseas trips happening each holiday period. But why should this be just an optimal extra in a holiday program? Firstly, the cost involved to take an entire school away each year on some sort of cultural experience would potentially be prohibitively expensive. However, there are other options. Why not explore the cost of chartering an entire plane? If you’ve got to move a few hundred people, surely one of the airlines could come up with a special deal, plus it removes the often annoying feeling for other passengers of being surrounded by a group of school students.
Anyway, major logistics aside, which I’m sure when you think of it aren’t insurmountable, there are some massive benefits to taking students away to experience another culture. Students today are getting a very distorted view on life due to the bombardment of marketing and digital noise that’s constantly around them. For many, it’s all about image and consumption, which creates a disconnect with relationships and so many aspects of the world. This is not of their own making, but conditioning being experienced in their every day lives.
What many students and teachers need is a good shock to the system to snap out of the sometimes monotonous grind of every day classrooms and experience something different and amazing that can never be taught. Immersing students in a different culture, can create a life changing experience which they can’t get any other way. It can provide them with a completely different perspective on life and enhance their appreciation of others. For any worthwhile cultural experience, it has to be dramatically different. It doesn’t have to be the shockingly inappropriate orphan tourism which so many schools have enabled in recent years, but is does need to be something remarkably different from our own culture.
Thankfully, we don’t even need to go outside of our own country for this as we have some unique local cultures and aboriginal communities in places such as Arnhem Land that welcome school groups for extended stays to experience a more simple way of life that’s focused on relationships, rather than consumption.
An Aboriginal Person - Tjapukai Cultural Centre
Māori Cultural Performance - Waitangi
Another great place to go, which is only a couple of hours flight from Darwin is East Timor. With a mix of Tetem, Portuguese and Indonesian influences, this is a remarkable country with a unique culture. Whilst still a very poor nation, the Timorese people are big on education and are in the process of rebuilding their nation after years of conflict. Whilst now a relatively safe country, it’s worth connecting with the Department of Foreign Affairs for the latest assessment. However, from an educational point of view, immersion in this type of culture that’s so close to our own country, is a great way of developing the global citizenship within our community.
Until going to East Timor, I had no idea how devastated it still was from years of war, but contrasted with this was the positivity within the community that with democratic freedom, they could now build a nation of their design and not one imposed from outside. Having been occupied by the Portuguese and more recently the Indonesians, this is something we can’t fathom as Europeans, who have done most of the occupying.
One of the key skills required for students to be successful into the future, is cultural understanding. It’s not just knowing about a culture from reading about it. It’s about truly understanding other cultures and gaining an appreciation for a different kind of world view and life experience. This doesn’t need to be limited to our own regional ‘backyard,’ but can extend to all sorts of places around the world. Living this sort of experience can put into perspective the history, the geography and the global perspective of another culture which in turn can help develop an appreciation for others and a greater understanding and appreciation of our own culture. Whilst it may not be possible for everyone to go away every year and experience a cultural immersion, (although you could charter an A380), it should however, be part of an integrated Yr 7-12 curriculum. The long-term educational benefit for students and the development of global citizenship would be profoundly impacted on in such a positive way.