Monday, September 13, 2004

The Examined Life

It’s not enough to have an idea for a book—even a fairly well defined concept such as my own idea of a book examining writing for a learning organization—developing a good book proposal involves more than simply describing an idea, it requires significant research.

In my own case, I need to discover more about “learning organizations” if I am going to be able to talk about writing for them.

In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge says that learning organizations emerge out of groups of individuals and teams who practice five disciplines. Therefore, a first place to go to determine “what do I need to know?” is to ask myself, what do I know about each of these disciplines? Today, I will approach the first.

Senge says the first discipline is “personal mastery…the mastery of personal growth and knowing” (141). According to Senge’s vision of the future, in a knowledge-based economy, the successful organizations will be those that are made up of self-actuated creative workers, rather than the “Taylorist,” worker as cog-in-the-machine model upon which traditional management principles are based. The problem is—how do we encourage people to become more self-sufficient, more creative? I think that answer lies in many of the traditions of humanistic education.

According to Plato, Socrates, at his trial, explaining why he could not hold his tongue, proclaimed, “the unexamined life is not worth living” (210). The idea here is simple: if there are two persons, one with a map, the other without, which is more likely to arrive at their destination? The person with the map.

The problem is, many, maybe most, people avoid the kind of self-examination Socrates advocates. It is safer to follow. Safer than taking paths that end in a hemlock cocktail.

Self-examination leads to visions, to dreams. Now, one response to a dream, or a vision, might be to become depressed—after all, present reality is a long way from the dream. However, what Senge and others point out, it is that gap between the future vision and the present reality is what motivates people and organizations to change!

I need to do more research. Who else in the Organizational Learning movement has written about “personal mastery?” What about people in my own field of writing—certainly there has been a great deal written about “self-reflection” in writing. I need to look at Peter Elbow’s book, Writing without Teachers. I also should look at contemporary philosophers. Robert Novick has a book called The Examined Life. I should also read that.

An initial reading list: that’s a beginning!

Works Cited

Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline. New York: Currency, 1990.

Plato. “Apology.” The Dialogues of Plato. Tr. J. Harwards. Chicago: Brittanica/Great
Books, 1952.


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