Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for July, 2010

Sharon’s Salon

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

Sharon Urquhart’s hair-dressing salon was a modest addition built to a small bungalow in Grand Anse, Cape Breton, a wide spot in the road between Port Hawkesbury and St. Peters. The salon, someone once said, looked like a Norman Rockwell painting — men getting their hair cut, women under bee-hive hair dryers, pets and kids coming and going, everybody talking.

The talk was not trivial. Sharon was a born intellectual, and she loved to talk about books and ideas, music and travel, gardening and politics, and particularly the theatre. She had a degree from Dalhousie in theatre, and she refused to be kept from theatrical experiences simply because she lived in the country and never learned to drive. Instead she would scoop up her husband and her daughter and organize a trip to see Cirque du Soleil, Peter Pan, The Rolling Stones, Ben Heppner, Les Miserables. Halifax? You bet. Toronto? Fine.

“She always knew what was going on culturally,” recalls her cousin and close friend, Ken MacInnis. “And she could always get tickets to anything. She was famous for it. Speed dial was her friend.”

“Sharon had an artist’s soul,” says her friend Denise Saulnier. “She did hair design for her clients, but she also ran a mini art gallery in her salon where the ‘show’ on the walls changed with the seasons. She loved painting, sculpture, music, dance. It’s not surprising that she studied theatre – a field where all the arts come together at once.”

Carpe Diem, said the motto from Horace painted on her wall. Seize the day! In her youth she hitch-hiked across Canada, worked in Toronto and returned with a German luthier named Johannes Sturm. A luthier in Cape Breton is as important as a farrier at the Preakness; the last time I was in Johannes’ shop, he was massaging a guitar while J.P. Cormier anxiously looked on.

When their only daughter was born 12 years ago, Sharon and Johannes made sure that Ava learned to fiddle and step-dance, playing at concerts and festivals across the island. And so the little bungalow with the hair salon became a focus of another generation of gifted young people. Ken MacInnis’ wife Mary remembers Sharon as a momma duck, always followed by a flock of ducklings: Ava and her friends, nieces, a sister-in-law, more friends, other children.

An intensely social woman, Sharon was an active player in the United Church and the school advisory council. She created extravagant floats for local parades, and built haunted-house sets inside the fire hall at Hallowe’en. Hair-dressing suited her perfectly, bringing her a constant stream of personalities, conversations and ideas, and she was exceptionally good at her work. My wife Marjorie, a city-reared woman with an extensive experience of ruinously-fashionable hair-dressers, never had better hair-care than she did with Sharon, who also became her cherished friend.

Sharon delighted in learning, and she was a tireless researcher. In her encounters with ideas, she had a warrior spirit, fearful of nothing, always willing to face and tell the truth. Over the sinks in which she washed her clients’ hair was a big mural of Narcissus — a reminder to us, perhaps, not to be too preoccupied with our own appearances.

Her salon often doubled as a counselling office. Finding themselves alone with Sharon, people would unburden themselves in the most intimate way. Sharon listened, commented sympathetically, made suggestions, and kept her mouth shut. But if someone said something nice about you, she made a point of passing it on.

Last fall, Sharon learned that her slight cough was a symptom of lung cancer. She fought it valiantly. In March, her small community organized a spectacularly-successful day-long fundraiser for her and her family. On June 10 she died. She was only 51.

In 18th-century Paris, a “salon” was a scene of brilliant cultural conversation, “conducted” by an inspiring host whose guests strove both to amuse one another and also to refine their taste and knowledge. What Sharon really did, said Marjorie, was not to operate a salon, but to conduct one. Yes, exactly. We have lost someone who helped us all to find the very best that was in us. What a loss. And what a legacy.

– 30 —

After the Web

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

July 18, 2010

“You people,” sighed the Silicon Scout, shaking his head. “You and your web-sites. The web is like, so over.”

We sit on a non-profit board of directors together, the Scout and I. He’s one of the guys known to technology marketers as “early adopters.” The first guy with a cell phone, a fax machine, an MP3 player. The first guy with an infra-red mouse for his computer. The first guy to send you photos that he took on his phone. (On his phone?)

The Scout is considerably younger than most of us — well, he would be, wouldn’t he? — and during the breaks in the meetings he would be texting and surfing on his iPhone. If we needed to know the price of a doughnut in Dacca, the Scout could find out in a wink.

So there we were, trying to figure out what was needed on our organization’s web site, and here was the Scout, heaving youthful sighs and saying, “You people. You and your web-sites. The web is like, so over.”

Over? The internet is over? I was utterly bewildered.

Well, no. The internet is not over. But the World Wide Web is not the internet. The Web lies on the internet like a quilt on a bed and, like a quilt, it makes the internet much more comfortable and attractive. And the Web remains — but the action has moved to “social media” like Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn and, above all, Facebook.

I wrote about social media in 2008, when Facebook had only been accessible to the general public for two years, and already had 100,000,000 users. Twitter, even younger, made me quite crotchety, with its ceaseless drizzle of 140-character “tweets” about users going for coffee, praying for rain and scratching themselves privily. What, I asked, “ is the point of this torrent of narcissistic nonsense?”

Good question. But it missed the larger issue, which is that the Web is relatively static and passive, and the social media are dynamic. A web site is like a brochure or a billboard, providing information to people who come looking. A social media site is a conversation, a buzz, an instantaneous international grapevine. Your Facebook or Tumblr or YouTube page is a busker’s performance. You put your stuff out there, and passersby look at it, engage you in conversation or walk on by. If they like it, they tweet to the grapevine and the world comes to watch.

So, for example, during the nine days after Susan Boyle did that electrifying performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” in April, 2009, her videos were watched more than 100 million times. Think of that: a hundred million times!! When her album came out in November, it sold nine million copies in six weeks, becoming the best-selling album of the year. Barack Obama largely owes his presidency to his ability to galvanize people and generate huge streams of cash by using social media. During the World Cup, reporters were tweeting furiously on their smartphones while the action was still unfolding — reporting not to their editors, but directly to the hordes following them on Twitter.

Social media allow smart entrepreneurs to create great instant businesses, and to reach customers they could never reach before.The trick is to pick a niche, create great content within that niche, and give a lot of it away.

Natalie MacLean, for example, a Cape Bretoner with a spectacularly successful wine site, gives away tons of information about wine and food. She’ll even provide you with a little program for your smartphone that allows you to browse her recommendations as you cruise the aisles of the liquor store.

But if you want her reviews of specific wines, complete with matched food recipes, you have to subscribe to her paid, premium service. It’s only $2.10 a month, though, so untold thousands have subscribed.

Facebook was cooked up in a Harvard dorm in 2004 by a couple of undergraduates. Today it’s an $11.5 billion company with 400 million users. Entertainment Weekly summed it up thus: “How on earth did we stalk our exes, remember our co-workers’ birthdays, bug our friends, and play a rousing game of Scrabulous before Facebook?” How indeed?

– 30 —

Beyond the Teapot Theory

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

July 11, 2010

The meaning of the PhD degree, said Stephen Leacock (who had one), “is that the recipient of instruction is examined for the last time in his life, and is pronounced completely full. After this, no new ideas can be imparted to him.”

That’s the Teapot Theory of Education, stripped naked. The teacher is the full teapot, the students are empty cups. Tilt. Pour. At the end of the course, you put a measuring cup beside each student. Tilt. Pour. If there’s sufficient tea in the students, education has occurred.

That’s the unacknowledged model of education that underlies much of what we do in schools, colleges and universities. But it’s nonsense.

For two years I’ve been working on big projects about education. I recently completed a booklet for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation on community service-learning, which is why I wrote no columns last month. I also wrote a book called A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, which will be published around Labour Day.

The immersion in education powerfully reinforced what I already knew: the Teapot Theory is obsolete. It’s an industrial-era model, an assembly line designed to churn out interchangeable workers. Teapot education is a dreadful preparation for a tumultuous, shape-shifting post-industrial society. That’s not the way people learn.

So how do people learn?

One revealing analysis of human learning is a four-stage model created by David Kolb of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Most people start, says Kolb, with a concrete experience. We reflect on the experience, formulate some ideas, and then test those ideas by visiting the experience again. The result is a “spiral of learning” that gets steadily deeper and richer.

Notice this: in Kolb’s model, there is no such thing as a teacher. There’s only a learner — and learning is an active, iterative process. People don’t just sit there while knowledge is poured into them. They go seeking it, testing it, figuring it out. Isn’t that the way you learned to tie your shoes, reconcile your bank statement, take good photos? Nobody put those things on a curriculum and insisted that you learn them. You needed and wanted to know, and you sought out resources to help you, including people.Your mother. Your uncle, the book-keeper. The instructor at the evening class in photography.

That’s the natural and normal procedure. You try things on your own. You read a book. You apprentice yourself, perhaps only briefly, to someone who can show you.

So why do we need an educational system?

Primarily for the benefit of employers and clients. What the system provides are credentials — and that’s not a bad thing. I do want some reassurance that cardiologists and airline pilots know what they’re doing. But that doesn’t mean they have to acquire the learning in the same place they acquire the credential.

In aboriginal cultures, in pre-industrial societies, kids learned by hanging around with adults who knew useful and interesting things. In 19th-century Nova Scotia, nobody went to ship-building college, but every village had master shipwrights. A Cape Breton apprenticeship agreement binds a young man to a blacksmith “to learn his art and mystery.” What a noble description of knowledge!

Similarly, in my youth a person could become a lawyer without attending university simply by apprenticing — or “articling”– with a lawyer, and passing the bar exams. To this day, graduates from some English universities can get “higher doctorates,” such as the DLitt, DD and DMus, simply by submitting a portfolio of published research that demonstrates the applicant’s scholarly eminence.

In a networked world, where some universities only exist online, why not award other degrees the same way? We already have student exchanges, off-campus placements, work terms and co-op education. Why shouldn’t a young person engage an academic planner — a personal teacher, like a personal trainer — to design a completely individualized program of apprenticeship, courses, work placements and independent study that could then be presented to a university for a degree?

Teapot education won’t do any longer. We need art and mystery, the liberation of learning. It’s an utterly glorious prospect.

– 30 —

To learn more about Silver Donald’s new book, A Million Futures, to read the Preface, and even to pre-order it, visit his web site, www.silverdonaldcameron.ca.