An Interesting Week

Thursday, April 24, 2008

It's been an interesting week. This week I had the opportunity to meet and have discussions with two prominent people who I never expected I'd have the chance to talk with.

On Tuesday Bob Stein, founder of The Institute for the Future of the Book, came to visit my professor/advisor/friend Dr. Mike Wesch here in Manhattan, KS, of all places. Apparently they met and formed a mutual respect and friendship at a conference that Dr. Wesch recently attended. Bob wanted to come and see what Dr. Wesch was up to with his digital ethnography project and to meet and talk with Dr. Wesch's students. In addition, he gave a talk on campus attended primarily by librarians and dig eth students. He gave a presentation oriented around an introduction to himself and how his ideas have transformed over time.

After the talk I had the fortune to go out to dinner with him and a few others. We ate good food and talked about technology, the emerging possibilities, the few educators out there trying to apply current technological possibilities to pedagogy, and the possibilities of Bob's software Sophie. I am continually amazed by occurrences such as these, the opportunities that spring up every once in a while to meet and converse with truly inspirational and influential people.

If that was not enough of a privilege, on Wednesday I got to chat on the phone with Sean Esbjorn-Hargens for an hour and a half. Sean is the creator of the Integral Theory program at John F. Kennedy University, the first fully accredited program in Integral Studies. Sean has been in and around the Integral movement for over 10 years, a founding member/manager of Integral Institute, and good friend and colleague of Ken Wilber. I was totally flattered that he would be willing to talk with me and be so generous with his time. After inquiring about the Integral Theory program, I raised some questions about some of the controversial issues surrounding Integral Theory and Ken Wilber. Sean was recommended as someone who intimately knows about the controversial issues and might be a helpful voice to get a balanced view. From that, the program coordinator John Scheunhage set me up with a phone conversation.

From the conversation I gleaned a number of useful perspectives that have and will help orient my future relationship with the Integral movement. The immediate and most important of these points was his affirmation of my suspicion that things are changing rapidly in the integral movement and that the last 3 years have seen a radical progression. One mark of this progression has been a distancing from Ken Wilber based on the reality that Ken Wilber != Integral. Sean's focus is multi-faceted, but his "meta"-focus is on trying to make Integral Theory an academic discipline. In this vein he helped create the masters program at JFKU and is currently starting an annual Integral Studies academic conference. Much of the criticism around Ken Wilber is founded in a perceived and real lack of academic review of the work. Since he is an author housed outside the ivory tower (a necessary contingent to writing what he has), he has not benefited nor been held to the traditional academic process of review and critique. Many people have been disenfranchised when being critical of his work because it has not been mediated by the traditional academic process. In my opinion, this is neither the fault of Ken nor his critics.

However, many of the critics out there have done themselves and the movement a disservice by critiquing in an entirely personal and non-constructive way. But, in this non-constructive criticism there is an inordinate amount of personal/personality conflict issues raised to cause me to wonder about the person under the facade of Ken Wilber. From Frank Visser, to Michel Bauwens, to Matthew Dallman, plenty of people seem to have clashed with Ken. This brings me to the second most important point gleaned from our talk. Being a personal friend and colleague of Ken's, Sean told me that Ken has a very strong personality. He is not afraid of stating what he thinks and not afraid of calling others out. At the same time, Sean noted that Ken too has a shadow and deals with it in his own way, as we all do. The image I got from Sean's description is very consistent with the type of personality that would clash with others given the right circumstances. This is such an important thing for me to hear because it helps me understand why there is so much negative material out there (one reason, perhaps not even the most important), and also helps me break the tendency to put Ken up on a super-human/godly pedestal. Given the breadth of what Ken has done, I think it is hard not to do this (note that I am here referring to him as "Ken", instead of "Wilber" or "Ken Wilber"). Nonetheless, I think it is detrimental to both my own development and to Ken himself to project this quality. What I think is appropriate and right is to recognize his brilliance without projecting this godlike status.

We went on talking about how difficult and sensitive these controversial issues are given the nature of the content. Since this is largely an emergent field and perspective, the internal processes that go on in an individual discovering a more inclusive perspective can be quite extreme. Often, and due to how Ken writes and projects himself, it is easy to project on him both a fatherly and a godly status. I am guilty of both. But, as an integral perspective would outline, those are projections and issues that must be worked through in order for transformation, and not regression, to occur. This becomes so incredibly tricky due to the complexity of possibilities that all sorts of ugliness is likely, and does come through. I have found all this to be intensely difficult to go through on my own. For that reason alone, I can see it being worthwhile to do the Integral Theory program just for the opportunity to engage with others going through the same things.

While we talked about a variety of other things, including details about the program, the two main points above are largely what I took away from the conversation. That and the sheer amazement that someone with such credentials would take the time to chat with a random stranger in the middle of Kansas!

Quite a flattering week...

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