Spikes among Elks: Zev’s First Week at AC4D

“We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.”

–  John Dewey, The Need for a Theory of Experience


All sixteen of us students in the incoming class of 2019 had heaps of concerns coming into orientation and our first week of coursework. Two weeks in, I wouldn’t say there are any less concerns, just different flavors of concern. We’ve all stepped into a mental fit of uncertainty that we must grow accustomed to. We can all see ourselves pulling toffee between our own personal goals and the collective trust and equilibrium we are struggling to embrace.

Whether we realize it or not, it is the intentionally suffocating educational experiences we’ve been subjected to this last fortnight that John Dewey is talking about. How? We are getting so drenched in responsibility at every moment that we have not one second to spend worrying about weighing the future value of what we are doing at the present. These ever-present demands force us into a state of ever-presence. Accept it or leave it.   

The somewhat scarring experience of our first day when we were told that in 48 hours we needed to enlist a local humanitarian company to pay us $1,000 by conducting qualitative research for their organization left most of us a bit shaken. This was followed by the absolute destruction of our already-withering egos during the subsequent presentations of our research plans in front of Jon and Matt (our instructors for design research and synthesis).

On more than one occasion when approaching a business owner I was told that, “you don’t just walk into an office on a Tuesday in August unsolicited. That’s not how it works.” Believe me, I know. And so do the people who gave us the assignments. Regardless, you can guarantee that I began to seep of self-doubt rather than the confidence and optimism I went in with. Inadequacy spread through me like a virus. Why would our instructors do this to us?

“Wholly independent of desire or intent every experience lives on in further experiences. Hence the central problem of an education based upon experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences… progressive education is a matter of planless improvisation… [and] progressive schools cannot rely upon established traditions and institutional habits, they must either proceed more or less haphazardly or be directed by ideas which, when they are made articulate and coherent, form a philosophy of education.”

– John Dewey

Traditional education breeds a race of passive students. Students consume their training and nothing more. No doubt, Jon and Matt assigned this project to us because they demand that we exercise our own agency to perform improvisationally and autonomously in the moment. They are demonstrating that at the moment we are but spikes, and a spike can’t prepare itself to be an elk any faster just because it wishes to be wise and have a full set of antlers. What we can’t yet see is how this takes shape in the subsequent experiences that Dewey writes about. It’s only when we put our faith into our progressive instruction and unlock our cognisance of the deliberate process that we can begin to allow ourselves to learn.  

“The illustration drawn from the need for regulation of the objective conditions of a baby’s development indicates, first, that the parent has responsibility for arranging the conditions under which an infant’s experience of food, sleep, etc., occurs, and, secondly, that the responsibility is fulfilled by utilizing the funded experience of the past, as this is represented, say, by the advice of competent physicians and others who have made a special study of normal physical growth. Does it limit the freedom of the mother when she uses the body of knowledge thus provided to regulate the objective conditions of nourishment and sleep? Or does the enlargement of her intelligence in fulfilling her parental function widen her freedom? Doubtless if a fetish were made of the advice and directions so that they came to be inflexible dictates to be followed under every possible condition, then restriction of freedom of both parent and child would occur. But this restriction would also be a limitation of the intelligence that is exercised in personal judgment. In what respect does regulation of objective conditions limit the freedom of the baby?”

-John Dewey


To paraphrase Dewey, if a mother puts her full trust in her home economics textbook teaching of motherhood 101, then her interactions with her child won’t allow her to become a better and more free mother to that child. And when she has her next child, she won’t recognize that the second child has unique needs to the first. I’m not calling Jon and Matt mothers of myself and 15 other sibling students. But when you start using the verbiage of a good mother— one that rears and one that fosters—you start to see parallels with their techniques and the most basic interaction fundamental to human growth: A mother and her child. Being a child all over again is scary.

Reflecting on the horror of our first assignment to harass local businesses with unsolicited design value pitches I remember as a child the turmoil of rapid swings between the frustration of inadequacy and extreme self-confidence. And looking back, I reckon the bulk of my personal growth came from improvisational experiences not confined to the classroom.

Returning to our original list of concerns as a class, we wanted to know things like when we would need to learn Adobe Illustrator or if Illustrator is a better software than Sketch. We wanted to know if we would be expected to be expert drawers in the near future. The obvious and deeply unsatisfying answer—it depends. It depends on how you arm yourself and discover your own personal creative process, interactively, improvisationally, progressively, and un-certainly.


The root internal worry in my head entering AC4D was, how will AC4D shape me?

My new worry—how am I allowing myself to be shaped by AC4D?