This essay draws a great deal of its energy from the historical intersection of humanist psychology and education, as well as from a philosophically-oriented set of ecological insights whose elaboration by marine biologist Edward Ricketts in the 1930s and 1940s prefigures a later emphasis on "getting into contact" with lived realities. The humanist and Gestalt psychologists of the 1950s and 1960s—e.g., Paul Goodman, Abraham Maslow, Fritz Perls, and Carl Rogers—provided the intellectual as well as practical ground from which such important developments as "confluent education" and the "live classroom" sprang.1 This "live classroom," as George Isaac Brown dubbed it, is predicated on the understanding of the whole (or Gestalt), on integrating emotion with cognition, on awareness (of self and other or object), and on experiencing through contact. What I will argue with respect to the shaping and flourishing of the B-student, or Being-student,2 is also founded on the Gestalt principle that learning about the world is only as important or as necessary as learning about how we prevent ourselves from doing so.3 So before exploring the meanings of terms and concepts such as confluent education and contact, I should emphasize that this essay itself, consistent with a Gestalt perspective, creates a need—the need for making change—at the same time that it interrogates possible obstacles to the natural emergence of this need. This double approach to need is the essence of what we might call B-learning.
That we are constantly preventing ourselves from learning, even while [End Page 326] seemingly engaged in its pursuit, is perhaps the most dramatic consequence of when contact is neglected in favor of indirect modes of investigating, being, and doing. The physicist Victor Weisskopf describes a poignant encounter with the wonder that is generated by direct contact with an object of study. When Weisskopf was invited to give a series of lectures at the University of Arizona at Tuscon, his enthusiasm for visiting the school was tied to his hope that he would be able to visit the Kitts Peak astronomical observatory. He was, however, duly informed that his wish to look at some objects through the telescope could not be granted because it was in constant use for photography and other research activities. Within days after declining the invitation, Weisskopf was told he would after all be able to look through the telescope:
We drove up the mountain on a wonderfully clear night. The stars and the Milky Way glistened intensely and seemed almost close enough to touch. I entered the cupola and told the technicians who ran the computer-activated telescope that I wanted to see Saturn and a number of the galaxies. It was a great pleasure to observe with my own eyes and with the utmost clarity all the details I had only seen on photographs before. As I looked at all that, I realized that the room had begun to fill with people, and one by one they too peeked into the telescope. I was told that these were astronomers attached to the observatory, but they had never before had the opportunity of looking directly at the objects of their investigations. I can only hope that this encounter made them realize the importance of such direct contacts.(qtd. in Kabat-Zinn 186–87)
A beautiful illustration of the emergence of a kind of live classroom, Weisskopf's story reveals not only the value of contact but the way in which being "confluent," being alive to both the affective and cognitive dimensions of the learning experience, produces an awareness of responsibility. Experiencing confluence means "being aware of, and taking responsibility for, yourself in relation to your experience and your context, people you're interacting with, the topic and material you're engaging in, group dynamics, and the environment" (J. Brown xvi). While the classical definition of confluent education emphasizes the integration, the flowing [End Page 327] together, of the emotional and the subject content elements of the educational experience so that both benefit from the relation to the other, George Isaac Brown was quite clear about what constitutes the dichotomy between the live classroom...