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Sunday, October 1, 2017


Another new word: perturbation.

Of course I knew it existed. But one doesn't hear it very often.

I was in a small meeting in which one of the attendees, a very distinguished professor who is a specialist in the Complex Dynamic Systems Theory, at some point pointed out that one might look at anything - including for example a music lesson - as a Complex Dynamic System. All kinds of interactions are going on, and there is no way to think about what is going on in the simple terms of 'cause' and 'effect', of 'variables' which can be 'isolated'. If I understood him right - and if not, this little blog entry is completely my fault - he considered this as '19th century science'. Of which there is still a lot going on, of course.

He then said: consider what you are studying as that what happens after a perturbation of the system. Something happens - a pedagogic intervention; a bomb explosion - and the system is shaken. (In my mind, I pictured a fish bowl standing quietly on a cupboard, and then suddenly somebody bumps into the cupboard and the fishbowl is shaken and there are little waves, and fishes suddenly frantically swimming up and down - until gradually the situation normalizes). Teaching, then, is deliberately perturbing a system in order to make development possible. And education is the context we have developed for the systematic perturbation of kids (those are my words, not the professor's; and to see how it works, check out Monty Python's company 'Confuse-a-Cat Ltd.'.)

I like the idea of the perturbation, and also the idea of the Complex Dynamic System. The world, one might say, consists of people trying to live within their situation as good as possible, manipulating their surroundings - things, plants, animals, human beings, gods - to that effect. But because we share our situation with others, and because the definition of 'as good as possible' differs from person to person, our manipulations form a Complex Dynamic System constantly in flux. And so we try to work our way through our lives, perturbing and perturbed constantly.

There was one thing in my mind which I had to let go off, due to the meeting I had. In my mind, I associated Systems Theory with ideas about self-organization and balance. I always thought that Systems Theories stressed the idea of balance in a system, and that systems, after each perturbation, tried to return to a form of balance - and that developmentally one could speak of 'balance at a higher level'. Hence the fish-bowl example above.

But now that I thought a little bit about it, it seems to me that the idea of balance is not very useful. Maybe it is better to look at life as a system constantly in motion. Maybe we try to get some balance in our life, but because the system is so complex and we are all so very different, it doesn't happen to the system. The system is in motion all the time, and it is to the individuals within the system to find a feeling of balance. And maybe one could say: the more individuals feel in balance at some point in time, the better the society.

Enough for some reminiscing on a Sunday morning. I wish you an exciting day filled with perturbations and - nevertheless - feelings of balance.

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