Being Called a Cowboy

Some of my upcoming posts may be directed at a DS106 course that I’ve decided to check-out. I’m not all that familiar with the DS structure so we’ll see how it goes and I’ll be feeling my way around a bit, starting with some ramblings.


What does it mean to be called a cowboy? Cowboys are a part of actual American history, and even today they exist as an occupation and lifestyle. But “The Cowboy” also exists as an image. When a writer or a storyteller shows a character as a ‘cowboy’ they are communicating a pre-set package of attributes, an archetype, a storyline. Thinking through some of my favorite stories, I wonder what the role of the cowboy image plays, and what qualities these stories and characters have in common.

In Die Hard (1988), the most classic of all Christmas movie classics, the cowboy theme is interwoven through plot and character. McClane, referred to countless times directly as a cowboy and as one through context and scene, literally flies in to save the day, rustic attire and all. His down to earth, real-guy ways are contrasted with the city-slicker flash of Ellis in the film, who just won’t seem to listen to the cowboy. Considered an outlaw himself by the good guys, McClane is forced into a position to take on the bad guys – forced by circumstance and by an inner set of values that could never let him surrender to the gang of bank-robber types, led by Hans Gruber who is eventually revealed as “nothing but a common thief”. Cowboy McClane is a loner, shown as alone both estranged from his family and alone in the Japanese owned Nakatomi Plaza, surrounded by European thieves. By contrast, the American McClane very much represents the cowboy of pragmatic American history.


Hans Gruber may as well be spinning a lasso in this scene

With The Cowboy so deeply connected to nostalgic American history, it’s interesting to consider how much influence Japanese Samurai movies have had on this image. It’s also a wonder why such a collectivist society as Japan could contribute to a cultural image so linked to feelings of individuality and “take it upon oneself”ness. I think the first wonder may point to a deeper, universal character shared by both the Samurai and the Cowboy…the Knight, the Voyageur, etc. The second wonder may point to an extensive characterization of The Cowboy apart from the loner and the individual, and more in-line with the bushido ideals of a romanticized “golden age” past and an inherent sense of what is right and wrong. Elements of this are certainly evident in Die Hard – bad guys and good guys are obvious as watching a Star Wars movie.

Two famous samurai movies, Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), take this sense of knowing inherent right and wrong to another level in that main characters (embodiment of the Cowboy/Samurai image) act upon their conscience, to their own detriment and to their knowing lack of eventual benefit to their own selves. Again, this is a strong theme in Die Hard with the under-appreciated John McClane who knows he fights against the odds, but still does so. Kambei, in Seven Samurai, is introduced into the story playing the role of a selfless monk as part of a ruse to help capture a crazy bandit. Throughout recruitment of the other samurai and throughout the battle preparations there is a sense of thanklessness that Kambei constantly acknowledges. Even his final words of the movie comment of the inevitable fact that they have not won anything – it is the farmers and the bandits who have either won or lost. The Samurai are merely agents that reestablish order in a world where good needs to prevail over evil. In the movie Yojimbo, Sanjuro mysteriously and covertly, to both the restaurant owner and to the viewer, works as an agent for good throughout the film until order, as he sees it, is restored and the town is rid of bad guys and dishonorable ways of fighting. Such restoration of order reminds me of a Shakespeare play, and while it’s probably a stretch to consider a Hamlet as a cowboy figure, he does have some qualities in common with that categorical universal character that cowboys are also a part of.

When thinking of cowboy figures, my mind immediately jumps to an image of Lupin the Third. He’s more of a Robin Hood archetype, but again there are qualities that the both share. An inner sense of fairness, a loner type, an outlaw. Lacking perhaps is that sense of order and fight against the bad. Lupin and Robin Hood are certainly in the middle, often as Cowboys are, but they concern more with money and fairness rather than good vs evil. Theirs is a much more ambiguous, self-centered world. As an aside, it’s interesting to contrast The Cowboy image with that of The Solider – both act on orders of strict morality and ethics, but one takes them from within and one takes them from above.


Spike Spiegel can even twirl a gun like an old west Buckaroo

A better example of a Cowboy figure from the world of anime is Spike Spiegel from Cowboy BeBop (1998). The name gives this one away, that and that he’s often referred to as Space Cowboy – outer space in the not so distant future being his frontier. He has many of the attributes I’ve mentioned above – a loner, an individual, an inner set of values, in between good and evil but fighting for what he sees as good, often forced into a position to take on the bad and dishonorable, and one additional attribute that stands out throughout the series: simplicity. In Die Hard we see McClane as a simple man: blue collar job, out of place among the rich and well-to-do, bare feet and a plain white undershirt. Spike is similar: he barely makes enough to eat, wears no ambition on his sleeve, and lives by the motto “Whatever happens, happens”. In one episode he meets his character doppelganger “Cowboy Andy” who shares Spike’s dimwittedness, an obvious similarity not lost on any of the other characters in the show and not lost on anyone watching it.

Cowboy movies are often simple, in the same way that good music, good writing, or good food is often simple. One of my favorite movies illustrates this point in its complexity. Unforgiven (1992) is a great Western, but a masterpiece of a Movie because it successfully strikes a deeper chord than the genre represented by Eastwood’s legendary classics. It tackles issues like gun control and the justice system in an emerging America. It takes us into the inner mind of a fantastically complex character in William Munny as he looks back on his life and confronts his own inner set of values. In a sense, it takes the cowboy with no name, and gives him one. Washing away his image, the image of The Cowboy.

Predicting Education

Predictions for technology and education are always popular. Over the break, someone sent me a link to this post on the topic:

I’ve always felt uneasy about predictive lists in education, and about such topics like the future of education. They seem like half-thoughts: predictions for what will happen, but few conclusions for what that means for practice today.

With predictions, I’m always left wanting for more discussion about the here and now, and the immediate past, rather than the future. Let’s make the future.

The article above works when it does look at the now, with statements like this: “…more and more tablets are in teacher and student hands.”

And this line, which I couldn’t agree with more: “…it is the teacher who is the key player in learning not the silicon chip…”

Teachers are the bridge between learner and structure/content. In small classes and in mega-multi-user-environments. Tech in education is used so well when teachers use it simply to get to know their students better.

The Little Girl at the Window

Having eyes, but not seeing beauty; having ears, but not hearing music; having minds, but not perceiving truth; having hearts that are never moved and therefore never set on fire. These are the things to fear, said the headmaster.

Totto-chan was a grade school girl that didn’t fit into the basic school system – she couldn’t pay attention, she couldn’t sit still, she asked so many questions, she tired-out her teachers. She was always getting into things. After she was expelled from first grade her parents enrolled her in a school for outcasts run by a remarkable headmaster with such a passion for educating children that he built his own school out of used trains. His school welcomed the curiosity of children, allowing them to explore their own pursuits before offering support and structure that would help fan the flames of an ignited heart.

Years later in 1981 Totto-chan, now a famous television personality, wrote a book of stories about her old elementary school. The book, originally written in Japanese, has been translated into numerous languages and is available around the world. The copy that I read comes from my local library, and was recommended to me after some conversations about my own daughter’s elementary school journey.

There’s something wrong with the school system where my daughter goes to school. The best way I’ve come up with to describe it is that when I communicate with the school, or the school system, I have that same feeling that I do when I try to communicate with a government office, or a bank. Regardless of our words, we’re never talking about the same end point – for me it’s my individual daughter’s education; for them it’s their own internal organization. Their final goal is always about the paperwork and the process, even when they claim it isn’t.

Grade three started off with extensive standardized testing that frustrated my daughter more than she let on. In talking with her, she didn’t really understand what these tests were all about, except that they were all anyone talked about and that the computers they used for them didn’t work that great and she sometimes had to redo her work because they didn’t save. (she flailed her hands as she told me this) Last year her teacher (who has since left the school) told stories to the children, many of which my daughter breathlessly repeated to me, fascination in her eyes. She misses her last year teacher greatly – but my guess is that this year’s teacher is a kind of an all-star in the eyes of the board of education because she’s organized and no-nonsense and gets through the curriculum on time.

I would recommend Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window to anyone in education, chances are it’s in your local library system, wherever you are – I would recommend it because it’s full of stories, and stories are what we love and are how we learn best. It’s touching in a way that the quote at the top makes you realize that kids use their senses in amazing ways. I would even call this essential reading for those working in boards of education and for those teachers, principals, and office staff who tend to prioritized paperwork over pupils.

Distance as Center

I just finished a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It’s a book from the early 1980s that takes a television specific look at how technology and media influence North American society. The book may be a bit dated in that TV is no longer the apex of mass communication that it was 30 years ago, although from several other perspectives many of the ideas in the book transfer well to other technology and media contexts. I love these types of books – books on tech that are just a few decades old – because they present ideas about the effects of tech and media on a simpler backdrop.

The book ends (the last 2 chapters) with some strong ideas, one of which is that education curriculum is bending toward the particular affordances of television. A related point that Postman makes is that because television is so prevalent in everyday life (he states that teenagers watch 16,000 hrs of TV by High School graduation) schools have simply forgotten to question television’s character.
Looking back at this claim from 2015, we can easily see the limitations of mere television broadcasting. And we now know that it is much better to unquestioningly prepare our educational systems for a “21st century world” in which digital technology, asynchronous communication, and social learning are the real tech and media powerhouses that the next generation will inherit. Right?
No, not right.
Despite being written in 1985 and focusing specifically on television, the 2nd last paragraph of the book provides a timeless quote:
“…it is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. That this task should now require that they learn how to distance themselves from their forms of information is not so bizarre an enterprise that we cannot hope for its inclusion in the curriculum; even hope that it will be placed at the center of education.”

Growers and Mere Harvesters

A garden is one of the most common metaphors in learning and education. It’s a good one, but there are many distinctions that often don’t get sorted out at the level of metaphor, or given enough consideration to. Are gardens meant to emphasize the growth of a plant under the right conditions? Or, are they meant to show intentional maintenance of organized learning, as compared to growth in the wild?

Educational metaphors using plants-things always seem to miss the mark with me, as they tend to romanticize the growth, while ignoring the importance of restrictions.

Earlier today while reading about the economic plight of East Timor, this line jumped out at me:

“People in East Timor are not growers; they are mere harvesters of coffee.”

The idea is that, in terms of their economy which relies on the coffee beans trade, the country’s farmers are nowhere near intentional enough in how they cultivate their crop. To a large degree, they simply pick from what grows in the wild.

Education runs this danger because learning permeates our lives much like breathing does. Educational settings that rely on everyday learning as the backdrop and be all of design – highly and merely social, connective, and low guidance courses – set themselves up as harvesters, simply picking from interaction that happens to take place.

Twitter & Protesting Too Much

Twitter – I haven’t been ignored by this many popular kids since high school.

Early adopters of Twitter seem to have expected that 1) the social media platform, which is based on the use of the masses, would function statically as it grew from its initial stages, and 2) the management needs of their own Twitter environment would stay static as it grew in size and popularity.

I wonder about that diversity bubble that formed around some of these early adopters – it’s probably a very difficult bubble to recognize, in that dangerous way where the bubble gets mention and acknowledgement just enough to let it keep getting ignored. As someone mentioned to me the other day, the more I hear about the diversity bubble, the more it sounds like people doth protesting too much.

It’s like my buddy who’s an alcoholic coming to me one day with the sunbeam realization that “Hey, you know, we really need to take a weekend off from drinking every now and then, it’s not good to be drinking every night.” Sure, that’s a start – but why are you telling me? Most of the people out there aren’t alcoholics, and take it for granted that constant indulgence isn’t advisable.

Stepping away from social media for a while, moderating your Twitter use, isn’t really news. It’s something that should be done from the start and promoted as a basic fact of SM use. Many educators are reluctant to dive into social technology, despite knowing the benefits, because the opposite tone dominates. The tone of all or nothing.

Back in the 80s, it was standard social commentary to question if the values presented on television reflected society’s values, or if they dictated them. Today, television isn’t as popular as it used to be – Social Media has stepped in to fill that chicken or that egg role. The answer is probably the same though – sometimes they reflect, sometimes they dictate. When, depends on which bubbles you float in.

Our Real World of Technology

By chance, Ursula Franklin’s book The Real World of Technology happened to fall into my grasp recently. In the book, she builds on observations about technology as practice and experience (hence the “Real World”), bringing and keeping context at the forefront of discussion.

Buried in one of the final four chapters that were added in 1999 to the original collection of lectures from ten years earlier, is a discussion on what she calls “the evolving destructuring by asynchronicity” of society (p.151). In the discussion she warns about the increasing prevalence of asynchronous activity in our lives, linking the synchronous/asynchronous divide to the concepts of organism and mechanism. A dominantly asynchronous society has more to do with being a mechanism rather than an organism, she suggests.

To touch on her discussion a bit more, technology is born from the world around us. Some of the first instances of technology came from the acts of recording the cycles and patterns of the moon, the stars, and the seasons in the sun. From these first stone etchings grew newer and newer asynchronous technologies – oral mnemonic devices, papyrus, paper, the printing press, radio, tv, electronic text, Smart phones, and now Smart-wristwatches that adequately impress onlookers. Each asynchronous development changed the established patterns and cycles that originated from nature, but these established patterns still existed as a base, or as the background, on which asynchronous technology developed.

Society has come to a point, thinks Franklin, where the prevalence of asynchronous activity is so dominant over synchronous activity that there is little reciprocity left between the two. Our human social world is becoming detached from the real-time context where it began and has always dwelled. These origins of technology also comprise the basis of our human identity, a common knowledge that unites us under the concept of ‘civilization’ as we know it. Without this external context, humanity is less like a living organism and more like a machine – ‘being’ is reduced to our transactions in and of an asynchronous world.

If there is only structure that is human, it seems to me what Franklin is trying to say, then we have no context. Humans become the phonemes of a dead language.

Compared to Franklin, my own narrative of the prevalence of asynchronicity has been a bit more optimistic, and perhaps a bit more naïve: Long ago, at some rather extended point, humans developed spoken language. This was and still is synchronous communication. Also long ago, humans looked at world around them (sun, moon, stars, etc) and recorded their activity. The technology of etchings on stone was about as asynchronous as it can get, if that makes sense – the recordings used minimally varied and simplistic symbols, they deteriorated easily, and they were not very transportable over distance. Since then, humans have been developing technologies that were either faster or that could travel over distance easier.

With the development of digital technology, the spectrum between these two extreme technologies – spoken language and etchings on stone – has been filling in much more rapidly, especially at the end towards the synchronous where we are approaching it closer and closer with very rapid and very durable, but still asynchronous technology. This spectrum of communication technology now provides humanity with a (nearly) full set of interaction options, or tools, removing the restraints of technology access and discarding idea of technology progress, for the better. I may choose to listen to Radio, for example, because Radio is not inherently better than the newer technologies of TV or YouTube, it just holds different communication obligations.

I like to think that the big picture here is not that asynchronous patterns replace other asynchronous patterns, but that the collection of asynchronous technology over time, with all of its varieties of communication frequency and durability, which is now fast filling in, gives humans more choice and autonomy over how we interact. It is not really a shift that we have been experiencing, but a liberation of technology progress. I still generally believe this narrative, however my thoughts are now tempered by this chance reading of Franklin’s ideas, also for the better.

The worries of Franklin are realized when the world is much more suited for technology progress over the progress of humanity. Evident in some newly forming foundational educational goals is the omission of our past. 21st Century Skill slogans like “prepare our children for their world, not ours” is a path that originates from today, a day defined by our asynchronous prowess. In attempting to recognize the multitude of options that future generations have the luxury of exploring, these options are unnecessarily limited when society answers the WHAT questions with the HOW of practice.

When we prioritize preparing our future generations, dominantly and from a young age, for the world of asynchronous technology we are feeding an environment that is structured for the development and well-being of technology rather than the development and well-being of humans. (p71, p84) This is what I imagine it means to be infatuated by technology.

If we want to keep our context relevant, at the forefront and in our foundations then it is not enough to not ignore the “real world,” our synchronous, non-human environment needs to be part of educational prescriptive technology. This is what Ursula Franklin seemed to understand in her own practice, in how she lived her life. People like her, writing at the dawn of the digital age but before the social media boom, provide a remarkable and rare perspective that can help our often much too short-sighted world today. They remind us that the human heartbeat is a pattern as much a part of nature and as recognizable as the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Note: A longer, alternate version of this article is at –