Vassar College

Notes from Neverland

Kenneth R. Livingston
Professor of Psychology
April 28, 2010

President Hill and members of the Vassar community, I am deeply honored by the opportunity to speak with you all this afternoon.

Several people mentioned to me in the last few days that my title was a bit enigmatic, so, as a matter of truth in advertising, I feel compelled to tell you, rather belatedly, that absolutely nothing I have to say in the next 20 minutes has anything to do with Michael Jackson.

Instead I want to begin by describing a very odd and surprising experience I had several years ago. Of course many odd, unexpected things happen on the way to being a very-big-number-of-years old. Some of these are Big Events that everyone recognizes as life changing and transformative – new relationships, births, deaths, graduations -- but most are so small and fleeting that if you don’t stop to think about them they quickly disappear into the vast, unsearchable tangle of the forever forgotten. About fifteen years ago, when I was still only a big number, instead of a very big number, of years old, I was standing in the bathroom, leaning on the rim of the sink as I brushed my teeth. I happened to glance down and was surprised to see an old man’s hand resting on the edge of the sink. Why was an old man’s hand on my sink? Surprise quickly turned to shock as I realized that the hand was my hand. Why was my hand an old man’s hand? When did this happen? OMG!

A lot of big number people sitting here today have had some version of this experience. Maybe you were walking past a display window on a city street and caught a glimpse of your reflection. Or maybe it was something more indirect; maybe you met a friend from your high school or college days and were shocked to see how old she had become, only to realize that you are the same age. It’s not a pleasant experience, but it’s not the worst thing that can happen to a person, and it is easily lost in the fast onrush of a busy day. But I couldn’t stop thinking about my own moment of shock, not because I couldn’t get over the fact that I was a big number of years old, but because it seemed very odd to me that the experience should have been surprising at all. After all, I know perfectly well at any given moment how old I am, and I know what hands of a certain age should look like. Even more to the point, I see my hands dozens of times a day. The more I thought about it the more I realized that the most surprising thing about this event was that I had been surprised at all. Why had this been so unexpected?

The answer, I eventually realized, is that from that ineffably private perspective that looks out at the world from somewhere behind my eyes I still think of myself as about 25, give or take. As is typical in our culture, my sense of myself during the decade running up to 25 had been mercurial, and I welcomed every change that marked progress toward adulthood. But somewhere in my mid-twenties it seemed that I had simply stopped getting older. Standing at that sink years later, caught off guard in a moment of distraction, twenty-something inner me was genuinely stunned to see an old hand connected to its self. I have come to think of this as Unintended Peter Pan Syndrome, a phrase in which the word, “unintended,” is critical. In the years since I had this experience we have learned a great deal about the changes in thought and brain that occur during late adolescence and early adulthood, and I could certainly spin out a plausible, if still speculative, account of why this happens, but I strongly suspect that in my case at least there is something else at work, something that makes the Peter Pan effect even more potent. This something else is the fact that five, six, sometimes seven days a week I get in my car and, going past, “the second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning,” I arrive in Neverland, aka the Vassar campus, where for a century and a half it has been the case that almost everyone is perennially between the ages of 18 and 22. Oh, there is some effort to age people throughout the year, and we think we’re making progress, but then summer comes, the denizens of Neverland travel home for a bit, just as Peter occasionally visits Kensington Gardens, and somebody hits a reset button so that by the beginning of September everyone returns with their ages firmly in the allowable 18 to 22 range. Is it any wonder, then, that embedded in this world of eternal youth, it is easy to imagine that one is also eternally youthful?

Like all analogies, this one becomes strained if one examines it too closely. One might do something interesting with the predatory crocodile tick-tocking its way through the story, and the proud, fearless character of Peter Pan himself somehow fits the image I’d like to have of Vassar students, but I’m not at all sure who is supposed to be Smee, or the Mermaids, or Captain Hook in this scenario. No matter. The central parallel is that both J. M. Barrie’s Neverland and the Vassar campus are unusual and special places where one steps out of the ordinary flow of time for a bit in order to have a series of adventures that are not to be had in the work-a-day world.

In thinking back about how I came to be here speaking to you today I am struck by the fact that I did not set out to live this life. I grew up in, well, let’s call them challenging circumstances, and I was the first person in the history of my very large family to go to college. My overarching goal in life when I took my first ever plane ride to Logan Airport in Boston was to be a math computer science major and make a LOT of money so that my circumstances would never be challenging again. College professors were practically another species where I came from, and in any case they weren’t known for making a lot of money. And although I spent my fair share of time thinking about the Big Questions – how does the universe work, what is my place in it, what’s the meaning of it all? – the goals that moved me through my days were very local: Pass this exam, don’t get fired from your after-school job, find the courage to talk to the cute girl in the next row in math class, get accepted into college.

I never did manage to talk to the cute girl in math class, but I did get to make my first journey into Neverland, known to me then as Harvard, where I learned, very much as Michael, Wendy, and John do, that survival is one of the most popular games played. I want to say to those of you in the audience who are freshman and might be struggling a bit that I am living proof that one can survive even the most abysmal first year experiences. That first year, when I actually was 18, I felt completely outclassed intellectually by everyone I met, was nearly crushed by the repeated challenges to almost everything I thought I knew, and came to believe that the people who invented the French language had it out for me, personally. My academic record that year went from mixed to mediocre to malodorous. The incredible range of things that I could choose to study daunted me, and I lost confidence in my decision to pursue math and computer science. I was adrift, and it wasn’t nearly as much fun living in Neverland as I had thought it would be.

Choosing a major became particularly troubling for me. The options available exceeded my previous understanding of the things one could do in life by an order of magnitude, and the new world in which I found myself was more complex than I had ever imagined. I’d never lived in a city, for example, never even visited one, and many of the hours I should have spent in the library or in class my freshman year were spent wandering the streets of Boston, or, when I could get there, New York. The cityscape astonished and delighted me, and I decided that being an architect or an urban planner would be one of the coolest things in the world to do, so I decided to major in Visual and Environmental Studies, which was the multidisciplinary, pre-professional program at Harvard that led to that kind of work. And it was clear that you could get rich doing it. But the deeper I got into the work the more I realized that what really fascinated me were not the buildings and electrical grids and subways but the people who used them. So I wandered over to the Department of Social Relations, another multidiscipline where sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists attempted to integrate their perspectives on human thought and behavior, and there I finally found the kinds of problems and intellectual challenges that would engage me for the rest of my life.

My sophomore year was a year of at least partial redemption, and by the time I reached my junior and then, all too quickly, my senior year, I began to realize – as many of you in this room have begun to do – that people expected me to leave Neverland soon. I also realized that I didn’t know how to do that. I’d found a major, but it didn’t suggest the path to riches I had once imagined. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really know even in my senior year what it was that I wanted to do, but I loved the process of trying to understand how the world works, especially the human part of the world, and graduate school was the most obvious place to continue that quest for understanding. Harvard decided that they were willing to continue the relationship as well, so I stayed. Two years into graduate school I was miserable, my personal life was a complete mess, and I was broke and in debt to a degree that scared me, so I took a year off, earned some money, rethought things, and returned to a completely different line of research than I had originally signed on to do for my Ph.D.

And still I had made no commitment to being an academic. As a way to pay the bills my last year of grad school I gave up my teaching and research assistantships and took a job with a contract research company where I could earn in a day what it took a week to earn as a TA. I designed a massive data analysis framework for programs to improve rural schools, established procedures and collected data to assess the educational effectiveness of children’s television programming, and wrote analysis papers for the National Day Care Project. I loved the applied nature of the work and the money, and at the final lunch of my graduate school class I was the only person who planned NOT to be an academic in the long run. But it was a time of deep recession, lots of experienced people wanted to be contract researchers, so turning down options that would have meant being far from Boston I took a job at Vassar with every intention of going back to more applied work within the next few years.

A lot of things changed my mind about that – meeting my wife, building a family, constructing a life outside of the campus – but the joys of teaching and doing research had worked their seductive charms in ways I had not anticipated, and the sense that I went to play, not to work, every day made the biggest difference to my attitude about being here. I can’t possibly tell all the stories of the fun I’ve had, but several things do stand out because they were such turning points for me.

One of the most memorable actually has nothing to do with my academic career, but it is exemplary of what is special about our particular Neverland. During my first two years at Vassar I had a number of continuing projects in the Boston area, as well as family and friends I missed, so I drove back to Cambridge for the weekend at least every two weeks. This fact got around, and pretty soon I was giving rides to Vassar students with their own reasons for visiting the Boston area. Two of those students, both philosophy majors, became regular passengers on those journeys, and we quickly discovered that our politics, although aligned in some ways, were quite at odds on many issues. The fact of the matter was that my political attitudes had been shaped largely by osmosis, not careful study or thought, and in Neverland, especially the Neverland of the 70s, that meant that I was a pretty garden-variety left-wing liberal democratic socialist. My passengers, however, had other ideas, and, trapped inside my battered 1966 Chevy Impala coupe for 4 hours at a stretch, we shouted our way back and forth to Boston on nearly a dozen occasions. I found myself reading Friedrich Hayek and Karl Polanyi, Adam Smith and Karl Marx, Ayn Rand and Mother Jones, Milton Freedman and John Maynard Keynes, all in an effort to stay in the game with these two very demanding women. These regularly scheduled bouts started a years-long process that turned me into a staunch proponent of a classically liberal, individualist, pro-free-market view of the world, guaranteeing that I would never, ever, ever lack for people to argue with at Vassar.

Those early years were also important for me academically. At the beginning of my second year here I met a new assistant professor in computer science named Marty Ringle who was afire with enthusiasm for a brand new multidisciplinary effort called cognitive science, a field dedicated to integrating insights and methodologies from philosophy, psychology, computer science, neuroscience, and linguistics to better understand millennia-old problems about the nature of mind and intelligence. Marty organized a series of conversations among faculty from all of those fields, conversations that soon became a senior seminar co-taught by six faculty from psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and computer science, all of whom were in the classroom every week with fifteen students whose majors spanned all four divisions of the curriculum. We spent most of our time trying, sometimes rather loudly, to make sense of one another and to get a word in edgewise.

The three years we taught those seminars were riotously good fun and planted the seed for what became the first Program in the world to grant an undergraduate degree in Cognitive Science. And the fun continued. For example, I began asking students in the Perception and Action class to build simple robots as a playful way to engage some of the more technical material in the field. We bought electronics from Radio Shack, taped and wired them onto Lego bodies, and turned them loose in the classroom to follow walls and find doorways. Little more than a decade later John Long, Tom Ellman, Luke Hunsberger, Brad Richards and I got funding from the NSF and generous support from the College to build a great new sandbox to play in, and the Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Lab or IRRL was born, transforming the direction of my research life. Figuring out how to get robots to learn on their own, from scratch, without benefit of human instruction and with minimal prior knowledge has become one of my favorite pastimes, and it has the virtue of dovetailing nicely with my lifelong interest in questions about how children and adults acquire the basic conceptual building blocks that make thinking and reasoning possible. This interest in conceptual and belief systems was taken in yet another surprising direction by yet another encounter with a student, this time a member of the class of ’96 looking for a thesis advisor. Nick Polys walked barefoot and bedraggled into my office, the very image of a Lost Boy, with hard, unanswered questions about the cognitive processes that surround religious ritual. His questions not only lead to his thesis but also to an ongoing series of theoretical and empirical projects that continue to involve other students to this day.

Every where I turn in my memories of the last several decades I find images of what I think of as serious play: Mounting Dance Dance Revolutions pads on force plate sensors to study skill learning with my Perception & Action students, wild cheering at robot competitions, brainstorming the latest data with the concepts lab research group, long discussions of crazy science fiction movies with my freshman writing seminar, leaping around to loud drum music or lying prone on the floor, meditating, with my colleagues on the first iteration of the Carolyn Grant Fund committee. These experiences and many more have kept me young enough to be shocked to discover that I have now acquired an old man’s hand. Ironically, oxymoronically, I have grown both up and older in Neverland. Looking back over it all I am struck by the fact that my life was a product of evolution at least as much as it resulted from intelligent design. I never got really wealthy, but I’m perfectly comfortable, and more to the point, I got rich in other ways. I wound up working in an area with plenty of math and computers after all – mobile robotic ones at that, which is both more fun and more enlightening about the human condition than I could ever have imagined when I was actually in my twenties. And next spring I’ll even get to teach a seminar on the cognitive science of built spaces that taps into those early interests I had in architecture. The older I get, the more sense my life makes to me, and perhaps for those of you who are seniors about to graduate and journey into the wider world there is some comfort in the fact that at least one other person managed to navigate this life without a detailed map. And one more thought for those of you who will graduate shortly and have figured out how to leave Neverland. Good for you. I am conscious every day as I walk across campus that every building, walkway, piece of equipment, and half the trees I see are gifts from people who grew up and went into the world where they invented widgets, started new businesses, made smart investments, or just saved a little, and then shared some of their wealth to make our lives here possible. I can’t tell you how grateful I feel on every stroll through this campus.

I’ve said a lot about the playful nature of Neverland, but it’s important to remember that the most valuable play is also very rough-and-tumble. I remember my own sudden immersion in college into verbal and intellectual games that were at first shocking in their ferocity. Offensive things were occasionally said, and offense was taken. Animosities were sometimes stoked, egos got bruised and battered, and feelings were hurt, sometimes in arguments that were hardly profound or important. And perhaps here we can glimpse a fitting analog for Captain Hook in the 21st century version of Neverland. Barrie never tells us directly how Hook came to hate Peter so much. It seems clear that Hook resents Peter’s youth and his cocky, know-it-all attitude, but his most frequent complaint, and his final condemnation of Peter, even as he falls to his death, is that Peter showed, “bad form,” even though he had won the fight. Perhaps the Captain Hook in our version of Neverland is that set of attitudes and institutions that insist on good form above rambunctious, playful exuberance and on civility above speaking one’s mind. If so, then this is an enemy worth combating. Play, after all, is serious business even while it is fun. In the world of animals, human and otherwise, it is preparatory for important, even life-and-death encounters in the wider world, a way to practice life skills in a situation that is less punishing of error and misstep. The rough-and-tumble version of intellectual swordplay teaches one to think quickly on one’s feet, to marshal one’s facts before entering the fray, to know how to listen, to analyze an argument quickly for hidden premises, to know what one’s own assumptions are and how to defend them. It teaches us how to change our minds. But when the call to civility and good form trumps these virtues different lessons are learned. Caution, not rocking the boat, going along with the crowd, figuring out what people want to hear, and the talent of shading one’s meanings to avoid giving offense -- good social form, in other words -- these are different skills. Some might find them the better set of skills, but I for one would rather live in the more dynamic, chaotic, instructive Neverland of Wendy and the Lost Boys. There is time enough later in life for towing the line.

Or at least so it seems to me. But I offer nothing by way of advice in consequence of these observations. These are, after all, just notes. I used to be a lot more eager to give advice before I finally paid attention to just how bad I am at taking it. There’s nothing wrong with advice when it is asked for and given between people who know each other’s situations and idiosyncracies, but individual lives are just too lumpy with complexity for one-size-fits all advice. So instead of advice let me conclude with the hope that at least a few of the notes and observations I’ve shared with you today might have resonated with you, and that you find value in contemplating their relevance to your own life. If you felt no kinship with them, then perhaps you were at least provoked to have new thoughts, even if they are thoughts of objection or abhorrence. This too is a valuable end, especially if it is the beginning of a really raucous swordfight, so do come find me if that was your reaction. And if nothing resonated and no new thoughts were provoked, then I most sincerely hope that you are at least enjoying being in the company of your fellow Neverlanders on this beautiful spring day as we come close to another summer reset when we all become young again. I know I can’t think of anywhere I would rather have been, and I thank you.

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