Learning Dis'

On a drizzly day in Madison Wisconsin, several hundred of my classmates stood in line on Bascom Hill waiting to audition for bit parts in the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School. Although I was nowhere near the set months later, and this entire event took place decades ago, I still hear Rodney's voice in my minds-ear whenever I witness someone giving learning no respect.

The July/August edition of Fast Company provided a recent example. In Repackaging History: The Battle of Gettysburg, an article touting the National Park's new modernized museum and visitors center, aimed to get people to stay longer and spend more, vice president of external relations for the Gettysburg Foundation, Elliot Gruber, said:

"Most people aren't visiting to learn. They want to have an experience, to be immersed in something."

While I applaud Mr. Gruber for learning enough about immersive experiences to talk about them, I was still shaking my head when Brent Schlenker blogged what I was thinking:

"Mr. Gruber do you REALLY think ANYONE comes to Gettysburg for anything other than LEARNING? What you've done is simply make true learning possible for your guests... ALL of your guests. Multimedia exhibits and movie-inspired storytelling give your guests exactly what they need in order to learn. Did you expect that before this people could simply walk out onto the battle field with a brochure and learn about a deeply complex and divisive historical event?"

It's hard for me to imagine Mr. Gruber doesn't believe deep down that all of his guests are learners. Even if a "Disneyfication of History" firm is spreading fairy dust over the battlefield, only some of his guests carry a wallet, only some are history buffs, and only some are there for the thrill.

So much of any learning experience is to learn from the mistakes of the past. Forget that larger purpose and as a species we're sunk. If experiential repackaging is what's going to lure people back to a park that's in large part a memorial to fallen soldiers, I applaud every ounce of the effort. Let's just not lose site of why we want them back.

Janet Kamien of The Museum Group said, "The public still cares about whether they're being told the truth." In what could be touted as the ultimate informal learning business, people will abandon any site that veers too far from its core.

The challenge for every organization seeking to truly educate is to combine key content with fresh approaches, then to engage, to discover, to respect and to reflect.

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Marcia Conner >> www.marciaconner.com

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