“Learning is less about acquiring or transmitting information or existing ideas or values than it is about collectively designing a world that is worth living in.” – Edith Ackermann from Constructing Knowledge and Transforming the World
Today, we went for a late afternoon walk with a friend through a forest near her Swiss farmhouse. It was a lovely, gentle evening and sometime after the sun went down and the stars came up, just past the spot where we had planted a tree for my son Max after he was born, I learned that we’d lost my friend and mentor Dr. Edith Ackermann.
Edith was one of the smartest and most deeply thoughtful people I’ve met. I can (and someday probably should) spend the time detailing how important her professional academic contributions were, but for now I only want to trace the shape of the hole her passing has left. I’m struggling to do this but I also don’t think I can sleep until I try.
Edith taught me many things, but mostly she taught me (by example) how to live. These lessons were not dramatic and they were not contrived and they were not, in fact, meant to be lessons at all - they are simply moments of Edith being Edith. There was the day we were at breakfast at a conference and I was lost in some academic drama or idea. Edith mentioned the egg she was eating was delicious. I replied in passing that I didn’t even like eggs and Edith touched my hand lightly; “Andrew, you haven’t eaten an egg like this.”
There was the time we had dinner and I confessed I was having a hard time understanding the Occupy movement. I understood it intellectually and agreed with much of it politically but something didn’t quite sit right. “Andrew, these kids have such a sense of humor. In 1968 we didn’t. It was very serious. That was dangerous.”
Sitting outside in a beer garden in Cambridge, some hot summer night, apropos of nothing: “Andrew, do you know about this idea of the homunculus? I’m very interested in this homunculus.”
Thinking, humor, care, delicious eggs, emotional labor, thoughtfulness, delight and above all playfulness, the silly deep seriousness of play. Edith always drew a magic circle around her conversations, convinced me that the rules were ours to reflect on and ours to change: that ideas really could change perception really could change the world.
So with this I don’t want to overstate my claim - In many traditional ways I cannot really say that Edith and I were close. I know very little of her personal life and I never asked. We went years without talking, and it was six months after she’d agreed to be a reader on my PhD dissertation that I even heard she was ill (and not until months after the defense that she told me herself.) But there are some people you meet and know will be an intimate part of your life and there are those that you meet and only later, in retrospect, do you realize how deeply present they’ve been, key players at inflection points.
Edith was one of the readers on my master’s thesis, a brutal affair that made me swear off academia for life. Edith was at my wedding, a truly joyful community experience. Edith gave me her bookcases one time when she cleaned out a corner her apartment. Anindita and I refinished them for our new home and stocked them with books and artifacts from our research at the Media Lab. A dozen years later, after I’d left and then decided to return to academia, it was Edith who wrote me a recommendation letter for my application to EPFL. That degree, too, was a struggle, but Edith was on my PhD committee and at my defense. Edith read every word I wrote (even the ones I wrote carelessly) and commented in detail. Edith was my professional reference, my mentor, my guide. When my son was born, Edith sent a wooden dog she referred to not as a toy, a present or a game but in a heartfelt note attached to the box as a “potential transitional object.” Serious/playful, hilarious/true, purveyor of stories and wisdom and objects for crossing oceans and gulfs and worlds. Edith was one of the few forces I could reliably return to in order to shift my worldview, even (and maybe especially) when I didn’t even know I needed it.
Edith I miss you terribly. If there are errors in my understanding of what you’ve taught, it’s my fault, but if I’m doing anything correct with your constructionist legacy it it’s because you showed me how it’s done. The world lost a bright light it desperately needs, but for the time you shared with me I will always be deeply grateful.
And I like eggs now.