We Are Not Made of Atoms

Every Saturday morning, soon after the sun comes up, I take my eight-year-old daughter down to our favourite breakfast spot to share a Spanish omelette. It’s about a forty-minute walk each way, and we pass the time by telling each other stories from our lives. For instance, I’ll tell her about the time her mother and I nearly walked right into a Grizzly bear in Yoho National Park, or about the night before she was born, when the sky was lit up by a meteor shower. In return, she’ll tell me about memories she has of roasting marshmallows on our last camping trip, or of playing Yahtzee with Grandma.

The table that we always sit at in the restaurant is the one that’s placed right beneath the blackboard where a “Daily Thought” is always written out in white chalk. A few weeks ago, the thought was “We are not made of atoms, we are made of stories,” a quote that they attributed to the poet Muriel Rukeyser who stated “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

As we go about our daily activities, we are all constantly inundated with stories. They come at us from the clock radio that wakes us up in the morning, the newspaper we read over our morning coffee, the magazine articles we peruse in the dentist’s office, the popular novels we read on the commute home at the end of the day, the blockbuster films we watch on the weekend, and the evening newscast we watch before slipping into dreams. These stories present us with information about what is going on in our cities and around the world. They tell us about wars, car bombings, looming financial and environmental crises, trade agreements, labour unrest, scientific research, sports contracts, and the love life of Hollywood stars. It is from these stories that we each construct a sense of ourselves and of the world around us.

Unfortunately, the loudest and most effective storytellers are a homogeneous group. They include large, corporate-owned news agencies, communications networks, advertisers, multinational publishing houses, and movie studios. We get stories about the liberation of Iraq from embedded reporters working for immensely wealthy U.S.-owned conglomerates. We get stories about the latest health information from university research studies funded by pharmaceutical companies, bioengineering firms or chemical manufacturers. Not surprisingly, considering the homogeneity of our storytellers, the picture of the world many of us in Western society have is a fairly uniform one. It’s a dog-eat-dog world where our lives and values are perpetually threatened by terrorism and crime. If there is a glimmer of hope, it arises from things such as the possibility of acquiring more money and possessions, of exciting new health research, and of increased security being provided by military and police forces.

As I’m preparing to embark next year on a post-graduate degree, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time pondering what the process of educating myself really means. Why am I devoting so much of my time to studying the words and ideas of writers and thinkers so far removed from me in time and space? As I see it, post-secondary education has an immediate and vital role to play in our lives. This role is to present us with a more diverse and possibly more hopeful vision of who we are as individuals and as a society. It does this by broadening the circle of our storytellers. By taking courses in fields such as literature, women’s studies, musical history, anthropology, native studies and psychology, we gain to a far more vibrant spectrum of voices. We can listen to the voice of an eighty-year-old black jazz musician describe the connection between African tribal drumming and Dixieland jazz. We can hear about what it means to grow up gay on an Indian reservation in Manitoba. We can read the words of a poet describing the wilder aspects of love. From these voices, we can gain a better understanding of the complexity of human life. Only then can we begin to reevaluate the past, to see the large-scale historical patterns that have brought our civilization to where it currently stands, poised between oblivion and salvation.

Does the educational process have limitations? Definitely. Very few people today get a university degree in order to broaden their horizons. They get educated to get a job, to prove to prospective employers that they can organize their thoughts, communicate effectively, regurgitate information efficiently, and nimbly jump through hoops. It is a marks-oriented process, in which students are often afraid to take a chance on a course they are not sure they’ll excel in, in case they jeopardize their all-important grade point average. The role that education has come to chiefly play is preparing young people to conform to the expectations of society and to plug easily into the workforce. This is simply wrong. Education should teach people to challenge the attitudes of society, to tear it down and begin again where necessary, and to radically reconstruct and redesign the workforce.

Nevertheless, the volume of new thoughts assimilated during the course of a university career cannot fail to alter and expand our view of the world. Some of the marginalized and all-but-disappeared storytellers, who have been shunted into the darkness beyond the glow of the television screen and radio dial, will reemerge around the light of the bonfire that we set ablaze when we open our minds to new ideas and experiences. It is from these storytellers that we gain an understanding of the world as a far stranger and more wonderful place than we had been led to believe. These are the voices that I want hear and that I want my daughter to have access to.