Fly on the Wall – How Will we Remember Us?

Who hasn’t heard the phrase ’well-behaved women seldom make history’? Far fewer of us know who coined the phrase: Laurel Satchel Ulrich in 1976. In her academic research she studied obituaries of ordinary women “who lived and labored in silent obscurity” and realized that the ones who became known and notorious were those who challenged the expectations of their time (Ulrich, online). Those who transgressed the standards of their peers were remembered for their misbehaviour. In this same way, our future selves may remember how we made our learning apply to us rather than just learning to adopt the facts and viewpoints of our course materials. It’s fine to challenge and disagree with even the most sacred beliefs we encounter; perhaps a memorable education hinges on engaging with, rather than merely assimilating, scholarly material.

Learning leads us to grow as new ways of thinking enter our consciousness in the form of lists of facts and methods of inquiry. Sometimes education displaces our preconceptions and stands in for our intuition; we may feel an affinity with the information on offer and become born anew. Yet, if we take this authority at face value, it can replace all that we feel and know already about a subject: many a sociology professor covers great swathes of time simply countering students’ assumptions about gender, race, and economics when they could be encouraging students to relate to the course material on their own terms. Education involves a fine art of creative openness where we learn new things while retaining our sense of self and even adding to what is being taught. Bringing our whole selves to our course material ought to lend definition to our educational experience.

For a course to be memorable it not only has to make a mark on us; we have to be able to look back and remember ourselves giving it a personal stamp. We must interact with it rather than allowing ourselves to simply take instruction. Since we are living our own histories as students we will remember our education most if we engage with it with a critical gaze rather than a compliant acceptance. We are not, after all, empty vessels awaiting instruction. We’ve returned to or extended our educational careers because we want something more or different from our lives and careers. It is from a place of desire that we embark on schooling; we feel a certain unwillingness to accept our personal status quo. As students, it helps to bear this in mind to get the most out of our educational journey, which is, after all, not merely about getting a better job, but also about having a more satisfying life. School, like life, is about more than just giving the proper answers and getting the proper piece of paper certifying one’s success. To think through and about a topic is to learn it in terms of a mutual relationship where we add ourselves to the proceedings.

Every discipline has core assumptions and these are open to critique. To ask how does this relate to me and do I agree with this are aspects of critical thinking that may lead us to misbehave intellectually. Ulrich’s study of history, for instance, privileges associative logic, which “reveals how A prefigures Q or even Z rather than ordering A then B then C” in a challenge to what is “more typically the linear cause-and-effect formula of history” (Harrison, online). This demonstrates how the very way we think things happen and why is susceptible to be overturned or challenged. Alternative etiologies (explanations of causality) arise from ruthlessly questioning fundamental bedrock assumptions. Sometimes it can sound preposterous to do so, as when a person questions the existence of gravity. But we only need to remember being in love and floating off the ground in an enraptured state of bliss to know that our subjective states can be as important as the cold hard facts of objective truth. Floating may be impossible yet the heart cannot be censored; our very feelings act against the grain of received knowledge when they transcend boundaries of truth. As such, we misbehave whenever we allow our inclinations to colour our reception of the external world and make it our own. In the terms of course materials we may have to follow rules and procedures, but we can, if only privately, consider how the material actually makes us feel so we can relate to it more intimately and creatively.

To make course material our own is to be as intimate with it as possible and to engage in a relationship of relative equality rather than hierarchical inequality. The textbook may have the answers but the point of learning is also to ask new questions: innovation depends on fearlessly expressing out new ideas and challenging old dogmas. As students there is a time and place to give the answer a tutor expects of us, but all too often there is also room for shafts of light in dark caves of knowledge. Answers do not have to be final; there is room for us to suggest our own versions of truth into the picture. I’ll always remember a professor of mine who related a story where, during a history exam at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, he found himself handwriting at such a torrid clip that he had time to scrawl out a lucid footnote illuminating some minor point of interest such that it later became a major insight for him. Rather than maintaining total focus on his prime topic, he was prepared to release new ideas as education stimulated his mind’s poetic circuitry. If we take our coursework as an education relating to all of life we never know what wisdom may surface as our outer world of essay assignments and course material meets our inner world of our private thoughts and experiences.

Learning is about more than learning the methods and facts of a particular discipline; it can be transformative at a more fundamental level. Friedrich Nietzsche notes that we easily become tools of power structures that abound in our society: he particularly critiques objectivity as leaving out much of the human experience. “The objective man…is only an instrument, let us say a mirror – he is not an ’end in himself’” (Nietsche, P. 134). If we want mere facts in black and white and the same methods applied everywhere, then we become mere instruments to forces beyond our control or interaction. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet yet what method of inquiry can describe its aroma without expressing the ineffable emotions implied in the experience? Nietzsche wrote that when a person utilizes only the factual “what is essential in him is overlooked – he is an instrument, something of a slave, if certainly the sublimest kind of slave, but in himself he is nothing…as a rule, a man without content, a ’selfless’ man” (Nietzsche, P. 135). Learning can limit us or set us free; the key is to be aware that we are being taught new ways of thinking that can enhance us but not replace who we already are. To become truly objective may well be to no longer be oneself and, thus, to be alienated from one’s processes of becoming. If we lose a grip on who we are we might look back one day and remember only that we passed a course and not that it meant anything to us.

Martin Heidegger suggests that true learning occurs when we relate to material because it strikes a chord already existing in us. “If the student only takes over something that is offered he does not learn. He comes to learn only when he experiences that he takes as something he himself really already has. True learning occurs only where the taking of what one already has is a self-giving and is experienced as such” (Heidegger, P. 275). Rather than being blank slates upon which facts are written and knowledge constructed, this view shows that we the students are essential to our own learning processes. When we toil in silent obscurity and merely recount what is written in the textbook (or the answers in the back) we miss out on the enlightening essence of education itself. Sometimes we may challenge what we’re being taught, when it goes against our personal opinions for instance, and other times we may simply add personal vignettes to our essays (such as when we consider a sociological concept such as alienation as it relates to our own life histories.)

To think and imagine ourselves into our learning is to behave in such a way that our future self will remember; the more we learn and become our educated selves the more we may see our own images in the material we study.


  • Harrison, K. (2007). ’We’re No Angels’. ’New York Times Sunday Book Review’. Retrieved from
  • Heidegger, M. (1967). ’Modern Science, Metaphysics, and Mathematics.’ In ’Basic Writings’ (2008). New York: Harper-Perennial Modern Thought.
  • Nietzsche, F. (2003). ’Beyond Good and Evil’. Toronto: Penguin Classics.

Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.

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