“How is school going?” For students the world over, that question often invokes feelings of stress and anxiety about interactions with classmates. It’s been that way since the first cave family sent their kids down the mountain to an educational quarry. Essay deadlines and academic struggles are unavoidable if we are to succeed in university but, here at AU, we can at least excuse ourselves from the social shark tank that enforced proximity with our peers produces. Yet, we Athabasca lone wolves do not escape social difficulties altogether. For us await the hazards of isolation; our minds might not descend to the depths of The Shining, but we certainly can’t lock ourselves in a mental bunker and expect to emerge unscathed. We must, after all, learn to get along with ourselves through those long hours of study. The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a play titled “No Exit” that concluded with a disturbing sentiment shared by students facing discursive hazing in classrooms the world over: hell is other people. And that fact, if we aren’t careful, that may include ourselves!
Sartre’s philosophy is based on the possibility that, even as individuals within alienating social landscapes, we retain hope for authentic fulfilment. It’s up to us to take charge of the decisions we make. Sartre’s characters may have seen “No Exit”for themselves but we AU students are as free as our intellects and imaginations can imagine us to be. The world is literally our classroom, and our minds a garden of learning. So, with that in mind, let’s enter Sartre’s philosophical dungeon.
Sartre places three recently-deceased characters in a locked room together. Pretty soon they get on one another’s nerves, not unlike undergrads whose reasons for attendance range from I have to be in college cuz my parents are paying and expect me to to I need this dumb elective so I can graduate and have the career I think I want to I love this course and don’t get why no one seems to care. The mere fact of their cohabitation in relatively close quarters (Sartre has them each inhabiting their own couch) inevitably produces friction. It becomes impossible for them to ignore each other; the issue of how to either escape this plush hell or cope with it’s interminable nature takes a back sofa-seat to the mere angst of being near one another. Canadian readers might think here of Stuart Maclean’s Vinyl Cafe where kids and a dog must endure a road trip to the family cabin, moaning all the while. How can we attain serenity with the nuisance of others so near? It’s a timeless question. In elementary school a teacher might move the combatant’s desks to opposite sides of the room but we proverbial adult college students, like Sartre’s deceased, are supposed to learn to tolerate one another. Hopes for maturity are soon dashed, even when applying studious intentions:
“To forget about the others? How utterly absurd! I feel you there, in every pore. Your silence clamors in my ears. You can nail up your mouth, cut your tongue out— but you can’t prevent your being there. Can you stop your thoughts? I hear them ticking away like a clock, tick-tock, tick-tock, and I’m certain you hear mine. It’s all very well skulking on your sofa, but you’re everywhere, and every sound comes to me soiled because you’ve intercepted it on its way.” (Sartre, online).
The classroom experience can be disenchanting, especially to post-secondary neophytes. Wasn’t college supposed to be different and better than high school, more stimulating and less infantile? Why do the same old cliquey exclusions and popularity contests remain in this ivory tower of higher learning? Timeless though these questions be, they do not yield easy answers. Sartre’s characters soon realize that their interactions are leading them away from any serious attempts at fulfilment. As they face up to their imprisonment the characters conclude that “it’s obvious what they’re after—an economy of manpower—or devil-power, if you prefer. The same idea as in the cafeteria, where customers serve themselves” (Delahoyde, 17). Like contestants on a reality TV show, social conflict can detract from getting the most out of an experience. Sometimes being studious is impossible when the inmates run the asylum, and this is where AU can help liberate us from the bondage of social normality implicit in classroom settings.
It remains important that we learn to cohabit with others in a classroom; no matter what walk of life, there are going to be other people in it. And, as AU students, being alone in our studies with only our thoughts has its own difficulties. Sartre pointedly reminds we who would be academic hermits that scholarly seclusion bears its own foibles. A character remarks on leaving her corporeal life down on Earth:
“How shall I endure my own company? Try to understand. You see, I’m fond of teasing, it’s a second nature with me— and I’m used to teasing myself. Plaguing myself, if you prefer; I don’t tease nicely. But I can’t go on doing that without a break. Down there I had my nights. I slept. I always had good nights. By way of compensation, I suppose. And happy little dreams. There was a green field. Just an ordinary field. I used to stroll in it…” (Sartre, online).
Many of us can be our own cruelest bullies, our own harshest judges. Besides the problems of classrooms with their vulgar social pitfalls, and the uncertain isolation of distance education, there remains the essential problem that we humans are social animals who require an Other (realistically, a plurality of Others), to understand ourselves. Another character in “No Exit” ruminates:
“Everything that goes on in one’s head is so vague, isn’t it? It makes one want to sleep. I’ve six big mirrors in my bedroom. There they are. I can see them. But they don’t see me. They’re reflecting the carpet, the settee, the window- – but how empty it is, a glass in which I’m absent! When I talked to people I always made sure there was one near by in which I could see myself. I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself as the others saw me.” (Sartre, online).
Understanding one’s presentation of self is crucial to sanity in any social situation. If we are to be comfortable as we learn we must have enough self esteem to see our classes as more important than the minutiae of social interactions. In a distance education context this process becomes easier as, spatially, there are no other students present, yet we still must reflect on ourselves in a metaphorical mirror and ask, “how am I growing and evolving within the context of this course?” Sartre illustrates the performative self as crucial to self-understanding. We can only know who we are in relation to others, and particularly other past versions of ourselves. Ideally each course enriches us and leads us to become something new.
Sartre rather pessimistically suggests that even when it seems that we relate to others, students in the same course or not, we actually each exist in a relative state of all against all where mutual interests only coincide by occasional, though happy, coincidence. The others in our lives are actually impediments to our fulfilment. Frederick A. Olafson summarizes Satrean philosophical concern with the Other by stating that it invokes a paradox of power relations, with mutual beneficence a rare coincidence:
“In relation to this intrusive ‘other’…I can try to dominate it and suppress its transcendence by which my own is threatened or I can try to make myself into an object to be dominated by the liberty of the other person. In either case, I am destined to fail because I must recognize my liberty (or that of the other) in order to suppress it. What is impossible in either option is a moral consensus that is more than an accidental convergence of independent individual projects”.(Olafson, P. 292).
Hopefully we can glean rewarding interactions with forum participants in our grouped study courses as we do with classmates in a brick and mortar setting; the fact remains, however, that in the end we are each on our own journey. The other students never are as close to us as they seem in a physical class and never as far away as they feel in an online course. Our success is up to us.
Our education depends on understanding of our own interests and goals as well as how they relate to others in our life. From a Sartrean existential perspective it is incumbent on us to identify our authentic desires over and against the expectations of our peers while also being aware that without others to mirror our progress and provide feedback we risk becoming mired in a labyrinth of mirrors over which we hold surprisingly little sway. A compass requires an external point of reference after all, and to this end others (even idealized others such as fictional characters or historical personages) are necessary for us to gauge progress through our educational life.
We may be immured within the walls of our educational journey and, let’s face it, others may not understand or be interested in what we are studying, but our isolated progress at AU need not lead us to feel like inmates in a torture chamber. At AU we avoid the worst social aspects of education and, like sailors out on shore leave or prisoners granted day parole, we can gather the maximum value from our academic experience while still making contacts within the AU community—as well as within our societal world at large. Michel Foucault famously asked “Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (Foucualt, online). Surely we are some of the freest prisoners education has ever known for the simple reason that our journey is our own.