Fly on the Wall—Roads of Perception

Winter months and distance education courses have one thing in common: they can both drag on interminably when we get bogged down.  Yet, as successes pile up over the years, and remembering how far we’ve come since early childhood education, we can feel confident in the face of what appear to be long odds for success.  We might even, for our ego’s sake, retroactively adjust our judgement of the ease of our passage through education and that’s fine because hey, we earned it!

As it turns out, a mere 5-10% of online education students find success, so we’re right justified in feeling proud of ourselves with each course we complete (Jaschick, 2018).  There’s nothing wrong with gently inflating the challenges we’ve encountered particularly when giving ourselves pep talks during moments of contemporary struggle with our coursework.  It almost always behooves us to emphasize our potential for success.

Interpretation plays a role in how we see ourselves and the world around us, after all.  So, too, do cold, hard facts, which often do not match up with stereotypes.  As a recent study illustrates, “when it comes to measures of career satisfaction, humanities grads are as satisfied as those who majored in STEM” (Jaschik, 2018).  So even if we are tempted to lose motivation by saying “I’ll never use this, I’ll just end up working a service industry job I hate,” it’s worth taking a moment to buoy ourselves by researching just how content we’ll be if we work hard at what we are passionate about rather than what we think we should be studying.  Don’t should on yourself, as the saying goes.

George Berkeley elucidated how our minds are the final arbiters of what we take to be the external world.  And, as one more adage goes, common sense is not so common.

Consider the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.  Instead of reading it for ourselves, many of us (myself included until recently!) believe it a loving souvenir of the narrator’s decision to embark on a less-travelled path.

As it turns out, the words of the poem state that, when comparing the two bucolic trails, traffic “Had worn them really about the same” (Frost, online).

Only much later in life would the narrator claim:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

(Frost, 1970)

As Berkeley explained in the 18th Century, “to exist is one thing, and to be perceived is another.” (Acton, 296).  Our perceptions shape our existence and that includes how we perceive our decision to undertake further education.  It’s not always an easy path, yet we can choose to resist the yawning maw of apathy in the face of struggle.  The existence of difficult or monotonous coursework is only one part of a given reality; the other is our chosen perception of it.  Happily, we have some control over the latter.  In fact, as Berkeley would have it, our perception of existence is all there is to existence.

He notes that there is pleasure or pain in every experience, and, when we encounter these in a rare and unmediated form, there appears no space between sensation and reaction.  Decisions like which course to take involve meditation on the cost (pain) and benefit (pleasure) of each path.  Whichever road we take, the other may still beckon in hindsight.  Berkeley notes that as perceptive beings we usually do perceive space between the objects of our attention (such as challenging coursework) and our responses (such as frustration).  A textbook doesn’t leap up and smack us across the face, but it might feel like it does if we don’t mind the gap.

Our thinking responses are then the essence of our life experience, and, being our own rather than authored by an external agent or force, these are susceptible to conscious alteration and adjustment.  We can literally think and work our way out of many a problem, be it with flash cards for memorization or stream of consciousness writing for writer’s block, so long as we remember that there is more wiggle room than first appears.  A syllabus is inanimate, we are not.

To stimulate consideration of perceptive reality, Berkeley has his characters Philonous and Hylas say:

Phil.  Upon putting your Hand near the Fire, do you perceive one simple uniform Sensation, or two distinct Sensations?

Hyl.  But one simple Sensation.

Phil.  Is not the Heat immediately perceived?

Hyl.  It is.

Phil.  And the Pain?

Hyl.  True.

Phil.  Seeing therefore they are both immediately perceived at the same time, and the Fire affects you only with one simple, or uncompounded Idea, it follows that this same simple Idea is both the intense Heat immediately perceived, and the Pain; and consequently, that the intense Heat immediately perceived, is nothing distinct from a particular sort of Pain.

Hyl.  It seems so.

Phil.  Again, try in your Thoughts, Hylas, if you can conceive a vehement Sensation to be without Pain, or Pleasure.

Berkeley’s suggestion that life is reducible to the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain applies to our studies because in every moment or, say, six-minute increment, we are either being productive or unproductive.  It’s up to us which path to choose and that includes selecting study breaks of our choosing.  Rather than becoming mired or indecisive we can take charge of our process in each abject moment as well as in the big picture.  This seems to me to be Berkeley’s explanatory power, to empower us to remember that we are the masters of our educational destiny.

Perspectives we take really do matter, and perhaps are the root of our success or failure.  We just have to question our responses to what appear as impenetrable roadblocks; we just have to find a chink in our own mental armor.  Berkeley continues:

Phil.  Can any Doctrine be true that necessarily leads a Man into an Absurdity?

Hyl.  Without doubt it cannot.

Phil.  Is it not an Absurdity to think that the same thing should be at the same time both cold and warm?

Hyl.  It is.

Phil.  Suppose now one of your Hands hot, and the other cold, and that they are both at once put into the same Vessel of Water, in an intermediate State; will not the Water seem cold to one Hand, and warm to the other?

Hyl.  It will.

Phil.  Ought we not therefore by your Principles to conclude, it is really both cold and warm at the same time, that is, according to your own Concession, to believe an Absurdity.

Hyl.  I confess it seems so.

Phil.  Consequently, the Principles themselves are false, since you have granted that no true Principle leads to an Absurdity.

Hyl.  But after all, can any thing be more absurd than to say, there is no Heat in the Fire?

The heat of a deadline may cause us to squirm but it’s our response that matters most.  There’s nothing absurd about feeling some discomfort along the way; after all, AU is higher education and not just a recess from the real world.  If learning was easy we’d already think we knew everything; our exposure to the light of knowledge can only be with some occasional, and relatively minor, discomforts.

Acton, H.B.  (1967).  ‘Berkeley, George’.  In ‘The Encyclopedia of Philosophy’ Paul Edwards, ed.  Macmillan Publishing and the Free Press.  London and New York.
Frost, R.  (1970).  ‘The Road Not Taken.’ Retrieved from:
Jaschick, S.  (2018).  ‘Shocker: Humanites Grads Gainfully Employed and Happy’ Retrieved from: and
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