How do We Select Our Electives?
Why did the chicken cross the road? What leads us to choose a particular elective? Sometimes the process feels purposeful, as though we are fulfilling an interest that has haunted or intrigued us for eons. Other times we might feel like uncertain fowl meandering through the traffic of unexpected consequences. After all, our core courses lead to a definite destination and are part of a broader disciplinary focus. But our electives can be one-off adventures into previously uncharted terrain. If we’re lucky, the whimsy of choosing an elective on a hunch can translate itself into a new-found passion or even a sense of destiny. Sometimes it may almost feel like we were born to take a certain course—as though our entire academic growth until that point led us to discover a new pedagogical treasure. Most of the time, however, we are wise to think twice before entering uncertain academic landscapes. Following convocation, we’ll look back either satisfied or aghast at how we chose to proceed in selecting our electives.
The Ancient Greeks called the fulfilment of our purpose and potential our entelechy. The term literally translates to completion over time (New World Encyclopedia, online). Interestingly, leche today is Spanish for milk and French for to lick thus suggesting a certain essential sustenance that we discover and, catlike, gleefully lap up from the world to fulfil ourselves. In any case, Aristotle coined the term. In his cosmology, if we throw a rock in the air it will inevitably land on the ground because rocks belong on the ground; the rock fulfils its rather humble entelechy by remaining close to the earth. Perhaps Aristotle would appreciate how we students discover and nurture our talents as we grow to become programmers, musicians or teachers.
Throughout history, theorists have deployed the concept of entelechy to describe how we can follow our inner tendencies. For Baruch Spinoza, 2000 years after Aristotle, entelechy involved discovering our own personal “adequate ideas”, which we ascertain by interrogating our whims and emotions and seeking their true causes. We find ourselves by examining ourselves and “knowing the causes which move one, and thus, making the causes internal and not external” (MacIntyre 540). Do our electives match what our most authentic selves require? It’s up to us to find out. For Spinoza, “to have adequate ideas is, moreover, to grasp and to be guided by ‘the law of one’s own nature’ (MacIntyre 539). To embrace our nature, our entelechy, is to consider our purpose as something that connects our outer reality with our inner potential.
Isaac Newton and the Apple’s Destiny
Action based on an inner nature stands in contrast to modern mechanistic worldviews, such as Isaac Newton’s law of gravity where, if we toss a rock, gravity sucks it back to earth according to immutable physical laws. As students, labour market realities may function as a gravity that sucks us toward one major or another, but it’s hard to deny that our greatest fulfilment arises when we pursue career paths that jive with our actual talents and interest. Entelechy seems stronger than cold calculation.
While the mythology of Newton’s discovery of gravity involves him being bonked into epiphany by an itinerant apple, Spinoza stated that “we are in many ways driven about by external causes, and like the waves of the sea driven by contending winds, we are swayed hither and thither, unconscious of the issue and our destiny” (MacIntyre 539). Only by examining determinants and variables in our lives may we discover how to proceed in accord with our inner potential. For Spinoza the goal of knowledge “consists in knowing the causes internal and not external to the agent…Belief in free decision is among the illusions, the confused ideas, which the free man has discarded” (MacIntyre 540). To him there are forces beyond our awareness that impact our choices, and these need investigating if we are to act in accord with our adequate ideas. We are more than just apples falling fecklessly to earth by gravity or dreamers hazily imagining an illusory destiny: to make the most of our course selections we have to take as many factors into account as possible and, maybe, give our heart the final vote.
For our part, we have the opportunity as students to choose and fulfil potentials of our choice. As convocation occurs and we past or present graduates reminisce about our course choices, we might consider the variables that led us to pick one class or another.
Unlike traditional students, who are restrained by which course fits into their timetable, or what might match peer expectations, we at AU are relatively unrestricted in our choice of electives. With adequate research we increase our chance of success. We might email potential professors, something the Fly on the Wall has found exceedingly helpful time after time, as well as look up pdfs and excerpts of relevant course texts and associated theorists. The one thing we do only at risk of catastrophe is allow ourselves to wander into a position where we’ve signed up for a course that is out of our depth either in terms of our skill set or our self interest or both. This would be to miss Spinoza’s injunction that many causes in our life remain obscure unless we actively interrogate why we feel or act in ways that we do. There’s no sense in being featherbrained, especially given how few electives many of us have the opportunity to take if we are to fulfil our program requirements!
Gottfried Leibniz and the Best of all Possible Worlds
Choosing between a multiplicity of good options is another matter entirely, and a joyous one. Here we might consider Gottfried Leibniz and his thoughts on entelechy. (Incidentally, Leibniz co-invented algebra at the same time as Newton although neither knew of the others’ work). Leibniz saw us as composed of many aspects which cohere into a:
“’dominant entelechy’ of a body as the unextended substance that most clearly perceived the happenings in the various parts of the body. Influenced by the then-recent discovery of the telescope, Leibniz claimed that all bodies (organic and non-organic) were in turn made up of smaller organic bodies, with each of the latter having a dominant entelechy. These entities were the metaphysical basis of the physical world.” (New World Encyclopedia, online)
It’s not hard to imagine Leibniz weighing his course selections by weighing up aspects of himself until he arrived at a decision!
Making Our Purpose Personal
Destiny also brings to mind predestination that bears consideration given battles over the nature of the universe and whether it was designed with some sort of destined outcome or arose by chance and physical laws. Where are we going or are we just going? A recent book review summarizes opposition to a destiny or entelechy viewpoint by ironically referring to Darwinian thought which claims that every organism exists solely to reproduce its species. Is reproduction a destiny, the entelechy of everyone? Or, in a universe free of the shackles of a prescribed destiny, is reproduction a side effect of an individual’s life that lasted long enough and successfully enough for progeny to invariably occur? I mention this because for our practical purposes it can only help to seek courses that feel like they maximize our potential enjoyment of the educational process. We may not produce a future self with a career glittering with monetary rewards but if we use our electives wisely we may feel fulfilled and passionate about hitherto unknown worlds of knowledge. And it helps to think that we’re here for reasons that fulfil ourselves rather than just to fill a slot in a future industry. The aforementioned book review, by a famous mathematician, notes that even in sciences like biology and ecology people assume that there is a purpose to nature all the time:
“Presumably, any religion or set of spiritual convictions that posits some kind of shaping intelligence in the cosmos and its history, some kind of entelechy, no matter how vague, providing purpose and direction for the universe, ipso facto incorporates a kind of “intelligent design theory”. These belief-systems range from dogmatic, orthodox religion to non-sectarian theism, Deism, and even Spinozan pantheism. Rank atheists (like me) might not cotton to any of these ideas, but the point is that “intelligent design” in this very broad sense includes many creeds not particularly inimical to evolutionary theory or its privileged presence in biology classrooms. (Levitt, online)
One need not be interested in debates over Intelligent Design to appreciate the intellectual affinities that congeal out of seemingly-thin air as we enter new and unusual course material. The charge of feeling a part oneself made whole by the discovery of a new realm of education certainly has the scent of destiny within it.
Happy Convocation 2018!
I hope every AU graduate past and present thinks as fondly of convocation as I do. This student would certainly not have the same life or be the same person today, let alone have the same sense of purpose or destiny, without the opportunity to flourish that AU provides. Whether or not we feel that we were destined to enrol in our major or minor or elective, the sense of success that goes with the completion of a diploma nonetheless transcends our lives in a special way.