“No one here gets out alive” proclaimed a biography of Jim Morrison (Hopkins, Sugerman). No matter our personal age we must accept that the year is waning and the life of summer has fled. Autumnal chills with claustrophobic auspices may leave us feeling listless and trapped by the enforced hibernation of winter life. Even our AU studies might feel stagnant, particularly compared to K-12 students who pass through their years with astonishing speed. Compared to the swiftness of their youthful scholarly alacrity, our educational existence may seem like a nursery rhyme as old as the hills: timeless and unchanging and kind of vacant. In times like these we need not wilt where our forward momentum wavers. Instead, we may take a trail of instruction from a certain bruin of Mother Goose yore: the bear who went over the mountain.
Let’s daydream out to a bucolic foothill meadow. Faint strains of an elementary school choir waft by. They’re singing the tale of an enterprising Ursid explorer who pitched out from familiar but stale inclines in pursuit of discovery and adventure. Here’s the antediluvian lyrics:
The bear went over the mountain, (x3)
To see what he could see
To see what he could see, (x2)
The other side of the mountain, (x3)
Was all that he could see
Was all that he could see, (x2)
The other side of the mountain,
Was all that he could see!” (Kididdles)
Apparently, there’s nothing out there? Maybe we’re all stuck in our proverbial podunk existence as distance students? A simple message, but perhaps not so straight and narrow after all. One might be forgiven for recalling Karl Marx’s infamous quote about industrial capitalism rescuing commoner peasants from “the idiocy of rural life” (Marx, 1848). But please bear with me a moment. What might the bear, and the spirited bear within each of us at AU, be dreaming of after gazing thoughtfully out over rolling hills as far as the furry eye could see?
Pioneering spirit apparently vanquished, we may assume that the bear turned puffy tail and, with back slumped, moseyed on down to the local bear saloon for some windfall apples and a spot of nostalgia about a time before the fateful realization that there’s nothing different out there. Or perhaps the bear in question might get a bit misty-eyed and recall the Bible phrase that goes: “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (The Bible) Perhaps rather than feeling time wasting away and stolen from our grasp we shall be reborn out of the ashes of boredom into creative expressivity leading to unbounded academic success. After all, on a blank canvas of similitude we may paint to our heart’s content.
When considering a void stemming from solitude amidst insufferable sameness, the philosopher Hermann Cohen was said to pronounce that:
“In place of the one and universal Nothing, which, like the Zero, was permitted to be really nothing more than “nothing,” in place of this veritable “non-thing”, he posited the particular Nothing, which burst fruitfully into the realities” (Rozenzweig).
But sameness is found in reality only if we restrict our gaze to the gravest of oversimplifications, like saying (as did Plato, another story that!) that all trees are basically poor carbon copies of the ideal capital ‘T’ Tree. His absolute forms were absolutely non-existent if existence is restricted the physical realm; yet, as when a picture seems worth a thousand words only because ideology conjures up meaning seemingly out of thin air, it’s our expectations of archetypes that flow them forth for us to see in the world around us. Everybody gets what everybody wants. Or thinks they want. In fact, as soon as we notice more of the same, more forest, more mountains, more of our own small town, we can choose to be invigorated by all that is different and changeable: the seasons, new course material, our own maturing selves.
Much of our daily life provides fodder for evaluation, inquiry and research as we proceed through a dazzling array of courses. These include our social interactions, our business encounters and our natural environment: it’s all grist for the mill. In a sense being a distance student is to always-already have entered the domain of General Studies because our real lives are never far from our scholarly selves. AU doesn’t lead us to feel institutionalized so much as re-energized by an injection of new brain material each time we crack the books. Physical consistency in our homes, offices and libraries may define our existence, it’s true. But our imaginations are piqued in the most magical of ways and we really can become lost in our studies.
So back to the bear…
What might the bear have pondered in the moment that it gazed aloft over treetops as far as the eye could see? Maybe it got all forest-philosophical in a bear kinda way. Perhaps it, and by it I mean we star-crossed scholarly wanderers, might ask: why does the tree grow? The why, far from a meaningless and impertinent question with no bearing on actual life, cuts to the quick of existence. A why begs explanation at a root level, the level upon which our thoughts, dreams and identities emerge. Like amorphous first memories and their clarified later accounts (not to mention jumbled non-sequitur amalgams) the reason why life happens at all hangs in the gallows of our mind like a Hallowe’en garland of ephemeral-yet-effective plastic spiderweb.
Perhaps this bear, this apex predator, also felt a certain foreboding uncertainty as it looked out over what appeared to be more of the same but wasn’t. After all, the phrase all that he could see begs emphasis on the all as much as on what he sees. Is the all many things that are the same or many things that are different from one another? To answer why perchance a tree grows is to also ask the timeless question: why is there something rather than nothing? Cohen saw the nothing as a fruitful cornucopia. Instead of there being nothing out there, or more of the same thus amounting to a blanket elimination of difference, the infinite space between individual things and their general identities suggests that when we see homogeneity we may find variety: schooling teaches us that the devil of knowledge is in the details of evidence. When no longer reduced to the abstract hieroglyphics of numbers, a blade of grass, a solitary pine cone, a trickle amidst some underbrush, any experiential pinprick can convey meaning weighted as though it were a whole universe in itself. Like a microscope of the mind, our learning allows us to investigate facets of our existence and the world around us anew.
As a testament to our human capacities for flourishing opening out of a seeming abyss Franz Rosenzsweig comments on the abilities of Cohen to vigorously elucidate the world he saw:
“In his speech there was something like a volcano under smooth ground. When for a time it had spun on in rigorous objectivity and the listener saw the flow of thoughts pass calmly under the mighty head, there would suddenly erupt at some point, completely unannounced, impossible to calculate or anticipate in advance, the firestream of personality…a single word, a brief sentence of five, six, words: and the flowing river would have expanded into an overflowing sea; through the web of thoughts there shone the world reborn in the human heart. It was just this perfectly unexpected quality of these eruptions that gave them their compelling force. The boiling up of pathos from its subterranean sources, wholly unprepared for; the close proximity of the coolest thoughts and of the most passionate feelings…” (Rosenzweig, 248)
From places similar in the past, perhaps for our whole lifetimes passed until this point, we may look out from personal promontories and discover new interpretations both of ourselves and others. Athabasca gives us wings of imagination and confidence that we may achieve goals both pedagogical and private; with lifelong education there is always so much more inspiration all around from which to learn and express.
And beyond this, out past a horizon that surpasses our individual courses and transcends single years, lies the fact that our lives themselves are a journey that constantly, but deliciously, borders on incomprehensibility. As Jacques Derrida states about the search for truth, understanding and finality: we may never be “able to define the unity of its project or its object” so much as we invariably and naturally “proceed by wandering” (Derrida, 43). Let’s wander joyously, fellow students!