At Cirque de Soleil last week a unique opportunity presented itself: during intermission I gazed upward at a sea of audience faces entranced and captivated by the show and then over at the stage performers enraptured by the craft of their art. In this moment I attained a perfect middle between subject and object. It was an odd and vaguely paralytic sensation. Neither was I truly looking at anyone nor was anyone intentionally looking at me; I was merely in the societal crosshairs, as it were. I was like Schrodinger’s cat, at once dead and alive in its box and thus occupying what physicists’ term superposition (Penn State, online). My brief view occasioned my remembrance of a philosopher who delved into the personal realm of what it is to be a subjective human, acutely aware of the presence of many others: George Simmel.
This micro-sociologist passed away one hundred years ago, just as the heroism and tragedy of the Great War was reaching its wrenching and contradictory conclusion. He noted that modern life is personal but takes on an impersonal form. This is also precisely how classrooms can feel: stale, impersonal, and institutional. For Simmel, genuine sociological understanding arises when we come to terms with the fact that “contents are not experienced as they are in themselves; they are shaped by the experiencing psyche” (Weingartner, 442). When we see the personal dimension of our role in a setting, we gaze all the way down the shady rabbit hole of human nature. The individual experience of Athabasca studies is a realm where the skeletal essence of higher learning is laid bare and we come in direct contact with the process of knowledge attainment itself.
Simmel was a polymath, and, like many students who, in their lives, pass through AU as an errant marble passes through a juvenile intestinal tract, his interest was in the workings of the underbelly and innards of society. Idlers, wanderers, outsiders, and coquetry (flirting!) were all treated with deft and wit in Simmel’s a la carte presentation:
“He was a virtuoso on the platform, punctuating the air with abrupt gestures and stabs, dramatically halting, and then releasing a torrent of dazzling ideas. What the great German critic Walter Benjamin once said of Marcel Proust, that his “most accurate, most convincing insights fasten on their objects as insects fasten on leaves” applies equally well to Simmel.” (Coser, online).
Audience members were awed by his ability to prestidigitate innumerable topics within a single presentation. Despite these virtuoso skills he struggled to be accepted by the academic elite of his time. Rudolph H. Weingartner commented that “from the straitlaced viewpoint of the German academic hierarchy, Simmel was suspect” (Weingartner, 442). They found his protean approach difficult to understand; he was “insightful rather than expository, digressive rather than systematic; witty rather than solemn” (Weingartner, 442) . Straddling realms of both audience and performer, Simmel broke a barrier rarely broached in classrooms to this day: the invisible wall between instructor who dispenses knowledge and pupil who receives it. At AU we inhabit a soft boundary between learner and teacher to the extent that our interactions with tutors do not take a traditional didactic form: mostly it’s emails, phone conversations, and forum postings.
Simmel was an urbanite through and through; city life fascinated him as it compared to rural existence. He was a classic man about town, also known as a flaneur (Ng, online). As distance students we can, likewise call any location, wherever we study, our academic home. Yet, everybody’s got a little dirt road in ’em as the song goes, and this applies most presciently to the many of us from small town educational backgrounds where K-12 schooling may have incited boredom or indifference. (Pritchett, online).
Simmel’s study of cities suggests that every classroom is a tiny city in itself; thus, in our younger years, we were actually over-stimulated by being contained in a classroom setting. He sought to explain “how the personality accommodates itself in the adjustments to external forces” when they involve an increase and concentration of stimulation (Simmel, online). Be it a theatre hall, lecture hall, or hospital waiting room, modern life involves congregations of people within walls both physical and social. To this spoke Michel Foucaut with his famous rhetorical injunction that asks “What is so astonishing about the fact that our prisons resemble our factories, schools, military bases, and hospitals-all of which in turn resemble prisons?” (Foucault, online).
Formative pre-schooling years are abundant in free play time that, while by no means mirrored in the bucolic drudgery of agrarian existence, finds parallel in the way life changes when entering brick and mortar schooling. Simmel describes how “the metropolitan man”, and here we can think of the traditional college student on an urbane (sic) college campus, “develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him. He reacts with his head instead of his heart…The modern mind has become more and more calculating. The calculative exactness of practical life, which the money economy has brought about, corresponds to the ideal of natural science: to transform the world into an arithmetic problem, to fix every part of the world by mathematical formulas” (Simmel, online).
While studious consideration of our future employability is certainly foremost in our being at AU, we need not undergo a seismic psychological shift such that our incipient enjoyment of the learning process itself vanishes. Rather than jarbrains waiting to be filled with numbered beans, we transgress the subject-object binary of learning by short-circuiting the process where an instructor teaches and students absorb. Many tutor interactions take on a personal quality akin to a peer counsellor as much as to a professorial interaction, because, at AU, we are not treated like mere statistics or gerbils on a pedagogical treadmill.uproot him. He reacts with his head instead of his heart…The modern mind has become more and more calculating. The calculative exactness of practical life, which the money economy has brought about, corresponds to the ideal of natural science: to transform the world into an arithmetic problem, to fix every part of the world by mathematical formulas” (Simmel, online).
Likewise, at AU we do not have to concern ourselves with aloofness in the face of atavistic peers or their pep rally corollaries; we can just get down to business, to the things of study themselves. While a certain detached and ironic cynicism may find expression amongst college students keen to keep up cool appearances with their party-minded peers, we at Athabasca are presumably passionate about our material and willing to spend hours engaging with it directly. We don’t really have an option of apathy: we either care enough to put in the work or we don’t. Simmel illustrates aloofness characteristic of students generally as, again, something paralleled in city life: “perhaps no psychic phenomenon which has been so unconditionally reserved to the metropolis as the blase attitude. The blase attitude results first from the rapidly changing and closely compressed contrasting stimulations of the nerves…The essence of the blase attitude consists in the blunting of discrimination. This does not mean that the objects are not perceived, as is the case with the half-wit, but rather than the meaning and differing value of things, and thereby the thing themselves, are experienced as unsubstantial” (Simmel, online).
Simmel was an outgrowth of the spirit of his times: other theorists, notably Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, saw in modernism an anonymity and disempowerment akin to the erasure of essential human individuality. A fundamental split between knower and knowledge was taking place not unlike the demarcation between performer and audience, only this with life and death consequences for our mental well-being. Max Weber proclaimed that modernism risks creating a world lacking in the ecstasy of life lived creatively:
“No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development, entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the fast stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” (Weber, online).
For his part Emile Durkheim lamented the difficulty in overcoming the social construction that forges our identity and its performativity:
“Because society surpasses us, it obliges us to surpass ourselves, and to surpass itself, a being must, to some degree, depart from its nature—a departure that does not take place without causing more or less painful tensions” (Durkheim  1973, 163).
Far from disinterest and half-hearted engagement with course material, we at AU can experience school life as the opening of new intellectual vistas leading to undiscovered cities of the mind. In a sense, our life at AU represents a return to a pre-modern landscape where leaning is a truly life-affirming affair, far from the viscidities of social sniping and teachers-pet lackeydom. Simmel might have enjoyed the Athabasca concept as a cure for modernism’s dark side wherein:
“The individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of a purely objective life” (Simmel, online).
Awareness of our subjective personal landscapes, dialectical outgrowths of social interactions and circumstances where one’s social position is clearly external to oneself rather than imbibed as natural and inevitable, is central to what, in the century following Simmel’s death, came to be a hallmark of sociology. The timelessness of Simmel is how he diagnosed the ceaselessness of unchanging change so characteristic of modern life.