Kids often want to play outdoors this time of year and by doing so they set a great example for us as studious summer students. Why not follow their lead; but what to do in the great outdoors? Maybe hop in a canoe! And if a canoe isn’t present, or it’s out in the garage and the lake is a soul-taxing drive away, then maybe just plop a cardboard box down in the yard and go for an imaginary paddle. Swish swish…and while we’re at it, maybe ponder some thoughts from Pierre and Margaret Trudeau on the canoe trip that is life itself.
Background on the Foreshore
Pierre, that latter-day founding father of Canada, holds many enduring memories for baby boomers from across our great land. Pierre’s dalliances include
- hobnobbing with Fidel Castro (along with his free-flowing hippie wife known informally as Maggie, but we’ll get to her shortly)
- saying fuck you to an MP and then claiming his actual words were “fuddle duddle”
- flipping the bird to Westerners, beer glass in hand, from a train.
However, Pierre also wrote a delightfully insightful essay titled ‘Ascetic in a Canoe’. It was an early reading in my very first AU course: ENG 255. The course was a primer for university writing at the undergraduate level and, while besides providing a guiding example in form and style, Pierre’s essay led me to consider the literary nature of interacting with the beauty of the great outdoors.
Thematically, the great wild yonder is a traditional stand-in for the unknown unknowns in life, those foreboding realms that take courage to tangle, or splash, with. Intellectual rapids lined with brambles are what we face at AU; our private learning journey takes us through shadowy jungles of uncertainty and toward life-affirming triumph. While Pierre canoed with friends, much of his essay, like our studies, is about conquering internal challenges while ensconced in the solitary recesses of one’s mind.
He begins by noting the ineffable draw toward adventure that is kin with our mental desire to better ourselves through learning: “I would not know how to instil a taste for adventure in those who have not acquired it. (Anyway, who can ever prove the necessity for the gypsy life?) And yet there are people who suddenly tear themselves away from their comfortable existence and, using the energy of their bodies as an example to their brains, apply themselves to the discovery of unsuspected pleasures and places” (Trudeau, online). Whether it’s an imaginary boat ride with kids in tow, or a real outback sojourn, or simply realizing our temerity in the face of difficult course material, we at AU have acquired that taste for discovery.
Different Adventures, Different Tastes
We know that it matters where we study and under what conditions—just meeting our study requirements can be an adventure in itself. We may smile at beloved pestering from pets, kids, and spouses, but we know that the impact on our productivity of these distractions takes its toll. Distance education therefore has a unique means of production with its online content and individualized nature. Karl Marx famously said, as translated by a Hindu scholar (thus reminding us of the power of wisdom’s pretence to universal applicability), that “social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist” (Guha, online) The online readings and telephone tutor identify our status as distance students; we’re isolated from a classroom yet brimming with inborn potential. Whoever we become through our studies we’re the product of a particular mode of learning, one that’s unique to AU.
Pierre, with inimitable certainty, states his case for material conditions creating mental realms: “Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature” (Trudeau, online)
In similar fashion, I’d say that AU is about becoming a child of the art of learning. In our imagination other folks float by in classrooms as their exuberant or soporific lecturers drone on. Meanwhile, we drift off into luxuriant waking daydreams only to be rudely rousted by deadlines. A six-month contract date at AU seems like an eternity, but time compresses into a thick atmosphere of worry if too much procrastination occurs.
Often what’s taken most from classroom courses at the university level is a bland sense of boredom; even brick and mortar courses I enjoyed greatly, like philosophy, were punctuated by a distinct ardour of the banal in terms of their classroom presentation. My cohort were largely criminal justice students. Philosophy for them was an elective; it was difficult to capture their crew-cut interest with it. They were great fellow students, though, just not too interested in, say, Kant’s categorical imperative in regard to shooting down hijacked aircraft. For Kant, murder is murder, but our utilitarian ethos tends to assume that we have to weigh our actions in terms of costs and benefits. But a canoe trip, rife with potential moose attacks and bug bites on our bottoms, serves to illustrate the value of engaging in something counter-intuitive. Play is fun too, after all, and so is roughhousing.
At AU, its up to us to find the jewels of joy in each offering and make the course our own like an animal marking its territory. Sometimes in traditional school the professor and the material conjoin in a fascinating and eloquent dance. Realms of symbology irreducible to the asinine level of Da Vinci Code, or the turgid geometry of final answers, appeared for me during a course at Okanagan College titled ‘Feminism and Film’. But that level of excitement was the exception, not the rule. At AU, the opposite is true especially if we remember that each offering is what we make of it. A couple other early AU courses that excited me were ARHI, WMST, and the forever life-changing SOCI 287.
Next week, stashing the canoe amidst some imaginary spruce roots, we’ll look at Margaret Trudeau’s way of experiencing dangerous enlightenment: interacting with the communist dictator Fidel Castro. “‘I enjoyed him,’ she said.” (https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/margaret-trudeaus-cuban-memory-the-dictator-who-cuddled-her-baby).