September brings apprehension and ambivalence to students of all ages. Whether our classroom days are four or forty years hence the creeping shadows of autumn re-stimulate memories of that dreaded return to school. Our formative years were divided, as if with a paper cutter, every September; a whoosh of a sucking sound vacated our spirits as the blade dropped. Potential excitement at meeting new friends and having new experiences was aided and abetted by corporate marketing gurus who had pummelled our parents with advertising for weeks in advance. Like the drumbeats of war, there was a sense that this was going to be a long campaign. Yet, at AU, things are different. Here we pay to play; we learn on our own time and in places of our choosing. The question of motivation still arises; we arrived here by choice but our success depends on realizing how to make the most of our context.
So, with inchoate autumnal melancholy weighing on my mind, I drove south on Highway 97, on a route many Albertans are familiar with as they vacation in the sunny Okanagan. Passing through the town of Sicamous, on the shores of scenic Mara Lake, I noticed the town’s entrance sign. It read ‘Sicamous: Houseboat Capital of Canada’. The only problem is that, as of June 2019, the major houseboat rental company has gone into receivership. “Sicamous Mayor Terry Rice said the loss will have a heavy effect on employees, boat owners and other small businesses in a local economy that relies heavily on summer tourism” (Schmunk, 2019).
Sad hulking houseboats dot the beach, emptied of their partying cargo, their slides shedding silent tears over the bums that never traversed their slopes. A houseboat capital without houseboats, what an eerie sight. But not one so unlike a student without a classroom. To others our student status can seem to be devoid of its essence. Where are the bums in seats; where’s the soporific lecturer? To others we might, especially in September when throngs return to their institutionalized instruction, seem like pupils only in title.
What matters most is how we assess ourselves and how we go about succeeding this September. Where our classroom of one means a silent return to studies it helps to divide our motivation according to key components of ambition, desire, and economics. In the first place, there’s big money at stake. Let’s face it, an AU degree is not a cheap investment. Fiscal arguments seem cut and dried; if no one pays our tuition, or we have to take a second job to support our family, our academic careers will whither away like last year’s tumbleweeds under the weight of winter snow. So it was with curiosity that I drove past Sicamous’ second town-council funded sign. Emblazoned on it were the words ‘inspire, explore, invest’.
The first two terms are value laden; at AU we all know the excited feeling when that brown cardboard box of new course materials arrives in the mail and we tear it open with whatever scissors, knives, or garden shears are at hand. It’s like Christmas for our brains! AU can be an exploration like no other; our very being seems on the verge of a remake such that a new model of our selves will emerge, chrysalis-like. Anything’s possible. The inspiration naturally flows out from there, if only we can harness our newt-like attention spans and slog through the treacherous course readings. AU studies, like any authentic education, is not about binge watching videos online and then switching to Netflix when things get boring. To succeed we have to read and take notes and write and repeat. Looked at the wrong way, it’s like doing laundry. Or it can be like breathing life into our mind’s hearts, to use inspiration-speak.
In the background remains the economic component of our studies. Someone pays for the privilege of us furthering our education; ourselves, our employers, our student loans, our savings, our family, or our grants are the reason we’re attending an invisible AU class at all. And if that funding dries up, we’re sunk like an overloaded party barge. Our success, as we return to school in that admittedly dolorous month of September, depends on our realizing the good fortune of being able to afford AU as well as embracing the responsibility of becoming the self-starter dynamos that distance education demands. It takes endurance, perseverance and moxy. But most basically it takes money. Yet that’s not our primary motivation or we’d probably have just sought a better-paying job without all the debt and stress of more schooling.
Life: A Sentimental Journey?
Sociological philosophy has weighed in with volumes of text comparing human life in terms of material economic realities and affective emotional factors. In a textbook for SOCI335, Irving M. Zeitlin introduced the figure of Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) with the remark that, for the latter, “sentiment is the fundamental and predominant force in society, the determining factor of human conduct” (Zeitlen, 263). When we want to light a fire under ourselves in our less motivated moments, it helps to trigger elements of our primal essence: inciting a fear of failure, of disappointing our tuition sponsors, works wonders. Better still is the stimulation of positive sentiments; remember how overjoyed you felt when you’ve just submitted a final course assignment?
My Okanagan College Sociology of Crime professor chose to play graphic videos of real-life crimes against workers by management where lax safety standards had deadly consequences. Those videos evoked raw feelings in a way that academic textbook readings could not. At the societal level Pareto notes that not all emotions are stimulated equally. All the inspiration and exploration in the world can’t induce investors to open their cheque books to bankroll an unprofitable business such as Sicamous’ houseboat company.
Pareto explains this fact succinctly and in terms any Machiavellian could understand. Different classes in society, defined by their relation to the means of production that produce capital (profit, to be reinvested) have, for Pareto, different ways of going about their moral business: “the elite acts primarily on the basis of enlightened self-interest, whereas the lower subject classes are moved largely by sentiment. To further its interests, the elite finds it expedient to appeal for support to the sentiments of the lower classes. Thus, the non-elite, the mass, is impelled into actions by blind forces, while the elite conducts itself according to a rational understanding of the situation.” (Zeitlin, 267). This helps explain why two-thirds of the Sicamous town sign induces emotional involvement and enrichment (Inspire! Explore!) while only the third term (Invest!) hints at the core commitment required for the other two capacities to even exist. It takes money, honey, or this love boat is staying ashore.
Joining a charitable organization or volunteering at the Food Bank have both enriched my life. Yet, says Pareto, these kindly gestures haven’t made economic difference in the way those with the power to do so easily could but choose not to. In their time, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels saw their task as one of unwinding the moral claims of the ruling class; such that the vast majority of people who do not control the economic levers that govern society would realize that their lack of control over investment policy (rather than cruel words or malicious intentions) was what caused inequality, oppression, and that vague sense that one’s life could be so much better. Marx’s dialectical materialism set out “to deliver socialism from its entanglement with opposition bourgeois radicalism…however remorselessly and however fanatically, and however much at the cost of unity-between ethico-philosophical socialism and economic socialism” (Ruhle, 102).
However, our personal politics envision a good time full of exploration and inspiration, we must contend with the economic base of our existence in our daily life and studies. As students we can’t depend on success by desire alone; we have to also treat AU like a paying job and an investment in ourselves. And, remembering those unread textbooks that end up on thrift store shelves by students who couldn’t pass muster, to get the most out of our AU schooling we have to remember that real money, and our future earnings, are at stake.