Fly on the Wall—Creative Opposition

Smashing the Chalkboard of a Blank Slate Conception of Learning

Are you with your learning or against it, or both?  Each instance of thinking about a topic requires us to enter into a dancing rhythm.  We aren’t just being filled up as we’re becoming educated; at AU we are learning how to make our minds flexible.  Creativity depends upon the adoption of new approaches and expressions with regard to, and in consideration of, our particular subjective matter.  Effective pedagogy demands active reaction; if we stand still, we’re mentally falling behind.  We operate as counterpoint to  our textbooks and essay guidelines and each iteration of our academic selves engages and creates us, and our interpretations, anew.   Our minds are not a blank slate, tabula rasa, or a water glass waiting to be filled half full or left half empty; we’re part of the process as we belly up to the AU brain-bar.  Sometimes that means being rigorously oppositional to even the most accepted assertions and airtight truths.

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) describes how creative impetus is within us and compels us to think actively: “If the world is perfectly alright the way it is, you have no place in it”.  After all, presumably we’re attending AU to better our lives, not simply to receive a piece of paper.  Bronowski goes on to aptly summarize the need to think expansively about what we are learning so we might alter it and ourselves for the better: “Evolution is built up by the perpetuation of errors.  It runs counter to the second law of thermodynamics by promoting the error to the new norm so that the second law now works on the error, and then a new error is built up.” (Popova, 2017)

This dialectic is the essence of learning as a prism-like pathway, rather than as a one-way street.  We’re not programmed computers or cellphone spam apps; extending our minds means limbering ourselves beyond the bounds of cultural convention and even the norms of our academic discipline.  Social science, like the video game industry or theoretical physics, has been through many cycles with some world views ascendent and others in decline.  Context matters, and, in some sense, we are each a university of one.  We can never know what will be in vogue next, so we might as well think against the grain.  “The mark of the great player is exactly that he thinks of something which by all known norms of the game is an error.  His choice does not conform to the way in which, if you want to put it most brutally, a machine would play the game” adds Bronowski.  (ibid) Schoolwork’s more fun when we make a bit of a game of it; for instance, ask yourself what a counter-intuitive argument would be to a particular study question.

Thinking and Growing: Upwards and Outwards

It wasn’t so long ago that this sort of radical questioning was almost soup-du-jour in academia:  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari thought of it as thinking “rhizomatically”; growing like roots and tendrils, rather than thinking with “arborescence”—like a simple vertical tree that only goes one direction and takes a single proper shape.  Academic dogmas seem unassailable at a distance, but our minds are at their weakest when supine in the face of authority.  Cliff Stagoll notes that this arborescent schema functions in an authoritarian top-down manner, “Typically, at its top, is some immutable concept given prominence either by transcendental theorising or unthinking presumption” (Stagoll, 13).  Learning that merely tells us what to think or what is true fails to trigger our inner creativity and active participation.  The whole point of our learning is to add to our surroundings not merely surrender to them.  AU isn’t palliative care for our brains!

Students need not be passive objects in the face of the active subjectivity of their instructors and their top-down methods; Deleuze bemoans this simple approach, “We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles.  They’ve made us suffer too much,” he says (Deleuze, 2003)

AU allows us to really think our way through our course material with neither the clamour of grade-grubbing classmates nor the egoism of haughty professors.  I’ve yet to encounter an AU tutor who didn’t clearly convey that s/he had my best academic interests at heart.  Critical thinking, the theme of learning in a nourishing academic environment (as compared to some sort of cerebral boot camp) demands that we “establish creative and productive inter-relationships with other concepts, particulars, or models” (Stagoll, 13).  (This is the essence of the MAIS (Inter-Disciplinary) Master’s program at AU, by the way.)

Under arborescence, “subordinate elements…are unable to move horizontally” and yet, once we realize this and bust out of it, we will adopt more creative, insightful, and even ingenious approaches to our coursework (Stagoll, 13).  Deciduous squid (!) though we may literally not be, our minds can only become more limber and labile if we consider what’s beyond the rote learning implied by simple binary answers.

Where else than in distance education can our unique lives find an academic outlet?  To personalize our coursework, truly making it our own, is to make the most of our learning.  The fact is, our “lived experiences comprise particularity and uniqueness in each moment, experience and individual, the inherent differences of which ought always to be acknowledged” (Stagoll, 14), serves as a reminder that we are always in class, especially as distance students.  All of life is grist for the mill, and if we feel we must suspend our better judgement to give the correct answers in a given course, then we’ve surely gone astray.   Only the whiniest conformist would oppose a little fun and creativity as we learn how to learn.  As productive learners and active agents our role is not only to acquire knowledge (facts, figures, trivia answers) but also to along the way add our own scholarly scent to the slopes of learning we’re climbing.

In Mistakes: Learning.  In the Mistakes of Other: Opportunity

Bronowski further notes that cultural and personal evolution depends on our capacity to actively make errors and just as cheerfully to learn from them.  Like great painters, or academic neophytes imagining ourselves ascending a spiral staircase into a Rapunzel-esque ivory tower of knowledge, we may recall Vincent Van Gogh’s words: “If one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes,” (Popova, 2017)

Sometimes creative thinking means to gleefully assert loose associations from the margins.  From out of these, as with genetic mutations leading to evolution, new realities emerge.  Bronowksi summarizes this view that opposition, far from mere defiance or even a psychiatric disorder is in fact the only way anything useful or interesting or creative ever gets done.  Historically, many sociologists believed that every social structure existed for a valid and necessary reason; this left little room for change or creativity.  Happily, our very presence in the proverbial classroom of AU means that we add something invaluable to the learning in which we are immersed.  Think here of the movie Pleasantville whereupon a very special bathtub experience by the housewife opens up new palettes of ecstasy that would make even your local Cloverdale Paints dealer blush.  Rainbows of academic opportunity await us if we think hitherto unthought thoughts as we engage with our course material.

Deleuze, G.  ‘Rhizome’ (2003) in Clinton, D.  University of Chicago.  Retrieved from
Popova, Maria (2017). “The Heroism of Being a Contrarian: Jacob Bronowski on the Essential Characters Trait of the Creative Person”., BrainPickings, Retrieved from:
Ross, G. (1996). Pleasantville: A Fairy Tale by Gary Ross.  Retrieved from: and
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