Why are we here? Mars glows red as it traverses a starry abyss with the moon in tow. Sitting outside on an autumn night, amidst Goliath Mulleins, ideas about meaning bubble to the surface of my mind. What feelings guide their trail and where do they lead? Like a zephyr breeze through dried tumbleweeds the inevitable follow-up question emerges: why am I here? In AU terms this is a recurring quandary; others may ask the pragmatic question of what we are going to get with our schooling, but surely, the key query is about what meaning our actions in school impart to the broader canvas of our lives. After all, when it comes to what matters, the fact of the matter is that we all have a doctorate in justification in terms of explaining our attachments to preferred professions, industries, hobbies, and lifestyles. We want not only to make a living but also to build a life worth living!
At the societal level, the status quo justifies itself by claiming that it functions for the good of all. (Gingrich, 1999) So, in a way, to ask a big question is to answer it already; each method of knowing, each epistemology, fictionalizes reality while diminishing or discounting some aspects of the world in order to elevate others. To ask why we are here is thus to privilege some aspects of life over others, money over love for instance. Like squirrels gathering walnuts or spiders laying eggs in a sac to overwinter, life is a series of judgments based on the foundational instinct of survival and (intellectual?) reproduction. We choose or accept participation in social hierarchies whether we consciously know it or not; the interior life of our mind and its feelings is hard to quantify until we map our actual actions onto our core desires.
Drumroll Please. For Your Pleasure, Pareto!
So, let us to drift back, way back, beyond starry skies or that creepy blue techno-glow, back exactly one hundred years to a Europe torn and shuddering in the wake of the Great War. And here we meet Vilfredo Pareto, scion of a free-thinking liberal family in Italy, keen on free markets rather than feudal protectionism, and free minds unhinged from sentimentality borne of mindless tradition. Pareto claimed that each of our acts disguises itself as practical when indeed its first impetus is emotional. Justifying our AU education in terms of future earning potential rather than heart-quivering intellectual evolution would be our prima loca. To study societal priorities and motivations “reveals streams of opinion that manifest underlying patterns in sentiments and interests” (Pareto, 63). Beneath our conscious accounting practices lie unconscious motivations that swerve us toward the life directions we seem to choose. And all the while, our moral compass is a guide that disguises our base emotional impulses. Henry David Thoreau claimed “”I believe that what so saddens the reformer is not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest son of God, it is his private ail. Let this be righted, let the spring come to him, the morning rise over his couch, and he will forsake his generous companions without apology.” (Thoreau, 71).
And Now, the Macro-Sociological View
For Pareto, sentiments at the broad cultural level oscillate and pulsate through time and yet, in the end, the lizard brain wins. It’s like how in the back of the shop of our words and acts our ego run the till. We can be right or we may wrong but the ego counts the cash in terms of feelings. Sentiments underlie belief and evaluation; “common to each is the desire people have to feel that they know what is absolutely true and scientifically unshakable” (Pareto, 63). Ask a simple question, get a simple answer, right? The simplest answer for the memocratic cultural wars we now inhabit is that people want more to be right and attain a sense of belonging and superiority than to understand and accept one another. Yet learning begins precisely when we accept new information and new points of view at the expense of the aged edifice of our prior knowledge. Thoreau stated that “Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and East, and to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them—who were above such trifling.” (Thoreau, 54). To question our past mental structures is to consider the marginalized viewpoints out of which new ideas and new selves emerge. We’d be poor students if we just wished to have our preconceptions validated by our education, and nothing else.
Pareto was convinced that a better world needed us to face reality with less ephemeral feelings—so twisted and atwitter when heartstrings are plucked—and more concrete certainties. In his times, economic class realities dominated the popular imagination and weren’t limited to Dickensian appeals for caring and charity. In 1920 there were no Coca Cola commercials imploring consumers to sing “We Are The World” in unison.
Noting abject poverty in his homeland of Italy, Pareto concluded that a sense of real or impending scarcity drives emotional conflict at the expense of rational analysis. The great fear in his time was the possibility of a future war creating senseless loss of life and deeper chasms of poverty. “The rich delude themselves with daydreams about increased wealth, yet to be realized by war production. … The poor try to avoid the issue by transforming it into a moral question. … Profiteering sharks squander resources. Speculation replaces production, … the state is the instrument of the dominant class … in truth the state is controlled by those who are devious enough to capture its helm. This is nothing new” (Pareto, 69). Doesn’t 1920 sound familiar at the outset of the 2020s?
For Pareto our reason for being is as timeless as the class conflicts that govern the unfolding of history; sentiments and feelings, not objective facts, are the groundwater that shift lands over time. A hydrology of the mind thus depends upon an analysis of the ego and its emotional minions that embody our discursive intrigues. So, when we ask big questions, such as why we are here at AU, we may want to supersede the simple binary of pragmatism and idealism. After all, simply by learning how to learn, being there and paying attention, as my football coach used to say, we are bettering ourselves in untold ways. Yet, it’s hard to ignore the prevalent and arrogant, one might say fascistic character, of the pragmatic mind. So-called pragmatism embodies a mentality that denounces imagination unless a new idea doesn’t, Sharktank-like, engage with the core belief that you have to get something concrete and monetary out of every act, word and engagement.
“America, why are your libraries full of tears” famously wailed Allen Ginsberg. Well, it may be that our culture asks simple questions as a complex sleight of hand unconsciously designed to dissuade us from seeing the whole edifice, a crumbling monolith perhaps that governs the very basis of our human being in the 21st Century. Suspension of disbelief and critical thinking is, after all, the hallmark not of wisdom and truth but of propaganda and fiction. Perhaps the last way to answer big questions about our being and our place in the world and our education is to see what the bigwigs are saying.
The Wrap Up and The Miracle of Learning as Though Someone Left the Gate Open
To know why we are here at AU and to better address our future desires we thus need to consider the underlying emotions that drive us to seek and search and learn in the first place. And that is, by definition, a private, individualized, sort of inquiry. Surely learning new material is a reason in itself; we can only find ourselves by exploring, after all.
Here’s how Thoreau put it: “There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new year in his life from the reading of a book. The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones” (Thoreau, 97).
The miracle of learning, like the miracle of life itself, arises from the smallest cell to the greatest starlit expanse. As we ponder our surroundings we decide, consciously or unconsciously, how much sentimental baggage of cultural common sense we burden ourselves with in our life’s journey. How much dross and chaff can we cast off and still maintain equanimity? Concluding his gleeful dalliance on practical rat race life versus the life of the mind made vibrant, Thoreau stated “If it necessary, omit one bridge over the river, go round a little there, and throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance that surrounds us” (Thoreau, 99).
We’re here at AU to expand the concrete reality of our brain such that our mind’s eye may better survey this cultural world we inhabit and the physical realms that we create and recreate with ideas and feelings rather than merely with brick and mortar.