Delusions of grandeur go with higher education like helium balloons go with funny voices and imagined flight. To rise above the vulgar norms of existence is what AU is all about; we become more than the sum of our parts when inspiration enters our view. Distance education implies a desire on the part of students to better avail themselves of tools and methods that will provide them with a greater understanding of the world. But anyone can howl in the wilderness. Whether it’s a chortle or a tweedle, a voice full of helium or a lost clown in an alley in a Bob Dylan song, when our academic minds learn to sing it’s a special thing. Others might be perplexed by us but that’s okay; education is about our future selves, not them or our past iterations of identity.
Everything we learn has a why and a how; like all of life, reality depends on how we view it. The hows of life are like the incomprehensible howls of wild beasts or the nonsensical gibbering of karaoke singers who struggle to read onscreen lyrics. Yet it’s the whys that really matter, for critical thinking; we get wise when we focus on the whys. There’s more than a binary of how and why at play here, though. Growing as a thinker and learner requires us to resist being shackled by our core epistemic assumptions: how we know what we know isn’t so cut and dried, you know?
For cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), if we must go there (and surely we all are well-advised to understand CBT’s basic method because the CBT method is as hegemonic as Tim Hortons and as commonplace as Walmart), our core beliefs aid and abet, adjust and abut our means of understanding the world. Take Leon Trotsky, for instance. Not the literal Trotsky, but the character in the 2009 play named Leon Bronstein who, realizing he shared the name Leon Bronstein with the famous communist leader, decided to adopt said leader’s nom de guerre and become Leon Trotsky. Yet it wasn’t like reaching into the tickle trunk and donning a new outfit of selfhood; for the protagonist, his delusion was that he was literally Trotsky. He believed such a reincarnation were possible and it all became true. For him. And, real to form, any Trotksy needed a murderer nemesis, a Moriarty to his Holmes. Meeting a likely candidate, the fictional Trotsky exclaimed “are you my Stalin, Dwight?”
Expectations of what the world will give us go along with how we react to our environments. W.I. Thomas, with succinct aplomb, summarized this sociological fact: “If men (sic) define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas, online). In our PC times it bears noting that we cannot not see something wrong with a word like men being applied to mean any old human! And so the consequences of our beliefs frame our understanding of the meaning of this classic sociological aphorism.
Stepping Back: Back Into Nature
Henry David Thoreau, the great naturalist writer, is a constant companion when, in a normal year, my suitcase takes me places for work and play. His Walden reminds me that, even in a humble potted plant or along the outer wall of some nondescript building, nature is right there waiting to be noticed. It grows and abides everywhere people do and does so without ideology. Nothing lifts me out of the doldrums of negativity about human nature, COVID-19, or academic anxiety like engaging in a little observational prowess in terms of the natural world that abounds all around. But first, preconceptions must be abandoned. The natural world, unlike our thoughts, need not be tended as we gaze upon it. We can just appreciate it as is. In noticing Spring details Thoreau realized how much he was missing by thinking, by being aware but not quite being there:
“The first sparrow of spring! The year beginning with younger hope than ever! The faint silvery warblings heard over the partially bare and moist fields from the bluebird, the song-sparrow, and the red-wing, as if the last flakes of winter tinkled as they fell! What at such a time are histories, chronologies, traditions, and all written revelations?” (Thoreau, 271)
In a state of nature, and whenever we think with our symbolic minds and surpass our Tetris-playing tendency to revert to a desire to play endless, mindless, monkey games, we find a natural world exempt from the social construction of reality. Gravity sucks, after all, if you jump from too high a spot. And water is no inspiration to our lungs if we lack gills. Likewise, a good walk in the woods or a park can do wonders for resetting the intellectual rhythms of our mind. To daydream, perchance to acquire epiphanic liberty, means that we become right there with the teeming, flourishing, thriving reality of unpaved planet earth. No binary of hows and whys or expected outcomes need apply, at least for a time.
Nature can provide an answer to the belief that education is just so many sheets of paper and so much useless book learning: when we return from our experiences of non-human nature our learning can take on a new hue and the inverse is true too. Our life and our world, indeed the planet herself, is reborn as our studies apply to our interactions. To gain perspective we have learn to hear what we once lacked words for. And, unlike a young Trotsky imagining his Stalin in every encounter with an interlocutor, we may best be open to enlightenment by not expecting too much certainty from our studies or our lives. After all, if we already knew everything why would we take courses? Instead of projecting our beliefs and assumptions onto the world, and onto our course material, it behooves us to be as open as a spring songbird to the potentials our brains invite in by attending AU. (The mother Robin in her nest at my doorway, with eggs safely clutched under her body, approves this message! One might recall the childhood book Are You My Mother? In it, a baby bird asks all and sundry if they are its mother, only to find out that only one being can be its mother. The test of reality is thus reality in its purest form: nature!)
Often, to see the world anew and to question our core beliefs along the way, all we have to do is open our eyes and let a little new light in. For to understand why the world and ourselves are the way they are requires us to accomplish a tricky fact of phenomenology: to learn to be there without dragging along our historic or scholastic baggage in the form of assumptions about the nature of our world. And so, as spring continues to bound outward in leaves and tendrils and blossoms, remember that the you in AU grows the most when it casts off the dross of prior expectations. The vastness of our minds has room for countless new ideas, after all, and like the earth itself the conditions for growth are all that’s needed for germination to occur.