Being a bit contrarian is in the nature of studying at AU—we’re unique attendees at a unique university. Off-campus, as it were, oxymorons such as adult student pervade our cultural atmosphere. We’ve aged out of youth but aren’t quite willing to be normal, hoi polloi, mass culture consumers of life as labouring for wages and then spending our paycheques. There’s more to life than those necessary realities, right?
To want more than a humdrum life draws us to education, not only for more job choices or a fatter pay bundle, but because—instinctively, intuitively—we know that new and better unknowns await us if we’re willing to work for them. We want more and better and that involves discovering new meanings fresh understandings of the world and our place in it. Meanings seem to sway out from our identity as adult students just as the idea of adulting itself implies more responsibilities and less teenage angst. But wait, are sensations of responsibility and angst so different?
You can’t take it with you, society seems to say. Growing up means shifting our brains away from asking big questions. Or does it? And yet, just when we might feel ready to throw in the towel on our critical thinking skills, Athabasca emerges as a focal point of our lives. With a wave of a wand of learning, all that seemed wrong with the world seems to make sense again and we feel right justified in thinking ourselves away from rote routines of normality. After all, sometimes the lamest ontological status of all is to be well-adjusted. As Jiddu Krishnamurti put it, “it’s no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society” (Santayana, online).
Electing a New Purpose
Even a single elective in sociology is enough to teach us that we become read into normality and learned into adulthood. Perhaps we’ve been trained to abandon raw curiosity in favour of rote, rat-race busywork, where the ends justify the means, and life is lived in pursuit of materialistic somethings rather than prosaic whimsy. Maybe that’s why we returned to school; it was time to grow up and stop trying to impress the world or our childish expectations of what it means to grow up. Life seemed too bland, too banal, too predictable before we began our post-secondary career. Our sense of adventure seemed to have taken flight leaving us with laundry to fold and insurance payments to pay. Fun seemed over, finito, and left us brandishing nothing but a wilted sense of self-worth. Well, never fear, the social sciences are here to rescue us from alienation and anomie. And post-modernism, despite what the meme-ocracy tries to claim about its nihilism or relativism (easily disputed by the fact that reality is many, not one, and truth is what we make of it), provides a liberatory baseline from which to parachute against gravity and into a scholastic stratosphere that no Jeff Bezos rocket could ever hope to attain.
What’s the Subject? You!
Jacques Derrida describes a process whereby we lose our passion for learning and novelty in favour of a discourse of productivity and belonging. We learn to think, abide, and inhabit a subjectivity where we simultaneously feel lost and found, understood and mute. Narratives of social expectations suddenly seem stale. If we speak and act how others wish us to then we are repaid by others with purpose and positive results. And if we stray away from the dorms of norms we are cast to the wind like an old party balloon by the great other of social expectations. What seems normal and natural, when it comes to daily life and values and narratives of success, takes hold of us right when we might be attaining new heights of academic vigour. Derrida notes that, as soon as we bypass our expectations, life appears to have almost never been lived; like a dead language or a desiccated flower petal. “Natural language carries and touches within itself the sign of death; it pertains to its body to resound and in so doing to raise up its natural cadaver to the height of the concept, to universalize it and rationalize it in the very time of its decomposition.” (Derrida, 16) Concepts like adulthood wither away in the face of our awakened minds. To reanimate the zombie within us all, and to avoid becoming a mindless member of mass society, is one of those intangible potentials that AU provides. The hope of being a new you at AU propels us forward, or it certainly has provided a nice boost to this Fly on the Wall. As Pericles stated in his time, “freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it” (Pericles, online). Our liberty to learn, and the time to do it, is precious and may be our most priceless possession of all.