Any child can answer a simple closed question. What do dogs do? Bark. What do bees do? Sting. Well, hopefully not, we say, and then we perhaps ponder the potential for a family viewing of a harrowing epic documentary about beekeepers in Macedonia. It’s called Honeyland, and it depicts a family where members of all ages are expected to help in the subsistence economy of a beehive business (Ljuma, online). Our AU labours, however, are not privy to wee tot helpers. As we write and research and absorb rafts of material piled higher and deeper, amidst books and papers stacked like pedantic beehives, we are at once alone and connected to our fellow pupils. Above all, though, we must, to succeed, be connected with our self. And our studies require adult thoughts. Or do they?
Maybe we overthink this whole education thing, and that’s where we get stymied. For instance, my day job is in reforestation ecology. I bushwhack through woodlands like they were the darkest corners of an online library. Occasionally in a dense thicket of second-generation pine tree seedlings, now sprung up to twice my height, a snowshoe hare will leap into my consciousness. What do rabbits do? They leap! Simple definitions give way to complexity. Lepus americanus is one species here in Southern BC; the prairies are more Jack Rabbit country. But ontology and meaning are often secondary to pure awareness. AU isn’t about facts and trivia; it’s about combining knowledge and making it purposeful. Rabbit holes of awareness arise from being open to new inputs. So, after an attentive leap—as though I’d startled her, the rabbit shortly paused a timeless momentary pause and its ears became still and I saw their translucence reflected in the dawn sunlight.
What was the rabbit thinking? Who’s to say. Even if we knew its thoughts would we really know, you know? (For more on that, check out Thomas Nagel’s essay What Is It Like Being a Bat?’ (Nagel, online.) Education teaches us to be open to what we don’t know, and even to what is unknowable. Strictures of certainty give way like a Tim Hortons drive thru lineup when a flock of Canada geese waddle amidst the tail pipes. Yet I knew what I was thinking: here’s another moment tough to capture in the written word, let alone in a textbook or university course! Yet, maybe I’d never have felt this moment in the same way without recourse to philosophic reasoning acquired at AU.
Getting a Reading on Our Selves in our Course Readings
We can only know how we feel and what we think in terms of other moments and other versions of ourselves. It’s a lot of navel-gazing, perhaps, but it’s part of the examined life. Henry Miller summarized how so much in life is lost when we quantify or measure it:
“No matter how active, the barometer can only register boredom” (Miller, 144). Register the world we must, though, and if we’re social science or business or arts students our ability to combine the personal with the pedagogical is the stuff of good grades. There’s no learning without recapitulating what we’ve absorbed. Ontology follows phylogeny, if we materialize into imagination our thoughts as brain tendrils growing out from hitherto barren terrain.
Miller follows up his trite insight by claiming that “everything is borrowed, everything is vicarious. He is no longer an actor but an agent, or a re-agent. In the world of the imagination he had boundless freedom; in the creature world he has empty power, empty possessions” (144) When our time concludes at AU we shall have little tangible evidence of the grand edifice we’ve erected within ourselves. A bunny leaping may impart no more sense than before but perhaps we’ll know what our momentary bliss is here for.
To empty the vessels of our mind, like a watering pot into a garden, requires humility and deference to authority. Yet, most of all, perhaps, it requires at least a tangential awareness of what thinking really is. When we’re sitting there just being, in between times where we say to ourselves “here I am, being myself”, a case can be made that we’re not really there at all. That is, we’re not conscious of the us that is us. It’s when we reflect on ourself, alighting our minds onto a sort of recursive awareness we may find that we are actively, consciously, thinking. Yet, we are at once thinking about ourselves as the thinker as well as thinking about the subject that we are thinking about: ourselves. We become twinned in the mind, as it were. No ouroboros snake could better gnaw its own tail and yet awareness of the multiplicity of self opens new doors to perception of the academic world; only bored simplicity reduces the universe to simple answers and slogans, by this token. To be truly there and aware is thus to be at least two places at once: our self, and our self viewing ourselves in our mind’s eye.
Learning requires this distance from immediacy so we can open ourselves to take in new material. George Herbert Mead called this two-faceted essence of consciousness the I and the Me. He wrote, “the body can be there and can operate in a very intelligent fashion without there being a self involved in the experience” (Mead, online). Like that moment when a child answers about what an animal does, we might first think that we humans think and act as ourselves. This would be wrong, according to Mead. We are each essentially two: an inner self and a social self. It behooves us then to surpass our singular sense of self so that we may grow out in new directions. This implies the softest of boundaries of identity and probably a little psychological bravery. Canadian theorist Henry Giroux described “understanding how fragile identity is as it moves into borderlands crisscrossed within a variety of languages, experiences and voices” (Giroux, online).
So, the self involves a certain duality, a certain dialectic, and this may even be why we identify with other beings (like a mystical rabbit) as though we share something with its identity. It makes sense to see ourselves in the world; after all, much of who we are depends upon external definitions and roles, not to mention marks and feedback. H.G. Hegel here comes to mind and especially his concept of aufhebung: to surpass while maintaining. We are always there, though flowing and changing in each moment, and we are also growing and learning. Hegel wrote that “the I begins where it did not begin or where it did begin before the I thought” (Derrida, 24). The wheels are always turning, and some would say that our unconscious, inaccessible by nature to our level of conscious awareness, functions to propel us forward like a boat motor along the surface of a seemingly placid lake. Enter the rabbit of the mists; magical happenings occur when even our unconscious is surprised.
Our form of growing at AU presumably allows us to surpass past mental states at a greater paced than our less-bookish brethren, albeit one enforced by study schedules, contract dates, and our own inner inertia driven by expectations that led us to register in courses in the first place. Jacques Derrida even notes of our self that “it can know itself and become actual only to the extent that it objectivates itself” (Derrida 21) He was referring to Hegel’s concept of the world spirit (as a metaphor for human creativity and down through history) but this may be, in microcosm, the truth of our essential subjectivity.
We surpass ourselves and we learn and grow and it’s often those pauses that matter most. So I thank that snowshoe hare for reminding me of the rabbit hole of awareness that we each always-already are racing through just by being aware!