The oldest neighbour in our neighborhood, Jim, the only one who precedes my family arriving in this bucolic British Columbia valley in 1985, just passed away. So will us all, like wisps of breeze and leaves on the trees. Our studies and our lives equally mean nothing or everything depending on how they make us feel. How to live our best selves is something we can’t expect to learn in school; hints and glimmers might shine through our studies, but academia has its limits.
We can, however, learn at AU, as in life, how to have respectful discourse with others. Jim, right up till our final conversation, was neither brash nor harsh nor judgmental of those who were. Anyone can be placid when they feel ambivalent about their interlocutors but to feel peace towards those who are perpetually aggrieved by the world, that embodies a fine art of living. His education in class was far less than the decades he spent in his trade, and unlike some folks who extol their life smarts rant against the purported inanity of book smarts, Jim seemed simply to live in a glorious eternal present, as though there were no absolute deadlines to the enjoyment of life itself. Probably we all know a few older folks, or have done, that taught through their demeanour as much as through their words.
At AU, the one thing I glean from my scholarly elders, including past Athabasca tutors, is that what we have most to learn from school is how to place ourselves into a better harmony between our inner and outer realms. It’s worth making a point of finding out what your tutors do for fun. How do they unwind? After all, there is no outside of studies for lifelong learners, and that’s what scholardom, the fandom of bookishnesss if you will, is about.
A Thought from Thoreau’s Pond
Henry David Thoreau, that placid inhabitant of a cabin at Walden Pond, Massachusetts, a few years prior to the American Civil War (the biggest bloodbath in history until that point), reminded his readers that “The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise.” (Thoreau, 287). Jim wasn’t a fault-finder, to his credit. Lo, though the surroundings had changed.
Well, the other day as I was delivering farm eggs, like some rustic character out of an old Norman Rockwell painting, I noticed four scenes. This was among my usual tipping of the hat in jest to friends, polite smiles to strangers, and the dispensation of general pleasantries to everyone in town.
There was a Syrian refugee with her head scarf on as she watered her lawn; hose in one hand, cellphone in the other.
There was the burly backhoe driver, tractor chair swivelled to the side while he took a break and pondered his cellphone.
And there was the newlywed neighbour, her ring on display as she strolled facing the south wind with a ponderant gaze on her face as she gazed into the depths her phone.
Finally, there were the two African exchange students, one male and one female, their hair catching the light as they walked together swinging their arms and looking around like they’d arrived in the best place on earth.
The cellphones seemed like a barrier to all but the last people enjoying their life. What were these people with eyes locked into their phones dreaming about?
Michel Foucault addressed this when he visited revolutionary Iran in the late 1970s. Surely, he thought, there must be more going on that a bunch of brainwashed terrorists or simpleminded peasants. His conclusion was that the people of Iran simply wanted a government where their heartfelt beliefs, in their case centred around Islam, would match their external lived conditions. Sounds like every call to morality of our culture; can you hear those Salvation Army bells ringing? Anyway, we might as students feel the desire to judge those of our peers who seem to just wile away their leisure (and work!) hours playing on those smartphones. We might even think that our cohort, our generation, is fraught with decadence.
Foucault, for his part, took into account what experts and pundits and scholars often say about those who envision a life other than the dominant strain of global culture. “The nature of this current has intrigued me since I learned about it a few months ago, and I was a little weary, I must confess, of hearing so many clever experts repeating: “We know what they don’t want, but they still do not know what they want” (Foucault, online).
Connection with others, the mantra of every social movement, seems the fundament of cell phone culture where apps and chats and snaps all link up. “one dreams [songe] also of another movement, which is the inverse and the converse of the first. This is one that would allow the introduction of a spiritual dimension into political life, in order that it would not be, as always, the obstacle to spirituality, but rather its receptacle, its opportunity, and its ferment” (Foucault, online).
Finally, what if an ineffable element linking humans to one another exists on this most odious device? Foucault seems to speak truth when he considers how limited the vulgar view of enlightenment is; why must books and learning be key to epiphany? “The other question concerns this little corner of the earth whose land, both above and below the surface, has strategic importance at a global level. For the people who inhabit this land, what is the point of searching, even at the cost of their own lives, for this thing whose possibility we have forgotten since the Renaissance and the great crisis of Christianity, a political spirituality. I can already hear the French laughing, but I know that they are wrong.”
All Foucault was sure of, it seems, was that when we judge others for what appears so mindless we are perhaps forgetting that our own minds are formed based on beliefs with their own historical antecedent. Who knows how the future will judge us? All we can do at AU is study and learn and question authority as thinkers and scholars and students have always done. And if you must have your cell phone as your constant companion, at least you will be getting an education from Athabasca while you scroll, scroll, scroll your life away! And judging others less leaves open our minds the most.