Fly on the Wall—Pondering the Essence of Learning

A Second Chance for Freud

We’re all born dumb, literally lacking the facility of language and any semblance of deftness or acuity when expressing complex thoughts and feelings.  Much later, after socialization teaches us to translate our wails and tantrums into words and essays, we might rest on our laurels and come to an age-old conclusion: maybe all our learning has simply taught us how little we know and how newt-like our personal wisdom really is.  Here the meaning and impetus of education is called into question.  What does all the hard work of learning add up to?

Dreamy visions of an ascent to lofty vistas of knowledge and success may abide in the hearts of many an AU student.  At some point, though, as we reach our goals we may face the fact that whatever is within us that drives our desires for learning is of a two-fold nature.  On the one hand we are always essentially ourselves, give or take a few life lessons and academic achievements, and on the other hand we do seem to change and go somewhere in our lifetime within our minds.  Our cells regenerate but our selves remain consistent; maybe this is why our elders sometimes say that the more they learned in school the less they realized they knew.

Sigmund Freud, that theorist so easy to avoid in a culture of TED talks neuroscience with a general aversion to thinking of our admittedly-animal selves as essentially sexual, had much to say about our dual nature as creative and destructive beings.  Far from a penis-obsessed infantile thinker, Freud believed that our quest for learning (or money, or love, or the perfect hobby) was about the feeling of efficacy and power achieved through success.  As we knife our way through our textbooks the real meaning of the symbolic phallus comes clear; it’s about using our essential powers to accomplish something, not literally about any particular sex organ.  (The origin of the phallus issue ties into Freud’s study of how kids learn about genders and that’s another story, and closer to the stereotype).  The key thing is that, for adults, phallic symbols are anything symbolic of power and power is detached from the literal penis.  All this is by way of saying that language allows us to repress our more animal instincts so that we may accomplish more powerful things in arenas of culture and discourse.

We’re animals who seem to be on a trajectory from birth to death that leads to a sense of purposelessness, while also being capable of many amazing feats of writing, climbing, loving, and discovering.  Freud felt stymied at the contradictions between our evolutionary origin within humble rocks and inert objects, and our creative drive to express and create and procreate ourselves.  Education almost seems pointless if our fate in death is to revert to an inanimate state of stasis.

Freud claimed that we tend towards inanimate reality as a part of our heritage as mere sticks and stones.  A few extracts suffice to explain how he imagined that we were drawn to our mute, blind and unthinking origins; that is, the state of nature into which we are born as wordless infants.

“Everything living dies for internal reasons-becomes inorganic once again-then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death” (70)

“It would be in contradiction to the conservative nature of the instincts if the goal of life were a state of things which had not yet been attained” (70)

“First instinct…the instinct to return to the inanimate state” (71)

“Constantly created afresh and easily dying…ever more complicated detours before reaching its aim of death” (71)

Creativity for Freud was a form of repressive desublimation; we do cultural things to release some energy that would otherwise lead us down a more bestial path.  By releasing energy in one manner, we avoid expressing it in another.  Instead of engaging in orgiastic Woodstocks with our fellow humans in one big cultural Garden of Eden, we instead take part in work and productivity and organized play.  Repairing shingles on a doghouse takes the form of, well, a doggy style kind of afternoon.  The goal of life would seem to be fulfillment, and yet education involves a higher state of being, surely!

Yet all acts of accomplishment lead to a sense of satisfaction.  This led Freud to ponder “what is the important event in the development of living substance, which is being repeated in sexual reproduction, or in its fore-runner, the conjugation of two protista?” (79).  Perhaps our aquatic origins as polliwogs finds modern expression in the forward locomotion of our mental accomplishment.  By this approach it’s no doubt that education is an end in itself but not one we can ever say is fully done, fully accomplished for all time.  The questions remain, however, whether we really glean something that we can say changes us to our core and what it is that drives our thirst for knowledge.

The road to learning isn’t smooth, either.  Our instinct to procrastinate muddies the waters of our desire to succeed.  Life is complex and so is learning; Freud concluded by seeing “opposition as being, not between ego instincts and sexual instincts but between life instincts and death instincts” (93).  As we age, the aphorism that the more we learn the less we know may seem truer in that textbooks become outdated and our academic interests evolve.  Who hasn’t laughed at some juvenile writing from their past or pondered at the breathtaking idealism or ignorance (or both) of prior social media posts?

Yet somehow what gives us life more abundant in our learning remains with us as an essentially inquisitive and creative trait.  Only when we die inside and fall to a level of cynicism or disinterest in the face of possible educational opportunities do some of our best essences pass away; “the life process of the individual leads for internal reasons to an abolition of chemical tensions, that is to say, to death” (81) Growth has its corollary in our inner drive to learn.  So long as we seek to grow in our minds, our life spirit shall carry us to new and exciting scholastic projects.

Finally, where facts and trivia derive satisfaction at times, it’s where reality carries us away to new and divergent hypotheses and wanderings that the real magic of education kicks in.  “By repeatedly combining factual material with what is purely speculative and thus diverging widely from empirical observation” we may arrive at a new and more personalized epistemology in our chosen discipline and, in the last instance, in our life as a whole (81).  Athabasca allows us to expand our minds and our resumes while the rest of our life carries on; nevertheless, the great bugaboo of common sense may prevail upon us to ask: are we really learning anything, or do we just think that we are?

By realizing our thoughts into words, we surpass our prior potential; the magic of learning isn’t necessarily in the answers so much as in the process.  While life can seem like a series of happy accidents, our learning depends upon us being intentional with our thoughts and words.  Being intuitive helps, but no amount of intuition can substitute itself for the book learning that academia requires.  Think of how, say, our political leanings change over a lifetime.  Or how culture evolves and/or devolves.  Perhaps trends and regime changes mean that whatever we learn today will be old facts tomorrow.

In that case maybe the best accomplishment of attaining our diploma or degree, will be the raw fact that we learned how to stay the course and finish a task lasting longer and bigger than a month or a year.  The educational impulse that gravitates us to the gleaming light of capital “K” Knowledge comes at AU to provide a line of reference for our life.  And maybe, just maybe, we may discover “staggering richness and power within us of so many things of which we are not aware” (Zilboorg in Freud 3).  We’re better off for these personal discoveries as we grapple with our coursework.  Mental growth may just be the true hallmark of higher learning.

Freud, S.  (1928/1967).  Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Toronto: Bantam Books.
Zilboorg, G.  In Freud, S.  (1928/1967).  Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Toronto: Bantam Books.