Fly on the Wall—Invisible Institutions and Educational Elixers

Fly on the Wall—Invisible Institutions and Educational Elixers

Baggage is a term implying years of accumulated dross, emotional and economic, the sort of thing therapists dream of as the purpose of their vocation.  We carry with us our past and it colours our present and future, like it or not.  Many key experiences are induced through participation in cultural institutions.  Even the most mundane or maudlin of activities incite a riot of thoughts and feelings as shared experiences.  For as it’s in the nature of the mind to ruminate, so is it in the nature of our selves for society to take root.  Athabasca lets us learn in a way that keeps us in situ in our social realms such that a unique additive enters our mental realm; it’s almost like taking a secret potion to experience our world anew, one that lets us overcome past predispositions about school.

Institutions like schools are not all that give our life its feel and form; invisible institutions like marriage and our family also form us.  And where there are institutions there are rituals, some in the most unlikely of places.  Finding myself at a memorial service for a 60’s era musician member of the erstwhile Columbia Records band Perth County Conspiracy, a slice of baby boomer life was on offer (online).  The community centre was in an area marked as the Adams Lake Indian Band and, in the larger picture, at a crossroads between BC’s counter-culture vacation Shuswap and the more cowpoke-esque region I call Kamloopsland.  The building lacked running water, but electricity allowed for plenty of music.  Being on grid but down gravel roads that became dirt lanes and then almost disappeared in bracken and forest, one would be forgiven for imagining that this would be no normal funeral experience.  There were slide shows, poetry readings, dramatic re-enactments, musical performances, and plenty of open-mic anecdotes.  About normal.  Being there supporting my spouse, I didn’t fail to see if I could glean some commentary on educational and life experiences from a prior generation.

For the past century, rural folk like my maternal great grandparents notwithstanding, schooling has been a part of every life experience; it’s an institution with a common bond.  As I expressed my condolences and listened to a stew of folks born in those glorious post-war years of 1945-1960, one respondent in particular was keen to wax poetic on his time as a university math major.  Lest anyone imagine hippiedom as merely a land of star-gazing and interpretive dancing, this fellow gleefully recounted how at Waterloo university he’d peeved a math professor by finishing first in the class.  Hippies were supposed to be stoner slackers, went the stereotype.  In those days, as today, some profs and/or schools will publicly list marks on a wall anonymously according to student ID number.  This was true too at Waterloo but for the student in question he was pleased that the professor had the temerity to give the star pupil’s name in front of the class.  I could see the pride reflect in this elderly fellow’s eyes as the bonfire’s light tickled and wavered up toward the autumn stars.

A top mark in math is no mean feat in any century, and one trick this man claimed was that at the time he actually micro-dosed LSD each morning.  Later, he moved on from such a dalliance, but in those days it was part of his routine.  If there’s one thing true about educational institutions, it’s that we all have our extra additives that individualize our educational processes.  These, be they coffee or music or chocolate covered peanuts, become our private institution.  The nature of a psychoactive substance is that it need not even be a physical substance; ideas can affect the mind deeply and powerfully.  As counter-culture theorist Timothy Leary intoned that a drug “frees the nervous system from its ordinary patterns and structures” (online).  However, instead of psychotropic substances, AU embodies a built in mind trip as we import academic realms into our everyday life.  We get to imbibe education such that we see our life differently and perhaps grow a new sense of self.  In any case, for education to work, we have to have a way of making it personal and meaningful.  Schooling is like life that way.

AU is unique in that we can study and even write essays wherever we feel comfortable.  Like hermit crabs, we carry our institution with us.  Friends’ birthday party getting dull?  Skip the institutional formalities and do some editing in a quiet cubby hole!  When I used to hang out at UBC Vancouver there’d be earnest students typing on laptops not only in coffee-shops, but under shady trees, at bus stops, and even in back alleys.  The alleys were meticulously cleaned at that campus, by the way.  As institutional denizens of an invisible college; AU being literally digital, we get to pick our classroom setting too.  But we still have to make the process work for us.  Physical institutions are only part of the picture, as with emotional baggage, institutions become ingrained in our psyches.  In this sense modernity has liberated rituals from cathedrals and holy places.  Yet I couldn’t help but notice that, just as a quiet organized office room is key to success at AU, the church-like feel of this tiny community centre made the memorial feel about as normal as any other.  Unique it was too, with its water cistern tub hooked up to one wall with a garden hose so that while handwashing wasn’t an option, dish-doing certainly was.  Besides, what really creates the bonds of institutional life are the human relations.

Marx in his day noted that work itself is a social act, a labour of interaction between creative thinking beings.  Just as educational institutions depend on human participation, every other cultural act requires active interaction and caring.  The memorial service I attended reminded me of this; in core conception it was like any other memorial and in that sense each generation is alike.  I saw almost no cell phones with their telltale blue glow, yet, as the sunlight faded, the feelings and thoughts and traditions were familiar. As was the mix of joy and sorrow so unique to a group of people who say goodbye to a friend and colleague.  When key social moments occur it’s the abundance of affinity through fellowship that makes them feel real.  In this sense, AU provides us with gateways to new social opportunities as we enter the rarified air of academic discourse and participate in the cultural institution of organized education.

‘Easy Rider’.  (1970).  Perth County Conspiracy.  Retrieved from
Leary, T.  Retrieved from
%d bloggers like this: