Standing at a gas station counter there was a prod in my back. A stickup? Nope, an old acquaintance of mine from our rural valley in BC. After the usual introductions, I inquired about his employment; he informed me that new ownership had brought unwelcome changes to his workplace to which he’d expressed disapproval. Shortly thereafter he was out of a job. Bummer. I empathized with him; surely his suggestions were made with the best of intentions. Then, mere moments later at the grocery store another acquaintance saw me and was keen to describe an eerily similar affair. He’d left his former job to pursue greener vocational pastures but upon arrival noted some discrepancies among the work loads of he and his colleagues. Improvements were prescribed by him to no avail. Shortly, smooth as an icicle sliding off of a soffit, this second acquaintance had lost his job. A trend was developing; after all, a sample size of two is enough for any social scientist to ponder some conclusions. We’re built that way! To hear these two fellows tell it, seeking to create or retain enlightened thinking was a risky business. Or maybe enlightenment is by nature more idea than ego; was egoism behind these guys’ workplace suggestions?
At AU we can explore these and other intricacies of the human condition; after all, our life is our classroom far more than on the captive confines of a college campus. When we deign to share our newfound knowledge problems can arise; in social sciences, no matter the evidence, facts are eternally contested terrain.
Michel Foucault, postmodern critique of the absolutist monarchy of capital “T” truth and its inextricable link to power and authority, explored the nature of enlightenment and noted Immanuel Kant’s line on the topic: “obey, and you will be able to reason as much as you like” (online). Anyone can play logic games, or fantasize about philosophical riddles, but what happens when we put ideals into action? The reality of my two now-unemployed colleagues implied that silence might be golden. Or maybe a certain enlightenment about enlightened viewpoints is required.
Foucault realized that to tease out our selves from the power structures than contain us requires contextual enlightenment. To him, enlightenment’s more of an attitude than a series of facts. Foucault suggested that enlightenment is more of a means to approach life than a means to change things. Enlightenment, says Foucault, is “a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task” (online). Now, as McDonald’s menus note: smiles are free. And that makes attitude worthless in some ways. Yet, one doesn’t have to yield enchanting crystals or obscure incantations to know that the ethos we utilize affects the outcomes we achieve. A curious, actionable attitude can stoke vigorous fires under our individualized education bums. The stars of our own show, we can know that AU is helping us grow in ways unknown. Foucault summarizes this enlightened life stance: “modernity is the attitude that makes it possible to grasp the ‘heroic’ aspect of the present moment. Modernity is not a phenomenon of sensitivity to the ﬂeeting present; it is the will to “heroize” the present” (online). Most AU courses allow broad swathes of life as part of our assignment research; new ways of seeing old realities are there for the taking if we choose to seize them.
A challenge remains when enlightened thought meets conscious practice. What good be our newfound critical thinking skills if no one will listen to our reasoning? Foucault stated that we must decide how mature we are about our enlightenment, and what consequences we wish to pay for our beliefs.
The Ottawa truckers protest was one example; the willingness to criticize a pet belief of our tutor hits even closer to home. If s/he’s, say, a Hegelian then discussing the impossibility of epistemic edifices a la Jean-Francoise Lyotard’s critique of science as a way of finding truth shall ring a dissonant note. We might even risk diminished grades unless we realize that we have crossed from well-reasoned discourse over to hallowed ground beyond the pale of ideas and into the personal privy of pure faith.
Enlightenment is contained within our selves and our egos. There’s a reason that politics leads to arguments; beliefs become part and parcel to our personal selves. Academically, then, a key learning outcome is to be able to comprehend and defend a perspective from multiple, conflicting, points of view. Beliefs are, invariably the underpinning of much that we present as enlightened rationality. It’s not the other way around; no matter how many facts support a thesis the feeling of certainty they induce is itself part of the ego rather than the mind, the heart as opposed to the brain. And anyway, mature enlightenment for Foucault allows for certain contradictions such as “paying one’s taxes, while being able to argue as much as one likes about the system of taxation, would be characteristic of the mature state; or again, taking responsibility for parish service, if one is a pastor, while reasoning freely about religious dogmas” (online).
Anyone can debate on social media or imbibe endless hours of Ted Talks evangelism and still basically live the same workaday life as a person two generations earlier. Ironically, reason without action may seem meaningless, but is in the end no more empty than enlightenment prescribed to no avail or confusing our egos with our knowledge.