Fly on the Wall—Is Education a Training for Herd Compliance?

Study Body Left, Student Body Right!

Fly on the Wall—Is Education a Training for Herd Compliance?

Like Arctic Cariboo shifting en masse from the Northwest Territories to their Alaskan calving grounds, universities, from a bird’s eye view, can seem to be merely training paddocks for herds of sheeple.  Critics’ stereotypical assumptions are that pupils, shorn of individual thoughts, emerge trained in a series of right answers and proper methods.  Willing and able to jump through hoops of busywork, these graduates become cogs and minions in the grand scheme of the status quo.  And all this while parting young people and their families from hard earned income in the real world.  It’s a vicious cycle of cynicism and pragmatism; high priced salaries require expensive tuition, it seems.  In contrast, the Arctic Caribou end their migration loop on a vast plateau drenched in amniotic fluid; calves emerge wobbly but shortly are ready for a semblance of adult life.  So, why not let the laws of natural learning take its course instead of institutionalizing we students of life?

To be an AU student requires a certain justification of our existence and its costs; this issue is not new.  In our internet era, anyone can theoretically become a self-educated polymath, brimming with knowledge and ideas gleaned for free from the wonders of Wi-Fi.  Such a motivated learner might send a diplomaed lamb whimpering back to its brick and mortar ewe for a suckle.  You can’t put a price on having a passionate mind, right.  By contrast, I’ve known people who, pondering their university years, claimed that they don’t remember a thing.  When we’re deeply interested in something we’ll grow in leaps and bounds and be first to the intellectual calving grounds, ready to give birth to revolutionary new ideas.

Rochdale College: A Free For All of Good Intentions

In the 1960s era of free love and free thinking, the Ontario provincial government actually funded a free school called Rochdale College.  Along with about 300 other free universities across the continuity, Rochdale attracted 840 pupils from 1968 to 1975 and “was popular among those who argued that modern universities served the establishment, stifled innovation, and had dictatorial governing bodies” (online).  However, motivations may not been merely altruistic and intellectually curious, as college campuses were tax exempt.  “Some viewed educational programs as a dishonest means of avoiding tax while the dedicated ones believed it was a noble idea” (online).  Like today, critics suspected that education was a means of either hiding out from the real world or avoiding spending one’s fair share of time in life’s rat race, or that some institutions were surviving merely to exist for their own sake, in some pedagogical tautology known as an ivory tower.  Rochdale seemed to embrace stereotypes of laxity: “With no formal tutors or classes, students developed their learning system by posting work on notice boards and forming discussion groups to learn and evaluate themselves.  Rochdale did not offer degrees based on performance, but anyone could purchase a degree through a donation if they so wished” (Sawe, online).  These latter were “a tongue in cheek attempt at humor” given the stereotype that a diploma is sometimes cynically seen as the outcome of a marketplace transaction.

Like any haven for inquiring minds, Rochdale must have seemed too good to be true.  “Students will live and study without the usual formalities of classes and grades” crowed a 1968 Toronto Star article.  Education for its own sake must have never seemed so attainable as it did for a brief few years there on Bloor Street in downtown Toronto.  The results for Rochdale, even for those adverse to culturally-conditioned cynicism, were hardly surprising.  Rochdale College became controversial as both a druggie hangout of dopehead dropouts and a cockroach palace of criminal activity (Bradbeer, online).  Nevertheless, in our internet era where all knowledge is theoretically available to anyone with an inquisitive mind, the question remains as to whether tuition-charging academic institutions are not somewhat of an anachronism.  Being caught in the clickbait plague of the World Wide Web may not be so different than being embroiled in the party culture of a college campus or simply treating school as a place to find a wealthy or attractive mate.  As generations develop, patterns emerge and, after all, we’re none of us so far removed from those Arctic Caribou whose annual fate is to be giving birth on an Alaskan plateau.  Yet, like a free university, AU allows one unique aspect of our minds to flourish: our self-motivated ability to succeed on our own terms and on our own time.  No synchronized intellectual estrus for us as we give birth to weighty new ideas and combinations of learning objectives, course themes, and essay topics!  There’s something to be said, though, for paying to play pupil and for being graded by an authority figure.  Virtue may be its own reward but, not to mix aphorisms, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Free Learning as a Concept

Given the unwieldy nature of fitting AU studies into the rest of our life’s work, the temptation to embark on uncredited solo studies with no external reward could cut both ways.  On the one hand, no more stress about deadlines and invigilated exams.  On the other hand, how would we know if we’ve done a good job?  Idealists would claim that anyone worth her academic salt knows darn well when she’s written a stellar essay.  Yet, the temptation to become slovenly lives within us all.  Where costs are zero and grades are absent I suspect that the best among us would revert to surfing the web and laughing at mindless videos of doggies chasing snowflakes and dolphins doing dolphin things.  Even sincere research can lead us merely to anecdotal facts worthy of late-night television rather than the concatenation of obscure information into a working thesis.  Learning about animal communication might, for instance, lead to a rediscovery of the famous NASA research where a lady literally DID copulate with a dophin named Peter.  A great story to share with friends but shocked guffaws do not a research project make (Kelly, online).

One thing’s for certain—given the high costs of tuition—and it’s that we’d be wise to take every ounce of effort seriously as we try not to disappoint our future selves and our loved ones who count on us to be some sort of a beacon toward a more learned future.  After all, while herds in the wild are shepherded only by instinct, we domesticated bipeds, by nature, follow intellectual trendsetters.  Having a BA or an MA after our name, combined with the ability to elucidate our learning into a few choice morsels of insight, goes a long way to rising above herd groupthink.  Critical thinking, after all, is valuable not when its an instinctual, knee-jerk, and easy: critical thinking matters most when we’re challenged by material that prevents us from going with the social and intellectual flow.

Often it takes a whole course syllabus to teach us that there are many views on a single matter.  Likewise, books and lectures have their limits when, say, you wish to really test a hypothesis or see some examples that illustrate social theories.  Practically applying social science or business management skills means first to understand the theory on offer; interdisciplinary schooling (AU’s MAIS program for graduate students) is wonderful for illustrating how every topic or issue has a history, a sociology, a psychology, a literature, and a science.  To truly take the broad view, not unlike a satellite view of the perambulations of those Cariboo, is to become duly educated.

Bradbeer, J.  (2017).  ‘Once Upon a City: Rochdale College and the Hippie Dream’.  Toronto Star.  Retrieved from
‘In Pictures: Rochdale College, Canada’s Hippie Heart’.  (2013).  The Globe and Mail.  Retrieved from
Kelly, E.  (2021).  ‘Margaret Howe Lovatt and Her Sexual Encounters With a Dolphin’.  AllThat’ Retrieved from
Sawe, B.E.  (2020).  ‘The Story of Rochdale College – Canada’s Experiment in Alternative Education’.  World Atlas.  Retrieved from