Perhaps, as we cut a swathe through the underbrush of knowledge at AU, an intellectual clarity will be attained amidst our preconceptions and predilections. Learning is about more than having the right answers; it’s about engaging curiosity to ask pertinent questions. Despite our natural tendency to righteousness about our tolerance of all manner of Others, we may come to see that even our best intentions for social harmony involve professing binary certainty about what’s right and what’s wrong.
Surety maps along the lines of what Frankfurt School Marxist Theodor Adorno termed the authoritarian personality. Adorno, who survived the NAZI holocaust by escaping like a dandelion seed spread to the wind by an updraft of a breeze, was suspicious of cultural tendencies whereby pariahs are made and defined by a majority. Adorno (2019) stated that humanity in modernity tends toward this authoritarian personality whereby “a man who is hostile toward one minority group is very likely to be hostile against a wide variety of others. In other words, the authoritarian beliefs belong to an individual for whom generalized prejudice has become a structured aspect of his or her personality.” Succinctly, if we think we’re superior to others, it matters not what evidence there is on offer, we’ll find facts to fit our beliefs. This happens all the time in the culture wars but is rarely considered within the context of ecosystems. Why, for instance, is collective life seen as a polar opposite to a struggle for survival? Forests and meadows are awash with cohabitating species in a way that would make the United Nations blush, and yet each is simultaneously doing its best for itself.
How we see our cultural certainties matters in terms of how we see human nature as a whole within the natural world. The consequences here for our learning are immense: what sort of personal betterment do we desire and expect from our studies? 16th to 17th Century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, was famously depicted as concluding that humans require a centralizing power to reign in our tendency to live out a war of all against all leading to a race of vagabonds for whom life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Warburton, 2013). It would appear, then, that how we see our human interactions, for instance towards minorities, be they visible, invisible, or unvaccinated, requires some certainty about where we stand on the nature of nature.
Willing preparation for a rat race life is maybe not the ideal pre-requisite for engaging in our university studies. Clearly, the centralizing ideology of our beliefs about our place in the world may either be inherently exclusive and destructive, or it may leave hospitable space for countervailing influences, even ones that seem to threaten our thriving. How we see nature here reflects how we see other people; if we suspend value judgments and say that all beliefs and species are natural, then we’d have to include our exclusionary tendencies, tantamount to how pavement amounts to a holocaust on biodiversity where dead dinosaur fossil fuels are fabricated into asphalt and subsequently deployed to asphyxiate the earth. Yet, plants and animals exclude each other from their habitats all the time.
The view that all humans do is good, or at least neutral, seems to belay our tendency to see meaning and morals in our own selves as well as within nature. How can we square the circle of desiring harmony while accepting difference? Nature provides a clue in that no one seriously expects a predator like a lion to cuddle up and lie down with a lamb while they share a vegan meal in some college campus cafe – lions eat lambs given half a chance, just as surely as sheep can shear a field of green foliage shorter than a Canadian Forces boot camp recruit’s haircut. Maybe there’s some truth to the marching chant that goes blood makes the grass grow – in terms of fertilizer, blood does contain useful nutrients for plants. And where our instincts are concerned some ideas and beliefs invariably feel just wrong.
Nevertheless, to see all interaction in our human nature as inherently value neutral implies that, somehow, our pacifistic instincts are too culturally conditioned to be taken seriously. As a collective entity, it’s true that many of our best impulses are lost to our herd tendencies; remember, each of us has incisor teeth not to peel grapes for our adoring lover(s) but in order to rend and tear meat from bones, limb from limb, just as almost all species of primates do to this day. We all have a little dirt road in us, quoth a country song lyric, and we all have a little predator tendency in our instinctual makeup (Pritchett, 2016). No amount of sanctimony can steamroll our pleasure at the scent of freshly-cooked bacon, for instance. What we define as eco-destruction therefore depends on how we see ourselves and our place in the world. As an analogy, invasive plant species could be akin to illegal immigrants seeking a newer, better home up here in the Great White North.
In terms of our studies, then, it matters if we see our educational advancement as part of a larger ennobling of our best instincts as inquisitive beings, or merely as aspects of ourselves as upwardly mobile climbers on the societal food chain of career and prestige.
To recall our early childhood questions and explorations within, nature can remind us of our inner child as an earthly being who seeks to explore and learn that we may better thrive, not that we may dominate others while repressing ourselves. All too often, it’s the creative flourishes that we add to our assignment answers that get us the best marks of all – rote recital of information is as unnatural as limiting our thoughts to a series of goals and outcomes without any chance to dawdle along the slipstream of our consciousness. So, next time you need a study break, maybe just ponder some green space outside of your habitat and consider how it got that way; not by ceaseless striving, akin to a brutal study regime, but by plants and animals fulfilling their inborn tendency to become who they are within a chorus of like-minded but unique species. From here our inner mental terrain can flourish toward a greater sense of natural purpose.