Unpacking the Suitcase: Journeys into Higher Education

I recently undertook an experiment. It involved enrolling in a university course – in this case an economics/business degree at the bachelor level – in order to see what it may be possible to learn.

For several hundred dollars I purchased the ‘required reading’ textbooks for four units, read the necessary chapters for the first week and eventually made my way to classes. I soon found out I was not the oldest student, though I was definitely not the youngest. Most students seemed to come straight from high school. So at 33, I was pushing close to twice their age.[1]

The first lecture I attended was ‘Introduction to Sustainability’, followed by its associated tutorial. In laying the groundwork for the unit, the supervisor – obviously a kind-hearted and compassionate man (he got teary at one point while describing conditions in the developing world; conditions he’d obviously seen first hand) – asked students to write down and share their hopes in relation to the unit. He then asked what people’s greatest fears were in connection to the unit. Almost half the class said they were afraid of failing.

The following day I attended an ‘Introduction to Economics’ lecture. There were about 200 people in the theatre. At one point the lecturer asked how many people also worked while studying; around three quarters of the students raised their hands. She commented that this was a big change from her time as a student; I would say the same. She went on to discuss what she called “three key economic ideas”.[2] The first is that people are “rational” (economists expect people to make decisions based on relevant information in order to “achieve their goals”).[3] The second is that “people respond to economic incentives”.[4] To prove this point, she asked how many people were there for the pure fun – for the pure joy – of it? Of around 200 people, not one person put up their hand. She, thereby proving her point, concluded that we were all there because of some incentive or other, predominantly that we may end up with a better job.[5]

Directly after this two-hour lecture, my timetable took me to another two-hour lecture: ‘Introduction to Accounting’. It began with a photograph of a tiger, apparently in the snows of Siberia, playing with a witless, soon-to-be-devoured, white rabbit. This photo was replaced by a kitten wearing some kind of cut-out fruit as a hat; this was, in turn, followed by a photograph of several tigers. We then swiftly launched into a lecture on accounting. During the lecture a group in the back row talked to each other incessantly while students from different corners of the theatre gradually trickled out until, of the original 100 or so people, maybe only 70 students remained. It concluded with everyone standing up and noisily filing out before she’d actually finished talking.

At my economics tutorial we flew rapidly through everything we were required to do in order to pass. The whole session was concerned with this. No-one spoke other than the tutor, and everything she said was advice of some kind or another as to how we could ensure we pass. “Only about 4% of people receive HD’s (High Distinctions),” she said. “It is a bit easier to get a Distinction. But still, aim for a HD.” In warning us of the dangers of plagiarism and the need for appropriate referencing, she had the following to say: “Very rarely will you ever have a new idea. I have none.” We should, therefore, look solely to the thoughts of others and, consequently, reference everything. “There is a thing called ‘common knowledge’, but…”

Two days later I attended a lecture on ‘Principles of Finance and Banking’. The lecture matched the required reading, urging all students to save as much money as possible now so that they have enough to live on when they retire, preferably earning as much interest – money for nothing – as possible along the way. The lecturer stressed the concepts of “financial independence and self-reliance”, and “survival” in the “corporate jungle”. (It doesn’t look as if the class will be exploring the recent/ongoing Global Financial Crisis and what kind of paradigm and thinking actually underpins it.)

It is at this point in recalling the observations of my experiment that I am reminded of a distinction made during the lecture on economics. It was concerned with the difference between positive and normative analysis. Normative analysis is more about value judgements – ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’. Economists, it was said, use positive analysis – that is, they stick to the facts, saying not that something ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to be done, only ‘if you do this, then this will happen’; or so they should or ought to. Nothing was said of when they don’t, or of this concept itself being normative in essence, or the possibility of the two types of analysis overlapping.

You might wonder what drove me to such an experiment. I suppose that I wanted to see what current tertiary education has to say about the global economic situation we find ourselves in, and whether the thoughts necessary in order to renew social conditions in our time were going to emerge from institutions such as this.[6]

I do not mean for this to be a criticism of the particular institution I attended – far from it – for I believe that what I experienced is symptomatic of the majority of tertiary institutions; my experience was, generally speaking, consistent with my own experiences at other institutions, as well as with the experiences of many other students I have talked to.

In general, this kind of education can be experienced as a ‘stuffing of one’s suitcase’ with knowledge. If you don’t fill your suitcase up with content during the readings, you will fill it up during the lecture. If you are still not full, you can supplement from the lecture notes and the online lecture and/or website ‘lab’. If this doesn’t do it, there are always the tutorial, study groups, help classes and online forums, not to mention the actual assignments. Failing all this, there is the study cramming for tests and, ultimately, the exam. All during this time, the  clothing of knowledge and information is stuffed – crammed – into our suitcases until we have doubled-up on items, packed others we will never need, jammed in clothing for the wrong climate altogether, and generally packed poorly – shoving in more things wherever there is room just to get it in there; just in case. We then sit on it and try our hardest to zip it up, our clothes getting stuck in the teeth of the zip as we pull it around, until finally we are able to more or less close it – it is good enough – some clothes still hang out where the zips meet, and extra books stick out of the front pocket all bent and warped, but it’ll do – we’re ready to travel. Or so we are told.

(During this process, however, little to no questioning is made as to where it is we are actually headed, why we are headed there, if this is the place we really want to be going, or what alternatives there might be.)

These suitcases are, essentially, nothing but our own heads. Generally speaking, we are doing nothing other than stuffing our own heads. And, if we are honest, little to nothing of it sinks any lower than this; little of it reaches as far as our feeling life or our will. And so when we ultimately throw the case on the conveyor belt of life – following exams – the whole thing usually explodes, scattering its contents everywhere. We soon realise, however, that such contents are largely irrelevant and unnecessary (often, strangely, by virtue of the fact that we fail to notice their absence), and are quickly forgotten. For all we now require is the degree such activity bought us – the ‘boarding pass’ now in our hand – education distilled into a commodity.

This, we might feel, is all we need. That is, until our debt repayments kick in.[7] And if Spain and elsewhere are anything to go by, we may also find ourselves amidst the lack of possibilities for earning the money necessary to pay off that which we undertook simply in order to earn more money.[8] In such places – and as such places become more of a global space – we find ourselves in a worse position than when we started. Our ‘economic incentive’ has turned back upon us and, as the debts pile up, begins to actually devour us. We are no longer the consumer. We become, as it were, consumed by our own ‘incentives’.

So what can be done? I am aware of the argument that states we need complementary educational possibilities – that we need existing, mainstream, tertiary education, and then some. I am also aware of those who call for complete alternatives – that we must turn our back on the existing paradigm once and for all. In my experience, there is little to be gained from such hard-and-fast positions or distinctions. Today, everything seems dependent upon the individual situation, and the situation of the individual. The imagination, inspiration and intuition – that is, the free thinking, feeling and willing capacities of the individual – are those which should prevail at the cross-roads of our time. In our time, however, it is exactly these capacities which are not being developed at institutions of higher learning.[9]

I do not believe I am alone when I say that I am no longer interested in ‘passing’ or ‘failing’ in the sense outlined above. I also do not believe I am alone when I say I am interested in education for the ‘joy’ of it – for the love of learning something that I may then be able to use in service of the world; that is, not for my own gain – not for my own ‘incentive’ – but for the gain of others. I believe everything can be studied in and with such a joy as this, for everything is interesting and joyful if the interesting part of it – and the path to it – can be found. This is the path of reverence and wonder. I am convinced that I am not alone when it comes to respecting the need for new ideas if the world is not to slide completely into the abyss, as well as for the importance of developing one’s self in order that such ideas may arise – for they arise where one’s thinking attention overlaps with the ‘interesting’ and essential element in all phenomena.[10] Here – where the essential aspect of the individual overlaps with the essential aspect of phenomena – this is the place where the positive and the normative – or, more broadly, the objective and the subjective – are also able to overlap, their duality dissolved, and we can come to know the objective, essential reality of the world as a new thought on the stage of our own selves – as a self-referential truth. Who cannot but take joy in such education or research as this, and all that it makes available for the selfless service of humanity as a whole?

Here, fear of ‘failure’ has long ago been seen for what it is and cast aside, no longer hindering us from all that which seeks to reveal itself to our attentive, open consciousness – our open thinking, feeling and willing.

I am also aware that there are institutions and individuals in the world that are attempting to make such an education as this a possibility. One need only compare their numbers to the number of ‘mainstream’ tertiary-level institutions, however, (not to mention the state of the world as a whole) in order to see the dramatic need for more possibilities to appear rapidly across the globe.

What is needed is an ‘unpacking of the suitcase’. In doing so, a space can be made for what the individual human being bears within them as a world-contribution, and for all that which seeks to stream through a thinking, feeling and willing that have put themselves in service of the highest possibilities of this world – all that which stands against the complete demise of civilisation itself. For what is needed more than anything else – more than any theory or program – is that individuals – as students and as educators (for we are each both of these in our age) – be prepared to put themselves in service of the true spirit of progress in our time. This will not happen through endlessly referring to the past, but only through making a space for the future to emerge in us.

The suitcase must be left permanently unzipped. Nay, more, it must be made permanently available to the highest possibilities of other human beings and the world at large.

A ‘Higher Self Education’ is needed; meaning both an education towards the development of our highest possibilities as human beings, as well as a free-self-directed educational and, more broadly, cultural life, out of that which arises through the development of these capacities. In so doing, education – as well as all it turns its attention to – including the absolutely immediate need for the renewal of the global economy and all social life – shall become directed by the highest aspect – the higher self – of the free-thinking, joyful, and continually-educated individual human being, in service of the true spirit of our time.

 

John Stubley, Ph.D.

This article has also been published in Adbusters, May, 2013.


[1] I should probably disclose at this point that I have already studied at each public university in my home state, and in so doing have fulfilled the tasks necessary to attain graduate and postgraduate degrees. I mention this only because it is relevant to the experiment, and not because I feel it gave or gives me any particular advantage; quite the opposite, perhaps.

[2] See Hubbard, Garnett, Lewis, Obrien, Microeconomics (Australia: Pearson, 2011, pp. 4-5).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] When nobody raised their hand, she commented: “A bit sad, isn’t it?” before continuing.

[6] What I (re)discovered – at least in part – was the intimate link between our educational and economic institutions.

[7] The total outstanding student-loan debt in the United States is around $1US trillion. See, for example: http://www.asa.org/policy/resources/stats/default.aspx

[8] In Spain, unemployment for 16 to 24-year-olds has reached 55%. See, for example: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21180371

[9] It is also important to note the effect this has upon the pedagogy of secondary schools and, from there, primary schools, all the way down to what are more and more being called – in this country at least – ‘Early Learning Centres’. That is, attention must be given to the way in which – although it has completely failed in economic life – the ‘trickle down’ effect can be seen to be well and truly alive in education and all things belonging to cultural affairs, albeit usually for all the wrong reasons.

[10] Needless to say I am interested, of course, in creating spaces where others also have this possibility.

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4 Responses to Unpacking the Suitcase: Journeys into Higher Education

  1. Inga Muribø says:

    Hi John,
    Thank you for contributing to the world through your clear observations and skillful writing. You definitely contributed to me with these reflections.
    It is very timely as I am enrolling in a Melbourne university next week. The difference is though that I know why I am going, and I am continuously getting a clearer sense of where I am heading. I am going to do what I love – dance and movement. BA of Creative Arts (Dance). When I see you at Easter I will definitely let you know how I’m going.
    Love
    Inga

  2. John Allison says:

    There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired,
    as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
    from books and from what the teacher says,
    collecting information from the traditional sciences
    as well as from the new sciences.

    With such intelligence you rise in the world.
    You get ranked ahead or behind others
    in regard to your competence in retaining
    information. You stroll with this intelligence
    in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
    marks on your preserving tablets.

    There is another kind of tablet,
    one already completed and preserved inside you.
    A spring overflowing its spring-box. A freshness
    in the centre of the chest. This other intelligence
    does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid,
    and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
    through the conduits of plumbing-learning.

    This second knowing is a fountainhead
    from within you, moving out.

    ~ Rumi

  3. Jennifer Kornberger says:

    Thank you so much for this brilliant and shocking picture of the state of mainstream higher education. Where are the free thinkers, where are those who have the nerve and the verve to ask the real questions that will lead to change? Here, in your Social Poetry, I am relieved to find real questions being asked. Jennifer

  4. JEWELS AUBURN says:

    Conversation… or lack there of it. After reading your insights i remember my own ‘higher’ educational experiences and remember my expectations of conversations; sharing and exploring ideals that seem to resonate so deeply inside of me- the desire to contribute to and help shape the world that once was rhythmic and secure, as i twirled around my mothers skirt, and that slowly as the years filled out revealed greater beauties and greater injustices that i could ever have imagined… I was met with outlines, deadlines and skilfully constructed channels to refine my ‘ideals’ to fit in with what already was and a clear cut recipe to guarantee success.
    When i was twenty there was still traces of the passion to share ideas in some areas at university, however when i flitted back at forty to the same university there was order and structure. I was, however, lucky to have shared for a brief moment an experience with a lecturer who wanted the 4th year students to explore their thinking; come up with own exam questions as a group, to have a huge reading list to read and explore without any end goal other than to explore what others are thinking in this area of study, and to enter lectures with questions not note taking… he wanted to ‘talk’. I was so excited and i couldn’t wait to see what was inside of me and all the others around me.
    There was such outraged … outcries of ‘ but where is the structure, what do we need to study, what do you want us to know, we are about to finish this course how can this help us teach, …” the outrage ultimately won and we lost this great opportunity… i turned up to what was to be my last lecture to a lovely woman (the fellow had taken a leave of absence) with an overhead projector and we began in earnest to take notes… order was restored. I never returned.
    So for me on this overcast evening i start to wonder can we help each other collectively unpack by conversation… individual thoughts being brought into the growing collective voice of change.
    Thank you John, your words always have me boiling the kettle and settling into a a long chat on living consciously and thinking carefully.

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