A Deeper Cliche

When someone uses capital letters incorrectly in official documents, we tend to think of the writer as having missed a lesson from their elementary school Language Arts class. They may also be conforming to the format of texting out of context. In reviewing student writing for a living, I find misused capitalization to be a commonplace error. The following “case” mirrors the frequent university freshman effort to raise to the level of truth something which has achieved no more reality than a cliché. In Ministerial Order (#001/2013), echoed by Alberta’s Curriculum Development Guiding Framework of 2017, the then-Minister of Education describes learners as “Engaged Thinkers and Ethical Citizens with an Entrepreneurial Spirit.” New minority groups seem to be identified every day. But, sarcasm aside, you may wonder who these people really are? Are these engaged thinkers the ones looking at their “smart phones” endlessly? Are these ethical citizens the ones in line at Best Buy on Boxing Day? Are these entrepreneurs the ones calling from the Canada Revenue Association? It seems that the cliché of ethical citizens and engaged thinkers suffers the fate of all cliches, it has died like so much fast fashion before it, that is, before it even took on a life of its own. The engaged and ethical thinkers that the curriculum strives for seem much more like an ideal at which to strive for, because the idea of such individuals is what the education system produces. No person who has gone through the system is certain whether they embody the ideal.

Jenny used to save women from being trafficked. Now, she changes babies diapers and goes to sleep exhausted. When not doing fieldwork, she used to work from an upscale office in a major world metropolis. She does yoga now. She may even make some money from it. Yoga is a real stretch for her; as she bends back with her arms raised, she seems to pull on the sky. She writes, and advocates, and goes to bed exhausted every night. Jenny’s house is a collection of the eccentric and the beautiful. On her living room wall is the hand-crafted metalwork of the hill tribes of southwestern Myanmar. Her front porch holds a stone Buddha who, if personified, seems hard-pressed for a change of scenery. Her fruit bowl, containing sea shells, is composed of stained-glass fruit. Rolled-up yoga mats hide behind wicker furniture, and a golden leather chaise lounger brings together an affordable placement of taste with otherworldly aspirations. The yoga is really more of a sideline gig. It may have held more promise in the beginning. Aligned Chakras; balanced body, mind, and soul; increased flexibility; and the ever approaching “inner peace” are not to be taken lightly. More than a metaphor, the yogic effort towards enlightenment should be considered one of the many ways to wedge into the real world. Certainly, if you ask Jenny, it is better than wedging through the line at the store, on broadband, or through traffic to consume the next latest fad. Jenny is searching.

Adam, an American, is a world traveler. He has been to East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and when the mood hits him, North America as well. Adam is a euphemistic-smoker, in other words, an addict who has found a legal outlet for illegal desires. He has a beer gut and listens to trip-hop, deep house, and other types of classic music one can enjoy without listening to. One could meet this closet beach bum, and swear that all his music sets the stage for whatever he happens to be doing: jazz for long conversations; trip-hop for poker nights in the desert; deep house for meetings with a lover. Essentially, he would live in the moment if he could. Yet he wants to settle down. If you asked him what the key to happiness was, he’d say anything from enjoying the thing right in front of you to making sure one’s spouse is happy. It would just depend on his mood. But what is very interesting about him is that he has a way of making any and all people feel comfortable as soon as he meets them. He has a welcoming demeanor that is at once both jovial and engaging. He is schooled enough not to look foolish in any academic context, and his hands are scuffed enough to let you know you could ask him for help moving your house. In fact, Adam might take the bottom end of the couch up the stairs. If you were to sit with him, he would sit in the most leisurely fashion and mull over the deep and pressing anxiety of finding happiness while living in contexts in which he was neither born nor raised. He has, unlike other people you might see him associate with, transcended his background. But Adam is still a little anxious.

There is a church nearby. It has lots of families and single people, elderly and youth, and a large minority of people who aren’t mainstream white and middle class. The music is pleasant, well-crafted, and comes through a 7-piece band that embodies involvement of a variety of members. The band has a muted drum kit and an electric bass, and is clothed in cotton pants. The messages are a blend of two themes – no matter from which biblical text they happen to be preaching. On one side, they deal with depression and anxiety as social phenomena of the first order, and on the other, they deal with specific skills that would improve marriage, parenting, family, and friendship. The skills taught include how to listen better, how to spend meaningful alone time, how to live with better attention, and how to give gifts. Their youth events are fun, and populated. Church never finishes past 12 noon on a Sunday, and there is a Starbucks-like atmosphere waiting in the lobby after church; yet the cinnamon buns are homemade. People in cotton pants come in, and leave. And those members of the church tasked with growing the institution look at the people departing with the look, “Have I done enough?” And each individual steps away from the meeting place in a state of silent apprehension, unsure if they are equipped to meet the social world that awaits them in the coming week. Maybe cotton pants are not enough?

When one gets down to it, all of these markedly individual characters like Jenny, Adam, and the church-goers, have worked hard at cultivating themselves and come to meet others with art and style, and all kinds of choices of taste. Yet, they all walk away from the encounters with anxiety and depression. More than the phones that they carry in their pockets that isolate them, it could be asked, is the very thing they have fashioned even come into existence at all? Has the school project of projecting a moral ideal of engaged and ethical individuals come to be the source of our own oppression?

This question, of course, is not the same as asking if being ethical and engaged is beneficial. The question is whether we can expect such an ideal to be made real. Perhaps it is better to understand that we are indeed broken, disengaged, and lacking the ecosystem of significant others that would have had more luck in helping such individuals emerge in the first place?