Ignorance is bliss.

Or so they say.

And as we hurtle through the German countryside, on this train voyage from Berlin to Frankfurt, on the last leg of our summer adventure abroad, I believe it may be true.

Throughout this trip, I’ve had access to wireless connections and have checked my email regularly, followed Facebook postings and Twitter messages, but not to the same extent I do at home. 

I haven’t read the newspaper each morning, I haven’t listened to broadcast news, and I haven’t been voraciously consuming the ups and downs of world events, whether trivial or significant.  It helps that many of our accommodation spots have not provided access to a television or that we’ve been too busy exploring to watch.

So while I’ve been connected, I haven’t been obsessed and that’s opened room in my thoughts and daily experience to a stronger sense of well-being.

Which is an odd place to be for someone who is an advocate of digesting information regularly, of learning, of being aware that the world is so much more than our immediate circles of influence.

So if ignorance is bliss, why bother with education?

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In thinking about this question, I realize how value-laden the field of education is as is the contemplation of what constitutes the qualities of our existence as social beings.

We talk about believing in better, but what’s better?

We talk about the value of knowledge, but what is knowledge?

We talk about leading good lives, but what constitutes a good life?

In addition, as I contemplate the historical record (traveling in Europe seems to make history somehow more real and pressing), I realize that crimes and atrocities, throughout the centuries and in our own day, are or have been committed by well-educated people. 

Education has not acted as a barrier to tragedy, war, deprivation, suffering, inequality, and injustice.

And while I have a feeling the key is to keep asking questions rather than settling on fixed answers, there is one conclusion I feel able to draw with some certainty.

The most important result of education is to enable people to become and to be critical thinkers. And while the search for consensus may be integral to making progressive changes (what is progress? why change?), individual voices are needed now more than ever as is tolerance for different points of view. 

And that’s a troubling aspect of political life in Canada and elsewhere along with the evolution of our mainstream media systems.  It seems the goal is to manipulate citizens into thinking en masse by removing dissension and erasing individuality.

I can’t help feeling that we should – at this point in time and with the lessons of history – know better.

Ignorance may be bliss, but, as my nephew says (he’s recently graduated from the University of Bradford Peace Studies Department) “blissed” ignorance is not just.

Perhaps that’s the ultimate purpose of education then: to establish, maintain, and sustain just societies.

If so, let’s get on with it.

In today’s opening essay for Q, the CBC radio show, host Jian Ghomeshi remembered Roger Ebert and the interview he conducted with the famed film critic a year ago.  

Jian described how concerned he’d felt about his ability to connect with Mr. Ebert in the studio given the latter’s health challenges. “I needn’t have,” he said.

His words this morning paid tribute to the man, but they also served as a testament to the power of connection.  

Listening to Jian made me reflect on my own feelings now that the spring term at SFU is drawing to a close. I’m not completely disentangled from my teaching obligations yet: I’m expecting final essays from my students next week.

But there are no further lectures for the course and no remaining tutorials.  And that makes me wistful.

Why?

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Because the end of the term represents a loss. The connections I’ve forged with my students after thirteen weeks of working together are now tenuous if not severed. I may have gained back time for my own work and my other commitments, but I am no longer a part of these particular journeys, the unfolding lives of these particular individuals. 

Since my first stint as a TA, I’ve connected with approximately 120 students. 120 students from a variety of faculties and departments, given the way course requirements are structured at SFU, and 120 students who represent the gamut of undergraduate experience.

Aside from the occasional encounter on campus, I don’t know where they are now or what they are doing or how they are faring.

When I walk around the Burnaby campus now, a movie reel of sorts plays out in my mind: momentary flashes of memories, frames filled with faces, snippets of conversations, disappointments, and noted accomplishments.  

The characters of my movies are students: those with strong opinions, those with a sense of humour, those who struggled, those who exceeded their own expectations, and those who were observers yet offered so much when they found the courage to voice their opinions.

The plot revolves around classic texts of Western civilization and delving for insights into the human condition, then and now.  Work on writing, developing critical thinking skills, and trying my best to impart the importance of questioning.

A few students have reconnected via LinkedIn and others lurk on Twitter, but these electronic tentacles, in my mind, pale in comparison to the strength of the collective experience of an in-person weekly seminar or a personal visit during office hours. 

My experience at SFU has strengthened my belief that the most critical factor in teaching and learning is the personal aspect.  Technology may carry us forward into a brave new world where the nature of human interaction is fundamentally altered forever, and learning is transformed into something which I am not yet able to imagine, but for now it remains as it always has been.

The value of educational experiences rests predominantly, as it does for radio interviews, on human connections.