The Experience of Education

By Andrew Battista

Response to “The Beauty of Education

I’m so happy that Beth’s essay, “The Beauty of Education,” is the inaugural post on The Whole Horse Project, and I’m fortunate that I’ve had the chance to think about it, off and on, for the past month. She made me work hard to connect several things—beauty, education, expertism, satiety, and the physical body—I don’t always associate. I hope the subsequent essays on this site operate similarly.1

Beth’s essay stirs me to think about my own life in education. How much education is enough, and is the idea of being a “lifelong learner” bad dogma? What does it mean to become an expert in something? And, what does it mean to experience the world? This last question has always flummoxed me.

When I was a new graduate student, embarking on the yellow brick road to expertism, I chose to dive into a field, ecocriticism. This brand of literary criticism seeks to foster a real-life experience in the physical world by calling attention to the way nature is represented in fiction. However, the way I had written literary criticism until that point was not by taking a pen and notepad into the woods to wait in a state of meditative receptiveness until I experienced my surroundings with my eyes and nose, whereupon filtering ideas through my mind, and then translating them to a notepad in barely legible handwriting. Instead, I skimmed digital scans on Google Books while inside a library, typed some sentences, and footnoted them with citations from my Zotero library.

Laundry by Brian Connors Manke
Laundry by Brian Connors Manke


One of the early screeds against this paradoxical scenario in ecocritical scholarship is Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination. He writes:

When an author undertakes to imagine someone else’s imagination of a tree while sitting, Bartleby-like, in a cubicle with no view, small wonder if the tree seems to be nothing more than a textual function and one comes to doubt that the author could have fancied otherwise.2

The veneer of resentment in this quotation has stuck in my mind. On the one hand, I can honestly say that it was literary scholarship, published by other scholars in books published by  university presses, that actually taught me to appreciate the natural world. I grew up thinking about the earth and the world around me in terms of late-first century Christian eschatological theology.3 In this regard, education exposed me to a kind of beauty I had never noticed before.

On the other hand, I often felt it was scholarship that was keeping me locked, Bartleby-like, inside a library when I could’ve been doing other things that connected me with the physical world.4 Even now, my writing demands haven’t necessarily lessened. They’ve just changed, and I still have to cultivate an embodied aspect of my life to find the balance I need between the body and the mind.

For me, another resonant element of Beth’s essay is her placement of digital technology in the equation. As Beth suggests in her post, I balked at her dichotomy between experience delivered through digital media and experience gathered by presence in “the real world.” Beth writes:

In a culture now perpetually mediated by technology, two senses—sight and hearing—get pride of place, so to speak; they are the senses repeatedly stimulated by our information devices…. Unlike machines, which are built to process stimuli and information, humans are made to experience.

In this moment, I see a tendency to pit “digital experience” against some other “more real” experience.This distinction doesn’t help me process what it means to be alive in 2015 (although it may help others).

As long as I’ve known Beth, she has been an arch-defender of a lived experience in which one approaches the connection between the body and the mind with great attentiveness. I’ve always gotten the sense from her that digital devices disrupt this connection.

I, on the other hand, have long been an apologist for digital devices and, borrowing from Sherry Turkle in Alone Together, an advocate of the idea of digital devices as prosthesis. We have entered—note that I choose this word over “evolved”—a new phase of human history in which we have effectively subsumed digital technologies into our bodies. Digital devices are neither uniformly good nor bad. They just are.

When I wake up in the morning, it’s because my iPhone tells me to get up. I inevitably scroll through news and social media sites, consuming information before my feet even hit the floor. Then I remember what Henry David Thoreau says at the end of Walden: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”5 Maybe it’s fatalist to think this, or maybe I just don’t understand Thoreau, but for just about anyone reading this blog, the sun rises—digital devices or not—and we still have to be awake.

Copyediting by Corey Smith

Featured image by Brian Connors Manke