Academic Success, Student Engagement, Zen

Zen & the Art of … Academic Success: I

For my last birthday, my son (a U of T student) gave me a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It is, as he assured me it would be, full of insightful observations that apply to, well, many things, but that seem to have particular relevance to the work that we do in Academic Success. In one passage that my wandering mind—prone to taking any number of unexpected “road trips” of its own—often returns to, the author of the book, Robert Pirsig, contrasts the experience of riding in a car to that of riding on a motorcycle:

“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through the car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming”

So many students at U of T seem to approach their education metaphorically strapped into the passenger seat of a speeding car. For them, learning is something that happens “out there,” framed by conventions and expectations (“What does the professor want me to write?”; “What’s the best way to memorize this concept?”; “How many sources do I have to use?”) and made remote and, yes, boring by a seemingly impermeable barrier separating the content of their lectures and textbooks from the compelling immediacy of their everyday lives. It’s small wonder that they come to us complaining that they feel overwhelmed, dizzy, stricken by a vague nausea, an intellectual malade en voiture.


Learning, though, doesn’t have to be a passive, confined and stifling activity. A student who is engaged, really engaged, in learning can—and, I’d argue, should—be active, liberated and, like Pirsig’s motorcyclist, overwhelmingly present. But I’ll leave that for another post.