Feature: Perceiving Atmospheric Pressure

By Susan Kassouf, Program Officer, The Endeavor Foundation

In order for a living being to be stable … there must be a tension of forces which we do not ordinarily perceive, any more than we perceive (because its action is multidimensional) atmospheric pressure. —Marcel Proust

With ever-greater pleasure, I have observed how many projects in higher education—Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) foremost among them—call on us to consider students as “whole persons,” to think about learning as a relation between self and other, and to create opportunities for engagement between campuses and the communities beyond them. These ways of framing some of the purposes of higher education can craft incredibly powerful experiences for students, faculty, and community members.

And yet, I have felt the twinge of some discomfort with these ways of framing and wondered if there are insights to be gained by considering other possibilities. For example, in addition to being aware of “self” and “other” as ways to engage with the world (with other students, community members, persons who occupy different spaces on the planet or have lived in different eras), what if students learned about the many and diffuse forms of “we” that two or more people necessarily create, of the ways in which the world is already a part of them and they are part of it?

Might the notions of “self” and “other” perpetuate a fiction—sometimes necessary—that we are separate from so much and so much is separate from us? Might such a fiction allow us to imagine that we are not part of the natural environment, the repair of which our species must tend to urgently, for example? That we are somehow outside of historical or national or even biological continua, separate from the living world around us or even the universe itself? While our immediate sense of consciousness can encourage this sense of separateness, I am not certain that this is the whole story. As Proust, a master of the uncharted territories of our diffuse selves, suggests, what if we became more attuned to the tensions of multidimensional forces that we do not ordinarily perceive, and risked some of our stability in the process?

Much of our useful, and perhaps stabilizing, rhetoric about the need for community engagement posits the campus as an ivory tower, with the real world taking place all around it. Although the bricks and mortar of this imaginary edifice can at times feel very real, we have to work hard to ignore all evidence to the contrary. From the community members who attend classes to the local staff who make the institution run, from the food served to the most basic infrastructure like a functioning sewage system, no institution is ever an island unto itself.

Some of the more exciting, rigorous, and rewarding efforts taking place on college campuses today embody this sense of inseparability, of the world being always present, of “self” and “other” being far more integrated than we might acknowledge. Many efforts, often student led, that address environmental sustainability dwell on the moments in which the so-called outside world and the campus are one. Researching and implementing ways to reduce a school’s carbon footprint, creating campus farms that feed towns and gowns alike, questioning college endowments’ investment in fossil fuels—these sustainability concerns are changing colleges’ intellectual, environmental, and financial impacts in ways that go far beyond any neat set of boundaries.

Likewise, some civic engagement and public scholarship at community colleges, supported by BTtoP, calls attention to the way in which the community is already the campus, and vice versa. Other efforts in contemplative practice, also connected with BTtoP, point toward ways that students (and everyone else) might begin to slow down, breathe, and pay more careful attention to our multiple, intermingling, ever-shifting inner and outer worlds.

As Proust and other writers so exquisitely remind us, much of what the arts can teach us relates to the revelatory ways in which they plumb intimacies across time and space, between past, present, and future, between the ordinary and extraordinary, encouraging us to risk the perception of a little more atmospheric pressure.

Editor’s note: The Endeavor Foundation has been a generous supporter and encourager of the Bringing Theory to Practice Project since its inception. We at the Project are grateful for such thoughtful colleagues—our work has been immeasurably enhanced by their meaningful engagement.