Sunday, 24 September 2017

Invisible Academies (Chapter 4)

To Chapter 1
To Chapter 3

The Aurion Academy

We traveled to the Aurion Academy by following the White City's northern border. The five-mile journey seemed interminable, most of the fortnight spent in a darkness akin to a polar winter, always in the shadow of the city wall. There is no doubt that my escort, and the letter stamped with your seal, most venerable Secretary, sped us on our way. Yet, as a foreigner to this land, it is hard not to feel the checkpoints and the bureaucracy of this wondrous capital as so many petty exercises of power. Please do not be offended. I understand the reasons for their existence. The security of the Emperor and his citizens is paramount. I describe only my baser emotions, which sometimes screamed inside me that there must be a better way to secure it. But how could I presume to know such a thing?

Leaving behind many academies in that perpetual shade, gradually the daylight hours extended as we made our way southward to the Western gate. Here, the city opens out into splendid parks. The buildings are lower, and the light of the afternoon Sun feels like a luxury in itself, in this already privileged neighbourhood. Facing the gate is a building made entirely and almost seamlessly of glass, as if blown in a single piece by an artisan deity. The Aurion Academy, built on the orders of the Emperor and to the specifications of his most successful merchants, has only one purpose: to secure the future of (and for) the Empire.

Keen to finally continue my work for you, I wasted no time in entering. From the outside, the glass structure and its myriad reflections impose on the mind of the observer a perhaps suspicious awe - a feeling of being watched by a thousand eyes or maybe one, of standing in the presence of something that doesn't belong, yet lets you know that it is you that doesn't. Upon crossing it, the line between the outside and inside worlds of the Academy seems almost non-existent. Once inside, the feeling of being part of something greater than oneself is immediate, and absorbing. The familiar parks and buildings, the people, the horizon of the Western Gate and its intimation of the Empire beyond are all visible, yet strangely distanced and more sharply defined by the slight tint of the glass. Layered atop these external surroundings is a spectral reflection of the Academy's interior. In effect, to enter is to become an observer - of the world, and of oneself.

There are no classrooms. The only physical separation intended by the architects (and even then, one senses, under duress by the realities of real estate) are the floors, joined by broad staircases and the occasional lift. Initially, I am told, there were attempts to re-create the classrooms of old using temporary partition walls. When these were removed, teachers created their own from stacks of chairs, desks and other sundry resources. These teachers, it was concluded, were themselves the obstruction. They too were removed. A number of others, it is said, were driven to madness by the space. It took a generation to get the teachers the building demanded. They are called Guides.

It is unclear what the effect of the early turmoil was on the first students, who were then known as Dreamers. Some are Guides now. Some are homeless. Some live far outside the city wall, and most live indiscernibly from how their parents and grand-parents lived before them. In short, they have re-joined the rest of the dreamers that make up the Empire's incomparable population. On the whole, the impact of their education is hoped to have been on their outlook, though nobody has devised a way to measure that yet.

Over the years, the curriculum has aligned itself to the architecture. This, of course, was always the plan, but a curriculum is nothing without the people to impart it. So it is perhaps truer to say that the curriculum has been made flesh - through the building, and its inhabitants.

Subjects no longer exist. They have been replaced with a workshop of the imagination. Inside, the Aurion Academy is an incubator for the offices of the future. Indeed, though there are no classes, these students, now referred to as Makers, made me think of little else but class. In the context of the Academy however, this concept is made benign. No labour is ever factored into the production of the children's dreams except the work of imagining, planning, organising and evaluating. Makers may master one or other of these skills and look forward to a managerial career. Those who master all four are set to become future captains of industry.

The ethos of Aurion Academy is to "Make A Better Future". In the absence of a clear definition of better - a deliberate omission - the Makers' dreams are given free rein. This absolute relativism, which might cause conflict anywhere else, here causes none, for like all children, the Makers' dreams are simple: to have everything in exchange for little more than the boldness and daring to ask for it. The result is a harmonious collaboration on a host of projects which all share a common goal: the mechanisation of dream production.

I witnessed one of these, an ongoing project started long ago by a Maker, and which has continued to capture imaginations year on year. They are engaged in the production of mechanised teachers. With excitement, one Guide informed me that great strides had been made of late.

Each day ends with a ritual - an assembly held in the building's clerestory. The Makers sit facing the windows of the West façade. From here they have a privileged view, over the city wall and its gate, to the Sun setting on their corner of the Empire. Previously, Guides addressed them with speeches and presentations about subjects they felt to be of importance. In time, this aspect of the ritual was abandoned, for nothing could eclipse the powerful meaning of that symbol.

Below them, the bustle can be heard of fresh deliveries of materials arriving for the next day's making. Mechanised carts arrive emblazoned with the names and symbols of the Academy's merchant sponsors.

The conditions of production of these materials is beyond question, and whether and how the sponsors will ever profit from their investment are moot points.

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