Tuesday, 15 April 2008

The death and revival of intellectual curiosity

I was thinking this morning - I’ve already forgotten why: I think my education killed my intellectual curiosity.

I'm aware of this through comparing myself over a whole adult lifetime with my friend X who came from a working-class family with no history of education beyond elementary school and who attended the local grammar schools and London University. I went to a posh, three-quarters private grammar school (Bradford Grammar, a ‘direct grant’ school) and Oxford. Because I was considered a clever pupil, in the way of that school I was directed at 12, when we specialised, into the most moribund and intellectually dead subject, Latin and Greek classics, which I exchanged for English – not much better -- only in my second year of university.

X always saw himself as being in a social class and a particular social location and his ‘project’ was always to understand the situation of his class and himself. When I from time to time happened to mention in an off-hand way some particular state or condition I'd identified in myself (medical, psychological, social) he’d be saying, ‘Bloody hell, if that was me I'd be reading everything I could lay my hands on about it.’

That wasn’t my response. I basically didn’t believe in understanding, outside physical science. I'd had learning piled on me right through my childhood and only occasionally (and never in the classics) felt it revealed anything of how the world worked. I had no trust in explanations. X’s academic work was to construct people’s life stories, identify their informing themes and trajectories. I never believed in them and thought they were just stories. I could never tell my own biography as a coherent narrative that made sense. For anything I could say about myself, I could find something opposite that was equally true.

The same has been my experience in any attempts I've made at historical work. I despair at giving any account that’s true above the level of the particular event: I find no convincing ‘causes’ or overall narratives.

For a time I did find sociological explanations credible and exciting, as a result of hearing lectures by Basil Bernstein, Brian Davies, John Hayes and Michael Young at the London Institute of Education: sociology, at last, seemed to be a discipline that could show the hidden workings of society. Increasingly, though, I ceased to be convinced that the structures they described were really there; I failed to detect them close-up in my experience of social reality, in the social transactions I was part of and observed; they seemed more like loose-fitting nets thrown over society and missing all the real diversity.

Although I don’t find sociology’s big stories compelling, or X’s tidy narratives of himself and others, I believe I did regain my intellectual curiosity, after university, through working in a school with intellectually lively colleagues and preparing topics to teach comprehensive school kids in an accessible but academically respectable manner. But I almost had to learn intellectual curiosity again, from scratch, deliberately. I'd find my thoughts and attention engaged by something I had to teach and would tell myself, ‘I could take the initiative and find out about this, I could make this an intellectual pursuit. I could learn for myself.’ Then I'd get the books and read them. I learned again what I think I knew when I was young, that I could pursue interests through inquiry, for myself, and I was able to apply to my own ends the facility with reading and study that I'd acquired from my education.

Thus my curiosity eventually revived, snatched late in the day from the jaws of education.

1 comment:

Pandora said...

I find this poignant and identify with some of it. I also distrust explanations, including people's beliefs and explanations of their own behaviour. I have experienced education (both in and out of school) as a continual process of getting excited and intellectually curious, pursuing a certain field with a lot of zeal, and then becoming disillusioned with it and moving on in search of a new field.