Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Blind alleys

Discussion with friend the other day: blind alleys, the value of, how we prize getting side-tracked in the library by something one hadn’t gone in there to find, or at home by taking down on impulse some book one hasn’t read for years, or ever, and settling to read it. In our version of the intellectual life (if we can pretentiously so dignify it) there has to be an oscillation between focused and specific study on the one hand and browsing on the other. Just as a species stays vigorous by mixing and breeding outside the family circle, and people stay interesting by the range of conversations and encounters they let themselves in for, so the way we think needs constant, unprespecified stimulus by what we find up ‘blind alleys’.

Blind alleys look blind because we can’t when we enter them see any way out that connects with where we ‘should’ be going. And indeed there may be no connection, or it may be years before we see one. We go up blind alleys when we ‘should’ be doing something else -- something on our to-do list (or, more likely, these days, on someone else’s to-do list they kindly maintain for us). Think of everything you need to do, write it down on a list -- then heed any strong impulse to do something else completely, something that presents itself as exactly what your soul needs you to do at the moment. I think our instinct for what alleys are worth going up gets pretty reliable with experience.

Giving in to such impulses may make us less productive in terms of turning out articles and getting our marking done for deadlines, but I think it makes us in certain respects better teachers and researchers, as well as more interesting people, because of the range of reference we can bring. We can draw on a rich and unique tissue of semiotic connections; everything has more connections in our minds.

A colleague’s son found school physics boring because the teacher knew only the syllabus and then found university physics inspiring because the teacher made links to the whole universe of knowledge and ideas that he knew about in his/her bones.

We were in Vienna for the history of education strand of a conference -- so went off on a blind alley that had nothing to do with education or with the supposed purpose of our stay; we spent a day investigating ‘Red Vienna’, the public housing schemes built under the socialist city government of the 1920s and early 1930s, the most famous of which was Karl Marx-Hof.

But of course Rotes Wien wasn’t in the end unrelated to our ‘real’ business, which was the teaching of English in the post-war years in a Labour London that was building its own new housing -- into which many of the pupils we’re now interviewing as older adults moved with their families. On the fourth year English curriculum at Walworth (Comprehensive) School in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, public housing was a topic for writing, reading and discussion -- and Simon Clements, one of the instigating teachers, had been going to be an architect. What animated some key English teachers of the 1950s was a similar spirit to that of the Vienna architects and planners of the previous post-war period.

In Saturday’s Guardian (p.12) physicists express their worry that the freedom they prize to explore blind alleys, a liberty to which they attribute many of the great discoveries of British science, is under threat from a government requirement that to get funding research projects must be likely to benefit the economy. ‘The university’s role of pulling in and nurturing deep thinkers will be sidelined in favour of people who can turn profit by making better widgets’. Moreover, recruitment will suffer because current students went in for physics ‘because they wanted to do pure knowledge and curiosity-driven work...’ (survey quoted) -- and such pursuits require permission precisely to pursue curiosity.

It goes without saying that the same goes for the humanities and social science.

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