Monday, 27 September 2010

'Get on!'

Had the odd word in Waitrose, as I occasionally do, with a young chap who is often working there and who I’d originally taken for a teenage school leaver but who, when I first asked him about where they’d hidden the jars of plums after their refurbishment, was clearly older and turned out to be a recent graduate in sports science and business studies who was working part-time and in the vacations -- and now, temporarily he says, in what is, in terms of his ambitions, unemployment.

He reckons now to be filling in time and making some money while looking for a job, but I don’t know how serious that is. Last week he’d expected his Waitrose work to be finishing at the weekend but today he’s back and apparently learning the bakery/patisserie section -- couldn’t say no, he said, to the money, I suppose. Fair enough. He doesn’t seem unhappy with the situation.

Neville Newhouse, however, English master at Bradford Grammar School in the 1950s, would have said that he should be. ‘Get on! don’t waste time! got to get on!’ he used say, and what he meant was not ‘get on with your work’ or ‘get on with covering the syllabus’ but, more generally, get on with the task of youth, or of grammar school youth, which is to develop your mind, acquire knowledge, grow intellectually, read, write, think, learn.

Newhouse would have said that our lad in Waitrose, clearly bright and alert, should have developed in education a sense of the value of his own mind and be working to develop it, and not be wasting his life in a supermarket. If the school had done its job, an active mind (‘lively mind’ was one of his phrases) and an established habit of engaging with knowledge, ideas and one’s own thought would have led to a constant and insatiable desire to know more; each encounter with a book or thought would have stoked curiosity and extended the need to explore further, follow leads, see what else was there. As Jara Rakusan, a colleague in Carleton University, Ottawa, once remarked in the corridor when some of were sharing the fact that as adults we rarely found ourselves being bored: ‘No, because what goes on in us is unending semiosis’ -- one (mental) sign triggering another.

It seems a good criterion for an education that it should leave its students with minds in that state.

(And a critique of Waitrose, with, apparently, a high proportion of bright and educated young staff, might be that for all its benignity its provides an environment in which its people can live contented working lives without having an idea in their minds ever again. Or is that unfair?)

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