Don’t you love September? I’ve always found its arrival a time for contemplation. With over half the year gone, it’s now downhill all the way to Christmas and the next set of New Year’s resolutions. The days are getting shorter, the cricket whites are put away, and the rugby season kicks off. In other words, it always feels like the start of another school year. And that’s why the contemplation sets off a few thoughts.
The first thought I had was about the nature of school itself and two issues came to mind. The first is that we streamline children from an early age in to specialisation, and that specialisation tends to be replicated by a silo mentality in later life. The second issue is that schools tend to focus less on encouraging children to think and feel, and place more emphasis on teaching them to pass exams. This has a number of consequences. Whilst Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times felt that “Facts alone are wanted in life”, most people recognise the value in letting people learn to think for themselves. Information is not the same as knowledge, any more than knowledge is not the same as wisdom. Specialising on certain topics and focusing on the information needed to pass exams is not what education is supposed to be about. Perhaps that is why so many people in later life feel something missing, almost as if the treadmill of their life has led them to the wrong destination. As Paul Merton said: “My school days were the happiest days of my life, which should give you some indication of the misery I’ve endured over the past 25 years.”
A number of books recently made me think about how wide our thinking and behaviour can be were it not for early specialisation. One was Do no harm, a memoir by the neurosurgeon Henry March. He worked as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital, and took a degree in politics and philosophy before training first as a doctor and then as a neurosurgeon. His book is a wonderful collection of observations and studies collected over his career. But one feels that the richness of his life puts him at odds with today’s medical intake of straight A students. Surely it is not only the depth of his experience and skill but the breadth of his knowledge that brings his humanity to his patients. Think also of the number of our political leaders who have gone straight from university in to political research and activism, and then straight into Westminster politics.
The other book was On the Move, the autobiography of the late, great Oliver Sacks. On the surface, one could say simply that Sacks was a neurologist. But he was much more than that. Rather than specialising in only one aspect he was a polymath neurologist, switching his focus from sleeping sickness, to Parkinson’s disease, to migraines, to epilepsy, to music, and countless other neurological conditions and illnesses. He refused to be pinned down and allowed his professional curiosity to wander at will.
Then there was the book by the Canadian bibliophile Alberto Manguel called, appropriately, Curiosity. It made me think of how many people see education and learning as something they’ve left behind at school and college. Curiosity is one of the most under-rated human characteristics. When we stop asking, why we lose much of the connection with our place in the world. The explored life needs to be one of continuous learning, seeking afresh new ideas and new insights; challenging old thinking and following our nose to find new and rich seams of knowledge. To be fair, our lives and our upbringing are stacked against us. The academic streamlining that we suffered at school (science and maths on the left, language and history on the right, and music and art in the middle) have morphed into streamlined careers. At any social function, count how long it takes before someone asks you what it is that you do. And even at work, we’re often stuck in departmental or functional silos, each with its own KPIs and objectives.
So this September I would recommend taking the opportunity to revisit your own curiosity. If you feel a sense of being stuck in a rut or of being too comfortable in your surroundings, rather than moan or blame your schooldays, revel in the September back to school feeling and revisit your dreams and aspirations. It is good to check in with one’s real self to see if one is leading the fulfilled life that one wanted all those years ago before the treadmill took on its own momentum. Curiosity is a good starting point. Be curious as to what you really think and feel, and what your true ambitions are. And then, who knows, perhaps you’ll become curious as to what a leap of faith looks like.