Sunday, 26 October 2008

What I Don't Know Isn't Knowledge

For some time I have meant to put some thoughts together on the subject of underachievement, a topic dear to my heart.

Now, I have already conceded that I am an idiot (the clue, as they say, is in the title). But I suppose I ought to divulge what sort of an idiot I am. I was born into a perfectly ordinary working class family (my mother worked in a shoeshop, my father in the local engineering factory) in possibly the most perfectly ordinary town in Britain (Stevenage) in the middle of the most perfectly ordinary decade in history (the 1950s). I went to perfectly ordinary state schools (though there was a buzz about state education in the 1960s that is hard to imagine now) and -- as no-one in my family had stayed at school beyond 14, never mind been to university -- bore no burdens of expectation beyond doing my best at school and not getting into trouble out of it. I was a happy boy, loved school, and -- it quickly emerged -- was very good indeed at learning stuff and passing exams.

Curiously, not far away in Enfield, North London, another little boy called David was growing up in very similar circumstances, and, after his family moved to Stevenage, we became close friends and -- remarkably, and to cut to the chase -- were both admitted to Balliol College, Oxford in 1973, perhaps the single most prestigious educational establishment in the country. At the time, the scale of this achievement seemed unremarkable; in retrospect, it is astonishing.

Mike et Dave vont en bateau
Balliol 1973

My idiocy consisted in failing to realise that a secret door had been opened for me, which -- had I chosen to step through it -- was supposed to lead into the enchanted fairyland of glittering prizes and privilege. Maybe. Instead, almost literally, I spent three years in bed catching up on my sleep.

If the truth be told, we recoiled in disbelief at what we found in Oxford. We simply had no idea what to make of it, and it had no idea what to make of us. A professional job with a final-salary pension was still the ultimate horizon of our world; it seemed a good trade for three good A levels and an English degree. I became a librarian, Dave became a teacher. I suspect we were probably a generation away from being ready to have greatness thrust upon us. Still, nice try. And I had a great time.

This week, as always in late October, the Balliol College Annual Record thudded onto the doormat. In reality, the Record is just a school magazine, complete with a headmaster's letter, reports on exam success, the sporting exploits of various "muddied oafs", some sixth-form poetry, obituaries, and a sort of non-interactive Friends Reunited section, where anyone who cares to can report on their Effort and Progress. But, Balliol being a superior sort of school, the effort and progress tends to be of the superior kind. "Still Ambassador to the United States", "My standard textbook went into its 25th edition, and was translated into five more languages", that sort of thing. Absent are any reports from the 95% plus of old members with, um, nothing much to report. The Record is a little annual reminder to that 95% that you haven't quite lived up to your early promise. As if we needed one.

Now, the self-mythology of Balliol, and the readiness of the wider world to buy into it, is ludicrous. I have thoughts to share on the idea of aristocracy in a future post, but Balliol is keen to foster the idea that its fellows and students form some kind of aristocracy of the mind, whose common characteristic is an "effortless superiority." No issue of the Record fails to work this formulation in somewhere, in that ironic, patrician, double-bluff kind of way ("We don't really mean it, but actually we do"). At Balliol, so the story goes, brilliance comes as standard.

In my observation, scholars are rarely "brilliant", despite what they may say about themselves. "Extremely clever", yes; "brilliant", no. Brilliance is not a quality that sits well with careful research and peer-reviewed publication in a narrowly-defined field of interest. Neither are leading politicians or senior civil servants usually well-served by brilliance. It always seems to end in resignation.

Today I read a review in The Guardian of the new book by Chris Patten (Balliol 1962), called What Next? The reviewer (John Gray) makes the point that, despite its scope and ambitions, What Next? "is conventional wisdom of the most elevated kind and, like all versions of the genre, it avoids unmentionable realities" and that "An integral part of conventional wisdom is the conviction that all reasonable people subscribe to it, and this faith lies at the heart of Patten's view of the world."

Now that is the real Balliol hallmark: a "conventional wisdom of the most elevated kind." Eminent, clever, reasonable people -- united by a shared belief in their own natural eminence, cleverness and rationality, and selected by virtue of their common mind-set and experiences -- engaged in public service (a.k.a. "running the world") because it is their duty and privilege to do so. Other views of the world do exist, and these views must be taken into account, even if they are deeply irrational, but -- in the end -- the Higher Conventional Wisdom will prevail. Because it is right. How dumb and how dangerous is that?

Balliol people love to quote this rhyme, but I think they rarely stop to think about what it means:

First come I. My name is Jowett.
There's no knowledge but I know it.
I am the Master of this College,
What I don't know isn't knowledge.

Enter Sarah Palin, stage right.


R.E.II said...

:) You aren't an idiot but have you read the idiot by doestovsky?

Mike C. said...

Depends on your definition of "idiot". I like the original sense, of a person too bound up in themselves and too lacking in judgment to take part in (Athenian) public life.

I have read The Idiot, but a long time ago when I still thought there was some kind of obligation to read such books. I think even had a go at it in Russian. I can't remember a thing about it, other than that Myshkin is a kind of Candide character...