We know the feeling far too well; as deadlines press upon us we fail to see a new opportunity until it’s almost slipped away. That makes us nervy. Being nervy the brain ‘down-shifts’ into survival mode, and that makes us focus even more on the immediate task in hand. Especially is this so for people trained as specialists, those whose whole life has been given over to knowing more and more about ever narrower topic. In October 2008 it was the economists who were most obviously caught in this trap. Specialists as they were they seemed to lack the common sense of the ordinary man who knew without any of their theoretical economic expertise, that the sub-prime market would inevitably undermine the proper functioning of the banking system.
Sailors and politicians, every bit as much as we ordinary people who are too busy to keep a “weather eye” open for storm clouds, get thrown onto the rocks.
When I first became a Headmaster I was given useful advice about keeping a ‘weather eye’ open for trouble ahead. Take the morning’s mail, I was advised, and divide it into the urgent and the important. Concentrate on the important, and leave the urgent until late in the afternoon, by which time many of the problems that in the morning had seemed urgent would have been solved by somebody else. You are the one responsible for the direction the school, so leave other people to troubleshoot. Fine advice, but it requires an iron discipline not to escape from the Head’s study (or the Cabinet Office) and it’s often intractable problems, and rush off to correct a mess made by somebody else in a classroom (or in the City). That’s a slippery slope for by allowing busyness to replace thoughtfulness there is a real chance that the storm clouds will catch you unawares.
Then there was the advice I and my friends were given as sixth formers. “If you are to lead a full and satisfying life”, the visiting speaker said, “develop two interests that have nothing whatsoever to do with your career and cherish them with the same care as you update your professional qualifications. Do this and you will have two sheet anchors that will hold you steady whatever the ups and downs of your career”. In other words keep a sense of proportion and be more than just a man with a job. Woodwork is one of my lifelong interests, as is history. Whenever I lose sight of the horizon I know it’s time to grab any opportunity of going back to my carpenter’s bench, and picking up the same wood chisels I first used as a boy. If I am travelling I seek a museum or fine old building where I can feel some fine old timber. Quickly I recovered the uncluttered mind of my youth, and start thinking straight again.
That is just how we humans are; our brains struggle between needing to classify ideas into mental pigeonholes, whilst seeking at the same time for the meaning of the Big Picture. Evolution has made us nitpickers as well as big-picture dreamers. Superimposed on that is the conflict between the struggle to survive, and an innate tendency towards laziness. The all-inclusiveness of our brains means that we humans need every opportunity to think.
It is not just the mighty predators of the jungle who lie on their backs basking in the sun for hours on end after devouring a gazelle or wildebeest. It has been calculated that Stone Age men spent only 20% of their waking hours seeking food and shelter. For the majority of time our distant ancestors simply enjoyed sitting around, meditating.
Time to sit around and chat about this and that is no bad thing. As our ancestors gazed at the stars, so their imaginations were stimulated to ask why some stars moved one way, and others another, and why they moved at different speeds and followed different orbits. It was such constant questioning and speculating that expanded human consciousness. It drove the Babylonians to recognise the superiority of the number 60 over the number 10 in terms of its multiples, and so invented the concept of degrees, minutes and seconds. It was while he was scribbling in the sand that Pythagoras set out his famous theory about the square of the hypotenuse, and it was while Barnes Wallis, of Dam Buster fame, lay on a beach on a warm summer’s afternoon in 1939 watching his children skim stones over the water that he formulated the mathematical equation that gave birth to the bouncing bomb.
The origin of many of Mankind’s greatest ideas lie in daydreams. The poet W. M. Davis was so right when he asked “What is life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” To be too busy is to be blind to the blindingly obvious. The world of 24/7 with its highly interactive communications threatens thoughtfulness; it creates instant information and easily leads to instant confusion as well.
A new and technologically savvy colleague of mine was a few years ago appointed Vice Chancellor of a university (not in Britain). In his desire to improve productivity – and maybe to demonstrate his own prowess – he decided that he could sift through his e-mails every bit as efficiently as did his secretaries. So he reduced his office staff from three to one. Quickly the university discovered that for the Vice Chancellor to handle his own e-mails led to confusion, not economy. Not only was my colleague personally exhausted from being up half the night, his skill – that which he had been hired for – was to be thoughtful and to adjust the course of the university appropriately, not being submerged in the minutiae of administration. After a couple of months he had a nervous breakdown. The same thing happened to another technological nerd who, appointed as Minister of Education in another English-speaking country, gave all and sundry have his personal e-mail address. Soon he was spending his entire time in the legislative chamber on his Blackberry, to the total consternation of civil servants who found that, far from being better informed, the Minister was just too tired and confused to know what was happening.
The pressures of 24/7 will surely increase as we face still more information, and even larger, faster moving storm clouds on the horizon. So how can we prepare ourselves to survive, to work well, and still understand where we are going?
Like so much else it is to do with how we are brought up. That has little to do with whether you went to Eton or Grangehill Comprehensive, or if you got two GCSEs, or ten. It is much more to do with how you, as a youngster, learnt to take control of what you were doing. Then you begin to understand – young as you might have been – that learning was not so much the result of what somebody told you, as it was how you took that information and used it to create your own ideas and understanding. Mark Twain was not being flippant when he remarked “Education is what remains after you have forgotten everything you ever learnt in school”.
Here is the rub which lands today’s teachers, administrators and politicians in such a pickle. You can’t learn how to learn in the abstract, you have to learn how-to-learn through learning something specific. To measure what is learnt is comparatively easy, but it is infinitely harder to assess how it was learnt. It is the process that matters, not the data. Process is transferable, data hardly ever is. Mark Twain understood this well, whereas the present obsession with examination results (about the things learned) largely misses the point. It really is not what you learnt in school that matters in later life anything like as much as whether or not you actually fell in love with a sense of discovery and the empowerment that comes with knowing that you can do it for yourself.
If school is simply about being taught how to pass exams through the development of a prodigious memory and a good technique, rather than using your brain to think things through for yourself, you will pass into adult life terrified that unless you have studied something in the abstract, you simply won’t know the answers to give. It is that which prevents people from seeing the horizon and the storm clouds in the distance. Give youngsters too much information and they fail to see the ultimate objective. They are forever bogged down with trivia. It’s like an impressionist’s painting – you have to stand back far enough before you can see all the dots coming together, and what the picture is all about.
So, too busy to think? Whose fault is that? “In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists”, noted Eric Hoffer. Get your priorities right, help other people to do the same and always give priority to the important – it won’t be easy but you will give up having to think of yourself as God rushing in everywhere all the time, and you’ll force other people to do more thinking for themselves. Then sanity will return.