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U P T H E E L E P H A N T A N D R O U N D T H E C A S T L E

M y y o u n g e r daughter, aged n ine, went on her f irs t residential school fie ld studies t r ip the o th e r week, staying away fo r a whole fo u r nights, and to say that she was excited w ould be an understatem ent o f epic p roportions. I suppose one educational im mersion in nature in a ro und five years o f schooling isn't bad going. M y e lder daughter, who is fifte en, has had one day-trip d u r in g fo u r years o f s tudying geography at secondary school. th e y went to L u lw o r th Cove to see what “ rocks” , “ c liffs ” , “ landscapes” , really are. I don ’t th in k she has ever been w ith the school, e ith e r p r im a ry o r secondary, on a fie ld studies tr ip , however. Geography, lik e ju s t about every subject she takes, has been tu rn e d in to someth in g you le a rn about inside classrooms. B u t geography goes on largely outside classrooms. So do biology, chemistry, physics, history, English, languages; even maths does, to a degree. Come to that, so does life — another subject th e y ’re supposed to be le a rn in g about. C u r io u s , isn’t it?

I used to la bour under the i llu s io n tha t educational techniques were im p ro v ing. For example, the geography I learnt at school was all about crops. You had to rem em ber w h ic h crops were g ro w n where. Sometimes you got them the w rong way ro und. Was a lfa lfa grown on the pam pas o r were pampas grown in Alfalfa? D id people eat Cassava o r live there? For an urban schoolboy, who had d i ffic u l ty deconstructin g a pod o f peas, the myste ry o f these fa r -o f f vegetables was fathomless. T h e style in which i t was im p a r t ed, meanwhile, could only be described as catatonic. I t was only later, a fte r a lo t o f tim e staring at landscapes and skies, getting u ndu ly

D A V I D N I C H O L S O N - L O R D

Quiet, exam i n progress! i l l u s t r a t i o n : A n g e l a w i l k e s

MONOCULTURE OF THE MIND W e s e e m t o b e d o i n g o u r b e s t t o r e d u c e t h e w o r l d t o a c l a s s r o o m .

excited and w o n d e r in g what made i t all tick, that I began to read books on the subject and discovered an in te l le c tu a l excitem ent to complement and re in fo rce the im aginative excitem ent contact w ith the non-classroom w o r ld had ignited.

MUCH OF THE TIME I spent at school, I now th in k , was, in a very precise way, wasted. I have the Oand A-levels to prove I was there and served my tim e, but they m ig h t as well have locked me in a coffin and b u r ie d me u n d e rg ro u n d . Somewhere along the line, great tracts o f my c h i ld hood and early youth were stolen, never to be re tu rn ed . I n v i r tu a l ly all those dusty classrooms where the the ft took place, passion, v ita l ity and im m e diacy were en tire ly absent.

The one consolation in those days, however, was tha t you d id n ’t start th in k in g about careers u n t i l you’d re t ire d from one. I certainly had no idea what 1 wanted to “ do” u n t i l I ’d been d o in g i t fo r a few years, and even then I wasn’t entire ly sure ( I ’m still not). You certainly d id n ’t have parents and teachers angsting at you about w o rk experience and career guidance in y o u r early teens, nor, at the age o f five o r six, were you subjected to p riv a te tu i t io n in o rd e r to scale the f irs t o f many hurdles the education system now throws in you r path, w hether i t ’s standard assessment tests o r entrance to that chi-chi l i t tle p re p school w h ic h p lonks you f i rm ly on the conveyor belt to a H ig h Achiever lifestyle. I don ’t th in k i t ’s a d is to rtio n to say tha t th ings used to be more serendipitous, more “ amate u r is h ” , less fearsom e ly p ro g ram m e d and p ressured.

Part o f the explanation, I th in k , is tha t we have in te rn a l iz e d the com p e t itive ethic in a way previous generations w o u ld have fo und hard to understand. O u r habits o f th ought are increasingly economistic. A map o f the global economy lu rk s in o u r brains, and w ith i t some sense o f six b i l l io n people ba tt lin g against each o th e r to survive. And so the w o r ld seems a larger, harsher, lo n e l ie r place. A n y th in g th a t fa ils to enhance o u r position in the league table o f qualifica tions and exam results, o r th a t threatens to distract us f ro m the g r im , straitened path o f the national c u r ric u lu m , is so much id lin g and fr ip pery.

Yet i f c ram m in g and h o th o u s in g seem to be tu r n in g in to the educational n o rm , i t ’s possible to speculate about the consequences. Boredom is one — i f education is p lo dding, abstract, ghettoized in to g lo om y ce l l- l ik e in s t i tu tions, small wonder kids are ta k in g re fuge in the bouncy in an it ie s o f m u l t in a t io n a l pop cu ltu re . D iv id in g them u p by age and h e rd in g th em to g e th e r also p ro duces th a t characteristic modern phenomenon, the “ peer-g ro up ” , which is in effect a hum an monocultu re and at certain ages, I th in k , a p re t ty toxic one.

A n d I wonder, too, about the n a tu re o f the people who emerge t r i um phant fro m such a claustro phobic system — people whose experience o f the w o r ld is l im i te d largely to classrooms, l ib ra r ie s and lecture halls and yet who move on seamlessly to jobs w h ich p re t ty soon involve bossing o th e r people about and te l l in g society what to th in k . I t ’s as though we’re p ro d u c in g whole generations o f id io t savants — lots o f qua l if ic a t io n s , lots o f abstractions, b u t woefully deficient in th e ir awareness o f real lives, real la n d scapes, rea l people. No w o n d e r everyone now rushes o f f on a Gap year between school and u n iv e r sity, in a desperate attem pt to rem edy th is re a l ity d e f ic i t . Is i t possible to reduce the w o r ld to a classroom , a blackboard and a textbook? I don ’t th in k i t is b u t we seem to be doing o u r best to test the h ypo th esis to destruction. •

David Nicholson-Lord is an environmental writer.

2 Resurgence No. 195 July/August 1999 TIMELESS TASMANIA

Granite Boulders, East Coast. This photograph and those on pages 6 and 11 are by PETER DOMBROVSKIS reprinted from Dombrovskis: A Photographic Collection published by West Wind Press, Hobart, Australia.

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