Thursday, 29 December 2016

More on the love of scholarship

Perhaps this should be a New Year's resolution for certain parents.

I once heard a woman on a train drilling her child over and over again with arithmetical challenges. What is a half of this number and what is half of that number? What is 11 times 10? This was nothing but a test of memorising. This is not entirely useless but it offers no insight into how numbers - let along mathematics - works and there was no attempt to teach her child a love of learning. I appreciate her desire to help her child do well but better surely to inculcate a love of learning and then there will be no end to what the child will be able to do.

In a roundabout way, I was fortunate that, when I was young, we had a glass-fronted bookcase at home. This had been inherited from my great grandmother; my immediate family had no love of books. The bookcase was more ornamental than functional. The glass front consisted of a removable panel locked in place and rarely removed. This made these books something of a mystery. I could see their spines but nothing else. They looked old and very grown-up; very mysterious. Study can be - and is certainly for me - about uncovering mysteries: finding out things I do not know; seeing things in new clearer ways.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Refusing a present

We rarely refuse a Christmas, or any other sort of, present. I certainly like getting something for nothing. I was interested to read that the author Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) turned down the Pulitzer Prize in 1926 for his novel Arrowsmith.

He explained why in the following terms:

"I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel Arrowsmith for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.
All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards; they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for Novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.
Those terms are that the prize shall be given "for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood." This phrase, if it means anything whatsoever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment."

Similarly, Jean-Paul Satre (1905-1980) was awarded and declined the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, pointing out that he always declined official honours and saying that "a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution".

These are high ideals when so much money is on offer. Would that more people were seen to be like that these days.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Epictetus - 21

From: The Golden Sayings of Epictetus (translated by Hastings Crossley) - from Project Gutenberg.

If thou wouldst make progress, be content to seem foolish and void of understanding with respect to outward things. Care not to be thought to know anything. If any should make account of thee, distrust thyself.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

How thick is your paper?

There was a quote I once heard attributed to one of the Mitford sisters. I have been unable to find its precise wording, nor determine which Mitford sister was supposed to have said it but it goes something like this:

'It is a lamentable thing when, in a household, the toilet paper is thicker than the writing paper.'

(Whichever sister it was clearly did not foresee the digital revolution.)

Without being reminded of this, I discussed a similar thought with a colleague not long ago. I wondered how much money our students spent on books for their courses each year compared with the amount they spent on tattoos. We concluded that more was likely to be spent on tattoos. There's an irony here. University courses are meant to help with one's future career prospects and yet students seem to be diverting money from that activity to something that is endangering those prospects as a number of articles have recently suggested.

(Mitford Sisters) Corollary: It can be an infuriating game to try to name all of the Mitford sisters. I remember a cartoon from The Guardian newspaper many years showing a man in bed unable to sleep and saying to his partner, 'What was the name of the fourth Mitford sister'. There is always one (or perhaps two) that you can't remember - if you can remember how many there were in the first place. (Of course, this begs the question, Why try to remember them now, anyway?)

Monday, 5 December 2016

The love of scholarship

There is no occupation so sweet as scholarship; scholarship is the means of making known to us, while still in this world, the infinity of matter, the immense grandeur of Nature, the heavens, the lands and the seas. Scholarship has taught us piety, moderation, greatness of heart; it snatches our souls from darkness and shows them all things, the high and the low, the first, the last and everything in between; scholarship furnishes us with the means of living well and happily; it teaches us how to spend our lives without discontent and without vexation.
Cicero (106-43 BC) - Tusculan Disputations

"Study is to me a relief, a diversion, a passion that could make me forget everything. Like you, I am willing to live obscure, in the frail hope of bequeathing one day, to future time, the result of my labours."
Captain Nemo in '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' by Jules Verne (1828-1905)