Becoming a Learner

01 June 2014
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Cambridge EmblemSean Bellamy

When I first went up to Cambridge in the early 1980s I didn't find Europe's largest library for over six weeks. I never went to a history lecture while studying despite being told that some of the country's finest minds would be sharing their theories with me. When I did find the library it was like a cathedral of glass with endless rows of cleverness that petrified me. I was paralysed by the sheer volume of intelligence crammed into one space.

The library became a place to catch up on sleep. The life of a 'fresher' is essentially nocturnal. When I did eventually churn out an essay on the English Reformation or Calvinism in Europe, it was only destined to become a piece of art in the hands of my disappointed tutors. My black scribble was invariably superimposed by their red and mildly derisive comments.

I had been an A* pupil at my grammar school and yet here I was utterly at a loss as to how to learn. This continued all through my first term until I decided to change course. History at Cambridge was not for me. I chose Archaeology and Anthropology - ancient civilisations, stone circles and muddy knees. Indiana Jones meets the Historian of Doom. Apparently it was the recommended choice for the quirky, the 'jocks', and those who were unable to handle the academic subjects. It sounded perfect.

 That was the first time I had ever made a decision about my education. Despite being a talented student and having strong opinions of my own, I could not remember ever having made any real choices about my learning. I was chosen for teams, I was chosen for school plays, I was chosen to be a prefect and although I chose to do my homework it was only because of the consequences of not doing it, not because I wanted to do it. I never chose what to wear and never chose to what to study in class. I didn't even choose how to behave because there was an accepted norm to which  we were all expected to conform. Punishment and stigmatism accompanied those who rebelled.
I didn't even choose to go to Cambridge. The school suggested that I should try, and I was flattered. I was in fact much too young because I was one of those precocious children who gets accelerated through school as if the purpose is to eject students  from the machine as  soon as possible. Kind but persuasive pressure was applied. Everyone told me how proud they would be of me if I managed it. No one had succeeded in getting to Cambridge from my school in the last ten years.

From then on I was steered towards that goal, and, as I was an obedient pupil, I went. I am not saying that this was a mistake, or that I didn't have a say, or that I was passive in the process of getting there. I  am only saying that I was not in the habit of making decisions about my education.

I had lived in an environment in which it was considered the adult's role to direct and the pupils' role to comply. It was a poor preparation for any university, particularly Cambridge. From the moment I arrived there was no adult who told me what to do and, liberating though that was, I was utterly adrift.

I soon realised that I didn't want to do 'school' any more. I didn't want to study and I didn't actually know how to, so I drank coffee, stayed up all night talking, hung out in cafés and discussed life, ran, swam, and talked some more. I sat on the grass in the sun and remained determined to avoid learning.
Choosing to change course did something to me. I was suddenly aware of being responsible for my actions. I did not ask for anyone's permission and I did not need anyone's approval. It was scary but, as well as that, it was  exciting. I was still only eighteen years old, and my whole attitude to the university changed. Lectures became attractive, books were no longer merely useful pillows and I began talking to fellow students about 'arch and anth'. It had become cool to learn. My ten weeks in the academic wilderness, not doing history, had allowed me the space to let go of previous patterns of choreographed learning and begin a different more personal journey through education.
I remember the precise moment when I became a learner. There was a visiting Professor of Anthropology from Canada called Lewis Binford. He was an expert in the Inuit people of the Canadian North. His lectures were part of an additional programme that was entirely voluntary. They took place in the afternoons when I would normally be on the river, rowing to the point of exhaustion.
I attended every lecture and was transfixed by the topic and Lewis Binford's passion for his subject. It was like stumbling across my own oasis. Others found the subject dull, but I ordered from the library every conceivable book on the Inuit and spent my Easter vacation lying in bed reading them. I was time-warped back to the feelings I had had when I was ten years old, reading The Lord of the Rings, Alan Garner's Weirdstone trilogy and even The Famous Five', tucked up under a quilt, transported to new and wonderful worlds. I cared about what Lewis Binford was telling me. It made an emotional and intellectual connection with me.

No longer was I an obedient student, directed by and performing for others. My connection with the learning was not driven by fear of failure or hope of success. Something deeper was at work. I wanted knowledge in the same way as I wanted food, and learning had become a form of leisure.


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