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Saturday 11 December 2010

All for 'A Scrap of Paper'

In 1914, on hearing of Britain’s intention to declare war on Germany unless the Kaiser’s troops withdrew from Belgium, the German Chancellor (who had, incidentally, gone out of his way to create peaceful ties with Britain), declared that it was all for ‘a scrap of paper’. It’s amazing what devastation a scrap of paper can cause – the Ems telegram and the Franco-Prussian War, for example – and perhaps nowadays, it would be ‘for a website or an email’ that a man is imprisoned on jumped-up charges...However, that’s another story...

In the light of the ugly scenes in London this week, including the appalling attack on the car of the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall,
the pointless burning of statues and attacks on innocent taxi drivers, and the alleged high-handedness of the police, the rightness or wrongness of the students’ cause has been somewhat lost but three things come to mind.

Firstly, Charlie Gilmour, the Cambridge student and son of the Pink Floyd guitarist, said he was ‘mortified' by his ‘moment of idiocy’ in climbing the cenotaph. I think virtually all of the students and others who involved themselves in that situation would be among the first to be appalled by Hitler’s henchmen or the savage butchery of innocents in the French Revolution. But Charlie Gilmour’s ‘moment of idiocy’ shows what happens when people are so roused by a cause that they quite forget what they are doing and lose themselves in a mob mentality. I think it can happen to anyone. I wonder how many of the boys who smashed up synagogues on Kristallnacht went home the next day and were mortified by their own behaviour. Being part of a crowd might seem to be the way to make changes, but really, looking at history, crowds banding together tend to bring nothing but chaos.

Secondly, it seems to me – if we are to learn anything from history – that those who have brought about the greatest changes for the better, have been individuals who had the courage of their own convictions and simply went about doing what needed to be done. Nothing that is happening today with young people could compare to the plight of children at work or pauper apprentices in the 19th century. There were no riots, no wrecking of statues or anything of the sort by those who brought about change. On the contrary, it took brave and sensible people like Richard Oastler,
Robert Raikes and the like to follow their own path and make changes because they had absolute faith in the rightness of their cause and didn’t need a mob to support them. Prison reform – Elizabeth Fry, the great heroine of that cause - did she call for a demonstration? No, she went about improving the lives of individuals and made a massive difference. The reform of nursing (in the days when nurses were mostly drunken women who couldn’t find another job) – Florence Nightingale – did she march to Parliament? No, she got on and changed things from the inside. Compare their effects with those who led revolutions: the French Revolution gained a mob mentality beyond belief – people literally torn to pieces in the street, people’s heads torn off and paraded on poles, people being arrested for something as simple as sighing in a queue! The Russian Revolution – the murder of an entire family followed by Stalin’s mass murder of his own people...and so on and so on....I do not believe we gain anything from banding together in crowds and demanding ‘our rights’ since they always become distorted and the anger seems to end up being vented on the wrong people.

Thirdly, to return to the scrap of paper and the actual student protest....I had what you might call the good fortune of growing up in the 80s when students received grants but I wonder what good the scrap of paper (certificate) I received at the end of it actually meant. Everything that interests me, everything that has been of any value to me, I learned for myself. The scrap of paper might have paved the way into a job I didn’t really want and I studied for a degree because it was expected that that was what you did next. I say ‘studied for a degree’ but I put a heck of a lot less time into studying what I had been signed up to study than I did before or since in studying what I really wanted to know. The protests seem to me to be missing the point. This is probably the wrong thing to say but what's so important about having a degree? Why do we need someone else – some university board – to justify and verify our existence or our learning? Isn’t it enough to follow what you love? It’s so much better to follow your own path than to be spoon fed by some university course. The greatest people of the past – the architects and designers like Brunel and the inventors like Hargreaves and Jethro Tull were self-taught...

Of course there are some subjects - medicine, dentistry, engineering etc. etc. where tuition is necessary but a large number of university subjects seem to narrow down rather than broaden the scope of learning.

When I was 7 or 8 I was totally absorbed by castles and the history of the 12-14th centuries. School got in the way of my learning. At 12 years old I learned everything there was to know about the suffragette movement because it fascinated me. Much as I loved my school, school work and homework got in the way of my studies because I loved going to the reference library and copying whole books out by hand (as there were no photocopiers then and you were not allowed to take them from the library). I remember all I learned then because I loved it, and I remember so little of what I was taught for my degree. I know someone who knows everything there is to know about transport – he knew it when he was about 8 years old, knew more than his teachers ever did and he didn’t need a piece of paper to prove it. I know someone who knows so much about Egyptian history – he taught himself. We have more access to learning than we ever had before and I wonder, do you want to be taught or do you want a scrap of paper? When I began studying Queen Victoria’s family avidly someone advised me to gain a doctorate and I thought, “What a horrid idea! How stifling to need someone else to tell me what I need to write, to study, to learn...” If we love a subject, we can follow it – we have books, the internet, access to so many materials nowadays....or are you protesting because you feel deprived of your right to become a cog in the wheel, another person with another scrap of paper – a certificate to tell you that you are intelligent or learned. You don’t need that! And if it’s a question of a degree leading to a better job and more money...look at Jamie Oliver, Alan Sugar, Richard Branson, Susan Boyle, Simon Cowell ....all more successful than most graduates...hmm...Just a thought about whether or not it's worth rioting and causing so much damage for a scrap of paper...


Anonymous said...

I really liked what you say, Christina, as I've felt the same way many times. Society demands one to have a paper that certificates you studied a career. I chosed Law, though I don't love it at all (but I also don't hate it). Will I devote the rest of my life working as a lawyer? No idea, but I don't want to live afraid of not being able to pay the bills and affording a good education for my children. I see so many people sacrificing their real interests (music, art, history, nature, etc) in order to support their families (and some of them live very comfortable, to say the least) that I don't see it with such horror. I don't love Law but if my family needs it I may end up working as a (hopefully successful) lawyer. I see so many people (most of them from much older generations) who never went to college or abandoned it in the middle of their studies and have become very successful, but let's face it, they are an exception. Society looks down to those who have not gone to college, and those who are successful and never went frequently say how they wished they had studied something.
I think you may be too idealist (which I love because, even if it doesn't look that way, I am one too), but I also think that one has to pursue our dreams. Maybe a mix between college and dreams is the right dose.

Christina said...

Anonymous, thank you for such an interesting comment! I appreciate people’s need to support their families and I believe that learning is the most wonderful part of life. I just don’t like the way in which learning, like so much else, has been so institutionalised that what is a natural joy for people has become a commodity. Virtually all of the most interesting people I have ever met are those who have a passion which required no certificate or college education. My ‘fear’ is that so much education stops people thinking for themselves. As we know the word ‘education’ means to ‘draw out’ from someone....but alas it often seems quite the contrary – simply stuffing passionless information in and telling people that unless that have this, they are somehow unworthy.

I really appreciate people’s need to support their families but I often think the greatest support anyone can give their child is the idea that the most important thing is to follow your dream, be who you are created to be by following your passions and using your gifts....’and all the rest will come to you as well....’

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment :-)

Anonymous said...

It's a pleasure. Your last paragraph is very interesting, and -again- I agree. We received talents and we must use them and improve them. One of the things that most afraid me in life is having a certain vocation (wether being a writer, lawyer, engineer, singer, scientist or whatever) and never being able to discover it and pursue it. I believe that God gives each of us a certain call, a mission to accomplish. If we discover it and follow, then I guess we will be truly happy, and that's what I strive for, but isn't it scary not to know exactly what that call is?

Christina said...

I, too, had always thought it was scary and went up hill and down dale looking for it until I recently when I think it is all so simple - it's just what makes you feel happy :-)

So much thought about sacrifice, so many saints who seem to exhaust themselves on endless quests and suffer so much, putting themselves last...It doesn't really fit for me anymore with the idea that we are all expressions of God - to quote the Gospel: "You are the Light of the World....You are the salt of the earth...every hair on your head has been counted..."

I spent most of my life wondering what the 'Good News' is...as most of it didn't seem very good to me no matter how hard I tried to be good or how many sacrifice I made. Then, it began to occur that we jus complicate everything. We know what we love...and that is surely what we're drawn to and that is Divine. Well, that's what I think anyway :-)

Anonymous said...

That's what I also think many times. What we love is our call, but sometimes it doesn't seem enough. I don't know wether it's ambition or a wish for something else.

Christina said...

As I see it, ambition is really about becoming whole...returning to ourselves and who we really are created to be. Somehow we have been led to feel that ambition is 'wrong', but I think now that it is the clearest message of what we're here for. I don't mean the kind of ambition that seeks to control or crush others, but the deepest, most profound dreams we hold, most of which we dismiss in early childhood in our attempts to do what others have told us is 'good'. In our quiet times or in our times of being really happy, it's all so clear....then we start to think about what we ought to do and it all gets complicated again. I wish that from the moment we were born we were all told simply, "The only thing you need to do is be happy!" That way we would love others, follow our own dreams, never need compete, take over other countries, impose our views on others or act out our own unhappiness on the world stage. Ambition is surely a good thing and the 'something else', in my view, is a return to our natural Divine Nature as children of a Divine Creator. And I have probably gone on for too long! :-)
These are just my thoughts and I greatly appreciate your comments.
Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Not at all, it has been a very interesting and enlightening conversation. Trust me that it has been very useful to me.
My best wishes, Christina!

Christina said...

Thank you :-). And my best wishes to you!