Friday, 29 October 2010
You will recall the sport of Norwegian rock-based-sea-gazing that I have mentioned in the past. Well, turns out they do it in Scotland too, albeit not so frequently. Working hours in Scotland and the UK as a whole are a good deal longer than in Norway, although, contrary to popular belief, not the longest in Europe. It just feels like that.
However, if the opportunity arises for a spot of Scottish rock-based-sea-gazing we can indulge in it just as well as anyone else. For every Norwegian standing on a rock, deep in thought and staring out across the North Sea, there must be at least one Scot standing on this side staring back. For example, one of our composers, Peter Maxwell Davies (Max to his mates) freely admits he has to take a walk by the Orcadian coast every morning to allow his brain to be creative before he can start work. Not a commute but a commune.
But it’s not just the arty types who need thinking time. A friend whose mission it is to find a cure for congenital heart disease admits that it is in these quiet moments, in the spaces between being busy, that the big ideas pop into one's head. So, between carrying out heart ops, running a research lab, teaching students and being a very busy Dad, he knows full well that ‘a time to think’ must be built into his day.
At present, with Government cuts looming, and while many struggle to remain employed, run a business, pay bills or simply get through the day, I suspect that ‘thinking’ is having to take a back seat. The opportunity to ‘stand and stare’ can feel like a luxury, an indulgence, if not a waste of time.
In the past, Scotland has been rather keen on thinking, a habit which came to glorious fruition in the latter half of the 18th century with the Age of Enlightenment. ‘Thinking’ was all the rage back then, and the result was a flourishing of the arts and sciences, literature and philosophy that was without parallel in the modern world. David Hume’s ‘Treatise of Human Nature’, Thomas Reid’s ‘Inquiry into the Human Mind’, James Beattie’s ‘Essays on Truth’, and Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ influenced the world then and still do today. In science, the discoveries of James Black, John Leslie, John Gregory, Joseph Hutton, William Cullen and John Hunter brought new thinking to chemistry, physics, geology, maths, anatomy and medicine. Scottish Universities operated an ‘open door’ policy which accepted poverty-stricken but talented students, as well as students from England and abroad. Graduates were prepared for a world that required up-to-date skills to sustain a growing economy. The tradition of Scottish doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs and colonial administrators became well-established from those times.
I’ve been thinking about all this because, as a parent, I cannot help but be concerned about the soon-to-be implemented ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. Over the next few years, a seismic shift is to take place in our education system in Scotland. The Scottish Government has been devising a new qualifications system for secondary school pupils, and it is our duty as citizens to ensure that it will achieve the ‘excellence’ advertised in the title. Any radical change to the education system is bound to cause scepticism, worry and fury, so the Government is braced for a barrage of criticism. However, at the moment confusion still reigns amongst pupils, teachers, and parents as to exactly how this new system will work, how it is to be implemented, and what it might mean for our pupils. The details are not finalised as yet, but we have to hope that, despite the change, the principals of Scottish education, once famous for its breadth, depth and practical thoroughness, will not be lost.
And now, there’s a second fly in the ointment. The concept of a free university education which the Scottish Government has managed to uphold until now, unlike England, is once again under threat. As our universities struggle to maintain high standards they are scrabbling around for funding , and so there is talk today of graduates having to pay back part of their salary once they achieve a certain earning threshold.
As Scotland wrestles with trying to prepare itself for the future while at the same time dealing with the aftermath of the credit crunch, The Age of Enlightenment seems but a distant dream. Of course things weren’t ideal then either, with poverty and inequality of opportunity still hampering the potential of many. But the importance attached to rigorous thinking that led to Edinburgh becoming the ‘Athens of the North’ and Glasgow becoming the ‘Second City of the Empire’ seems almost unimaginable now.
I think I’ll go for a wee think.
Posted by Returning Scot at 11:14