Things could be worse. You could be dead.

It is important to recognise the original spark behind failures to stick to scholarly protocols, says Tara Brabazon

January 28, 2009

Too often while marking, I scrawl the same tired comments about referencing, paragraph construction and the inability to answer the set question rather than the one the student would like to have been asked. But these difficulties – while repetitive and irritating – are fixable. I justify my pedantic remarks in the knowledge that scholarly protocols must be maintained. Referencing must be correct. Full sentences, rather than Somerfield shopping lists, are required. During the working day, I validate this attentive assessment as rigorous and careful. At night, while staring at the ceiling, I feel like I am squeezing toothpaste into an espresso cup, knowing that it may have been happier remaining in its tube.

In my current pile of marking, many of the assignments are “non-standard”. The students have submitted posters, diaries, three-dimensional models, films, songs, an altar to Google Doodles and – in one case – a photographic series of shoes. It took me three train trips to bring these objects home to mark. I am (secretly) thrilled. While we maintain a commitment to standards and academic protocols, most of us are intrigued when our students riff off and remix the research literature in ways we cannot imagine.

My Google Doodlers and shoe fetishists demonstrate that a belief in education, reading, writing and thinking (or, to use the language of our time, summative and formative assessment) must be tempered by a context that values transgression, risk and difference. I welcome this defiant desire to be more than the sum of our generic competencies. Much of my family’s history is punctuated by men and women too busy making a living to be distracted by books. My grandfather had a bushman’s education: he became numerate, and learnt how to sign his name and count money. My father – who is as quick as a newly sharpened chainsaw – walked the pathway built for bright, strong and reliable young men of his era: an apprenticeship. He learnt to measure twice and cut once. He learnt to see the world as a space for building, change and improvement. To this day, he can build a set of shelves faster than Nigella Lawson can lick a chocolate cake bowl.

It was my mother who lived oddly. She moved between tiny rural schools throughout her childhood. This was not a romantic English village community. These were remote, tough, parched and forgotten buildings with more crucifixes and stabled horses than books. Often she was the only child in a particular grade, scavenging knowledge from the students a year above and below her. In those days, no one cared about her career goals, lifelong learning or work-based training. She was born in 1930, when education was not something that girls “did”. She served in a shop as soon as she could escape the school gates. She weighed potatoes, cut pumpkin, sliced cheese and made ice cream. After a stint in a grocery shop, she moved into jewellery retailing, where she sold pieces worth more than her yearly wage to people who never noticed the short blonde girl behind the counter or the millions of people like her who made a living by serving the affluent and often unappreciative.

From this background of shuffling between schools, serving customers who cared more about groceries and gold than books and brainpower, she had time to think. She watched the world as a disconnected observer rather than as a participant. The sayings and rules based on this experience – about life, death, work and money – have punctuated the daily rhythms of our family. Whenever confronted by a difficult situation in my private or professional life, one of these maxims juts into my mind to provide both comfort and guidance. An early favourite from her years in retail was “beauty may be only skin deep, but ugly goes right to the bone”. Such a statement was her way to understand the behaviour of those who connect the size of a pay packet with the value of a person.

I started to realise the impact of her non-standard education and oral culture when tracking the career of a most unlikely popular cultural hero. Reaching international fame through Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s radio shows and podcasts, Karl Pilkington has stumbled into success. Like my mother, he lacked formal education. Instead, he kept his eyes open and tried to reconcile the strangeness, inconsistencies, injustice and inequality he found around him with what he knew to be right.

Pilkington grew up on a Manchester council estate and was often pulled away from school for caravanning holidays with his parents. He never collected his exam results. He now weaves this odd life with “facts” he finds on the internet. Indeed, his fans have constructed Pilkipedia. The site replicates Wikipedia’s fixation on “facts” and allows Pilkington’s inventions to gain a new status, credibility and audience.

His most recent book, Karlology, offers his views on intelligence and education, acknowledging that he was not successful at school but “if I do a book about learning then I’ll learn stuff”. Many of us who were successful at school write books for the same reason. Karlology follows our hero on a “Day at [the] library” and through the National History Museum, the Tate Modern, London Zoo, the Science Museum, the London Aquarium, and the Tutankhamun and Body Worlds exhibitions. All of these jaunts into public education commence with a rather disturbing day trip to scan Pilkington’s brain.

Karlology is not a documentary about the state of education from the perspective of those excluded from a path to achievement. But it does capture how the seeds of earnest, public monuments to education can create a bursting flowerbed of humour from the pretensions of the privileged. There is also much sadness in a supposedly comedic book, commencing with a comment made by Mrs Mathews, Pilkington’s infant school head teacher, telling his mother that “Karl will never be a high-flyer”. Mrs Mathews was wrong.

There are powerful, evocative and extraordinary statements in the book worthy of a fully ticketed pop philosopher. But they are enmeshed in an oral – rather than academic – culture. “Thinking is underrated. I don’t think thinking is a popular pastime these days due to the fact there’s always something else on offer that you could be doing instead. Maybe people also don’t like to do it as much as it’s now harder due to noise.”

His book takes a winding path through intelligence and happiness, asking how they are linked. To prove his point, he sat the Mensa examination. He did not gain entry to the organisation, but made a slightly disturbing realisation through his failure. “The really odd thing was, none of the people taking the test ever seemed to laugh. It made me wonder if intelligent people need laughter. I thought about this more on the way home. Maybe the brain doesn’t really like laughing.”

When listening to or reading Pilkington’s words, it often feels like that first time I encountered Thoreau’s Walden as an idealistic adolescent. The freshness and gentleness of the story is matched by a staunch demand to live life respectfully yet separately.

Ricky Gervais is clear on his definition of intelligence: “Wisdom says there’s a fine line between a genius and an idiot. Not true. Karl’s an idiot, plain and simple. Very simple. Some people have proclaimed him a genius, but they’re idiots.” The idiot and the fool have occupied a pivotal place in not only comedic history, but tragedy. It is Eccles in The Goon Show that is the great precedent for Pilkington. Working in the spaces between logic, malapropisms and metaphors, his reinscriptions of the literal truth – like those comedic interventions by Eccles – hold a heuristic function. These non-standard thinkers may be wrong, but there is something productive in their errors, flaws and difficult questions. Pilkington invented phrases such as the “mental homeless”. He critiques consumer culture: “Choice is good, but not too much.” He defined art as “stuff to fill in space that would otherwise be empty”.

His evocations on time in the UK hold particular resonance for those of us new to this country. “Opening times are odd things. There doesn’t seem to be any system in London when it comes to opening times. I used to pass a sex shop in Soho on the way to work that was open at 8.30am, ready for any passers-by that needed a butt plug, and yet you might have to wait until 9am for somewhere that will sell you a pint of milk to open. London is odd like that – some stuff just doesn’t make sense.”

The strangeness of Pilkington’s knowledge has meant that there have been charges of invention and scripting of his comedic knowledge. Certainly, butt plugs are not at the forefront of my thoughts at 8.30 in the morning. But while we will never know the degree of intent and consciousness in the public persona of Karl Pilkington, I do understand his affirmative disconnection from the ideas offered by the well-educated and well-connected. This awareness comes from my mother.

When I was younger, she advised me on marriage and relationships. It was about as close as we ever got to a chat about “the facts of life”. Importantly, her comments were triggered by watching a Barry Manilow music video. She shook her head and told me, “Never trust a man wearing white shoes.” Not only is that an important interpretation on the life and music of Manilow, but it is a useful marking criterion for masculinity more generally. White shoes signify bigger problems: a desire to be either one of David Cameron’s unhugged hoodies or a pre-Pulp Fiction John Travolta. Pilkington also worried about masculinity, success and failure. When Gervais and Merchant asked him who he would become if he could choose any person in the world, he refused to be drawn. When pushed, he answered “Bruce Willis” because Pilkington did not want “a lot of responsibility”. He realised that “with people who have a lot of money come other worries”. Money was not a goal or objective.

My mother holds similar views. From a young age, she blocked the development of ruthlessness in her children. She told us to “always leave a little bit for the other fella”. This has been one of her most useful mantras. Never complain about cash or the necessity to be right. Always leave a little bit for the other fella. Money was important to her, but she had rules for its acquisition. These have gained particular relevance as the international banking system melts around us.

• “You never earn big money by working. If you’ve made a lot of money, you’ve taken it off someone else.”

• “Every dollar that you’re not meant to have will turn dirty on you.”

These mantras are safeguards against callousness, meanness, self-absorption and greed. Pilkington is similarly fixated on waste, excess, death and history. He may be an idiot, but there is a series of productive knight’s moves that jut from this “satisfied fool”. Rare and precious people like Pilkington unsettle us to think with consciousness, courage and defiance. They also give us perspective. Whenever I feel a complaint or grumble building in my throat, I stop moaning and hear my mother’s voice: “Things could be worse – you could be dead.”

The task for those of us who have experienced the gift of education, the pleasures of reading and the space for critical thinking is to use our knowledge for intervention and agitation, rather than consumerism and ambition. Even as we correct student papers for referencing flaws and grammatical errors to ensure that they meet our scholarly standards, we need to appreciate their spark of defiance and their desire to explore the alternative view. We need to leave a little bit for the other fella – as long as he is not wearing white shoes.

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