Are academics good on holiday? It is a question that, like tax liabilities, is badly measured by self-assessment – and better judged by the number of sundry eye rolls, under-the-breath expletives and teeth-clenched avowals to “never do this again” issued by spouses or siblings cursed with our company every time school lets out.
It is not just that many of us are incapable of packing a bag under the requisite weight limit specified by airlines (“I can’t leave behind volumes five and six of Decline and Fall!” “Well, I’m definitely keeping Ulysses, so you’ll just have to do without your EpiPen and swimming trunks!”). It is not even that we are so overworked and under pressure that we often end up marking during the Christmas cottage getaway, and finishing footnotes in the foothills of the Alps during the summer “walking” holiday. My problem is that my inclinations are irrepressibly geeky, my sensibility shamelessly studious, seeking out facts – even the wobbliest bit of trivia – like a bloodhound after a boar. Do I want a spot in the sun and a sangria with a pink umbrella poking out of a cheeky cherry? No, thank you. I’d rather queue for three hours to see the Sistine Chapel and head out on that four-hour tour of ancient crypts, before popping along to that talk on the Trajan history of Rome – to which end, I remember to pack two notebooks and three pens, but forget suncream and my hotel room’s entry card.
I am the worst person to take on holiday, and I suspect that you’re not that great either. But perhaps that inquiring mind, easily excited by the vaguest possibility of learning a new fact that might cast the world slightly aslant, is not something of which we should be ashamed. It is, rather, the proud insignia of our profession. On my first night in Rome this summer, lugging bags into the back of an airport taxi, the driver smiled expansively as I managed a weakly pronounced “Hello. How much?” in Italian. “Questo è mio figlio”, she chatted freely as we drove off, pointing animatedly at the young man scrolling an iPhone beside her. My brain whirred through its Rolodex of bad French and paltry Spanish, even reaching for a desperate bit of Arabic, before fishing out some fragmentary Latin and clicking “figlio” into place. “This is her son”, I said triumphantly to my profoundly unimpressed boyfriend, and in an instant (wrongly) envisaged mastering the entire Italian language in the next four days: baroque, witty and evocative sentences unfurling from my newly loosened multilingual tongue.
The point is that despite the jaded years of teaching and slogging for the research excellence framework, many of us still love to slurp up new knowledge like sangria through a straw. I’m not sure there is any guarantee that this makes us “good” at learning stuff (I was so awful at driving that my instructor once ordered me out of the driving seat and drove me home in stony silence).
But there can be something urgent and compelling about the ways that we seek out knowledge, visible in the dogged ways we pursue research and energetically forge new routes in and out of an idea.
I suspect that it is not dissimilar to how children devour stories, gobbling up the data that they contain, their worlds opening up further and fuller each time. I see it too in mature students, who find new vigour and passion in adult education. U3A, an oddly trendy abbreviation for the quaintly named University of the Third Age, a charitable cooperative that boasts more than 360,000 members throughout the UK, offers classes to the retired and semi-retired in everything from philosophy to Scrabble, life sciences to literature. Activities are organised in small groups, meeting regularly, often in each other’s homes, with members sharing knowledge, skills and experience. “The U3A taught me things I have missed along life’s way”, one student charmingly explains on the website. Most of us will miss things along life’s way, but perhaps especially those compelled by their financial circumstances to work long hours, or those whose childcare responsibilities leave them bereft of time and energy. How utterly brilliant, then, to think that missed opportunities are not necessarily lost for ever.
U3A, like the Open University, was founded by Michael Young, a British sociologist, activist and politician, who coined the term “meritocracy”, and – here’s an ironic nugget for you, factfinders – was, coincidentally, the father of “novelist” and ardent free-schooler, Toby Young. On my way home from Rome, in between mouthing my delicious new Italian vocabulary to myself, I read that the OU had decided to close seven regional centres in “an attempt to streamline student support”. It insists that services will not be reduced, but it is hard not to see this as part of a broader, politically instigated programme of erosion. Facing a 24 per cent funding cut in the next year, adult education, says the Association of Colleges, may not exist by 2020. We love knowledge, and yet the opportunities to find it are closing around us. Let’s leave the ruins to the Romans, I think sadly, as I stand amid the debris of British lifelong learning.
Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London.