Sean Connery, in his thoughtful memoir Being A Scot, tells the story of finding himself on a plane seated next to a compatriot, a young woman. Talking to her, he found that she was a literature student at the University of Edinburgh, and that she was currently studying Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
“Do you see any parallels between Roskolnikov, in the Dostoevsky novel, and the character of Robert Wingham, in James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner?” he asked her.
“Oh, I haven’t read that,” said she, “I’m in the English Literature Department, not the Scottish.” Connery was bemused, but presumably did not bother to ask why, given her odd perspective, she was studying a novel originally written in Russian.
Connery had left school at 13 with little to show for his eight years in Scottish education other than an ability to read. But early in his acting career, a fellow-thespian had suggested a list of books that the young Connery ought to read, and he had subsequently embarked on his own education in fine literature. His young travelling companion, on the other hand, had successfully completed seven years of primary schooling, five or six years of secondary schooling, and by the time Connery met her at least a year or two at university. So what was the difference between the famous actor with his paucity of formal schooling and the literature student with a decade and a half of institutional education behind her?
In the literature student, I believe that we can see something of the schooled mind at work, in this case someone for whom the books she read were prescribed by others and for whom reading was largely a means to an end. In Connery, a lover of literature, we can see the independent mind of someone who has taken control of his own learning, someone for whom reading was a pleasure in itself, and nothing to do with passing examinations or gaining qualifications.
It is interesting to ponder the differences between the truly autonomous learner and the schooled mind, to explore the nature of learning in an age where, although the opportunities for self-directed learning are expanding immensely as the tendrils of the Internet extend into every facet of our lives, the enduring institutions of the school and the college and the university (all of which I am happy to refer to collectively and conceptually as ‘the school’) remain stubbornly tenacious. This durable social construct, one that has been shaped and adapted continuously throughout history to suit the needs of time and place and wealth and power, has allowed the myriad social, political and religious entities that have sustained it, and that continue to sustain it, to retain an often insidious and reductive grip on the minds of those who pass through their hands. And, despite that constant refrain of ‘the school is dead’ that we have heard in different times and in different places, the school is arguably stronger in some ways today than it has ever been.
Of course, the tale of Sean Connery and the young literature student raises more questions than answers: the gulf between the autonomous learner and the schooled mind is rarely identifiable as a simple dichotomy between the free spirit and the captive will. The reality for most of us is that we find ourselves, throughout our lives, shifting back and forth along a continuum somewhere between the two extremes, although we night hope that, as we grow older, we become more aware of the dangers of the schooled mind, and therefore develop a greater capacity to break free of the constraints placed on us by the school in our early years. Connery’s self-taught love of literature was perhaps not entirely free of instrumental intentions: as an actor, he recognized that an appreciation of literature would be useful to him in his career, but it was his own recognition, not one suggested by others or imposed from without. Equally, the young woman, we hope, would have taken up her course in English Literature because of a love of reading. But between those two routes into books, and most certainly in the student’s response to Connery’s question, there lies a discernible difference between the approach that each had previously taken to their mutual love of literature. Connery, consciously or otherwise, had discovered that there is a higher and deeper and wider significance to learning than can be gleaned from submitting to the strictures of the classroom. The young woman had allowed herself to be persuaded that, like the overwhelming majority of ‘educated’ people, she had little choice but to accept those strictures as seemingly the only available path to an education in the discipline that she enjoyed.
The road taken by Connery was one that led not only to a knowledge of fine literature but also, I would contend, to a greater chance for attaining a degree of self-knowledge that, if not actually denied by school, has rarely if ever been an explicit aim of schooling. The school, historically, has not actively encouraged independence of thought, nor has it cultivated the truly spontaneous or creative mind. We develop such traits despite school not because of it. School is fundamentally about training the mind, developing the intellect (as opposed to intelligence), passing on the knowledge deemed important by a society to those whose role it will be to perpetuate and preserve that society at all levels. As such, the school continues what already is and what has been; its function, whatever the rhetoric, is essentially backwards looking, seeking to maintain the structures and relationships from the past and present on into the future with minimal change.
But given the ubiquity of the school, we cannot simply equate the schooled mind with attendance at school. To do so would be ludicrous. If the schooled mind were to be identified merely by dint of someone having attended school there would no chance of escape from the condition for most of us. But schooling does imbue the student, the scholar, with certain characteristics that the learner has to find the means to overcome either while at school, or more likely once schooling is complete.
I will come back to what that schooled mind is all about, why we must not be content with the intellectual framework that school bestows on us, and how critical it is that we are able to overcome at least the most deleterious and pernicious aspects of the school’s legacy on our own development as rational, free-thinking human beings.