Doing my homework

I noticed recently how much new stuff I'm learning these days. In fact, it feels like I give myself more homework now than I ever used to do when I was at school or university. For example, in the past week I've been:

- teaching myself to transcribe 17th century manuscripts
- helping a friend rewrite a research report on Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (which meant getting my head round enough of the science not to mess up the meaning of what I was editing)
- editing a magazine about "commons" and "common sense"
- taking part in an extended email discussion about copyright and ethics

Even when I go to the pub with friends, there's a serious risk that one of us goes home with a reading list...

Whereas, when I was at school, I was one of those kids who is bright enough to get away with being slack. In sixth form, a teacher accused me of relying on my "native wit", which wasn't far from the truth - and at university, one of my tutors commented that I'd been "bone idle" for the whole of my second year.

Yet it wasn't always like that. When I was five or six, I was as full of curiosity as I am now, only with even more energy! So how come I lost that for a while? (For about twenty years, in fact.)

I think a lot of it has to do with the meaninglessness of the work at school. I hate doing stuff because I'm told to - and even more so, if it's obvious that the result of that work means little or nothing to anyone. In school, the best teachers find ways of making learning meaningful, but that takes quite an exceptional person - because they're working against the structure of schooling itself.

For me, the first step towards recovering my sense of curiosity was in my mid-twenties, when I quit a sensible job at the BBC and started reading with a vengeance. I discovered I could use the skills I'd learned at university to follow my own interests and lines of enquiry, which ran cross country over academic fields, rather than sticking to the path. I was broke and with no career direction and happier than I had been in years.

Even then, however, another point at which I used to get stuck was in the desire to know about Everything - meaning that I never knew where to start. [Ah... that explains how I ended up starting this site!] What I've figured out more recently, though, is that I can get round this by looking for opportunities to learn stuff through contributing to something meaningful. (For example, learning to transcribe 17th century manuscripts so that I can help with research for the Blackden Trust.)

I'm willing to believe that I was more allergic to school than average, but I can't help thinking that a lot of people go through a loss of curiosity as a result of the way our education system works, and not all of them are lucky enough to find it again. So I'm really curious about how we could help people get from where I was aged 5 to where I was aged 25, without the detour.

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