Sanderson of Oundle is the embodiment of all my romantic notions of what education should be. A famous schoolmaster of Oundle school, in Northamptonshire in England, from 1892 until the time of his death in 1922, he wanted his students to reach their potential by themselves. To this end, he directed that laboratories and workshops be left unlocked so that the boys could go in and work on their own research, even if unsupervised. Sanderson did not obsess over examination league tables. Rather, he tried to get his students genuinely passionate and excited about subjects. He did well in the league tables in spite of, or more likely, as a result of, this policy.
He tirelessly sought out talent even on behalf of the so-called ‘average’ boys. If someone showed obvious talent in a certain area, Sanderson made sure to give that boy abundant time and material to revel in his special subject.
Sanderson had the right idea. Many of the Arts courses in Trinity also have the right idea. His philosophy, however, is not widely practised. This is especially true of some of the more lecture-heavy courses. It seems that some courses are not concerned with the individual, but with the collective, the homogenous and unthinking mass. They appear to be more concerned with the regurgitation of someone else’s ideas than with original thought or creativity. There is far too much concern with getting students to jump through the hoops of continuous assessment and getting them to attend an unending expanse of tiresome and often unhelpful lectures.
Fortnightly essays and weekly exams tend to sterilise and extract the colour from a course or subject. No allowance for freedom within the educational process causes people to treat education as more of a chore than an opportunity.
Courses of this structure deal in homogeneity. They tell you what you what you are capable of based on your past. They are not interested in the individual but rather the trends and the statistically likely outcome. Their education is blind to the person — interested in material, mass, continuous assessment and selected mandatory paths.
Education is not just about coming in for all of your lectures or classes. It is not just about doing well in tests or essays. It is about nurturing the person who thinks for himself/herself and challenges the conventions. Education belongs to the John Nash figure, skipping lectures and drawing his boundary pushing ideas on the windows of the library, as per the movie A Beautiful Mind. Education belongs to the young Swiss patent clerk, Einstein, who created a revolution in Physics by daydreaming when he should have been doing his job in 1905.
To create something new you need an Emersonian-like faith in yourself. You need to be challenging and creative. In creating something new or to truly learn you must be willing to risk failure or embarrassment in support of your ideas. You must be willing to diverge from the well-trodden track to go your own route.
College should not be about trying to assimilate other people’s skill sets. Instead, it should be about tapping into and fostering the talents already within your possession. College is about refining your own pre-existing skill sets. College involves being all that you can be. To this end, people should experiment and try different things to get their results. The words of dead men in books are not to be assimilated but rather to be challenged and above all engaged with. Richard Dawkins had it right when he said of Sanderson’s philosophy: “What matters is not the facts, but how you discover and think about them: education in the true sense, very different from today’s assessment-mad exam culture.”
My college is one full of fiery, scarf-toting, moleskin-carrying undergraduates who are able to connect all of their passion, potential, sense of well being and talents into some sort of wild synergy. It is a college full of the leaders of tomorrow, a college full of confident arbiters of their own destiny. It is a world of drama and of action. A world of courage.
True education is when answers lead new questions being raised. The more the island of knowledge expands, the greater the shores of uncertainty expand alongside. It is not about knowing all, it is about always wanting to know more; piquing the interest. Education is about setting a fire in someone, awakening a passion and being a catalyst to the talents and the desire to learn lying within the student. As Dawkins said, “Now let us whip up a gale of reform through the country, blow away the assessment-freaks with their never-ending cycle of demoralising, childhood-destroying examinations and get to the true education”. The time has come.