Kirsty Gunn: Higher education must let us us think for ourselves

WE all know Dundee is the sunniest part of Scotland. Well, apart from up in the hills of East Sutherland that is, an area that is is also spectacularly sunny at this time of year '“ though I am a bit prejudiced that way, being up in the hills in East Sutherland, myself, as well as in Dundee, and always knocked sideways, this time of year, by the sheer amount of daylight there is, to the point that it almost seems unfair.

Essayist Chris Arthur. Picture: Dan Phillips

And I’ve been thinking about this, the great quantity of . . . light we receive in Scotland in May and June, this past week, while organising a Memorial Service at the university for a dear colleague, about whom I’ve written in these pages before, who died a year ago, in the very midst of this very sunny time of year.

The Memorial took place in one of the University Gardens and yes, the sun shone and shone and shone while we all honoured Dr Jim Stewart of the English and Writing Practice and Study Department, and read out his poems, and students talked about how he’d changed their lives and fellow teachers remembered his quiet influence, his wide-ranging knowledge and fearlessness in the way he allowed all kinds of thinking and ideas into his intellectual sphere, not only those he held dear.

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And it made me think: How we do love to hold dear our beliefs, our ideals, our reading of the world, and how hard most of us find it to let the alternatives in. For holding fast to ideas, staying certain, staying strong, believing . . . these are concepts written deep into the Scottish pysche. It’s part of who we think we are. That we might know, somehow, be sure about things, be right, be righteous. It’s a sensibility we inherited with the Reformation, a project which, to paraphrase the Orkney poet Edwin Muir on the subject, has been one of such unrelenting success in this country that no other in Europe comes close.

And even so, how the idea persists. That we must know. That we must be right. When what we may have forgotten, in the midst and aftermath of all that Reformatory zeal, is that to be “right” and to be “sure” might also just mean to be . . . thrawn!

One way of thinking oneself out of the trap of such a limited approach to life is offered in the form of the essay. By which I do not mean the kind of essay we all wrote in school, or tried to write, in exams. Or thought that we should keep writing if we went on to university, when the very word carried with it all those desperately anxious-making associations of deadlines and word counts and bibliographies upon which our future might somehow hinge. No, I am talking about the essay as . . . Essay. A thing of uncertainty, of speculation. A kind of writing that – to take the word at its word by way of its French beginnings, essaier: to try, attempt, to have a go – is about the very opposite of certainty. A kind of writing – and therefore thinking – that is about being wide open to all the ambiguities that the world might throw at us and learning from those uncertainties, being, in fact, the very opposite of thrawn.

Chris Arthur is someone who knows all about this way of thinking. I “met” him ten years ago or so when David Robinson, the former Books Editor of this paper and one of our most informed and sophisticated literary critics, introduced me to his work and said, then, that the essay was a form that we’d been overlooking and that it was high time we started paying attention to its scope and reach. While it was an important expression of cultural and literary life in North America and elsewhere, David said, here in the UK, where the essay had had such a distinguished representation in the work of writers like Hazlitt and Stevenson and Orwell, for some strange reason it was was being overlooked. I should read Chris Arthur’s work, David said, and get myself educated.

Well, there’s never been a conversation about books that I’ve had with David that hasn’t set me off in a good direction – so off I went and read Chris Arthur’s first collection, Irish Nocturnes, and then everything else . . . And was educated indeed. Here was someone who’s been writing and publishing in Scotland for nearly 30 years, winning prestigious prizes in America and landing equally prestigious publishing contracts there, while we continued to ignore a genre that’s as significant a part of our cultural inheritance as the novel.

“Not only do essays offer readers access to a wide and diverse intellectual territory”, says Chris, “they provide a means of expression that’s marvellously flexible. Free from the jargon that often acts as a specialist’s no entry sign, the essay offers a way into all kinds of thinking.”

What might we learn from all this? At a time when we have come to be concerned about falling literacy in Scotland and lower-than-before ratings in education? Perhaps quite a lot. While there’s no doubt that we must continue to query the template against which all these tests are set, and challenge the usefulness of science-based criteria to other disciples that “think” in such different ways, it’s also clear that we, as a nation, are not learning in the way that we used to. We are falling behind. Higher education needs to enable us to think for ourselves, not just practise how to parrot the idea of others and commit them to a sort of grid that can be marked on-line in a near automated system that ends up rating everything just right or just wrong. To be open instead to following our own line of thinking, even if it means being startled out of everything that we thought we believed so to have us go back to the beginning and think again. That might change the way we teach our children, and, as a nation, reflect upon about ourselves.

We’ve forgotten, perhaps, in this age of “post-truth” and “sound bite” and “tweet” and “turnitin” – the ghastly untrusting assessment portal through which students’ work must pass in order to prove they haven’t copied any of those right or wrong answers from someone else – that it’s the question, not the 15-characters-or less summary of an answer that’s at the heart of civilised society. Uncertainty, far from being darkened by shadowy doubt, has sunlight cast all about it.