What they don’t teach you at college

Someone just said to me that “writing is hard”. This was an incorrect statement. Writing is easy; thinking is hard.

Thinking is hard but it is very easy to fool ourselves and think thinking easy. When we think about something we are alone in our heads, in a private world. Nobody is there to call us out when we miss a step, converge one line of thought into another that is actually distinct, or take more out of something than is actually in it. The act of thinking too easily slides into that of day-dreaming; we give ourselves a long hard look in a mirror with a face covered in cosmetics and the lighting turned down.

Putting our thoughts on paper is about rinsing our face in cold water and turning on the lights.

mirror_stairWriting is not hard. But our writing is often bad. This is because our thinking turns out to be not nearly so clear as we had wanted to believe. Picking out the flaws in our writing is an indirect but powerful way of correcting our thinking. That is why I say that editing is the ultimate Socratic art: an editor is the midwife of thought.

But this is not an art you are likely to learn at college. You may be taught about theories of history, or molecular physics, media communications or library management, physical anthropology or political science, but you are unlikely to be taught how to think.

And this is not so surprising. From around the 1880s and for about a century, rising social prosperity fueled a massive expansion in higher education. But all the self-illusions of liberal arts colleges notwithstanding, the kind of intensive personal engagement between master and student that one encounters in a Platonic dialogue is simply too costly to be a viable option even in elite universities.

But the end result is depressing for all that. For every year these educational institutes turn out thousands of graduates who can talk the talk, strike a posture, flood your head with jargon, but cannot think through a complicated idea and, consequently, are unlikely to give birth to any truly original thoughts.


Emerging unconscious

W.H.R. Rivers was one of the first English psychologists to discover the unconscious. His work with ‘shell shocked’ soldiers during World War One is today well-known thanks to his appearance, alongside Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. Identifying the instinct of self-preservation rather than sex as the key to the psycho-neuroses of his patients, Rivers fashioned a version of Freudian doctrines palatable to a respectable English audience.

My intention in this post is to show how Rivers’ notion of the unconscious was derived from the psychological model introduced in my last post. This is not to question the significance of Rivers’ encounter with Freud. I am merely pointing out how easily some of Freud’s ideas could be integrated into the established Cambridge model of the mind. Continue reading


The Cambridge Mind, 1868-1920

In this post I introduce the psychological model at the center of a series of posts I am contributing to a new online venture: the collaborative blog known as the Grote Club.

From the late 1860s through to World War One and beyond, this model of the mind was widely regarded within Cambridge as the foundation of the various sciences of Man and of Society. Its distinguishing characteristic was that it looked to a unified physiological account of the nervous system in order to explain both reasoning and  instinctual action. This physiological model was itself evolutionary and hierarchical. But this gave rise to a psychological model that, as we shall see, supported two quite opposite readings of human society. Continue reading


What is a Hobbit?

I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height…

J.RR. Tolkien, The Hobbit

One day, a few years back, I happened to be reading a forgotten lecture delivered in 1900 to the Anthropological section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.* Continue reading

On disciplinary sin

Here are some implicit assumptions that appear to underpin much current Tolkien studies:

Because Tolkien wrote stories the proper study of his work belongs to students of English literature. What is more, himself a Professor of English, the modern day student of English enjoys privileged access to Tolkien’s life and work.

The purpose of this post is to suggest that these assumptions limit and ultimately stultify our engagement with Tolkien. Continue reading

lake town

Lake Town

If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence.

J.R.R. Tolkien in a letter of 1967

Middle-earth, Tolkien insisted, is not an imaginary world; it is our world in an imagined past, since when the land and seas have changed and shifted. But if The Lord of the Rings tells of Hobbits who journey from around the area of Oxford in what was once the Shire all the way to Gondor and Mordor in what is now Southern Europe, where does Bilbo’s adventure take him? Continue reading