Thursday, June 21, 2007

"Life Goes on Regardless"

“Life Goes on Regardless”

I spent most of last weekend marking student courseworks, and more beckon this weekend. For some outside, the life of a lecturer may seem glamorous, as, in some ways, it appeared to me 30 years ago when I was a student. Not that most of my tutors then inspired me, but on occasions when they did, I felt that I had glimpsed my vocation. I could be the person who would enthuse part of a generation, a generation that might go forward, with others, to build and be part of a better world.

Instead, most of the vision of that world has crumbled away. I inspire and enthuse only on rare and unexpected occasions, and I spend a lot of my time trudging through paperwork produced reluctantly, at the last gasp, by students who would much rather be somewhere else than listening to me. I cannot blame them, although I could blame the world which made them devoid of intellectual curiosity, so that they look up to the Bransons and so-called “celebrities” of this world rather than the Einsteins or the Turings, or even, indeed, the collective aspirations and achievements of those for whom bettering the human condition is the best reward. It seems that scholarship would be good if it made you rich and famous, but only if, while anything that made you rich and famous would do.

To me, intellectuals or scholars who serve only themselves, or the already powerful, are not worth the effort expended in comprehension; only a scholar or intellectual who uses their intellectual endeavours for the good of humanity really has validity. Small wonder, given the sheer naivety of this view in the present political, economic and institutional climate, that it feels to me like the only good scholar is one who has retired from employment. Last Monday I agreed the terms of my partial retirement, but this does not open up a world as an independent scholar. The world is not waiting, sadly.

I thought I was alone in feeling a sense of quiet despair, but then I read a passage in a coursework on environmental management. This involves a series of case studies, designed less to instruct than to inspire thought – or, at least, some thinking. It would be unprofessional to identify the part-time student concerned, but in an essay about the decline of energy resources and the possible role of his professional body in dealing with this, he suddenly launched into this paragraph:

“It could be argued that at the end of the day, looking at the bigger picture, our existence on this planet is already condemned with scientific certainty. Statistically we are all doomed, by way of catastrophic global events, such as a meteorite strike or super volcano…On a universal scale not only does our planet have a limited life span, our Sun is a burning ball of fuel which will also one day burn out. How significant is our impact on the Universe? What difference can we make to a planet which is already living on borrowed time?”

I smiled at first when I read this, at its unexpected lyricism. I sometimes comment, when students stress the merits of energy-saving light bulbs, or the encouragement of better public transport, that there are very much wider forces at work, that could undermine all our efforts to protect the environment that forms the basis of all our lives. I suspect that this student had pondered such comments. Or even my expression of appallingly weak humour, when they look exceptionally bored, “Oh well, its not the end of the world…………well, actually, it could be!”. I should stress that I teach environmental management to students who do not come from literary backgrounds, but rather in science, engineering, planning and surveying. Much of their work will involve professional factual reports. So this outburst, by one of the more able and hard-working students, made me wonder.

The sad truth is that I hardly know anything about my students, and indeed hardly see them as people with lives, dreams, emotions, fears – unless these relate to assessment. What I know about this mature student is simply that he travels 200 miles to Liverpool on one day a week, leaving his family at 5 in the morning, and getting home before 9 at night, if the roads are clear. I am impressed by his commitment and achievement, but what he, or any other students, are really like as people, is unknown, as I am to them. I wonder if “How significant is our impact on the Universe” is something that he muses on when driving the long drag to and from Liverpool. And, indeed, whether that represents some sort of fear, a private fear made public.

Some clue to this is given by the closing paragraph of his essay: “in the meantime, while we are waiting for the end, life goes on regardless”. Maybe that is what he thinks about his own life, in morbid moments, wondering what he will leave behind. And it’s true. For me, the end of my work career beckons, and while the duties and responsibilities are reduced, there is a feeling of redundancy. It’s a moment of significance to me alone, uneasily blending disappointment at the end of aspiration together with hope for new possibilities outside employment. But “life goes on regardless”, and my future is like the future of the environment, unknown and riddled with uncertainty. I am slowly coming to accept that a lifetime of stress may soon lie behind me, and a new happiness is being allowed to develop. But this is a slow process.

Drafted 2 February 2007

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