I am taking a final week of vacation before the new academic year starts. During the fortnight of vacation we took in July, I read a novel by Elizabeth Taylor called ‘A View of the Harbour‘. One sentence in particular struck a chord with me: ‘education [meant] the insinuation into children’s heads as painlessly as possible of a substance which might later turn out to have money-making properties’. It describes how I sometimes feel, in my more cynical moments, about teaching in a university today.
In his novel ‘Nausea’, Jean-Paul Sartre suggests that at around forty, experienced professionals ‘christen their small obstinacies and a few proverbs with the name of experience, they begin to simulate slot machines: put in a coin in the left hand slot and you get tales wrapped in silver paper, put a coin in the slot on the right and you get precious bits of advice that stick to your teeth like caramels’. When I first read this passage a few weeks ago, it seemed like an apt description of a not-so-young professor writing a weekly blog.
I am on vacation combining the positive effects of reading [see ‘Reading offline‘ on March 19th, 2014] and walking [see ‘Gone walking‘ on April 19th, 2017] with a digital detox [see ‘In digital detox‘ on July 19th, 2017]; but, through the scheduling facilities provided by WordPress, I am still able to dispense my slot machine homily. I will leave you to decide which posts are from the left and right slots.
The picture shows a little collection of pebbles and a shell that sits on the desk in my office. There are similar collections in various locations at home and some of my coats have a pebble permanently in one pocket – there’s even a shell on the dashboard of our car. They have all been picked up during walks on beaches [see my post entitled ‘Take a walk on the wild side‘ on 26th August 2015] and serve as reminders of the ‘slowness’ enjoyed on vacation [see my post ‘Slow down, breathe your own air‘ on December 23rd, 2015]. Barbara Hepworth owned a similar collection of stones that you can see in the Hepworth Wakefield. On the subject of this habit she wrote in 1961: ‘Many people select a stone or a pebble to carry for the day. The weight and form and texture felt in our hands relates us to the past and gives us a sense of a universal force. The beautifully shaped stone, washed up by the sea, is a symbol of continuity, a silent image of our desire for survival, peace and security.’ I could not express it better so I didn’t try.
The quote is from a contribution to the film Barbara Hepworth directed by John Read, BBC TV, 1961 and can be found in Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, edited by Sophie Bowness, London: Tate Publishing, 2015.