Sunday, January 13, 2008

Chances are...

Norm writes that it was sheer luck/chance that directed him to study PPE rather than Law when he arrived at Oxford.

Whilst the plan had been to do law, bumping into someone who told him they were studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics! - "That's everything I'm really interested in" the Norm responded, "I'd far rather do that than Law!" - changed Norm's direction. Yay say all of us to that brilliant switch.

Norm raises an interesting point as part of that recited anecdote: some may worry that the current system of education forces young people to be more directed in their studies and their life options. Is there less room for serendipitous chance? Norm says not, since all the planning in the world cannot prevent "the chance encounter, the change of mind, the learning from experience that you're not where you want to be. Possibility and accident will upset every plan or structure."

I am all for believing in a curious mix of deterministic what-will-be-will-be and there-is-no-fate-but-what-we-make. Sometimes life has a very strange way of making the inevitable happen against our expectations or intentions, yet we can still MAKE certain things happen if we want them enough (yeah, I'm a bundle of contradictions). Thing is that Norm clearly had an overwhelming interest in Philosophy, Politics and Economics over and above any interest or committment to the Law. Otherwise he would not have been able to make his response to the friend already on PPE. Would he, could he, have found himself drifting to those areas even if he was already studying Law? Quite possibly. Would he have ended up in a totally different place in his life without that chance encounter directing him to change degree courses? I think the most honest answer is we don't know. He may well have ended up somewhere totally different - a lawyer in a different setting even a different country. But if it wasn't THAT chance encounter that sent him in the PPE and academia direction, might it have been another chance encounter or experience? It could well have been. Endless possibilities and finite options are for Timelords to know and wrestle with perhaps.

Anyway, to return to Norm's challenge against the idea that over-planning limits the possibilities for serendipity for today's youth, I think there is something in Lisa Belkin's piece. It is that if so much of today's youth is channelled, directed, taught more rigourously solely to meet exam criteria, with a purpose to a specific calling/career, then the options of there being sufficient people who may present the alternative, the chance encounter for another point of view, are surely diminished. Life won't be without the possibilities of chance, but there may well be fewer enough possibilities. Ambition, clarity, purpose: all these are highly valued. They are the bedrock of dreaded league tables and achievement targets. They are at the root of PhDs being increasingly less a finding out and learning, changing, evolving piece of research and more a finite, completeable pre-defined project of writing.

We need wrong turns to make us who we truly are and can be, to take delight in possibilities and learning. I'm no great risk taker, but even I know the benefit of the wrong turn, the experience, the idea that we are made by the complete sum of our experiences and not just a selected, planned out few. If everyone else around you, if getting onto the ladder at all, increasingly depends on the certainty with which you plan, organise and pursue goals and objectives, then surely there are likely to be fewer opportunities to change direction and follow the serendipitous encounter. Because there will be fewer people making such serendipitous journeys themselves.

And that is surely a saddening thought.


Ms Heathen said...

Thank you for flagging up these links, and for providing such a thoughtful commentary on them. I relate to this on two fronts.

Firstly, I was all set to go to law school after completing my undergraduate degree. It was a chance remark from one of my tutors that led me to decide instead to do an MA in Feminism & the Visual Arts. What if I'd stuck to my original plan? Rather like Nick Cutter with Claudia Brown, I would, at the very least, have very probably been living in a Lisa Rullsenberg-less universe!

Secondly, I think that there IS less room in my own students' lives for chance encounters. Last semester, I taught a young woman who is utterly focussed on getting a job in an investment bank when she graduates, and has been working towards that throughout her three years at university. One day in class, we had a lengthy discussion about whether feminism was still relevant to women's lives. This particular student claimed that it wasn't, as 'we had equality now'. In class, I drew her attention to the series of high-profile sex discrimination claims that had been brought against City firms, particularly by women returning to work after having had children. Afterwards, she sent me a very nice email saying that I had really made her think, but that she still wanted to work for an investment bank 'because things would have changed by the time she wanted to have children'!!

JoeInVegas said...

My, such long posts again - thanks for taking the time to put down your opinions. I like coming here to read them. (usually agree, but can't think of witty responses)

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

I would, at the very least, have very probably been living in a Lisa Rullsenberg-less universe!

I feel at least obliged to offer the remark of "good thing, bad thing???"


I wish I had more opportunity to write like this still: sadly I'm often lucky to get on the damn net at all let alone write anything cogent on something meaningful... hence the drooling dominance of pop culture here!

Ms Heathen said...

A bad thing, of course!

Rob said...

Well, I went to university to study chemistry, which I did (enough to get a degree in it, even). Then while doing teacher training (heh - was THAT ever a wrong turning) I ended up sharing a house with a guy studying Computer science. Now he was a great example of the Norm effect, having gone to Durham to do Engineering, changed to Maths in his first year, and then decided after two years that he was really only interested in the computing he was doing as a spare-time thing (Durham had some computing courses but you couldn't do a degree in it at that time). So he transferred up the road to Newcastle and did a computer science degree there. A year of sharing a house with someone writing a LISP interpreter, not to mention writing an operating system - I forget for what - in BCPL, has an effect on a lad. I was too late for full-on nerdhood, but COBOL and Assembler beckoned....