How do we think about thinking? These days, with universities being run like businesses, driven by profit and marketing campaigns that might prove to the punter that they are the 'best' and with primary and secondary schools more and more in thrall to league tables and 'excellence', you could be forgiven for believing that education is no longer there to help us figure out who we are in this world and what that world may mean to us, but is, rather, some kind of giant degree production factory, manufacturing via seminars and lectures. Yet another consumer product we buy and try, use up and dispose of.
Certainly, in humanities subjects, there has been something of a growing rumble of unease over these past years at the way arts-based subjects have been made to give way to the sort of testing rubrics of science. For why should subjects for which there is no one right or wrong answer be made to fit the sort of assessment that can process vast student numbers at a time, all at one sitting? In order to accord with the consumer-based business model universities seem to favour these days, the one that aims to pass everyone – and pass them well – or their money back, perhaps?
So it was that Gail Low and I, two writers and teachers of literature curious as to how we might help our students learn how to think for themselves outside the exam room, to figure out their responses to art and texts – without power point, or downloaded lecture summaries they could memorise or templates to follow that would ensure a certain result – came up with the idea that we would focus on essays. Essays are, after all, in their true and original form, written experiments, attempts, as the word suggests, at trying out of an idea or concept. Essays are a chance to ask what if? And can I? And might this work? They let students write in their own way and come to their own thoughts – right there on the page before them – and are as far away from being 'right' or 'wrong', 'pass' or 'fail' as you can imagine. Everything about the essay resists easy summary of any sort.
So we have decided – for this very reason of the way the essay resists summary – to think of it as a kind of thinking space; that this essay we are introducing to them might give our young people pause for thought, time to reflect and ponder. To stop and wonder – and maybe halt the process of the great machine-like technology-enabled drive towards results and 'excellence' and all the rest of it – so they can really learn to take risks and have opinions and ideas about the world and get them down in sentences and phrases that are written in their own voices.
True, some of our students have had a hard time unpacking some of this, detaching this new – though very old – idea from the old and more usual definition of essay, those hard grafted forms of assessment left over from secondary school and exams technique. However, we've been lucky, because we've had Scotland's own and best known practitioner of the form, Chris Arthur from St Andrews, to help discover what they are and what they might be. He was with us, along with a whole range of artists and writers and thinkers, at a terrific one-day event at the Royal Society of Edinburgh earlier this month, sitting around a lovely big table in one of the beautiful upstairs rooms to discuss nothing but essays – whether they may be a print or a line drawing, a musical exercise, a building, an educational programme, a conversation, or a written piece of work complete with footnotes and subheads.
The title of the conference was Imagined Spaces
– the name too of a volume of writing and fine art and dialogue that considers the space for thinking that may exist within the fretwork of life and careers and education and work, a place where we may release ourselves from the routine limitations of results-results-results and focus instead on the processes, the getting there, the journey towards an imagined destination. For might not the thought itself that takes us on a line of thinking be as important – if not more
so – than the final outcome?
In this way, we may think of essays as a 'Companion Medium' suggested the artist Graham Johnston at the beginning of the day, as though we take a dog for a walk and it ends up showing us far more than we would have ever noticed on our own. Or it might be a kind of writing that allows a sort of doorway into a young person's imagination and mind, helping them explore ideas of morality and virtue, creativity and ethics, through a new way of writing that takes in the harmony of the natural world for inspiration, such as Jane MacRae's Bloom foundation shows us.
Or an essay may be the kind of thinking one does when one practises thinking by doing, as the novelist Stephanie Bishop demonstrated in a talk about learning to play the cello, 'let the instrument take the bow' she told us. Or in the following the line of ink on a page, according to printmaker and artist Whitney McVeigh; so we may also learn to follow the line of our thought through the back and forth of a conversation, as we followed the considerations of teacher and writer Stephen Carruthers and mental health counsellor Fiona Stirling, drawing on the subject of mental wellbeing and depresssion so it became something close, something intimate, a form of writing as well as being.
The fiction writer and memoirist, Meghan Delahunt, talked about essay as an in-between state, a moment between life and death that allows for intense creativity and depth of thought, and journalist Susan Nickall drew our attention to the what-if questions the architect of the V&A Dundee, Kengo Kuma, had asked himself before he drew the first plans for that great building. Space, Kuma reminds us, is never empty. It is a container for fullness.
So we might think about helping our young people experiment with and try out for themselves this new way of writing, an essay that has nothing to do with a result, and everything, everything to do with learning. As Gail Low says: 'Taking an idea for a walk is a good way to describe writing and thinking as a journey that is essaying. Be curious, always open to where it takes you; also, be prepared to be surprised by how words start to have a mind of their own'. For how else, we asked ourselves at the RSE this month, might we teach the next generation to have an independent line of thought without giving them the means to express themselves, independently? That imagined space might become a reality is an idea that we continue to explore.
Kirsty Gunn and Gail Low have been awarded a grant from the Royal Society of Edinburgh to host a number of workshops and discussions around Scotland to help young people and teachers come to learn and understand more about coming to independent thinking through creative writing and reading. A volume of essays
Imagined Spaces is due out from their Publishing House, The Voyage Out Press, next spring.