I came to the States in retreat: I was running away from the classroom. I had trained for years to be a teacher – volunteer work helping teach workshops as a high school kid, three years studying education at Cambridge, an intensive six weeks with the Teach First program (think Teach for America, but in the UK) – but I turned out to be horrible. I had dreamed of being an inspiration teacher, and I was a disastrous one. You know those teachers who, when they enter a room, all the kids become silent? I was the opposite: when I entered a room the kids began to misbehave! I was an agent of chaos, full of passion and ingenuity but entirely lacking the discipline and consistency required to manage a classroom in a “challenging” school. I worked hard, but my form of “hard work” is the sudden flash of inspiration after midnight, not the daily focus on minutiae required of the high school teacher.
Being a schoolteacher is the hardest job in the world, and I wasn’t cut out for it. So I ran away to America. The routine indignities of being a terrible teacher had made me severely depressed – even suicidal – so I wanted to go back to doing something I was good at. I was good at studying – a double first from Cambridge is nothing to scoff at! – so I decided to go back to school. Harvard was, in this sense, my backup plan: what I did after teaching didn’t work out. This is a little unfair: to make Harvard happen I had to win an incredibly competitive international fellowship, which paid my way, and I won it. But I hadn’t planned on doing graduate work. I hadn’t planned at all, really: all through my teens and twenties I followed my instincts, allowing my life simply to unfold in response to my latest whims. I now realize that to live like this is a product of both privilege and irresponsibility, as well as a strong desire to live authentically. Looking back, I feel lucky things turned out so well.
I loved Harvard. At the Harvard Graduate School of Education I found an endless font of inspiration. It was like a buffet for the mind, and I gorged. I took classes everywhere: not just the Harvard Graduate School of Education but the Kennedy School, the Divinity School, MIT, Tufts. I took way too many classes, and helped teach a bunch more. Psychology, neuroscience, qualitative research methods, statistics, cognitive science, political science: I studied it all. But my abiding passion was philosophy. I always wanted to know why. Why is that goal a good goal? Why should schools teach that? OK, that teaching method works, but is it right? These were the questions which filled my days. I took a class called “Art and Understanding” with Catherine Elgin, which absolutely enthralled me and ignited a passion for aesthetics and epistemology which drove much of my research back then.
I credit Harvard with bringing out qualities in me which were underdeveloped. I went to Harvard wounded by my experiences (failing at) teaching, but still outrageously arrogant, cocksure, and intensely intense. I was pretty sure I was the smartest person in any room which, let’s face it, is unlikely to be true at one of the greatest universities in the world. Perhaps that’s harsh: it’s more that I felt that there was never an intellectual problem I couldn’t solve. I took all those classes, in part, because I was convinced I could excel in everything – I didn’t need to choose a lane because I was going to run in all of them. Harvard softened me a bit, calmed me down, helped me listen. A class I took in my first year, and then helped teach for many years afterward – a class gnomically called “Teaching and Learning” – was in large part about asking probing questions and listening to people’s answers. At great length. The idea was to follow other people’s ideas as they engaged with a subject, and in following their ideas you would help them stay engaged and learn.
For me, this was profound. It helped me understand that people’s minds are wildly diverse, structured very differently to our own. It helped me appreciate other people’s thinking more, and through that appreciate other people more. It made me listen to other people, not just to figure out what I wanted to say or to catch them in a mistake, but so that I could understand them. This is the best thing I learnt at Harvard, I think: that people’s minds are very different, that people’s intelligence deserves to be respected, and that we spend very little time, in general, genuinely trying to understand each other. This was an intellectual shift and a moment of personal growth: I started to see my work in a more relational light. Teaching became less about me and my great ideas, an more about an interaction with others in which minds come together for their mutual benefit. I try to hold onto this insight in my work to this day.
This wasn’t the only thing I learned at Harvard though – about others, and about myself. I also came out of the closet there: that’s what my next reflection is about.
This post is part of a series of ten reflections on (roughly) ten years in the USA. Find the series here.