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If I Only Had (Proof Of) A Brain

Me, questioning stuff and probably waffling too much again

I would not be just a nuffin’
My head all full of stuffin’
My heart all full of pain
I would dance and be merry
Life would be a ding-a-derry
If I only had a brain

Do you have some credentials? What do you do with them? Do you use them as positive proof of your superiority? As evidence of a great collection of knowledge and facts? Do your credentials make you feel more worthy than others? Do you use your credentials on a daily basis? Do you share the great wealth of information and understanding that came with your credentials, pass it down to others? Did your credentials lead you down a path on which there is a newer, better life and you are forever expanding your mind? Are your credentials a tool with which to make yourself a useful cog in the wheels of society? Is there a point to your credentials, other than to say ‘Whoo – look at me! I’m brainy!’

Is there a point to any of this?

Why can’t we just stuff our brains full of the knowledge that is relevant to us, our interests, strengths and possible career choices? Why are we so obsessed with teaching every school child exactly the same stuff in exactly the same way? Why are we panicking when they can’t spell by six years of age?
For example, yesterday our 6-year-old wrote ‘Mudl pudl farm is a gra!t Book I lov it a lot.’
Shall I tear her confidence apart by pointing out all her mistakes or drink in the beauty of the word ‘gra!t’ and continue to enjoy sharing Michael Morpurgo books with her?
Should I start panicking about the school league tables if my daughter’s spelling isn’t up to scratch? Thinking, ‘Oh my God! Key stage 1 SATS! Get the calendar! How long do I have to fix my imperfect child!?’
There’s too much emphasis on performance, figures and positive notoriety for the school from 5 to 16. Until the end of childhood, in fact. Wasn’t that supposed to be the fun bit of life? So why is education now so focussed on schools proving they have the highest number of successful, brainy kids?
And when we say someone has brains/is brainy, what do we mean?
Do we mean they’re academically able? They spell well, they understand Shakespeare, they are in the top classes? Do you notice how people who have trouble spelling don’t get called brainy? People who struggle with school are not associated with brains but with stupidity?
If I think back to my school days, that’s what I would have meant. ‘Brainy’ people succeed at school, stupid people don’t. Simple. Right? There were ‘brainy’ kids in maths and science who actually managed to look like they knew what the teachers were going on about! There were people that passed all their o’levels (yes, I‘m THAT old!) and actually did a few extra. Some children in my year came away from school with 11 o’levels. I knew people at 6th form college who passed 4 A’levels and going to university wasn’t an ‘if’ or a ‘maybe’ for them it was a certain thing. They had brains.

But sometimes we neglect the fact that we all have brains. I was one of those that got called ‘brainy’ (sometimes) in the early days at school but I ended up underachieving and falling through the holey education system.
Do you know what upsets me?: When I began to not fit, when I began to underachieve, when I began to struggle and perform badly, I started to feel stupid. Gradually I felt less and less ‘brainy’.
I thought I couldn’t be a good student. I thought education wasn’t for me. I thought I didn’t have a brain after all. I lowered my expectations of myself.
But as the years went by, I spotted incredible wisdom in the most unexpected people, juxtaposed with a lack of depth, logic or common sense in people who supposed themselves to be in possession of a superior mind. One thing I find very difficult to accommodate is a certain knowledge combined with a judgemental attitude. Judgemental is a word associated with limited knowledge and a closed mind. Those that judge must have, in a sense, shut themselves off from new information and new ideas in order to feel so righteous. Doesn’t sound very clever to me…
I began to notice that some people with impressive-sounding qualifications made less sense of the world than they ought – so-called ‘brainy’ people! I also realised that some health care professionals were a bit limited in their approach to a problem and the information they provided, some teachers made errors in things that they taught my children. I saw things that they couldn’t. So why were they ‘brainy’ and I wasn’t?
Education? Confidence?
What could I do with my observations? Where would my thoughts be relevant? And where would I be valued and recognised as having a worthwhile opinion? I wasn’t ‘educated’ after all.

I could wile away the hours
Conferrin’ with the flowers
Consultin’ with the rain
And my head I’d be scratchin’
While my thoughts were busy hatchin’
If I only had a brain

It’s not really about a brain though is it? Because we do actually all have one (mostly ;))It’s what we do with it. Swap the ‘brain’ for ‘education’ and you’ve got purpose, focus, ambition and direction. But I mean education in its real sense: acquiring skills and knowledge, learning. The learning that helps you to live well and to follow routes to suit you.
It’s about learning to use your brain.
Okay, so, yes, people that fit the current UK education system that have drive, confidence and ambition can get a string of qualifications. They can get letters after their name, they can work their way up to the top: lawyer, headteacher, surgeon, politician, research scientist… They can spend their lives waving their PDF SWALK ESP RSVP SOS under our noses but they are not the only clever people in the world and they are not necessarily THE most clever people in the country.
Now I have to stop and explain that I am not anti-education or that I think all educated people are academic snobs because I don’t think that. I’ve nearly completed a degree – so that would be a bit stupid!
But… learning, proper learning and not necessarily always exam-based, surely it doesn’t end? It doesn’t have a set of letters that say I Got To The Finish Therefore I Know Stuff So There. An education should make us fit for purpose not fit for superiority.

So here’s what I think – in my trying to be wise and all-encompassing and non-judgemental and now educated (but not that that makes me better than anyone!) kind of way – whatever our field of knowledge, our interest, our concerns, there is not one way of looking at the world, not one way of being clever not one way of doing most things. We should not judge or feel superior and likewise we should not let ourselves feel inferior. We should be questioning ourselves and what gives us the right to say something about something in a certain way. And we shouldn’t assume one set of knowledge is any more valid than another set of knowledge. (If I had my way there’d be GCSEs in gardening and running a home – they are damned complicated and hard work and come with no prizes for doing well!)
And here’s how I’m applying that to my life: I write. I want to continue to write and I want to continue to improve. I want very much for people to read my writing but I want to feel that I am writing the best fiction I possibly can in a style that is all my own but with the influence of a greater knowledge of literature. So I’m taking courses. The way people review and critique literature is interesting to me – particularly the way my tutors tear my writing to shreds! 😉 The way people used to write in the past is interesting to me. For example, have you seen the way Virginia Woolf used semi-colons?! And have you noticed how Tolstoy’s observations can still be relevant today?

Are you doing something relevant to you that improves your understanding of it, your success at it and enjoyment of it?

Or would you rather just see Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz on YouTube ?

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Rachel,
    First of all I *love* ‘gra!t’ – how brilliant is that?!
    I wanted to comment on university education and letters etc. In the past, when recruiting people, it’s true that these letters and this education (and yes, which university and which previous employers) have ben important factors in selection who to interview – they serve as ‘flags’ which help thin out the big pile of applications to a manageable number to interview. That’s a corporate view. Of course from a personal point of view, when we’re looking for mentors and role models and just people who are inspiring and who can teach us something about life…who cares about any of that? All that counts is finding that nugget of gold in people.
    As writers, perhaps we are more attuned in some ways to finding it, because we look for, and see, the extraordinary in the every day? In some ways, the tragedy for me that there is simply not enough time in my life to read everything I want to read, to talk to all the people I want to talk to, to discover the wisdom that’s waiting under unexpected wraps…

    Good luck finding the answers!


    • Thanks Claire. A very interesting reply.
      I’ve just re-read my post and am concerned that it sounds bitter and I hope it doesn’t because it wasn’t written that way. I really am pro-education, degrees, absorbing stuff – completely for everyone learning as much as they can fit in about whatever they want. I have observed, though, so so many people who feel they have failed and school was a waste of time. That’s a lot of good years just gone with nothing to show for it and it’s tragic. I’m trying to teach my children to make education work for them and not the other way round but it is very difficult.
      And you’re right – there are not enough hours in the day especially if, like me, you need to fit in an hour or so of stupid time every evening in order to switch the brain off and sleep!


      • I don’t think your post is bitter or judgemental at all. You don’t dimiss the most narrow academic view of education and knowledge, but instead point out that there is much more about life and the world around to be learnt, and that all knowledge should be valued.


  2. I think you’re absolutely right. Here in the US, it’s not different, really, in terms of brainy vs. stupid. I think it’s a little ridiculous and am glad someone sees it a bit outside the box.

    And I love “gra!t”. The word itself is super exclamatory. Can’t beat that.


    • Hi Elisa,
      I will be using ‘gra!t’ again – it’s genius! (and, while I’m at it, so is Michael Morpurgo!)
      Thanks for your comments 🙂


  3. I’m brainy! Oh, hang on, no… no, sorry, I’m not. Oh well.

    I loved this post — you share many good points. And no, qualifications do not a genius make; we are complex beings and while string theory has its merits over a glass of port (what doesn’t hold merit if you have a glass of port?!) a well-knitted jumper is a thing of love and joy, and a skilled narrator will always be popular. You can’t compare them — only enjoy them. Like your lovely ‘gra!t’, I don’t correct my children’s ‘twenteens’ (I find them logical and beautiful) and I hope that somehow, by fluke or fancy, I can instil in my children enough self-confidence to enjoy being themselves. Just as they are.

    Happy Mother’s Day! 🙂


    • ‘String theory’, Martha? Good grief – you ARE brainy. It’s official. 😉
      Whatever your ‘credentials’, Martha, you obviously like to think about and discuss stuff, so I guess that makes you clever. Thanks for the Happy Mother’s Day yesterday. Hope you had a lovely day x


      • String theory is something I’ve heard of, not something I understand :)) Had a lovely day, thanks, hope you did too!



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