“At first I protested and rebelled against poetry. I was about to deny my poetic worlds. I was doing violence to my illusions with analysis, science, and learning Henry’s language, entering Henry’s world. I wanted to destroy by violence and animalism my tenuous fantasies and illusions and my hypersensitivity. A kind of suicide. The ignominy awakened me. Then June came and answered the cravings of my imagination and saved me. Or perhaps she killed me, for now I am started on a course of madness.”
― Anaïs Nin,
I started university an idealist and left a pococurante. In between, they did something to my brain. I don’t know whether that was what caused the radical shift in my attitude, but I suspect it wasn’t. I’ll come back to that.
Perhaps conscious of going to university and not really having any idea of what to expect, I decided that I was going to make the effort and I was going to be doing it for da kidz, so to speak. For noble reasons. A life of academia seemed quite appealing and if I was helping poor unfortunates, that’d be good too. Mind you, the fantasy of sitting around in wood panelled sets of rooms, smoking a pipe and getting pissed on sherry, wearing a lot of tweed and regaling undergraduates with stories that were only funny if you were dead clever didn’t do any harm. It was just the latest in a long line of variations on the same theme.
Diversion – Peter Bull
In my third year, I’d picked “Analysis of Political Interviews” as one of my options on the basis that I’d found the lecturer entertaining in previous lectures of his that I’d attended. I always went to lectures. I even went to some lectures that I wasn’t supposed to attend, in subjects I wasn’t studying. I only had about six hours of directed work, so it broke the week up quite nicely.
The first seminar consisted of exactly the same routine of every other week with Professor Bull: we were given a research paper that we had to summarise. That was it. From the next week onwards, we’d come back, present our summaries, discuss and conclude. The research papers we were given were of similar length: about thirty pieces of A4, smallish type. As was normal in those days, there were four or five of us in each seminar group. Tutorials were one on one.
At the seminar room the next week, I went first. I suppose I’d have taken about two or three minutes or so summarising its hypothesis, broad details of the method, results and conclusion. We discussed it for about five or six minutes and then moved on to the next one.
The next one took about half an hour because the girl was reading out a prepared speech and seemed to have removed perhaps five or six words out of the entire paper. Professor Bull might have given a flicker of his eyebrows as he led the discussion, but maybe not, too.
The next one took even longer than the last one. The seminar was only meant to last for an hour. We were already over by about half an hour and there were still two people to go. As it went on, Professor Bull was losing his ability to pretend that he didn’t mind being here. Halfway through the results, he had his head on the desk, tilted towards me, looking questioningly at me. I gave him a sympathetically sad smile with just a hint of flared nostril and he still looked bereft.
The penultimate one wasn’t too bad, a tidy ten minutes’ summary, a quick natter and onto the final one, which would have taken as long as the previous couple had Peter not kept shouting, “Move on!”
As he handed the next week’s research papers out, I noted that the penultimate girl’s and my papers were about three times the thickness of the others’.
And my mind flew back to the story of Rumpelstiltskin.
End of Diversion
By the end of the first year, I had the best exam results in my year by some distance.
Midway through the second year, I started asking questions. Like a dick. I can put my finger on the precise moment at which I realised that I was i) in the minority and, ii) in the wrong place.
It was another seminar, this time on Child Development. Specifically on the all time classic experiment, Meltzoff & Moore’s “Replicating Facial Gestures In Neonates”.
The basic idea of the study is this: the instant babies are born, if you pull a face in front of them, they copy the gesture. From pretty much the moment they are born. That’s it, basically.
My fellow students were enthralled by this news and discussed it eagerly. I looked, as I tend to at the best of times, somewhat blank.
Presumably in response to this expression, the lecturer turned to me and spoke.
“Neil, can you imagine how difficult it would be to build a robot that could replicate facial gestures?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “I expect it would be very difficult indeed, but what I can’t imagine is why anyone would want that,”
“No, you’re missing the point Neil. Imagine: you’d have to have video cameras for eyes and the images that the cameras recorded would have to be processed by a unit that could identify the various muscles and tendons that would have to be manipulated in order to produce that specific gesture and then, then, this information would have to be relayed to the robot’s own features and it work out how to produce an identical expression on them. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to do that?”
“I can, yeah,” I repeated, “What I’m struggling with is imagining why anybody would want to do that.”
“What are you getting at?”
“What I’m getting at is that it would be difficult to paint the Forth bridge with a felt tipped pen, and also of no benefit to anyone, so why would anyone bother doing that? Same for this.”
“Let’s open that up to the floor, shall we?”
And every other bastard went on at length, often repeating verbatim what the person prior to them had said about it, dropping in quotes from the lecturer herself; talking about how interesting it was. The message was clear: they were all fucking aesthetes and I was a twat.
“It would appear that you are in the minority, Neil…” the lecturer said.
“Well, no.” I replied, seeing exactly where this was going, “One, I didn’t say it wasn’t interesting, I said it was impractical and unhelpful. Two, even if I didn’t think it was interesting and everybody else did, it wouldn’t be reasonable to conclude from that that therefore the majority was right, would it? Is this a representative sample? What if we find five people who think the Earth’s flat. From these parameters, they’d be correct.”
“No, I don’t think that’s true at all, Neil.” she said.
“Well, if the majority of people thought it in a given area, by such standards, that would make them right, wouldn’t it?”
“Of course not,”
“Alright, in which case there’s no advantage to being in the majority, because they can be wrong.”
“…Neil, can you imagine how difficult it would be to build a robot…”
“Yes. Yes, I can. Look, I do see how difficult it would be, but you don’t seem to be considering my point at all,”
“Your point is fatuous, though.”
“No it’s not. The concept of building a robot for the purpose of replicating facial gestures is fatuous. Thinking about whether something is worth doing or not before you do it, that’s a good idea. Otherwise you waste your time on nonsense, don’t you?”
“Why is it fatuous to build a robot to help us understand what happens in our brains, Neil?”
“It’s fatuous because, look, babies do it, right? They replicate facial gestures don’t they? They do it and we know they do it. We can’t stop them doing it, even if we wanted to. The reason it’s fatuous is because there’s no point to it! Babies do it and we know they do it and, in this instance, that’s the end of the story, isn’t it? I know what you’re getting at: the brain is very sophisticated, even at the point of birth. It can do complicated things. But even if building a robot would help us understand how our brains work – and I don’t see how that’s supposed to work either, I mean, building a robot that walks wouldn’t help us to understand how humans walk, would it – it wouldn’t be helping us with anything that needed any help, would it? I mean, look, there’s all these mental disorders that make people suffer terribly and we know practically nothing about most of them. As far as I can gather, we can’t even really tell what mental illness is at all. Bearing in mind how many real issues the world has with mental illnesses, would it not make more sense to spend what must be a finite budget on things that’ll actually do some bloody good for some poor buggers?”
“Are you suggesting that we shouldn’t study things that we find interesting?”
A bit weaselly, I thought. Again. I’d rejected the idea that she was a bit Wind In The Willows earlier. Fair dos, she had me harping in at her, didn’t she?
“Yes, I’m suggesting that. I’m suggesting we should only study things that are boring. Of course I’m not suggesting that, I’m suggesting that for a subject with practical considerations, such as psychology, with limited resources, why are practical considerations not considered? How much was spent on this? This is the sort of thing that puts the general public off psychology – ‘Oh, they just spend loads of money finding out things everybody already knew,’ Maybe this is why psychology gets sniggered at as being a bit Mickey Mouse,”
“So, if psychology is Mickey Mouse, as you so delightfully put it, why are you studying it? What does that make you?”
“Are you kidding? I don’t believe in throwing the baby out with the bathwater, despite there generally being more bathwater than baby. Psychology’s problem is that the bathwater seems to think it’s more important than the baby.”
“Right, well, we don’t have all day to discuss silly complaints. Moving on…”
And that was it. My tutor told me that I’d pissed that lecturer off and maybe it would be better if I kept my mouth shut in future, but I didn’t get sent down or anything.
Diversion – Getting Sent Down.
I didn’t get sent down at all, but I came close – apparently – on two separate occasions:
- Third year. My girlfriend had commented that I was – and I’m paraphrasing because I can’t remember her exact words – ‘A streak of piss without a discernible arse.’ I’d decided to work on this so that she’d be less likely to leave me when we got back together. My plan was, as usual, not really thought out – a bit like Meltzoff & Moore’s money making fame ticket – join the rugby team. Being an arseless streak of piss, this wasn’t the best idea in the world. Anyway, I joined up, went to training, where it became apparent that I was relatively quick on my feet which, provided nobody got anywhere near me, would be good. I was put on the wing and told to go to the gym three times a week. I went a total of once. I couldn’t even lift the pins out to lighten the load of weights to be lifted. Everybody was a beefcake except me, so I gave that up and bought a pair of dumbbells to work with in my room instead. On my first game, I was stiff arm tackled, dislocating my jaw. That precipitated a fight, which I was in the middle of. I somehow managed to connect my fist with someone’s jaw, but only really cut my hand open on them. I was sent off, then had to go before a ‘representative of the vice chancellor’, at which I was given a five game ban and, in any case, banned for life from representing the University of York for bringing them into disrepute. Any further transgressions at all on my part would result in my being sent down.
- At the interview with my tutor before I left for the last time, he commented that I’d not actually managed to complete a single weekly essay in the entire three years I’d been there. “Remarkable,” he said, “I can’t think why you’ve not been sent down. Why didn’t you do any of them?” I told him I was under the impression they were optional. Apparently not.
End of Diversion
And thus, from an idealistic first year to a totally disinterested – and uninterested – graduate in less than three years. That’s good going, isn’t it? It’s my own fault.
I don’t know if I was just looking for something to moan about so I could convince myself that there was no point making any effort any more because it was a load of bollocks, or if I genuinely thought I was some sort of crusader for the mentally infirm and in need of help. It might have been a bit of both, I wouldn’t rule either of them out entirely. I’d left university thoroughly disillusioned and, as I said at the start, they’d done something to my brain.
I still don’t really know what it was that they did – and I don’t mean they removed an important part of it, or injected monkey glands into it – but it changed me. It’s hard for me to put my finger on it, but if I was to make a guess, it would be something along the lines of instilling something like the scientific method so rigorously in my brain that all I was capable of doing with it was pissing my lecturers off with it. Or what I considered worthwhile use of the scientific method was at any rate.
One thing was for sure though: there would be no tweed suits, no wood panelled sets of rooms and no sycophantic undergraduates to entertain with sherry and anecdotes in my future. They wouldn’t have had me and fair dos.
I sort of wish I’d been less of a clever twat at university. After all, even babies know how to replicate whatever their elders show them, which is more than you could have said for me at that point in time.