New Starts

[Assembly notes: MBAR]

I hope that you’ve all had a good start to the year. It feels as though we’ve been back for ages, although really it’s been less than a week! For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Dr Read, and I teach a lot of philosophy, a certain amount of physics, and a small amount of religion.

Some of you might be thinking, “That’s an odd mix.” But in my mind, they go together perfectly; both philosophers and physicists are fascinated by the details of how the world fits together, in whether there’s any underlying logical pattern to the seemingly random phenomena which surround us. That’s partly what I’d like to talk about this morning, those unexpected links – about doing two things which seem completely different, but which end up reinforcing each other.

It probably won’t surprise many of you to learn that I was a pretty academic student when I was at school. Kind people would have called me studious or scholarly; the less kind, geeky or nerdy. Although you might find it harder to believe, I was also incredibly shy. But I made sure that I never just stuck to the books. I got involved with house drama, and then school plays. I started learning the violin – I was never very good, but I joined the orchestra. I’ve never enjoyed team sports; but I felt part of a team when I was in a theatre, or sawing away on the back desk of the second violins. And you know what? Those two activities ended up reinforcing each other. Being in any team means that you have to get on with people, you have to be committed, you have to learn your lines, or practice your part – or spend the hours in training if you play sports. Not because it’s going to make you look good, but because other people are relying on you, and there’s not only the fear of letting them down – but also a genuine thrill when it all goes right, when things click and the play or the symphony or the match go well.

Of course, now you expect me to carry on and say that they also helped with my studies. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t – personally I think that the link between the academic and the extra-curricular is pretty subtle and complicated. Maybe I would have become less shy, and become more comfortable working in groups, and talking to hundreds of people, anyway, even without those activities; maybe the music and the drama, in my case, weren’t essential to the way I turned out. It’s a bit hard to tell, but I certainly believe that they helped. There’s a more general point to be made, which is about what’s sometimes called character, and sometimes called personality. The sort of people who tried new things, who liked having hobbies, at school tend to become the sort of people who continue to try new things and to have rewarding and satisfying hobbies when they’re adults, too. If you look around the RGS teachers, you’ll find a lot of very interesting people, some of whom spend their free time in pretty unexpected ways. Now, of course, maybe this is getting cause-and-effect the wrong way around; people who like to try new things in general will, well, try new things at school, and then continue to be like that when they’ve left. Maybe it’s nothing to do with a conscious decision, a choice that you make about how to live your life; maybe that’s already fixed.

What can I say? That’s not how it feels to me. I’m pretty certain, and I hope that the psychologists would agree, that many aspects of personality, of character, are fairly flexible, and can be influenced by our conscious choices. Without falling into the logical problems of Jean-Paul Sartre and the existentialist movement, and without sounding like a cheap motivational poster, you can choose who you want to be – obviously, within certain limits. So I hope, if ever my name comes up in conversation amongst my old schoolfriends, or when they see my updates on facebook, they think, “Oh yes, Marc Read. I remember him. Nice guy – bright, and got involved in stuff.” Actually, I’d like to think that’s what my students, colleagues, and friends say about me now, as well – please don’t tell me what you really say!

Some of you are sitting there, thinking, “but… but… surely, it’s OK to be the quiet one, who doesn’t do much outside of class. Life’s not a popularity contest, I don’t particularly care what other people think about me.” That’s pretty much what I thought when I started secondary school. Nowadays, I’d say; “Well, sure, maybe you’re right. But if you’ve never been part of a team, if you don’t feel connected to a group beyond yourself… you should really try it. Don’t knock it until you have given the whole commitment thing a go. If it still doesn’t interest you, if you get nothing from it, then sure, sit back quietly. But I’d be very surprised.”

Thank you. Have a great year.

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