Reflections on Mountains and Learning

My brother has left footprints down various paths that I have tried to follow – in sport, academia, the arts – although rarely with his thoroughness and application

The following piece was awarded First Prize in the OU Students Association Freshers writing competition. The author, Nigel, is from Guernsey and has just commenced his first year of English Literature and Creative Writing.

“Old chestnuts don’t get much hoarier than that!”

I didn’t say it out loud – at least I don’t think I said it out loud – but I certainly thought it.
My older brother was delivering his presentation with typical professionalism in the lecture theatre of the Royal Geographic Society. It was just like him to have secured such a prestigious venue for his talk. He’s a perfectionist – everything needs to be ‘just so’. Friends, family and colleagues were gathered to hear about his attempt to climb eight peaks during his six-month sabbatical. This was a worthy and challenging endeavour to raise funds for charity, which is probably why he was taking pains to explain why turning back before reaching the summit of Mount Kenya should not be regarded as failure.

“For as in life, climbing is about the journey, not the destination”, he proclaimed to his audience, many nodding in sage agreement. Thankfully no-one could see my toes slowly curl in my shoes.

My brother has left footprints down various paths that I have tried to follow – in sport, academia, the arts – although rarely with his thoroughness and application to detail. And so, partially inspired by his climbing stories and partially by my French ski guide, I took on a number of peaks myself. I then began to feel a twinge of remorse for my uncharitable reaction to his words ten years previously; because what I had taken at the time as a tired old platitude assumed greater meaning the more time I spent climbing. Mountain ascents offer endless opportunities for self-reflection. Thoughts turn to such questions as: “Why do I want to do this?”; “What am I trying to achieve?”; “What do I fear?”; “What is there about myself that might be an impediment to my success?”.

The lure of the summit is motivating; the feeling of accomplishment on the summit is fleeting. Looking back, I realise that most of what I learned while climbing was not whilst stood at the top of a mountain, but on the way up and on the way down; it was in those periods that I came to acknowledge who I was, identify what my skills and limitations were, and then crucially take due account of that in how I went about my task.

That twinge of remorse became a nagging guilt, and more so since I discovered a renewed relevance for my brother’s emphasis on ‘the journey’ as I re-applied myself to study following a break of forty-two years. I admit that I responded with some cynicism to the term ‘learning journey’ when starting my Access Course last February. I was not familiar with the expression, nor with the concept of maintaining a ‘study journal’. My focus was directed elsewhere — I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn facts; I wanted to learn how to do things, write, express myself and be creative. Above all, I was keen to make a better fist of being a student than at my previous attempt when as a nineteen-year-old I was more interested in making friends, making an impression and making whoopie.

I knew that as in climbing, I would need to acquire – or at least hone – certain skills in order to achieve my goals. I was aware that as a student these skills would include note-taking, essay planning and writing, and time management. But when I read in the course syllabus that I was to study such exotic subjects as hip hop, football banners and graffiti what little confidence I had, began to drain from me. Of these subjects I knew nothing of the language, culture or fact. They made me feel uneasy. I feared that as a white, middle class, late middle-aged man of English baby-boom-era education, I would be incapable of unloading decades of acquired preconceptions, preferences and values that would be obstacles to learning as an impartial scholar. My opinions and analysis would be shamefully skewed.

Comfort was delivered from an unexpected quarter. I wasn’t entirely sure what the conversations with my tutor were intended to achieve. But we came to speak more about me and my response to the rediscovered learning process than we did about the subject matter of my study. And the more we spoke, the more I understood that if knowledge is the summit, then my student journey is the ascent. I have certainly acquired knowledge, and in study areas I had never imagined I would find so engaging. But more importantly my whole
approach has changed; I no longer fear that my age, my formal education, or my ‘world view’ need be an impediment to academic progress. My mind is not an empty space to be populated with facts; it is already cluttered with perspectives and experiences. These I am learning to rearrange, reapply or reject, rather than trying to ignore. I cannot change who I am, and I need not change who I am. But just as I might assess an academic source for bias, so I need to make the same assessment of myself as I apply my eyes, ears and brain to my studies. It might then happen – indeed it should happen – that my perspectives and experiences will change through this process, but that change is not the starting point of learning, it is one of the outcomes. This realisation has renewed my confidence and recharged my enthusiasm.

Mountaineering changed me for the better. But there was no ‘eureka moment’ on a summit. It was the ascent itself that revealed to me who I was as an aspiring climber, and how I could improve. My student journey has now done exactly the same for me as an aspiring academic and although there are certain learning goals that I find irresistibly alluring, I already feel that the journey towards their attainment is more important.

Thanks bro!

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