Big City Ambition (September 2017)

This morning’s assembly is the result of combining my notes from Mr Grant’s assembly on Friday, a paragraph from the book I’m currently reading and some thoughts from the greatest thinker of the modern age. Over the next fifteen minutes or so I will stitch these elements together to say something about two pieces of Harris Westminster jargon, two words that we use to mean something particular and that we thus find particularly meaningful.

I’ll start with the thinker who, as a young woman found herself on the wrong side of a group of bullies and her response, to one in particular, is instructive. She said: “I walk with my head down, try to block you out 'cause I never impress you. I just want to feel okay again. I bet you got pushed around - somebody made you cold but the cycle ends right now. 'Cause you can't lead me down that road and you don't know what you don't know. Someday I'll be living in a big old city.” I hope that none of you feel like that – I hope that if you did you’d tell me: I hope that none of you ever make someone else feel like that.

Being at Harris Westminster places us in the enormously privileged position of having almost six hundred amazingly interesting people to share our days with. Each one of you has passions and interests that make you worth knowing and I hope that each one of you will find others to share those passions and interests. Some of mine that I hope you’ll share – although I’d be equally happy to find you had your own to share with me – include Diplomacy, a board game we play in the map room at 4.30 on Fridays – if you missed last week don’t worry, find the map room and come along; the last night of the proms which was on Saturday and you can still enjoy the world’s largest music festival on iPlayer; and Tim Vine who has a new radio show on Tuesdays at 6.30 and if I can work out how to listen again I’ll be incorporating his puns into my life. Sharing passions and interests is a joy – it means that we need never feel alone, it means that we need never put each other down. But I digress because the point is not the bullies that made our philosopher’s life difficult but her response to that difficulty. What kept her going, you see, was the promise she made herself, her long term-goal – her ambition. You can’t break me because some day I’ll be living in a big old city; I’ll make it out of your small-town mindset; I’ll be a success. An ambition is a powerful thing: it can keep you going when times are tough and give you something to aim for and that is why the first word in the Harris Westminster lexicon, the top word of the list on the red wall in our entrance is Ambition.

We are people of ambition. We want more than what we have right now. We throw ourselves into our opportunities holding nothing back because we are stretching for something beyond our reach and we know that if we play it safe we’ll get nowhere, if we keep one foot in our old habits we’ll end up with only what we started with.

Ambition is more than a pull to get us through hard times, though, it can, used correctly turn hard times into great times and to illustrate that I turn to my current novel – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a book, by the way, conceived whilst on a rather free-wheeling holiday in Switzerland with a couple of poetry’s wilder boys: Percy Bysche (that’s Mary Shelley’s husband) and Lord Byron. What they got up to when they weren’t writing gothic novels is a story for another day. I have, by the way, noticed that I haven’t told you the identity of my philosopher – this is deliberate, I’m not going to, although I will be dropping another hint later on. I’m hoping that some of you will guess, either because you recognise some of her sayings or because you’ve paid attention in previous assemblies and know something of my tastes. Part of the game in assemblies – and you will quickly learn that one of my tastes is a fondness for games – part of the game is that I will occasionally make oblique reference to some other body of work and see how many of you pick up on it. You get a point for each one you spot and as an incentive this year I’ve decided that points can be exchanged for extra credit which is interchangeable with regular credit a purpose for which I’m yet to find.

Back, however to Frankenstein and the title character, one Doctor Victor has been taken, by ambition, to university and has come to the conclusion that science is where the action is at. This is what he says: “From this day natural philosophy, and particularly chemistry, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, became nearly my sole occupation. I read with ardour those works, so full of genius and discrimination, which modern inquirers have written on these subjects. I attended the lectures and cultivated the acquaintance of the men of science of the university, and I found even in M. Krempe a great deal of sound sense and real information, combined, it is true, with a repulsive physiognomy and manners, but not on that account the less valuable. In M. Waldman I found a true friend. His gentleness was never tinged by dogmatism, and his instructions were given with an air of frankness and good nature that banished every idea of pedantry. In a thousand ways he smoothed for me the path of knowledge and made the most abstruse inquiries clear and facile to my apprehension. My application was at first fluctuating and uncertain; it gained strength as I proceeded and soon became so ardent and eager that the stars often disappeared in the light of morning whilst I was yet engaged in my laboratory. As I applied so closely, it may be easily conceived that my progress was rapid. My ardour was indeed the astonishment of the students, and my proficiency that of the masters.”

I’m charmed by the two teachers – the repulsive M. Krempe who is nonetheless often right and the delightful M. Waldman who smoothed the path of knowledge. I’m also struck by the way in which the studies of Chemistry, originally merely a means to an end or a source of Waldman-driven amusement became a joy in themselves and, as they did, so Frankenstein dedicates more time and energy to his studies, finding, as he does so, that his enjoyment of them increases in equal measure. I hope that you will find your studies so and if you are not then I suggest you follow this example and work harder at them – like the eponymous hero of this book (and I should apologise at this point for not taking the earlier opportunity to use the word eponymous which, as well as being a rather good REM album, is a delightful word for a character named in the title), like the eponymous hero of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein you will find that the harder you work, the easier it becomes and the more you enjoy it.

This is the heart of scholarship – the second of today’s pieces of jargon – and we describe scholarship as knowledge that is extensive and exact and thinking that is critical and scrupulous. I hope I’ve added a little to the extent of your knowledge today but it is with the idea of thinking scrupulously that I will close.

In Mr Grant’s assembly he mentioned, with Mathematical aplomb, the Cauchy-Schwartz inequality. I suspect that few of you would have been familiar with this mathematical gadget and choose, therefore, to believe that most of you will have googled it on your way back to school. For those few who didn’t I shall just say that it says that the area of a parallelogram with fixed side lengths and varying internal angle is maximised as a rectangle. It is one of an amazing array of mathematical theorems, equations and other wonders that are named after Baron Augustin-Louis Cauchy. He is the eponymous mathematician (and let nobody say I leave a hapax legomenon undisturbed) behind the Cauchy distribution, Cauchy sequences, Cauchy surfaces and the Cauchy product. He is responsible for a wonderful theorem that states that the integral of a continuous function around a closed loop in the complex plane is always zero and is definitely one of my top three favourite barons. He achieved all these Mathematical wonders by adopting a thoroughly scrupulous approach to Mathematics. Previous Mathematicians, such as Euler had engaged with new ideas by applying old methods and, in response to the question “But does that still work in that setting” had waved their hands and said “I dunno – probably”. Cauchy, on the other hand, refused to take any steps that were not rigorously justified, he took care with each line of his work that it followed logically from the previous one and as a result his proofs were all watertight. This is scrupulous thinking – a scruple is a tiny unit of weight, just over a gram, and to be scrupulous is to take care of tiny issues, not to sweep unknowns under the carpet, not to let great ends justify shoddy means, not to wave one’s hands and say “I dunno, probably”. Being scrupulous is a key part to being a scholar – it means that other scholars can trust your work because they know that you will have been harsher with it than anyone else would and it means, therefore that your conclusions will carry more weight than anyone else’s.

And, talking of conclusions, you’ll be wanting to know what happened to that Philosopher, did she achieve her ambition. Well, I’m glad to tell you that she did – she made it to New York and she found there a kaleidoscope of loud, found everyone wanting something more, they were searching for a sound they hadn’t heard before and it said Welcome to New York – it’s been waiting for you. And so with your ambitions. They may seem far away, obstructed by obstacles but they are there waiting for you. Waiting for you to get there, waiting for you to be the right kind of person to take advantage of them, waiting for you to learn what you need to know and when you get there they’ll say “welcome”. In the meantime, let’s go back to school. Thank you.