Hiking in Darien (June 2021)

I have for you today a thesis and a response – but first a joke: I met my friend Colin last night, he’s got a new job as a magician’s assistant: he’s the one tied to the wheel in his speedos when she throws knives blindfold. I asked him how it was going – “oh, the hours are good,” he said, “but some of the actual minutes are rather agonising”.

Perhaps you’ve heard that one before, you’ve certainly heard my thesis before because it’s the old favourite, tried and tested, “Learning is Amazing” because I was reflecting this weekend on how amazing it really is: powerful, opening doors and forging connections, joyful, brightening the world and making sense of it, and possibly best of all, addictive: the more you learn, the more you realise there is to learn, the more you learn the better you get at learning.

This seems a good segue to the poem I’ve been learning – it’s called “On First looking into Chapman’s Homer” and it’s by John Keats

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne
But did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise
Silent upon a peak in Darien.

It’s pretty brilliant. One of the things I love about it is that when thinking about it you shouldn’t immediately reach for the phrase “It’s a metaphor” – which I think is lazy poetry analysis. Keats has literally got a new book, and he really likes it. Another thing I like is how it leads you on, Keats’ book is a translation of Homer, a Greek poet who tended to use epithets to describe his characters: grey-eyed Athena, white-armed Hera, well-greaved Greeks, much-suffering Odysseus, wind-swift Iris, rosy-fingered Dawn. It’s therefore rather clever to call him deep-browed Homer, playing the same game (and for the same reason – the metre needs another two syllables). Homer wrote in Greek, which Keats didn’t read – Chapman translated, or rather paraphrased, the Iliad and Odyssey into English. The Watcher of the skies is William Herschell who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, and stout Cortez is a mistake – Vasco Nunez de Balboa was the first European to see the eastern shore of the Pacific, hiking through the mountains of a region of Panama called Darien.

Learning is amazing – so how do we do it? Well, we need to work hard, to spend time on it – I think many of you are good at doing that, if you know that you are not then find someone to copy and pick up their good habits. Spend time doing what, though? When learning my poem I wrote it on the whiteboard in my office and I spent time in the same room, I spent time looking at it, reading it over, and this did absolutely nothing for me in terms of learning it – none of the words went into my head that way. In order to learn the poem I had to try to recite it, and check it, see what I got right, and correct what I got wrong. Two lines at a time, putting it together, pacing up and down in my office trying to use that rhythm to help me. Reading is too easy – I was kidding myself that the content was going in – only by reciting, only by doing would it stick.

This isn’t just me, not just a matter of preference – it’s how learning works. Uranus is visible to the naked eye – humans have been looking at it for thousands of years but it wasn’t until 1781 that it was discovered because you don’t learn by gazing at the skies, but by watching them, recording what you see, analysing it, recognising that the faint star you saw last night is still there but it’s moved, it’s wandering, it’s a planet and not a star at all.

Balboa found the Pacific in 1510 – eighteen years after Columbus reached the Americas. He didn’t get there by sailing round the coast, gazing from his ship – he had to go ashore and hike up the mountains – he had to do the hard work in order to gaze upon that wide expanse of ocean. And here I have a brief parenthesis on the brilliance of Keats’ poem, because having said it’s not a metaphor – that Chapman’s Homer is a real book that Keats really liked – I’ve now unearthed a wonderful metaphor within it. At the beginning we hear about the many islands that Keats had been round and at the end stout Cortez gazes out in contrast at the Pacific; metaphor means to carry meaning over – in this case from gazing across the Pacific rather than the waters round the British Isles, to reading the Homeric legends rather than the simpler tales he was used to. You don’t analyse poetry by assuming it’s a metaphor and wondering what it means – you analyse poetry by reading what it says, understanding the first meaning and then watching the poet carry it over to another experience. The more you travel, the wider the seas you get to stare at.

And how then, do you learn, what is the right response to the thesis that learning is amazing? It is to work hard doing hard work – and this is where I think many of you fall down. You’re putting the hours in, but you’re not making them hard enough. Revising is not re-reading, looking over your notes is too easy, you have to do, you have to write, and test yourself, and compare, and correct. Poking at your phone is passive – find some questions you can’t do and try to answer them anyway, get the wrong answers written down and then check and correct them; reading through the mark-scheme first is no use.

Use your friends sensibly – my friend, Colin, is real, and before Covid hit we would go hiking in Spain, and there would be two kinds of conversation we’d have – one would be over the breakfast table, lazily drinking our coffee, planning our route, and the other would be slightly out of breath as we strode up the hillside. I’ve been up hills with Colin that I would never have climbed alone – we support each other, challenge each other, encourage each other on, but we only do that because we know we have to stop the breakfast table chat: it’s a lot of fun but no matter how long you stare at a map it doesn’t get you up the hill. Similarly I encourage you to work alongside your friends, you’ll find you can do more with a companion, but make sure you know the difference between study that gets you up the hill and chatting that leaves you at the bottom.

You’ve got a week of study leave for your exams – use it wisely. Make sure you put in a solid two hours of silent, concentrated, hard work before you take your break. You’ll be allowed to go outside, so by all means get some fresh air, visit the park, enjoy the sunshine, but make sure you come back to your books. Taking a break is wise – spending all day on the grass is foolish in the extreme. And don’t try and convince yourself that you’re working hard lying in the sunshine – you’re not.

Once the exams are over you’ll have choices – are you going to flick through Tik-Tok or read a novel. There’s nothing wrong with internet nonsense (I have doubts about Tik-Tok’s innocence, but that’s another story), but make sure you do the hard thing too. Make sure that when you do your response you focus on the things that are difficult, things you can’t do. If your response is general questions on a topic then some of them will be easy and there’s no point working hard if the work you’re doing is easy work.

When it comes to learning it’s not just the hours that matter – you have to make the actual minutes count too.