Where to Begin The Ragged University Story

I have been thinking about what to make the first entry of my Ragged University Blog. Since the start of this project I have enjoyed the fact that it compels me to find out about all the people in the world who have been great teachers, learners and thinkers. Learning about learning if you like. But what an infinite task. Do I take the great famous names still studied today for their contributions? Do I look to marvelously motivated people who invented or innovated ?


Do I look for the people who have taken the time to develop me as a person, advising me and giving that all important constructive criticism and support ? Do I look at the awe-inspiring collaborations of countless individuals who form great institutions and libraries enriching, the whole of society ?….


Well, without arriving at any specific answer, I am adopting an ‘all of the above’ default. I want to look to the people and works which inspire me and share them with others under the collective heading of learning. Not in several lifetimes can I, a team, or a city of people scratch the surface, but we can get an idea of the magnitude of what human beings are capable of through culture and society. I personally always stand impressed when in a good library. I can think of any question and then approach finding an answer within those walls. Often I think of books as listening to another person; an interpersonal universe I share in, a lifetimes knowledge revealed.


So where do I begin with this Odyssey ? It starts with the people around me, the people who have developed me and mentored me through their kindness and philanthropy. The great realisation in life for me was that in each person I meet there is something unique and passionately developed. I have been privileged to know many people throughout my life, two of which I feel are directly pertinent to the Ragged University, Mrs Eileen Broughton and Mr Leroy Wilsher.


These people have helped me understand that learning and the exchange of knowledge represent part of the foundations of a healthy society. For the purposes of this context, I shall call it learning exchange. It is found all about us – throughout entertainment, industry, and academia – and is an innate part of our behaviour. Indeed both Eileen and Leroy have been natural didacts and demonstrated the inspiring truth of the vocation of the teacher – themselves having worked in the formal education for some years prior to retirement.


Through knowing them both as friends, and helping where I could, I found that doing a little thing like showing them a function of their computer opened up a generosity of spirit which I was not fully aware of previously. Eileen, having been involved in the study of Economics insisted on making some remuneration for my time. I suggested that, in exchange, she could teach me something: Delighted, she became animated and said Joan Robinson, a famous economist in the 1920s said that when she was asked why she taught economics as a subject she replied “I teach economics so that people can know when an economist is telling them a lie”.


From this moment onwards we enjoyed a buoyant relationship where she would share with me insight into a subject I had all but written off as ‘boring’. Through her love of the subject and her passion, knowledge has become alive and fun rather than a chore, crystal clear rather than obfuscated. The conversations and time spent together are still so vivid that I would say she still constantly enriches my day to day experience. (Nessun dorma (In English: None shall sleep) is an aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot. She first introduced me to Operas; this is the music by which I shall always remember her.


Leroy Wilsher, similarly a retired teacher, inspires much of the same feeling. Roy has managed to enliven history, literature, educational theory and so much more. His introduction to Marc Bloch’s The Historians Craft started me looking at the subject of history in a light so different from the early perception which I had of it as a dusty lifeless subject. He has helped transform it from a subject of obsoletism into something of perpetual vitality – something more akin to Sir Francis Bacon’s conception of it as one of the main branches of human knowledge (to paraphrase; history being the knowledge of memory; science the knowledge of mind; and art the knowledge of imagination). I never tire of being introduced to something new and enlightening when it comes from someone so genuine and engaging.


It is a privilege to share the company of such great people, and my life is – in so many ways – created of them. I could name the great thinkers who have influenced me, but many of them you will find in no book or film or memoir. We are surrounded by the genius of people everyday, all the time, and it humbles me in a time of celebrity culture, where cult of personality gets mistaken for quality that people will share their genuine passions for things.
It is the most basic of human interactions for people to learn and to share knowledge; I also believe that it is a philanthropy of humanity which bears great fruit.


These things I am going to explore through this blog and through the Ragged University project. I invite everyone who is of a similar view to also be a part of this great journey retracing the steps of free education and the triumphs of the Ragged Schools. It is an appeal to reason and fun. If there is not an answer today, tomorrow there shall be one. I do not feel things insurmountable when they are approached pragmatically. Studying and learning about something is attainable. For these purposes I shall lay down one of my favourite quotes from a great educationalist called John Amos Comenius:


“If, in each hour, a man could learn a single fragment of some branch of knowledge, a single rule of some mechanical art, a single pleasing story or proverb(the acquisition of which would require no effort), what a vast stock of learning he might lay by.”


This speaks of Aesop’s famous hare and tortoise, it speaks of practically achievable things which amount to something which is inconcievable without actually doing it. I assure you though, by simply doing one thing a day, by learning one thing a day, it will be surprisingly soon that you look over your shoulder and are shocked that it adds up to more than you ever thought was possible.