Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

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  • David Willows

A Vision of the Future of School: Posthumous Lessons from Oliver Sacks

I often wish that I had had the opportunity in my life to meet Oliver Sacks.

The man once described by the New York Times as the “Poet Laureate of medicine”, his insights into what it means to be human appear to extend well beyond the traditional limits of neuroscience and psychiatry.


Fascinated by his strange and powerful stories of those living at the “far borderlands of neurological and human experience”, he was undoubtedly one of the reasons I left the comforts of Oxford’s Bodleian library to spend time serving as a priest in the nearby psychiatric hospitals.


Twenty years and several careers later, I walked through the forest next to my home and listened to his last interview. It was like losing the mentor that I had never met, but who had somehow, along the way, helped me connect the pieces of my own life and career together.


It is the fate, the genetic and neural fate of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. Even so, I am shocked and saddened at the sentence of death, and I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet, and this in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.


A little more than four years after his death, I found myself sitting alone in a small cafe in Bucharest reading his last essays, Everything In Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales, published posthumously earlier this year. I discovered the book by chance in a bookstore whilst shopping for Christmas gifts and decided it was one I would keep for myself.


As I turned each page, the voice and perspective on human life was as familiar as ever. Only this time, it was as if there was something else that he was trying to teach us about the kinds of schools we need to ensure that our planet and its children flourish.


Five “moments” of the book, in particular, are worthy of mention, if only to encourage you to read it for yourselves. Each one reminds us of something we would do well to bear in mind as we re-envision learning in our schools.


Oliver Sacks describes his own learning journey as a personal quest and adventure of self discovery.

  1. The transactional relationship between the student and teacher. In describing the “splendid teacher” that had inspired his love of biology, he speaks of Mr Pask as an “impossibly demanding and exacting taskmaster.” And yet, in return says Sacks, “he gave us all of himself - all his time, all his dedication, for biology.” Powerful learning, it seems, always takes place when both student and teacher are giving their all in pursuit of deeper understanding.

  2. The difference between learning and going to school. On the whole, Sacks describes how he disliked school: “I could not be passive - I had to be active, learn for myself, learn what I wanted, and in the way that suited me best. I was not a good pupil, but I was a good learner… At the library I felt free… free to roam and to enjoy the special atmosphere and the quiet companionship of other readers, all, like me, on quests of their own.” How many of the children in our school, I wonder, would say the same? How many of our schools are truly designed to allow children to create their own learning quests?

  3. The need to listen to let students guide us more. To be fair, Sacks doesn’t address this issue directly, but he does describe the story behind Frigyes Karinthy’s famous work, A Journey Round My Skull, published in 1936. He describes the moment in which Karinthy is diagnosed with a brain tumour: “The scene is one that could occur, and does occur, in hospitals all over the world - the sudden focus on an intriguing pathology, and the complete forgetting of the (perhaps terrified) human being who happens to have it.” This is why, he concludes, we need to have more books from the vantage point of patients. And maybe, as educators, we can translate this into our own world and think about what schools would be like if we took the time to listen more to the experience of students in our schools and encouraged them to help us design the kind of learning that they need.

  4. Why schools need gardens. Gardens, says Sacks, are “essential to the creative process” and, in many cases, “gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.” This point is simple. Given his deep understanding on human health and wellbeing, I strongly believe that if Sacks was designing a school for the future, he would insist on a garden, not only as a place in which to play, but a place for children to interact with and tend.

  5. Wisdom cannot be taught. Sacks quotes directly from Proust when he says that “We cannot be taught wisdom… we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.” And perhaps this is one of the central themes of this remarkable collection of essays. At the end of his life, Sacks looks back on his school days, his Oxford-styled education and distinguished career, but the synthesis of a life’s experience (wisdom) essentially comes down to stories of a few individuals that inspired him, a night alone as a child in London’s Natural History Museum and the resilience to undertake a most extraordinary learning journey in his own way and on his own terms.

As we move in 2020 and a new decade, our schools and our world face new challenges that will demand much of us and the children around us. Sacks will not accompany us on this stage of the journey, but I for one feel fortunate to have travelled this far with him and his stories of an extraordinary life.

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