For Isaac Newton it was a vivid experience which set into motion a train of thought which would change the world.
An apple fell to the ground.
It was an everyday event which might happen in front of you or me, which sent his mind reeling into a vortex of questions which made our world a clearer place.
William Stukeley recalled talking with Newton in his memoirs of Newton’s life: “Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to him self: occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a comtemplative mood.
“Why should it not go sideways, or upwards, but constantly to the earths centre? Assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. ”
Newton’s experience of the world led to learning, the like of which the rest of us can only daydream.
It was American educationalist of the twentieth century David Kolb who coined the term experiential learning.
Everything starts with first hand experience of the world, Kolb says. We watch carefully and think on what has happened, before doing something to test our thoughts. The results come in the result of a whole new set of experiences, and the cycle begins again.
This afternoon, at three o clock precisely, my good husband becomes a postgraduate of all cleverness; a holder of a certificate of considerable brain. He must wear a mortar board, and one of those voluminous black gowns, and go to Kingston to become accredited.
For a year, Phil was unavailable for much of Sunday, studying and writing and rewriting and swatting. For a year I proof read essays and brought endless cups of tea as hypotheses were tweaked.
It has been a long haul and we are all very proud of Postgraduate Phil. He has embarked on a hallowed path which began back in the 11th or 12th centuries, when the mediaeval universities were born.
The Christian cathedral schools grew and changed into universities: and back then it was no mere year of study to reach postgraduate status. Six years, it took, to study a broad range of disciplines: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
Only then was one permitted to specialise. You could be a lawyer, a doctor or a cleric. All professions which would lead to a lifetime of practice. A Doctor might work out of a university, but he would still heal the sick. The academic research informed ruthlessly practical professions.
But how is a simple soul -say, a scarecrow – to find true learning?
The search for brains is a well documented one, set down as it was by L Frank Baum. The book concerned four friends, one of whom was obsessed with the quest for intelligence.
But on closer inspection he did not want simply to be smart: but to be perceived as smart by others.
The Wizard told him he already had them, but it was not what the Scarecrow wanted to hear.
“You don’t need brains,” Oz told the scarecrow; “You are learning something every day. A baby has brains, but doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”
For thousands of years, we have been sending our cleverest men to university to get brains: to equip themselves with what we call expertise. But if Oz is right, the moment of qualification is not an end, but a beginning.
An intriguing thought if you happen to have lived life backwards.
TH White’s Merlin is a wizard who has done just that, with a very long life indeed.
He epitomises this lifelong fascination with experiences and reflection. By the time we meet the Wizard he has witnessed half an eternity. and has drawn myriad conclusions from his wild and wonderful experiences.
He has watched the natural world and learned to live alongside it. His upper room is packed with the trappings of a millennium, from cigarette cards to a life-size crocodile. His mind, ever charismatic, has been experiencing and reflecting for a very long time.
And it is with reflection that the jigsaw pieces fit together. Never let it be said that Merlin does not know the whole picture.
Learning: it’s a lifelong business, and it goes in ever-increasing circles like ripples on a pond. With one sweep of a pike’s tail we begin to ask questions which might end up in a hushed library, or at the end of a fishing line.
So while Phil The Clever may collect his piece of paper tomorrow, he will maintain the steepest of learning curves.
Just for the very joy of learning.