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American Pie: The Talents That Bloom To Blush Unseen

…One day when I was sitting at the bar of an English pub eating lunch, I became aware that the man sitting next to me was filling page after page of a notebook with minute script. This went of for so long that I became intrigued enough to set good manners aside and try to read what he was writing. To my surprise it was mathematical formulae of the most complex kind; equation after equation.

By his dress and general appearance, and the toil worn condition of his hands, he was clearly not an academic, which only served to increase my curiosity….

John Merchant recalls the straightjacket placed on intellectual people by the limitations of Britain’s educational system half a century ago.

To read more of John’s thoughtful words please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/american_pie/

During my lifetime I have witnessed the remarkable growth of mass access to higher education, nowhere more evident than in the USA. In the 1940’s and 50’s, when I was a child in England, higher education generally was available only to a chosen few: those who had wealthy parents, and whose family members had for generations attended the private, Preparatory schools that were a conduit to Oxford or Cambridge Universities. The, so-called, legacy students.

Otherwise, if a student from a less privileged family was outstanding enough, and had an influential mentor, he or she might gain admittance to one of the red brick institutions such as Sheffield, Leeds or Manchester Universities, or the London School of Economics. But there were no such people in my circle of acquaintance. My cohort’s expectations were to attend a primary school to learn the basics, and then at age eleven to be streamed either into a vocational trade school, or a grammar school that offered a broader curriculum, as dictated by how you performed in the Eleven Plus test.

One’s future was literally carved in stone at that early age, though later, opportunities to transfer were offered to belated developers, or those who weren’t making the grade in the more academic stream. At sixteen you were considered fit for the job market. Going back a generation, my mother had no educational prospects beyond being taught to read and write, add and subtract; as was true for her mother and father. At age eleven she became part of the work force.

It was not until I entered adulthood that I realized how constraining the lack of a good education was on people. My mother was “my mother,” and her father was “my grandfather,” and their intellect, or lack of it, was not evident to me, nor did I think it was important. When I reached adulthood I became aware of how intellectually capable both of them were, though they had only limited opportunities to express it.

My grandfather was a semi-skilled steel worker. It’s unlikely that his employers ever considered him for advancement, or that he had any expectations in that regard. Yet he was more than capable of undertaking more intellectually challenging work. Outside of his job, he had no avenues for self-expression until late in life, when he was fortunate enough to obtain an “allotment;” a piece of land where he could raise vegetables and flowers.

Overnight, or so it seemed, he became an expert and productive horticulturist. In reality he had been an avid reader of gardening magazines for years, but had no opportunities to put into practice the knowledge he’d acquired. The range of his expertise was impressive, as demonstrated by the variety and quantity of the vegetables and flowers he grew, including such exotics as hybrid Carnations and the large Japanese Chrysanthemums; plants that were challenging even to lifetime gardeners.

My mother, on the other hand, had ample opportunities to demonstrate her intellectual capacity, but no one took notice at the time, especially her family, though we appreciated the fruits of her talents. We all took for granted her skills in running a household and raising two children. Her repertoire in the kitchen was voluminous: from an incredible variety of the most delicate pastries, cakes and pies, to three course meals with a main course that might be fish, duck, pheasant, rabbit or any of the standard roasts. I never once saw her use a recipe.

Like her father, she also was an expert gardener, and filled our lives with roses and pansies, and lupines and poppies, set in resplendent herbaceous borders. Her rockeries were home to every kind of Alpine imaginable. Once my sister and I were grown, and my paternal grandparents, who lived with us, had died, she spent almost everyday, weather permitting, in her garden, or studying gardening encyclopedias. She knew the Latin names for all her plants. It never occurred to me to question how she became so expert in her diverse abilities, but now I realize what a remarkable achievement it was for someone with only a primary education, and I wonder what she might have aspired to if she’d had more tuition.

One day when I was sitting at the bar of an English pub eating lunch, I became aware that the man sitting next to me was filling page after page of a notebook with minute script. This went of for so long that I became intrigued enough to set good manners aside and try to read what he was writing. To my surprise it was mathematical formulae of the most complex kind; equation after equation.

By his dress and general appearance, and the toil worn condition of his hands, he was clearly not an academic, which only served to increase my curiosity. Either he was crazy, or there was some explanation that I couldn’t begin to imagine. In the end, curiosity got the better of me and I opened a conversation with the sheepish confession that I had been watching him write. He laughed good-humouredly and told me his story.

He said he worked as a shift foreman at a local steel plant making coke for blast furnaces, and that he had always been fascinated by mathematics, though he had no formal, higher education. He pursued his interest as a hobby, and had apparently passed on this innate ability to his son, who had become a professor of mathematics at Nottingham University.

The formulas he was writing in the notebook were for a paper his son was about to present, and who apparently didn’t have time to work through the math! Later, I wondered what society might have denied its self by not making higher education available to this man.

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