On mountains and great conversations: the importance of knowing a little about a lot 

As some readers of this blog might know, I am a keen hillwalker and mountaineer and I spend many happy days each year wandering over the Lake District fells, bagging Scottish Munros and scaling Alpine peaks. Sometimes I go out on my own (bagging obscure peaks is not for everyone) but more commonly I walk with others. Often these are friends whom I have known for a very long time but, particularly in my ten years in the Cambridge University Hillwalking Club, I would frequently go out with people I had never met before. And, although moments of tranquil silence are one of the great pleasures of the mountains, so too is the opportunity to spend many hours in pleasant conversation.

What would we talk about? Well, sometimes we would discuss the mountains, our route or what we planned to have for dinner in the hut that night. But generally our conversation would range over a vast array of topics. Up a hillside I have debated the causes of the Spanish Civil War, had my views on Roman Britain healthily debunked, and pondered the motivations of Cromwell in 1649. I have had people tell me about black holes, about glacial cirques and about the formation of basalt. I’ve discussed Shakespeare, predicate logic, Gödel’s theorem, epidemiology, the diagnosis of appendicitis, Welsh pronunciation, the structure of a jet engine, voice recognition software, the US constitution, the design of wind turbine blades, and many, many other things.

About all of these things, I originally knew very little. But, and this is the clincher, I always found that I knew enough to be able to keep the conversation going. In the same way, as I held forth on whatever period of history I felt like pontificating on that day, my tolerant fellow walkers knew enough to be able to ask questions, to ponder possibilities and, at times, to critique what I had to say. No two of us had the same knowledge base and, indeed, our particular areas of expertise varied wildly. Yet, because everyone had a sufficient knowledge base, they had the ‘activation energy’ they needed to join in with the conversation.

Mountainsides are a particularly good place to notice this phenomenon in the modern world. Even if you have a good signal, often the weather conditions are sufficiently unpleasant to prevent you from taking out your phone to look something up. And in any case, what better way to spoil a conversation! When you have hours of time to fill with nothing but the company of one another, it is amazing what you can drag from the depths of your mind.

And it is this, of course, that makes you learn. I have learnt a great deal by listening to fellow hillwalkers, and I am forever grateful for what they have taught me. This is lifelong learning incarnate. But it is vital to note what made this possible: it was the fact that I and my fellow walkers were all sufficiently well-educated generalists. Whilst each of us knew a great deal about our particular rabbit hole, what mattered was that we all also knew a little about a lot.

I want my pupils to have this. I want my pupils to be able to sit down for an extended period of time (ideally on a mountainside) and to converse for hours on end about all the fascinating things our world contains. By teaching them a broad, knowledge-rich curriculum, I am hoping to prepare them for these conversations in the future.

And should your headteacher ever question the value of the Duke of Edinburgh’s award, feel free to send her this post!

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2 Comments on On mountains and great conversations: the importance of knowing a little about a lot 

  1. As a quick aside, this reminds me of a few months ago and the first time we’ve ever used a phone on a mountain, when at around 5:30pm my 13yo daughter called from the top of a ~3,250m Dolomites mountain in clear weather without any signal difficulties, and impishly told her mother that we’d be “a bit late for dinner… oh and probably late for breakfast too”. Long story but a cheerful, impish child makes an excellent companion for an unplanned night at the top of a mountain courtesy of someone’s typo in the Time field on a pretty, laminated route-card. I also suspect they’re better company than people who talk about Gödel’s theorem…

    …but I don’t know because although we only do a small fraction of your greedy outdoors activity, I’ve had quite a few of those convivial, interesting conversations with strangers and they’ve never been that specialist regardless of whether they’re a specialist in something. It’s holiday/leisure time and for the most part that would be the shop-talk we’re all trying to have a rest from. When deep not-work expertise has surfaced it has usually been about the immediately local geology, flora, fauna and history. Much of the talk is about lives and places, and of course recommendations and stories of previous outdoors adventures. Are you in a more intellectually super-selective bubble via your friends and CUHC etc?

    We’re necessarily quite D-I-Y because outdoors/mountain clubs are normally adult-only, but from my perspective these activities appear to select for people more inclined to explore the realms of knowledge in much the same way they’re exploring hills and mountains. Amongst people I’ve bumped into there’s a definite bias towards the right side of the curve e.g. the most common professions have been something medical or academic, but regardless of the day-job most seem to have a kindred spirit which includes more open and enquiring minds, not just a stock of knowledge.

    I wonder how much of this is nature or nurture? Perhaps aquiring knowledge does increase the thirst for more, but in my routine life there are lots of people who just have little enthusiasm for expanding their horizons and that includes some with a university degree. I’m for what they’re doing regardless, but it will be interesting to see how the knowledge-rich schools pan out in this respect: will it just make children more knowledgeable, or will it also light significantly more of the fires that I believe are another pre-requisite for those mountainside conversations you want?

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