A school trip to the Land of Philosophy and Umbrellas: A dear Green place and Auld Reekie in rain and shine.

'Where's Nando's?'
I’ve taken a break from skewering educational research of wonky and illegitimate provenance, or badly reviewing portrayals of teachers in the movies; instead I spent a week on a Philosophy tour of Scotland with a band of stalwart sixth formers-seventeen, I’d like to add, which surely qualifies me for some kind of Olympic medal for Buddha-like calm. I was planning on writing about Jamie’s Dream Kitchen part deux this weekend, because they weren’t showing it in the forecourt of Nando’s in the sodding rain.

We started off in Edinburgh, which is, as anyone who’s been will testify, a fabulous place to visit. Not only is it the Heart Disease Capital of the entire world- yes, we’re very proud; Burkino Faso was catching up last year, but we deep-fried a few cigarettes and saw them off- but it’s also a splendidly compact and accessible little picture box of a city. Like Paris, much of Edinburgh’s best china is focused on one area:  it’s possible to walk in a concentric circle starting at at the Scott Monument and spend a good 48 hours seeing nothing but scenes from the 1960 Disney film Greyfriars Bobby lit by faint, but crystal-clear sunshine, and inhale nothing but hops. It's an agreeable city, and when the Sun shines, it polishes its teeth, and sparkles.

There was, to be fair, a good deal of hoofing, and even the sturdiest of my student fellowship found their resolve put through a rainy mangle. Fortunately I managed to convince them that it was an enormous game of Wii hiking, although they kind of smelled a rat when we got to the top of Arthur’s Seat (a hill or a mountain depending on how tough you want to sound, that rears up in the centre of Auld Reekie and turns it into an rather grand, tartan and granite doughnut) and there were no plug sockets. There was, however, a jewellery box view of orange marbles and fairy castles twinkling all around us in the crepuscular haze as evening turned to night.

It’s hard not to love a city that lays its best cutlery our for you so easily- from the Victorian folly of Calton Hill to the grid of New Town, the endless, subsiding graveyards and their cold, twisted ironwork, Edinburgh doesn’t have to try hard to impress; it doesn’t need to, and the viewer merely acknowledges the beauty, the archaeology of architecture, the convergence of centuries of commerce, law and civic pride with a nod of their head.

And I know that’s true, because even the kids thought it. You know a city is charming indeed when it charms the citizens of the next century, who have already accessed every Forbidden City and Shangri-La from their bedrooms.

The Twelfth Doctor.
But there was a point, indeed there was, besides an agreeable tour of Athens’ damp and blasted counterpart- and incidentally, I’m not sure how many modern Athenians would refer to their crumbling, crowded city as the ‘Edinburgh of the South’, but there you go. We were there to meet and listen to the inimitable Alasdair Richmond. The word 'inimitable' is often used to introduce alcoholics and delinquents at award ceremonies, but I use the word carefully. From the rim of his fedora to the paisley-patterned waist coat, he conjures the image of a gentleman conjurer, or a member of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman. His discourse confidently and endlessly hyperlinks to other ideas, cultural and philosophical. His delivery is possibly the best I’ve ever heard in any University speaker- precise, witty, and laden with examples that both illustrate and entertain- the former is an essential predicate; the latter is not, but transforms a worthy expansion into a thing that stays with you. And it’s funnier too, I might add. His lectures on Hume’s take on causation, freewill, miracles and induction were a breath of fresh air to me, as I teach Philosophy alone, and refer constantly to myself for reflection and feedback. Fortunately I routinely grade myself kindly, so I don’t hurt my own feelings.

He was kind enough to look after us for two days, which gave me ample wraparound time to drag seventeen pupils up and down monuments and cobbled promenades. Deep-fried Mars Bars were encountered. No more need be said about Scotland’s peculiar talent for unusual methods of suicide. 

High summer, Glasgow.
Then, on to Glasgow. Glasgow is a much harder sell, almost inevitably after Edinburgh, but made harder by the fact that we had chosen one of the 364 days of the year that the season varies between Arctic gales and relentless, dispassionate rain, with alternating bouts of each in quick succession, just to make really sure that you want to be there. It is, I must say, sometimes a bit of a test of character. Philosophy to the rescue! (And you don’t hear that very often). 

The less dashingly draped but equally intellectually dashing Dr Ben Colburn of Glasgow University’s Philosophy department. I met Ben when I was at Cambridge last year on a School Teacher Fellowship, and he kindly lent me his time and expertise with a paper I was writing. Lecturing, it seems, is like being in the diplomatic service- you can end up anywhere. I was glad he’d ended up here, and that he’d also kindly given up some of his time to look after a crew of Cockney Philosophers, many of whom were by this point convinced that Scotland was actually a submerged continent, a bit like Atlantis, or Lovecraft’s’ R'lyeh. Ben Colburn’s enthusiasm was infectious, and by cleverly putting the students into groups, he managed to squeeze the last of their focus and energy out of them, which is no mean feat when they’ve been pounding pavements and monuments like they were compulsive A-board salesmen. We had to debate on a variety of thinkers’ solutions to the question, ‘Do we have an obligation to obey the law?’ Locke won, by popular vote, and if only all moral debates were settled so.

Yet another Doctor.
On second thought, that’s a terrible idea. 

I tried to suggest a further solution to the problem, which I self-effacingly christened ‘Bennett’s theory of obligation’, but there were more holes than solution to it.

There was also another aim to the visit- Kat and Emily, two of the finest students in this dimension or any other, were keen on Glasgow as a place to study, and to be fair I didn’t do anything to discourage them as studying there was one of the best experiences of my life. We met the dedicated and charming Fiona Black who gave up her time to take us round a personalised tour of the campus in what must be one of the most labour-intensive open days I can imagine, giving the lie (if one was needed), to the claim that Russell Group Universities don’t do enough to encourage social mobility and applications from talented students of any background. She was a fantastic host; we may have two future Glaswegian acolytes on our hands, but time will tell. I suspect that anyone who claimed Glasgow didn’t do enough to reach out to good candidates simply hadn’t bothered to ask for it. Reaching out involves, I believe two participants, both reaching. And until Vince Cable expects Universities to actually break into peoples’ houses and press-gang brainy kids into MAs, Fiona’s efforts were an example of the best kind of access provision.

Fiona and the Brains Trust.
I love these trips- I love taking students out of their comfort zones and showing them cities and worlds that they may never otherwise see. They may like them. They may not. At least they’ve been informed, and their frame of reference has expanded by exactly six days. Case in point: at the start of the trip, I bought a bag of Wasabi peas, and passed them around. None had tried them before. Some of them accepted, some of them decided they didn’t want to try. Some tried and hated; some tried and liked. 

I’m not sure if we have an obligation to obey the law at all times. I’m not sure if inductive inferences are reasonable grounds to support an argument. But from time to time, I know that I’m partial to a Wasabi pea. 

Finally, some tips for trips:

1. Arrange all meeting points at least half an hour in advance of when the latest possible point of no return would be.
2. Then subtract another half an hour.
3. That’s about it.

This blog brought to you by Scotland- home of weather.