Tuesday, 24 May 2016

'Food for thought' upon completing my undergraduate degree: Digesting the Experience

If you're anything like me, soon after scraping clean your dinner plate, you bounce up and excavate the dessert cupboard for a tasty treat. (For me, custard is often involved). And if that wasn't enough to satisfy my calorie counter, about a couple of hours later, I'm heading to the biscuit barrel for a sweet accompaniment to a nice cup of tea. By the time I wake up the next morning, I could eat Kellogg's out of house and home. Quite simply, and elegantly expressed by today's generation, I'm "a bit of a foodie".

This incessant hunger only proliferated this week when I finally completed a three year university bachelors degree in Physical Geography, and am now ravenous for more. I've been treated, here at Royal Holloway, to a banquet of knowledge; a feast of intellectually stimulating 'nuggets' of information about the world. In addition, I've had the pleasure to dine with some of the kindest, thoughtful people who all have brought their own contributions to the table these past three years. It is no surprise that Plato once wrote: "knowledge is the food of the soul".

The way our education evolves throughout our lives is, to some degree, very similar to the way our own taste-buds develop. We start, right from birth, being spoon-fed dollops of mushed up food. Likewise, the world's a complex place for a newborn baby; rather than select which bits to digest, we absorb anything and everything at that age. Our minds are open to a mélange of sights, smells and sounds. And suddenly before our parents' eyes, we're no longer babies but toddlers, off the baby food but subjected to a diet of basic, staple ingredients: cherry tomatoes, cheese cubes, vegetable sticks, etc. We're also fed a basic diet of knowledge, too, learning the alphabet, numbers up to a hundred and how to tell the time. I have fond memories of all three with my own family and I'm sure you do, too.

And then we grow up more. Suddenly we're off to primary school and fed, progressively, some basic truths of the world: what a forward roll is (it's evidently, alas, not a sausage roll), the world's major religions, how to master the art of drawn-up handwriting. In my experience, all of this came from one classroom, but notably the day was divided equally into 'lessons' and 'sessions', punctuated by periods of running around outside. Back home, our dinners start to mature too. There's more than one ingredient now; all on one plate, but similarly segmented up in an arrangement that fulfills the idea of a 'divided plate'.


Time ensues; we are now pupils at secondary school with an increasing amount of choice on our hands. I distinctly remember when I was in Year 9, having to choose three subjects to study for GCSE; a liberating experience but equally not an easy decision to make. One subject (Geography), of course, was a certain but the others required a little deliberation. In the end, I think we decide what we learn about by acknowledging what we like and perhaps what we dislike. I never really fell in love with 'Dance' or 'Textiles' so I was not likely to be the first to sign up for two more years of them. On the other hand, I was partial to Music and had been brought up in a distinctive air of eclecticism, so I gave it a go. To return to my seat at the dinner table, by now we know what we like (couscous was a firm favourite) and what we less like (Brussel sprouts). I sense Mum dutifully respected these preferences to prevent another teenage tantrum. We were all teenagers once!

But something else has profoundly changed at mealtimes. We start to accept (and relish) the notion of mixing foods up and using one to compliment the other. Gravy on our meat, bolognaise with our pasta, and our sandwich fillings, in particular, undergo a revolutionary shift. No longer does solitary cheese tantalize the taste-buds; the cheese is now cream-cheese and it's joined rather agreeably with Scottish smoked salmon and a light dusting of dill for good measure. At college, our three or four chosen A Level topics are similarly complimentary. I found Biology an excellent compliment to Geography; likewise, with English Literature and Film Studies. The topics of study may differ but the way we understand them- indeed, the methods we employ to explore them- are best considered holistically. In much the same way that learning how to crack an egg is fundamental for both an omelette and a Victoria sponge, learning how to correctly employ statistics is equally as important for Geography as it is in Biology.

However, college is only a starter dish in comparison to what is yet to come. We're 18 and about to 'tuck in' to three years of university. For many, this really does mark the start of semi-independence (I say 'semi' because our parents are, of course, still there for life's more difficult recipes). But essentially, a university student really is the Head Chef of their own kitchen and how the final dish turns out is the product of hard work, commitment and tough decision making. Degrees are not ready-meals; they are not processed and packaged by someone in a factory far away. On the contrary, they are made from scratch and from my own perspective, it's a much tastier experience this way! In some ways, our parallel tales of food and education seem to drift apart here. After all, in contrast to my comments on an authentic, hand-made degree, students often settle for take-away 'TV dinners'. (The words 'Dominoes Pizza' creep to mind...). However, aside from the odd one or two treats here and there, living amongst students is often the arena to share not only recipes from one's homeland, but a place to chew over the ideas about the subject one is reading.

Last year, I found (to my delight) that I now fully appreciate the virtues of the Brussel Sprout and await, with eagerness, the opportunity to savour a sprout or two during a spell of roast dinners in the winter months. Likewise, throughout my degree, I have re-kindled a passion for Math and although I would not confess to be excellent, it's definitely added a certain spice to my degree. Oh, the list of these spicy attributes is somewhat endless, though. I have loved so much from the past three years, from the field-trips and lectures, to the seminars and, of course, the dissertation. The quality of my degree can only be described by stating that if the university was a restaurant, it would be Michelin starred. The imagination and creativity delivered in some of the lectures I've attended is akin to being served vintage wine from a goblet.

Indeed, just as the best restaurants and wine are, the cost of education is pricey. Education has become institutionalized and the £9000 tuition fees are possibly set to rise. I have left University, however, with no bitter after-taste (despite finalizing the term with a ruthless exam season). At the end of the day, the quality has been superb. As I suggested before, it isn't fast-food; the ingredients that subtlety make up the best universities are sourced from only the finest markets. Royal Holloway prides itself, and rightly so, on its world-class academics and if you're going to settle for saffron instead of pepper, you have to expect to part with a few more coins.

(Excuse me whilst I go and raid my biscuit supply. Yes I know I've just eaten, but I'm still peckish!)
Ah, when it comes to my curiosity, no degree will truly satisfy my hunger for more knowledge, just as no spell at university will really quench my thirst for information. This is fine, though; as the philosopher John Dewey once asserted, "education is not preparation for life, education is life itself". There are many, I know, already planning their 'next bake' with postgraduate applications being completed thick and fast. In October, I will be starting a three year PhD at Lancaster University and joining a national NERC-funded cohort that will form the next generation of soil scientists. (More about this, later, here on Geography with Dan). Far from being a dessert, I anticipate this will be just the beginning of a life's effort to understand the 'brown gold' beneath our feet. It is soil, after all, that forms the basic substrate in which most of our food develops. In a sense, whilst my undergraduate degree has been wholesome food for thought, my attention now turns to think for the sake of food. (Well, for highly productive agricultural soils that yield quality crops, at least).

Has my degree been a success? Well, Paul Hollywood - or whoever is presently marking one of my exam essays - will be the judge of that but the proof is in the eating and having thoroughly consumed degree life for the past three years, I would say it's been a resounding success. Nutritious, aromatic and very (very) moreish!    

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