When I think of Ōtaki College, nearly 50 years after I left, my mind returns to old mates, playing sport and the wonders of books.
Books in a library are a treasure trove to kids. They appear as a beautiful assortment of sizes and colours – a bit like an endless lolly shop where consumption is limitless and there’s never a chance of consuming too much.
As a kid I especially recall hanging out at the Otaki Library and, unusually for me, staying silent. Thousands of books organised into sections so that any eager kid could zero in on whatever took their fancy.
I recall becoming fascinated, for a period, by the early rocket builder Robert Goddard and his wildly dangerous experiments with explosive substances in order to hurl a cylinder skyward. Once my interest was pricked, book after book revealed itself and could be plucked from the shelves and taken home to further the obsession.
Books on rocketry inevitably led to books on outer-space, aircraft, weather science and whatever. John Northern’s biology classes were a highlight.
I’ve come to realise, now that I have my own adult kids, that children are naturally drawn to books. In most cases, all they need are adults who expose them to books from an early age and, from there, a child’s natural sense of wonder, discovery and imagination does the rest.
But the world of information and reading is changing from my days at Ōtaki College. Books and libraries are used by young and old as much as ever, but the way we access content has been heading towards screens for some time.
The good news about this is it provides much greater and easier access to massive online libraries of information and digital interaction, that can often be filtered according to what’s useful. But that benefit may also be the bringer of some bad news.
We live in a world of instant answers, provided by online search and social media, which is literally at our fingertips. At the same time, this avalanche of information is clearly creating unprecedented overload and complexity in the lives of many.
For groups of young people, we are seeing clear signs of fatigue and stress from this. It’s changing behaviours and I suspect no one really knows where it is leading us.
When I think back on the simpler times of learning many things through books and from conversations, it was much less about the complexities of the world and the pressure to find definitive answers, but more about the wonder and joy of the process. It allowed kids to learn and develop critical thinking, their own ideas and to use imagination to solve things. As in the academic world, an answer is often not definitive and usually simply raises more wonderful questions. Perhaps, if the black and white answer is so easy and simple to find, why think and use imagination at all? The screen has done most of it for us.
Some years ago, I read a magazine article about how the Hubble Telescope had exploded our understanding of the universe, describing it as doubling our knowledge. That seemed like a huge achievement, except that we obviously can’t ever quantify all the knowledge the universe contains. But just imagine we could calculate a zillion things to understand about the universe, the Hubble has only allowed us to get from 1 to 2, or maybe 1000 to 2000.
I would argue that the Hubble story, to the mind of a kid going to the library in search of wonder, discovery and imagination, would be over-joyed there are more books to read and many more things to discover. Conversely, to the mind of a kid hardwired to find a simple answer to everything, the zillion unanswered questions could be a frustrating and insoluble barrier.
Maybe, just maybe, we don’t always need an answer. Perhaps we should simply elevate the power and optimism of questions and use books more to rekindle the kid’s innate joy of learning.
This month I’m looking forward to meeting up with some past fellow book-lovers at the Otaki College 60th Anniversary Reunion.