Friday, June 21, 2013

Big ideas in a small town

For Frances, on the theme of travel.

Voluntarily attending lectures after work is not everyone's idea of fun, I must admit. It is a learned discipline to get back into concentrating on new topics for that length of time, although I do find it is easier to relax and go along for the ride because there is no assessment riding on my recollection of the points presented. There are a few aspects of the lectures I attend that have the ability to charm me away from the TV and couch at home again and again, taking me down roads I would have otherwise never traveled. I enjoy the skill and experience of the presenters – they are people that inhabit a very different world to me, and are prepared to talk about it. I enjoy watching the audience and taking the measure of the people who share one characteristic with me – the urge to learn more. And I love the ideas presented to me in the politest of terms – new ideas, old ideas, ideas that I agree with, those that I don’t agree with.

The big draw for me of most of the people presenting is that they are almost always visitors from overseas, or if Australian, very experienced and eminent. Most of the time they are both from overseas and eminent! One of the most impressive talks I attended was by Sir Kenneth Keith ONZ KBE QC, one of fifteen judges of the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. It was humanly interesting for the fascinating look he gave into the workings of something like the prosecution of Bosnian war criminals, but its subject matter was so far beyond my limited understanding that I felt worst than lost, more like an organism that has wandered into the wrong rules of physics. The only reason I knew that I didn’t know what he was talking about was because my limited political studies at least gave me the knowledge that there existed concepts linked to words he was using, I just had no idea of the concepts!

I am such a people watcher that observing the multitudinous audience takes up a lot of the time I spend in the room, especially if they are the audience of a specialist lecturer. I have been to lectures for which the audience was made up almost exclusively of a specific faculty of the university and the questions afterwards are always more focused and interesting in such circumstances. I greatly enjoyed the audience at a fascinating curatorial talk for a feminist exhibition at the Art Gallery - an audience of elegant, stylish and beautiful sixty-year-old women, with a smattering of very young, consciously stylized young women in bright colors. I may have dressed with the right combination of black and color as the rest of the audience, but I did not have the statement perfectly groomed silver hair of the older women, or the political tattoos of the younger women. I particularly love the headline lectures from proper celebrity thinkers because in those you see the real movers and shakers of the mind. I have rubbed shoulders with ex-Premiers and ex-Governors, religious leaders and social scientists, ex-classmates from my undergraduate and my Honors supervisors.

The big names come out for the big ideas, and it is those big ideas that keep me devoted to the free lecture after work model of traveling without moving. I never know what to expect when I attend a lecture in a subject unknown to me, but I know that if I am to get the most out of the information that is going to be presented to me, I must engage with the topic from the very first word. And it is that discipline, the discipline of undefined taste except to say everything is interesting, the discipline of listening hard and actively so that new ideas can become comfortable in a short space of time, the discipline of submitting your brain to the guidance of someone who knows something different to you. Learning and travel both require you to focus on something other than yourself for a period of time, and it is in that space of openness that great thoughts can enter our heads.

No comments: