Stuck in the Middle

I’ve tried, I really have, but I still cannot understand the appeal of long distance running. Most participants know from the outset that they have absolutely no chance of winning, and surely the declaration of a winner is the reason a race exists? And you cannot argue that the joy is to be found not in winning, but in participating. If this is your stance, you have clearly never watched somebody, who was not in the race to win it, in the act of participating. If enjoyment and an agonising near-death experience are synonymous, which is what one must infer from any cursory observation of the bulk of marathon-runners, then I am prepared to forego enjoyment. Do people even know that, according to legend, the first man – Pheidippides – to run the 42 odd kilometres from Marathon to Athens to announce Greek victory against the Persians in 490 BC, the inspiration for the modern marathon, died as a result? It is testimony to human willingness to embrace the dangerously stupid that somebody read that story and thought that it would be a marvellous idea to try it. It’s testimony to the ease with which we are able to suspend sound judgment that it has become popular. No, I stand by my creed that if God had intended for us to run 42 kilometres he would not have given us cars.


As I listened to various international assessment experts present at a conference I attended last week, it struck me that human academic advances follow the marathon model. There are very few who are able to be at the front. The chances are that you are one of the unnamed millions in the middle group. Those at the front will never be seen by the majority, because they are so far ahead, their foci so very different from ours, that their achievements will have little bearing on our races. All of us, who comprise the middle, would like to think of ourselves as runners. And many who are spectating from the couch will convince themselves that if they were just a little younger, a little less constrained by life’s demands, they could compete. But the truth is that there are only an elite few real runners in any given marathon. The rest of us just slog on, under the pretence of being athletes. But the sport gains its credibility from us, the plodders. If it were not for the slightly demented hordes that begin (and occasionally finish) every marathon, we might not pay much attention at all to the genuinely pathological runners who actually win the things. We might easily write them off as skinny clowns in polyester shorts.


Intellectual advances are the same. The really progressive thinkers, the ones with the potential to shape the way the world thinks, will be invisible to most of us. We will probably never know their names, let alone wrestle with their ideas. Their deliberations will be published in journals that the general populace will never read. If they are revolutionary enough in their thinking, perhaps other leaders in the discipline will shift the way they think and start to put pressure on the system to change. But that is a very slow process, because the general population – the engines of the system, if you like – will only just be coming to terms with the ideas – now packaged more accessibly, and only if market forces foresee potential in doing so – of the thought-leaders’ predecessors. It may be decades before somebody rewrites these innovations in more readily comprehensible terms, and they can start to influence how society functions. Until that happens, we plod along, becoming increasingly uneasy with existing paradigms, without quite knowing why.


In other words, if the idea is packaged for popular consumption, it is no longer cutting-edge. Next time you are tempted to feel smart because you glanced briefly through So You Want To Be An Astrophysicist? on the shelf in your local bookstore, remind yourself that you can be guaranteed that somewhere in a dusty university room, somebody with a freakish brain that ordinary mortals cannot begin to fathom, is formulating an hypothesis that makes that book seem like a bedtime story for toddlers. There are very few real runners in a marathon. Those of us bulking up the also-rans will never see them, nor understand just how vastly superior they are to us. We will be too preoccupied with surviving the next mile to give any consideration to their strategies or training regimes. We may end up running on the same road they did, but only hours later, and blissfully unaware of the growing gap between us. As we push through the pain of the cramping and when somebody shouts encouragement from the sidelines, we may even start to believe that we are enjoying ourselves, and that we, too, are athletes. But we will just be numbers that cross the finish-line. And by the time we get there, the journalists will have packed up and left, and the winner will be relaxing in a hot bath.


In the international Assessment conference I attended last week, I caught a glimpse of the enormous disjuncture between the systems that the educational experts envisage and what dominates our educational landscape. With a twinge of regret, I am forced to acknowledge that Nathan (my son) will probably never see the practical applications of much of what I heard. His schooling is likely to be based on an industrial-age model, creaking and groaning under the increasing strain of trying to remain relevant in the 21st Century. Maybe, and here I betray the optimistic streak that I have stubbornly refused to surrender, despite sound evidence that I should, maybe we will see sufficient numbers of educational authorities radically reshaping their policies and procedures in light of the barrage of legitimate criticism being levelled at the current structures. In all likelihood, though, he will graduate while the schooling system places one weary foot in front of the other, in a vain pursuit of real education.

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