Monday, 13 July 2009

On Twitter, Agitation and Collaboration (via Radicalism, Regicide and St Benedict)

Last Friday afternoon I was somewhat surprised to find myself sitting in an English parish church musing on the year 1670 and the relationship between St Benedict’s Little Rule for Beginners and Twitter. To explain how it came about you’ll have to permit me to provide some context.

For the English 1660 is a far more recognisable date than 1670. 1660 was the year in which England shut the door on decades of political turmoil and the aftermath of a civil war that culminated in regicide with the beheading of Charles I in 1649 and the ensuing Lord Protectorship of Oliver Cromwell. It was the year the “long parliament” was finally dissolved and at the end of May Charles II, son of the beheaded king, returned to London and the monarchy was restored. (Fans of English letters will also recognise it as the year in which Samuel Pepys commenced his diary on 1st January.)

One individual caught up in the political turmoil of the English civil war was a Cambridge scholar, fellow of Clare Hall (now Clare College) and Vicar of the Cambridgeshire village of Great Gransden. As a staunch Royalist, Barnabas Oley was forced into hiding for his beliefs. Cambridgeshire was a difficult place to be loyal to the King, given that it was Cromwell’s home county and a hotbed of Parliamentarian Puritanism. For several years Oley lived in fear for his life, taking refuge in northern England. It was only the Restoration of 1660 that allowed Oley to come out of hiding, resume his post at Clare and take up residence in Gransden again. He reached the rank of Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, was involved with the University Press, and was responsible, amongst other things, for posthumous publication of the metaphysical poet George Herbert, whose work had failed to get past the press licensors in the pre-puritan era following the death of James I

Most significantly for me, amongst Oley’s philanthropic deeds in his parish was the foundation of a village school in 1670. Although Elizabeth I had granted charters for numerous town grammar schools in England during her reign, rural education was at best ad hoc and was largely non-existent, so in this Oley’s actions were characteristically charitable, radical and ahead of their time. So now, in the penultimate week of every summer term, Barnabas Oley is remembered in Gransden. On Wednesday the final year children visit Clare College. Then on Friday – Founder’s Day – a member of the academic staff of Clare pays a return visit to the school, makes a speech and presents prizes in the church where Oley served as vicar for so many years.

So there’s a thread from the Restoration of 1660, through Barnabas Oley founding a school in 1670 (the same school that my youngest child will attend for the last time this week), to me sitting in a church in 2009 listening to the current Dean of Clare College, the Rev Gregory Seach, explaining Benedict’s “Little Rule for Beginners” to a group of 4-11 year olds. Cambridge academics are not universally skilled in communicating with primary school children, so over my 12 years of attending I’ve heard some variable speeches. But although he now teaches Divinity at Cambridge, Seach is an energetic Australian who taught English and Drama in schools for ten years before training for the ministry. He knows how to attract and retain the attention of children and adults.

Greg told us that in the “Little Rule” Benedict exhorted people to recognise each day as a new beginning with new opportunities for learning. And he also instructed them to work and learn together because humans don’t learn in isolation – but rather with and from each other. Benedict saw learning as a collaborative activity, just as he saw work as one of the essential disciplines of life.

Co-incidentally, the previous evening, I had participated in a Twitter discussion about e-readers co-ordinated by @KatMeyer under the #followreader hashtag. I would never have thought a useful and meaningful conversation on a subject so complicated would be possible in 140-character tweets. I was wrong. I learned a huge amount in less than an hour thanks to the participation of many well-informed people, who were patient and courteous with the less well-informed. (The exchanges should all still be visible by searching #followreader and Kat will also post an online summary.)

Then Friday itself had begun with some vigorous online exchanges with @MackCollier. Mack had tweeted that he felt #followfriday – the convention by which on Friday users of Twitter suggest others worth “following” under the #followfriday hashtag – has had its day and should be let go. Mack is a social media expert with considerable influence online (and offline too no doubt). With 24,434 tweets and 9,063 followers under his belt it’s fair to assume his opinions come from experience. In his view #followfriday has become a routine to promote egos and the already well-known, rather than genuinely widen the real inclusiveness of Twitter.

All this was on my mind as I shifted gears from the digital world to the story of Benedict’s Little Rule. In making a school prize day speech, I found Greg Seach articulating one aspect of why Twitter is such an engaging forum. Within the group of publishers, authors, readers, writers, journalists, industry professionals, friends, family and other tangents I am following and meeting online, there is a sense of a group endeavour. Yes there are egos present, individual agendas followed and corporate profits sought – within a cocktail made all the more punchy by the participation of self-styled enfants terribles such as @ajkeen who don’t hesitate to disrupt – but even that disruption is productive because it is questioning and deliberately provocative. Even in our modern secular media we need agitators and catalysts to make things happen – as Barnabas Oley well knew. And by working and learning collaboratively we learn better and faster – as Benedict of Nursia pointed out in the 6th Century – and Twitter still proves in the 21st.