Author: Max Hope
“There is no such thing as original thought.”
That’s what I was told at University when I was 19 and trying to write essays. What my tutor told me – or at least, my interpretation of what they told me – was that I had to study what other people had said and I had to use this in my essays. If I was very creative, I might just about cobble together enough ‘evidence’ from other people to carefully disguise my own opinions, but I had to be very skilful in backing this up and reinforcing everything.
I was studying for a degree in Politics. And I had things to say. But I had to find someone else who had said it first.
What I learned, here and throughout my undergraduate experience, was to hide my own voice and to rely on the authority of other people. This is what I needed to do to get a degree.
It took me years and years to find my voice again. And when I did, I could see the difference in how I spoke and in what I wrote. My writing came alive. I could hear myself, and I know that others could hear me too. My writing was more convincing, it was richer, and it was more honest. I no longer had to hide myself behind others, to fool the reader by disguising my own voice. I let myself speak.
After I had graduated with my degree, I thought I was finished with University. I had no intentions to ever go back. But life’s twists and turns took me in unexpected directions, and after many years, I found myself doing a PhD and in turn, becoming a University Lecturer.
Within my first few weeks as an academic, I had a conversation with a colleague about my work, and I told her I was excited to do some research about the experiences of young LGBTQ+ young people in schools. She looked at me curiously and asked, “but what do you know about it?”. I started to explain about some of my grassroots work of the last 20 years, about my own personal experiences, about my life, and she asked again, “but what do you know about it, I mean, what research have you read?”
Here we were again. Knowing meant reading. Knowing meant turning to the authority of others. Knowing did not come from myself, my own experience, my intuition. Knowing was outside. Knowing was other. Knowing was academic.
The university system is a machine. It is a traditional, conservative, and patriarchal machine that values some types of ‘knowing’ and privileges certain voices over others. It prizes ‘knowledge’ and ‘research’ that is produced and undertaken in a particular way and it rewards – literally – those who are able and willing to play these games.
There are people in universities who don’t see the world in this way, but they are the minority. I was one of them. I played the game for a long time. I pushed at the boundaries and I tried to change the rules and I sometimes broke the rules, but I still played.
I don’t want to play anymore.
I have stepped outside of the system, off the treadmill, away from the machine.
I want to write, and think, and create, and play. I want to do this in places which recognise that ‘knowing’ and ‘thinking’ can happen in many ways.
I want to do this for myself. And I want to do this with others. Together, we can write more and think more and create more.
* This blog post was originally published in September 2021 on https://maxhope.co.uk/2021/09/28/there-is-no-such-thing-as-original-thought/