When I left Penang for university in the US, I also left Penang Free School before the school year ended. I felt I did so without disrupting much the life of the School: I wasn’t editor of the School magazine. I wasn’t Break Monitor, Class Monitor, Traffic Warden, House Prefect, or School Prefect. I didn’t captain any School sports team. In some subjects, I would usually get close to failing marks — ok, not in “some subjects” but in Art, specifically. Fellow students who were my seniors would routinely reject my writing submissions to school publications for my being too flippant (I had to look up what “flippant” meant the first time I heard back from one editor). School teachers would openly warn me in class for being disruptive, every so often. Fellow students who were my seniors and who trained with me in gymnastics would ask me why I kept coming back as I never seemed to get any stronger, faster, or better.
At PFS I hadn’t failed at everything. But I wasn’t a remarkable student at PFS. In the eyes of people in charge, I was in the middle of the pack. That felt about right to me as that’s where most people are, generally. Where I’d not done well at School, I figured perhaps those things didn’t matter.
I’m now Professor of Economics at the LSE. My CV makes plain what that involves. But compared to when I was a PFS student, I have also had to do a few things where I have felt a little more exposed — no longer so much middle of the pack — and that are less obviously associated with my job but perhaps more interesting. These are not typically things that come with being a Professor. So I undertake added risks when I take them on.
Before thousands of graduating university students and their families, for three years as Head of Department for Economics at LSE, I announced the names of fresh graduates and congratulated them as they undertook the last of their university rites. Over decades of teaching and travelling, I lectured to tens of thousands of people — in New Zealand, Beijing, Southeast Asia, the Gulf, and nations in between all the way through to North and South America. CNN, Reuters, Bloomberg, and the BBC tell me they broadcast to hundreds of millions of people worldwide — so I could potentially have spoken to some reasonable fraction of that many people each time I’ve appeared on TV or radio from London.
My research has, over the years, varied from the extremely mathematical and obscure on the one hand, to the politically more visible on the other. As a consequence, I’ve gotten feedback on what I do from many different segments of society. Some of my writings have been translated into 18 different languages. What I work on now, the rise of the East in the global economy, gets more than usually varied reactions. Some tell me to hide away this work:
‘Americans, as is, are already paranoid enough, just short of trumping up a shooting war with China. Can you please tone down your “research”, and better yet file it in your basement and wait for 50 years before publishing them? Please let the world be a more peaceful place.’
counts among the gentler of messages I regularly receive. Other feedback can be slightly more encouraging.
Not that I think I have to be ready for my own shooting war, but I also train regularly in taekwon-do, now as a second-dan blackbelt. Five years after I started taekwon-do here in the UK, I managed to fight my way to being runner-up in sparring at the British championships and I managed to become British champion in patterns.
When I correlate the things I do now that draw for me the greatest sense of achievement with what I’d previously done well at PFS, I’m struck by how orthogonal these two sets of attributes are. At PFS I’d excelled in mathematics and science, but that is now only a small part of what I need to do to be a productive contributing member of the community. What matters more instead? A good sense of of what is artistically compelling and linguistically convincing. A political awareness of what ought to matter to people in international society. Articulatenesss in writing and speaking, and an ability to debate effectively. Physical acuity and a feeling of confidence and security in my own skin.
What is strange is that those characteristics I now find most valuable are the same as those where PFS had challenged me most and found me most wanting, exactly those areas I’d been most dismissive of when I’d been at PFS (they were only “soft skills”).
Perhaps PFS does this to everyone, although in different ways. PFS is an educational institution of such deep and profound historical achievement, it ferrets out those areas where you the student need most to build, and then it challenges you there. How you respond — do you turn your back and say it’s all meaningless; do you say, let me learn so I can be better — is up to you.
At PFS, as in most of life, you only get one go-round. You can make that one pass-through be everything to you, or you can make it mean much less. On the one hand, this lesson I’ve learnt about PFS as an institution is awesomely frightening: no one there is going to give you easy answers but you can be sure they’ll be there to ask you the hard questions. On the other hand, this realization is staggeringly optimistic: PFS challenges each of us to leave as better people than when we began at the School. And by being a little foolish — admitting we don’t know everything even as we don’t pander to everything old people say they want us to be — we can each indeed end up a little better.
(This appears in FIDELIS, the 200th anniversary commemorative book of the Old Frees Association.)