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Driven by Curiosity

June 2017

By Carole Schweitzer

Best-selling author Bill Bryson is known for his witty musings on nearly every subject. The core of his work is his amazement in the universe—a sense of wonder that educators can play a role in nurturing and that he will share at the NACUBO 2017 Annual Meeting, July 29–August 1, in Minneapolis. In an interview with Business Officer, Bryson explains his approach to writing, views on higher education, and how humor can sometimes save the day.

Humorist and best-selling author Bill Bryson has earned a place as one of the world’s most beloved and prolific commentators. He has chronicled subjects as diverse as hiking the Appalachian Trail (the basis for A Walk in the Woods (Broadway Books, 1998) and researching the wondrous accomplishments of science. The latter topic is the subject of his book, A Short History of Nearly Everything (Broadway Books, 2003), to which Bryson devoted three years “reading widely and devotedly, and, as necessary, finding saintly, patient experts prepared to answer a lot of outstandingly dumb questions.”

Bryson’s self-deprecating attitude is a futile attempt to hide his unquenchable fascination for nearly everything. Born into a family of journalists, Bryson views researching answers to questions as “part of the job description.”

“We’ve all got it,” he contends. “We are all driven by curiosity. If you are going to a movie, you want to know what’s happening and what the ending is. Every conversation you have, you are curious to know how your friends are doing, what the local gossip is; it keeps you going.

“Most of us don’t really cultivate this; but if you follow my work, you see that it’s the curiosity that drives me to do research; it’s that sense of wonder. It’s not really a skill that allows me to be special; it comes naturally, if we take the time to act on it.”

Bryson says that teachers can certainly play a role in stimulating that curiosity—“by expressing the wonder of what we learn and know. Yet, most teachers have rather lost that sense and fallen into a routine. But, everything is amazing in the universe. If they could get re-excited about their subject and convey that to students, students would get excited, too. A very good teacher conveys, ‘Wow, this is so cool. Let’s share it.’”

A Citizen of the World

Born in Iowa in the 1950s “when it was a perfect time to be a kid,” Bryson admits to always having an intense desire to see more of the world. He began to realize that goal when, in his early 20s, he first arrived in the United Kingdom, while backpacking around Europe. He got a job in a psychiatric hospital, where he met a nurse who eventually became his wife. After a short return to America, the couple settled in the UK, where Bryson has spent most of his adult life, first working as an editor for several different newspapers and eventually becoming a freelance writer.

His love of England led him to writing Notes From a Small Island (HarperCollins, 1995), which gained instant popularity. Two decades later—during which time he became a British citizen—his publisher suggested a sequel, based on a motoring trip around Britain. In The Road to Little Dribbling (Doubleday, 2016), he describes the old and new in the country in vivid detail. During his career, Bryson has explored and written about Australia, Africa, and the United States, allowing him to compare and contrast different cultures.

The Education Question

Whether it’s better to pinpoint a career versus learning a wide swath of material, Bryson admits, “I really don’t know.” In England, he explains, “we are much more focused on choosing a discipline and sticking to it. The cultural part you need to learn through your life at large. That’s especially important in high school. In England, when you study French, you come out actually speaking it. I’ve never heard of that happening in America. Or if you do physics, you are ready for college level physics. That’s good.

“The downside is that you are short on some of the more general things, and you have to go out and fill those gaps yourself. A lot of people do that, but some don’t, and that’s a shame.”

That said, adds Bryson, “What is wonderful about the liberal arts is that you get a broad-brush background and instruction in many areas, and that is important. But most people should come out of college with some kind of training. A lot of people come out of college with a degree like media studies, and aren’t ready to go out and do anything specific. That’s a worry.”

A more central approach, says Bryson, is “What is right for you? One of the things I liked so much about attending Drake University is that they let me do pretty much what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to take physical education or science, and I persuaded them to let me take the courses that I wanted to. And, I came out with absolutely no skills.

“The only thing I was ever any good at was English and writing. I had absolutely no aptitude for science and math. The one thing that I could really respond to was writing. I loved to read and I loved to learn. Both of my parents were journalists, and my older brother was also; it was really the family business. I didn’t really think of doing anything else; I was lucky to be able to work at the Daily Register part time during high school and when I was going to college. So, I really learned on the job.

“For my own kids,” he says, “I told them, ‘You are spending all this effort and money for this; you need to come out with some skill. Or at least some idea of what you want to do next—a master’s degree or professional position. Don’t paint yourself into a corner; come out with some sort of skill set.’”

Speaking of paying lots of money, in 2010, the UK government created a new funding system for higher education. Students now contribute more to their education and government loans are available to students, with payback beginning when the graduate reaches a certain earning level. “Universities are allowed to set their own tuition up to 9,000 pounds per year. So, there’s a ceiling up to which they can charge tuition. But, since the government has pulled back funding, the institution is basically exchanging the state funds for the student tuition. It’s more like moving the burden from the general taxpayer to the individual who will benefit from the education. Some people think this is OK, others think that society gains as a whole and should pay more.

“I think that everyone who wants to go to college should be able to go. But, who pays is debatable; I come from a tradition where we are expected to pay quite a lot of money on our own.”

Challenges, Consequences, Commitments

While Bryson appears to set stretch goals for himself, he cautions that “I’m the worst person in the world to ask about taking on challenges. Most of my books,” he explains, “are about deciding to do things that I think will be great, but turn out to be way beyond my capabilities—something for which I’m totally unprepared and well out of my safety zone.

“So, for the Appalachian Trail, I generally thought it would be a good experience to get fit, lose a lot of weight, reconnect with America in an almost spiritual way, and commune with my home country. That was the genuine motivation, but I didn’t realize that I was totally unfit to live outdoors, with a huge pack on my back. I mean, no one can quite prepare for a trip of 2,200 miles—or conceive of what it will be like on foot, as compared to by car or bike. But, it’s another order of magnitude. You try to prepare, with short hikes, small chunks, but it’s not enough.

“Fortunately, I really do think that there is redemption in humor. We laugh at how totally ridiculous something is. We’ve all been in that situation in which everything is going wrong; we just kind of want to lie down and weep.”

Meanwhile, Bryson has spent a lot of time exploring and promoting science endeavors, receiving the Boston Museum of Science’s Bradford Washburn Award for his contributions to the popularization of science. “I trust science and scientists,” he says, “and think they are taking us in the right direction. Science will continue to provide answers related to our quality of life—clean water, good health care, and so on.

“As for popularizing science, I didn’t set out do that, to add this as another strand to my career,” explains Bryson. “But, I had always been fascinated by science outside school—although I had no aptitude whatsoever in school for physics or chemistry. As soon as you start in with formulas and equations, you’ve lost me. But, I thought there must be a way that even I could connect with it. There was so much more that I wanted to know: Why was I born here? How did our planet come about? I really wanted to know how science works. That led me to both the research for A Short History of Nearly Everything and to supporting science in other ways.”

After all this exploration, Bryson says “it still amazes me how scientists figure out things. How do they know that we are so many millions of miles from the sun? Scientists are very methodical people—not trying to pull a fast one—I came away with so much respect for what they do. And, in order for us to have all these tools, they do a lot of repetitive dreary things—looking at petri dishes, through microscopes—in order to create knowledge. What they do can be quite boring.

“And, I must say that I am completely mystified by people who are suspicious and reject the views of authority—scientists who, en masse and with unanimity, make recommendations based on their work. I certainly realize that scientists know way more than I do. What I don’t understand is why people feel this compulsion to reject science that is based on facts.”

On the other hand, says Bryson, “I do think that scientists have a duty to persuade people to understand and embrace science and all that it can do for us—and realize that they are motivated by facts and truth, and that they care about improving things that are very real these days. Scientists and the scientific community have not done a good job of ‘selling’ what they do.”

Outreach and World View

From 2005 to 2011, Bryson served as chancellor of the University of Durham, England’s third-oldest university. “You are only nominally the head of the university,” he explains. “It’s a little like being thequeen; she is a figurehead but doesn’thave any particular role. It’s an unpaidposition, but a real honor to be asked.I did it for about seven years; as a kindof spokesperson telling how great theuniversity is, what it does, and so forth—at various functions.

“You are allowed to suggest how things can be done better. One of the reasons they came to me was that they had this idea to broaden the visibility of the university to the wider world. And the thinking was that my being a foreigner might help. One thing I mentioned was that they should really be recruiting in America. I think about how wonderful it would have been for me, in Iowa, to be able to study English literature in England, or theology where you can study under the shadows of the great cathedrals. There is a greater density of history in Europe because it has been populated longer than America.”

As for financial structure, England’s universities are in a completely different world than those in America, explains Bryson. “First, all universities are large and run by the state, the equivalent of Big 10 colleges—no private schools.

“There has been a tradition that the government pays for everything. The idea of people donating money—it’s like asking a private person to contribute to a new highway. ‘Why should I give money for that?’ It just doesn’t enter into people’s heads. They are now, however, getting to the point of accepting that students pay more and of becoming interested in raising money.

“Interestingly, fundraisers here are all foreigners; nearly all from America. We don’t have a history or experience in this. People do give in the tens of thousands, but not in the millions. It’s an uphill battle to persuade alumni to give money, unless you are at certain schools like Oxford and Cambridge, where it’s a different story.

“The terrifying thing is that with Brexit, it’s only going to get worse. England will be more isolated, with fewer contacts with the outside world—fewer connections with the European Union and European projects. I don’t think there will be any positive outcomes. Some of the best universities in the world are really going to have to get better about raising money; all the things they do are very costly.”

CAROLE SCHWEITZER is editor in chief of Business Officer.

“Most of us don’t really cultivate this; but if you follow my work, you see that it’s the curiosity that drives me to do research; it’s that sense of wonder. It’s not really a skill that allows me to be special; it comes naturally, if we take the time to act on it.”