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Finding no ledge on the edge

by Tim Middleton

“Forget what you think you know.” That is the opening line of a trailer for the 2019 film The Edge which is a compelling documentary about the English cricket team’s endeavours to become the Number One Test cricket team in the world, whose coach was the former Zimbabwean batsman, Andy Flower. The trailer goes on to say that “Test cricket is a battle between time and the mind”. It speaks of the need to change, to plan, to know what the team is going through; it announces that “To reach certain heights does take a lot of sacrifice” and it asks the question: “How much would you give to be the best?” The English cricket team learned to live on the edge in order to be the best.

There is another extraordinary film which documents the free solo climb (meaning the climber has no ropes, no net, no safety precautions) of El Capitan, a 3,000 foot sheer vertical cliff (the equivalent of a 270 storey building), by Alex Honnold in 2017, a feat which the New York Times declared, “Should be celebrated as one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind ever.” The trailer to this film announces that “If you’re pushing the edge, eventually you find the edge”. In a TED talk, Alex Honnold describes this climb as what would defined him, not as a lucky but a great climber; other climbs had never brought satisfaction but this one did as it represented “true mastering”. Free solo climbing, where there is no rope, has to be done in the mind; there is no room for doubt as doubt is the precursor for fear. He lived on the edge as he scaled never-before achieved heights.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” was a line that Lord Bacon used though Alexander Pope, a contemporary poet, preferred “A little learning” as being a dangerous thing. It was argued that “A little knowledge is apt to puff up, and make men giddy.” The writer adds however that, “a greater share of it will set them right, and bring them to low and humble thoughts of themselves.” Some thus argue that a lot of knowledge will naturally be a safe thing. However, that could be far from the truth. A lot of knowledge may be an even more dangerous thing, not least as those with much knowledge will tend to think that they know it all so they do not have to think about what they are doing or take any care in it at all; they have the safety rope of knowledge. The free solo climbers, in contrast, are extremely careful, even if it seems by the very nature of their actions not to be so.

In that regard, therefore, it is not knowledge we need but no ledge. Knowledge is only good to a point. Knowledge will only take us so far, in removing doubt, but it will only be real when it is tested. The mountain has to be climbed, however much we know about it, and that test will come when there is no ledge, only the edge. We need to live on the edge, where there is no ledge, so that we think, we focus, we concentrate, we are extremely careful.

James Ramsey Ullman, the author of ‘Americans on Everest’, put it this way: “Challenge is the core of all human activity. If there’s an ocean we cross it. If there’s a record we break it. If there’s a disease we cure it. If there’s a wrong we right it. If there’s a mountain we climb it. These guys want challenge. The human character is to push a little bit farther all the time.” Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest, said in an interview that, “We still need people to challenge themselves, to push a little bit, to live on the edge. After all, if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”

It is not knowledge that is needed; it is not college that is needed. It is edge and we find it in the mind. It is only when we are living on the edge that we will know what we really are; that is when true knowledge comes. That is when we need to forget what we think we know and learn again. There is no hiding place, nowhere else to go, nowhere to stand. That is when we will move and climb and win; not when we have knowledge but when we are on the edge.

The aim of cricket bowlers is to find the leading edge of the opposing batsman’s bat. The aim of climbers is to find the edge so that they may scale the heights. So, our children need to go beyond knowledge and find the edge, to push themselves further and so reveal themselves. And right now, society is on the edge of something massive; we face a monumental challenge. It is not knowledge that will ensure we overcome the mammoth task facing us. It is the edge. We must find it.

l Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.

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