Life and death

By | January 28, 2016

Sir Ken Robinson once famously said in a TED talk, “university professors… look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads…it’s a way of getting their head to meetings.” Underlying some of the best humour is often a certain truth. Much of academic life involves thinking, writing, reading, arguing and abstracting away from the real world. And, I do believe (and worry) that the very distance we claim from the physical in order to be objective or reflective (or whatever epistomological adjective rocks your boat) means we can readily lose touch with the practical realities of life’s central conundrums.

A wee while ago I was fortunate to have some very supportive neighbours and friends over to help me despatch a goat. This is a necessary corollary of living a rural lifestyle; sometimes you have to deal with rural things including taking the life of another animal. Not something that comes easily to me at all. I struggle to kill anything including so-called pests like flies, aphids, possums and rabbits, let alone goats. Nonetheless, this goat had to go.

Clover had abandoned him at birth. Undaunted and with supreme human arrogance, I rescued him and enlisting the aid of friends and colleagues, hand-reared him much to Clover’s disgust. I probably should have followed her lead and let nature take its course. When small he was biddable and endearing but he was a cryptorchid and desexing failed. He was big, strong, impossible to contain and when in the rut, was familiar to a hazardous degree. Clover herself snorted and spat if he came anywhere near her. Several attempts at re-homing had failed; the most promising lasting only a few days before he was returned with apologies. I couldn’t bear the thought that he might end up solitary, tethered or endure worse if I just gave him away. So, after much soul searching, I decided he needed to serve a useful purpose; as food.

One minute he was standing in the paddock chewing on some blue gum and wondering why more people than usual had gathered, the next he was gone. One neighbour, expertly skinned and gutted the goat and the rest of us buried the remains. We shared a beer and a few reflections about the business of turning life into food then the carcass was carefully wrapped and stowed in the back of my car for delivery to the local butcher. Two weeks later, the animal was transformed into sausages and cuts of meat.

It was strange knowing the source of this food but also a comfort. The goat had a pretty good life. He had company, shelter and plenty to eat and drink. He was never caged, tortured, processed, tagged, fed drugs or crammed together with other anxious and frightened animals and trucked to his fate. His life ended as it had begun, in a paddock with a view of the hills and the sea.

So, how does this back-to-nature, grounding experience relate to higher education? I guess it is about the conundrum of choice and that so often you can weigh evidence and evaluate options but there is no ground truth, no scale of measurement. As academics whose deliberations are so often theoretical, there may never be a requirement for us to confront the real life outcomes of choices that we debate in the course of our research or for that matter in our teaching. I can rationalise the choice I made about the goat and have done exactly that in this blog post. But was it a good choice? Was it the right choice? Was it the best choice? Who knows. It was the choice I made and I had to make it because of an earlier choice that I made to intervene in the little animal’s life.

Does higher education equip us to deal with the endless succession of choices that we face throughout our lives? I don’t know but I do know that the sausages tasted very good indeed.

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