A Reflection on the Head, Hand & Hertford Course 2024

Look outside.

In our academic and professional lives, we often get caught up by what is most obvious (and internal?) to us: getting on with the next paper, passing the next exam, giving the next talk, getting the next promotion, or starting the next project. And so, we often forget one key thing: the purpose.

Not only our purpose, but the purpose of the enterprise we engage in everyday – i.e., life. And so, we might forget the impact knowledge (the one we create, and the one we promote) can have on those who are not us. In short, the impact our actions may have in the world at large.

Last week, alongside nine other Hertford students, I had the opportunity to take part in the Head, Hand & Hertford course at Hertford College, University of Oxford. The course pulled us back in; just to then pull us back out. The program invited us to look inwards just so that we could look outwards and reflect on our role in the future that is fast approaching.

Photo of the brilliant students taking the HHH course this year alongside Hertford College’s Principal, Tom Fletcher, who led and designed the course.

In the course of one week, we heard from a wide range of people. I will not even attempt to pigeonhole our guests into what they do professionally, after all, we met with ten well-rounded curious, innovative, kind and successful people – some might even call them ‘people who contain multitudes’ – who spend most of their days thinking outside of the box.

Each guest brought with them extraordinary insight and focus to each session. And our time together was spent, to a large extent, in conversation, learning from each other, listening and being listened to. It is in these moments that you notice how little reflective dialogue you actually have in your daily life.

That said, the course had much to offer. In the HH&H course learning and conversation come in a tandem. Participants (both students and speakers) came in to learn from each other, and so naturally there were disagreements, but they were agreeable. As one of the guests speakers, Claudine Menashe-Jones put it, the course sought ‘to expand learning and understanding beyond traditional academic boundaries’ and by doing so, I would say, it created an opportunity to add the oft-missing piece for a well-rounded educational experience.

Together, we discussed: purpose, power and accountability, strategy and storytelling, (good, positive) leadership, education, communication, being whole and being good, the power of poetry, of being curious and innovative citizens, and, quite importantly after so much talking, how to stop and listen. These discussions did not take place in any particular order, and it was with much excitement that we ended up finding ourselves connecting all these ideas together in new ways as the days went by.

Looking back at it now, it felt like something out of a film. And if it were a film, it would have been a political drama, The West Wing-style (or maybe it just happens that I’m currently re-watching the show, and so projecting!).

Just picture it: Ten slightly nervous and wide-eyed people sitting around a large table after being thrown a brief on the great problems of the century, now facing not only each other but also the wiser and older President (a role which, here, I must give to Tom Fletcher) who is waiting for a plan of action. As with any good story, character development is a key part and so, the audience would watch these once-nervous political-advisors-in-the-making spend hours on end discussing these difficult issues and arguing (sometimes calmly, sometimes not so calmly) over potential solutions with experts, until eventually – many coffees later – they collectively came up with an innovative plan. But not a plan in bullet point format. No, none of that! Rather, what we came up with as a group were reflections on ways of living and thinking about society and the world that can make a difference.

Photo taken after an incredibly inspiring session with Ahmed M. Badr on storytelling and finding one’s voice.

Throughout the course, I often thought about the power (which we were developing, together) of sitting in conversation. If the course had taken shape differently, through the style of lectures, for example, I don’t think we would have gained as much from it. Yet, I gained much from this course. Not only did I go home every single day for a week feeling inspired (what a privilege that is!) but I also made new friends, with whom I will continue meeting to keep these conversations going. And moreover, I saw, with my own eyes, the things we can do together at Hertford College.

Ultimately, I have gained a deeper understanding that to be whole, we need more than the Head (knowledge). We need Hand (practical skills) and Heart (values) too.

And now, as with all good things, I want to pass it on. Here are some of the questions we reflected on that you might want to bring up at the dinner table tonight:

  1. What can you do to bring people together?
  2. What have you learned today?
  3. What is the purpose of a school? How much can (and should) schools deliver on/cover?
  4. What is missing from school curriculums of the 21st century?
  5. How can you make the leap from ideas to reality?
  6. Who do you admire, and what is their superpower?
  7. What is your superpower?
  8. What principles guide your actions?
  9. In the day and age of cultural power, who is holding the strings? Who is influencing and shaping discussions?
  10. What does it mean to ‘contain multitudes’?
  11. What are things you need to forgive? And what do you need to be forgiven for?
  12. What are the great books that everyone should read at least once?
  13. What can you do to reach over divides and disagreements?
  14. Have you done something kind, curious, and courageous today?

Until next time,