The start of a new school year is an opportunity unlike any other in life. There is that sense of a fresh start, a new beginning and for those among our student and not so student community, the opportunity to reinvent yourself. Anne Frank expressed a similar sentiment in suggesting “how wonderful it is that no one needs to wait a single minute before starting to improve the world.” The new school year issues such moments upon us.
I picked up on this theme in our opening Assembly at the Senior School and found it relayed in all of our breakout sessions during our Industry Careers Evening on Wednesday. Recalling the wise words of Paul O’Connell, a man more remarked for his ability in the line-out than literature, though no slight is intended on the Munster man. He was described by one coach as a quiet presence that took up a lot of space, O’Connell famously played the last ten minutes of the British and Irish Lions test against Australia with a broken arm. The reason I mention him is because Warren Gatland didn’t send O’Connell home, instead he carried on helping behind the scenes. Asked by reporters what – if anything – he had learned from O’Connell, Gatland was emphatic: “Let’s be the best at all the things that take no talent.”
The message is significant. What are the things in the life of a student that take no talent? The first is simply an attitude or disposition to learn. The will to want to find things out, to enquire and to be open to the possibility of being surprised by knowledge. Before you dismiss this as idle rambling, consider the delight in solving a problem, staying with a puzzle and resolving it. Consider the open mindedness that allows one to try new experiences, that avoids getting stuck in a rut and by so doing allows growth. There is a fairly human attribute to settle down to what we know: it is comfortable/easy. For the more senior readers of this piece, there may be an attraction to routine, having lived a life full of novelty there may follow the subsequent desire or inclination to settle down. OK, I get it, fair enough, but at 14? Surely not. Without that disposition or openness to novelty and to being surprised by knowledge and the horizon or paradigm shift it involves, school loses a significant dimension.
The second is humility, recognising honestly to yourself that the material one produces does not arrive ‘deus ex-machina’. The humility to recognise that work can be drafted and re-drafted and that in re-drafting you are approaching perfection, confident that it may well be a never-ending journey but regardless of destination it is one that is worth embarking on. St Augustine recalled that his scribbling on the nature of Divinity was akin to a man hobbling with a crutch, but it was better in his mind to hobble than not to walk at all. So it is with the work we produce. Schools are places where ‘failing-well’ is welcomed, where the most significant learning comes from struggling with difficult concepts and that the very best things are at the end of a period of toil. Where one is getting material perfect first time, where there is no red ink in books and where there are no suggestions for improvement one struggles to find growth.
The final observation I made was that it takes no talent to be kind. In the playground, one finds a microcosm of life. In our interactions with each other, it takes no effort to acknowledge that another may have a view which is not mine, but the world is large enough to accommodate us both. I believe fundamentally that people are good, that Rousseau was right and that his Enlightenment idea for children, education and society are as relevant and contemporary now as they were in the eighteenth century, well almost – he had some interesting ideas about society where we may part company. Much of the ill feeling we encounter comes from misunderstanding or the unwillingness to reconcile ourselves to the idea that we do not have a monopoly on getting our own way. There is magnanimity in the capacity to forgive, but also in being true to oneself. We live in a gossipy world, stories abound and physicists are wrong, there is something that travels faster than light and its rumour mongering. It takes no talent not to be first with the news, fake or otherwise. It takes no talent to speak up for someone rather than critiquing them. Paul Tillich suggests that to deal in untruths is to diminish one’s existence. Without getting into the existentialism of it, commerce in half-truths or suggestions is a failure to participate in what is real. Traffickers in soundbites and suggestion are the shadows dancing on the wall of Plato’s cave, a salutary warning from history.
As we start the new school year, an attitude of openness, humility and kindness requires no talent, just conviction. They are capacities capable of making the world a better place immediately within our grasp. The start of the new school year issues the choice upon us and picking it up is the matter of a single moment.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley