We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – The American Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia, 4 July 1776.
So begins one of the most quoted lines in history. Signed in Philadelphia by the Second Continental Congress, it set out that the colonies at war with Great Britain bound themselves to a union of independent states and rejected the authority of the Crown. Some might argue that it was a self-interested tax dodge, some a statement of principle.
I honestly think that Jefferson had the latter in mind. But I have always been intrigued by the notion of the “self-evident truths”. I am unconvinced that the 18th century lived reality of women, the poor or the slaves picking cotton or working the estates had any such experience of self-evidence. Indeed, one might be forgiven for wondering if the 21st century experience of these groups in any country have any lived examples of these self-evident truths at all?
If one questions what makes these truths self evident, the answer is “well, it’s obvious isn’t it?” But obvious to whom? It might be obvious that 1+1=2 because 2 is an expression of the sum of 1+1. It may be self-evidently true that triangles have three angles, it’s tautologous. But is it axiomatic that beliefs or values can be expressed in the same way or is it necessary to postulate that because of the nature of human beings and their inherent qualities, that they have rights? One might think of Montaigne: “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we cannot be wise with other men’s wisdom.”
Now you might consider this an odd way to round off the last Highlights of the year, but I do so deliberately because I believe that there are some truths about schools which may or may not be self-evident but are true nonetheless. On Celebration Day and Prize-giving on Speech Day, one such truth is that the greatest achievements are never exclusively individual, that the true characteristic of success is about consideration for others.
We live in a world where social media creates a paradigm in which the unsuspecting wander, led by the unknowing and directed by the misguided. It is quite correct to congratulate students and staff, quite correct to applaud achievement but to think that this is achieved alone or by solitary effort is, I believe, self-evidently untrue. The achievements we laud at Celebration Day and Prize-giving are richly deserved, the children who receive them are richly rewarded for effort, talent and resilience. We applaud their success. But behind each story is a catalogue of support and expertise. This piece celebrates individual achievements but more realistically it celebrates teams, home, friends and school who encourage, nourish and motivate as well as an understanding of real authentic and life defining achievement.
There are two kinds of curriculum vitae. Two kinds of résumé that you will have in life. One you will prepare for yourself: it is the one you send to employers in the expectation that they recognise your brilliance and give you a job. The other is the one written by you indirectly. The first sets out the skills you have and your capacity for employment. The second sets out what you value and your capacity for greatness: it defines your character.
Now there is no test for this, no league table, no objective measure. There is no standardised score, no point of reference, no awarding body beyond your own judgement. You are what you can become, now do you dare to become what you are?
This past year, we have seen a bewildering array of achievements in school. But the greatest achievement within this vast catalogue of success is the way each student contributes to the community, to their peers and to themselves by working toward a common goal in the true spirit of collegiality. David Brooks suggests that the single biggest issue to deal with in the world today is the preoccupation with self. How am I feeling? Am I OK? Advertisements on the telly invite me to polish my face, trim my waist, gaze earnestly and longingly into the mirror of self-obsession and then suggest to me that perhaps I don’t measure up, I fall short of the mark and I should buy happiness by fuelling this deluded self-absorption on their terms.
Too strong? Too much? I wonder? Is the truth of success and achievement decided by how popular I am? How many follow me or like my likes? How effectively do I keep up with trends? Chasing after the next gadget, tool, top, shop bought device or diversion; looking for an easy road rather than the right one; seeing mistakes as an end point, not a sign post are all untruths of the age. How much more pressure will be poured out onto our young people, onto children, to realise a model of something they are not? In his Social Contract of 1762 Rousseau wrote that “humanity is created free but is everywhere in chains”. A simple position that sets out the notion that humanity through a process of so called progress has in fact and by necessity, he argues, imprisoned itself.
Our school exists to create in young people competence, confidence and compassion. There is real virtue in forgetting the debt to self and looking out to others. A person must lose himself to find himself: a two-thousand-year concept which is current because it is suggesting that an appropriate disregard for my own comfort will net greater rewards and give me lasting happiness; that it is OK not to enjoy something and just get on and do; that sometimes you will be grumpy and that is no one’s fault. Meaning and achievement in life are unlikely to follow systemic navel gazing and the future it offers results in walking into lampposts.
As we come to the end of the academic year, I am proud of all those who have their achievements recognised at Celebration Day and Prize-giving, proud of all their efforts and talents, but proud too of those who support them – their teachers and families. I am proud of colleagues who go the extra mile and keep going, unbidden, unremarked and humbly eschewing any recognition or reward beyond that of professional and personal pride at a job authentically done. Theirs is not the vainglorious charge to self-importance or a narcissistic craving for applause. I am proud that in a world so endowed with the capacity for narrow self-absorption that our school community is so dedicated to looking out for each other. I am proud of the collegiality we show and the fact that no one thinks themselves too grand, too mighty, too aloof and that is self-evidently true.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley