Asked once what his work meant, Samuel Beckett famously replied “what does it not mean?” Beckett had uttered it as a put down to those intent on harvesting his work for meaning and finding so called truths he had never thought to plant. I only mention it because in an interview about his work, Jim Cartwright re-told the story with a view to helping the interviewer to understand that once written the meaning of a work passes from the hands of the author to the weasel under the cocktail cabinet or to musing on what it leaves out.
Why mention it at all? Well this week our Senior School Drama Company is performing a play which examines our reliance on mobile phones in society. This is unique, wonderful and engaging not least because of the excellent performances from the cast but also for the opportunity it gives the audience to look inside a world, a sub-culture of the adolescent and their relationship with their device.
Cartwright is as much a chronicler of generational change as Alan Sillitoe. He explores the emergence of the individual from a context where expectations of fathers and mothers, husbands and wives are railed against; much as they may have been resented, there were expectations or boundaries against which to rail. The contextual lines of growing up are defined by what we won’t accept and what is considered beyond the pale. But what now? How does this generation make sense of the same challenge to grow when the familiar paradigm of social relations and the cosy if sometimes claustrophobic web of community support is diminishing? What is there to support them?
Cartwright was once quoted as saying that “people need to have the same opportunities and a sense that they can change the world the same as anyone else can. But that’s knocked out of you at school now.” This is not the case, for two reasons.
Pupils have always had the desire to change the world. Recent events in particular illustrate the capacity of pupils to do so. Their desire to make the world a more equitable and open experience has been accelerated by the possibilities afforded to them by social media and the access that mobile phones gives them. If anything, the experiences of the past few weeks would seem to indicate that the young are as full of passionate intensity as ever and are armed with the opportunity to engage and indeed to disrupt. They are as adept at it as ever regardless of how myopic some of the activity might be.
The second reason he is wrong is more nuanced. If you follow the educational press you might be forgiven for thinking that schools are the panacea for all social ills. If schools can sort out what goes on in the classroom there will be no poverty, crime, injustice, gender inequality, climate change and so it goes. The first job of schools is to educate. This means to bring out of pupils all that is their best, to support them to become what they are and that in so doing we challenge barriers to learning, barriers to effective relationships and actively work to make the world a better place.
Some schools are forced to hold ideals as hostages to performance, prioritising a narrowing of curriculum, the better to see league table positions improve and to boast of their success by indicating where their students go afterwards or how many bells and whistles they accumulated in their time.
I am asked sometimes which universities our students go to after leaving school. I know why I am being asked: a correlation between the quality of the school and the destination of the children is being drawn. Correlation and causation are not the same but often confused. Our children go to the “right” university I reply, the one where they will be happy, enjoy challenge, success and find meaningful lives thereafter. This involves a huge variety of universities – or none – as well as a huge variety of careers. Degree apprenticeships are on the scene and have huge merit for those children who are clear about their direction of travel. Setting children up for the wrong university or indeed for university at all is where schools can be misguided into allowing a populist notion to persuade practice. In this Cartwright has a point and such schools will knock potential to affect change out of students by valuing their own reputation ahead of the interests of the child.
At our STE@M (Science, Engineering, Aesthetics & Mathematics) careers evening last Monday night, pupils heard much from representatives of Southampton and Winchester universities, IBM and Exxon Mobil to name a few of the participants. They advocated a perspective that was about pupils finding their passion, working hard to be their best, getting to grips with difficult concepts and ideas and straining to understand. This was all within a context of personal fulfilment and not chasing after the reputation of someone else’s fantasy, lingering as it does like a bad smell in a lift and just as empty.
Our pupils have the opportunities to be themselves in a world that would have them be something else. Increasingly, and as illustrated in the Senior School Drama Company production, the world they occupy is in flux and not looking like it will be stabilising anytime soon. Change is the norm and they will enter careers that we cannot imagine. I read recently of someone who is a ‘meme creator’. I thought this was a pastime for the idle, it seems not, it is a career for the creatively industrious online that affords a very comfortable living, who knew? And this is my very point. As a school we cannot teach to the career, we can only educate to bring out their best, to inspire their attitude and to equip them with the disposition to work hard and follow their passion. No one can know what tomorrow will mean for them, we are very clear about what it doesn’t mean.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@HeadmasterHCS)