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Unchanging truths

It’s almost the end of term and the time of year when I reflect upon rather a lot of reports. This year I may be writing slightly fewer owing to being called for jury service. I shall be doing all I possibly can and Pete Simpson, Director of Studies, will this time potentially be writing some on my behalf.

Some question the need for me to be writing these individual reports each term when there are so many other demands at this time, but I enjoy the idea that I can get to know, at varying levels, all 670 pupils in the school and the reports are one way of doing that in a small and unobtrusive way. 

It’s important when dealing with the daily expectations of a school in my role as Head that I do not, in dealing with the detail, lose a sense of the bigger picture. This emphasis on the bigger picture is something I talk about to the school in assembly pretty regularly over the course of the second half of this term. I do this mostly in terms of encouraging an attitude of looking out from Bryanston, and of raising pleasing sums of money for charitable work, which we have supported for well over ten years now in Nepal and India. 

The bigger picture is also important in terms of our giving pupils the right sort of access to facts and encouraging the use of critical faculties upon the understanding of key world issues, whether extremism or Ebola. Pete Simpson’s memorable assembly recently also prompted us to think of homelessness and as a school we organised a frugal lunch that day to raise funds for Centrepoint. It’s so important that we think about these big ideas and issues. As Bertrand Russell put it, to keep us on our toes, “Most people would rather die than think, and most people do.” 

Last week I spoke to the school about what matters, about what remains (when you are on old lady like me) of what you learned in school. Poems come unprompted into my head at the most unlikely times, from ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat’ (I was about nine when I learned that) to William Johnson Cory’s translation of ‘They told me, Heracleitus…’ (I came across this when I was about 15). And then there are all those impenetrable things I learned in maths (x = -b + or – the square root of b squared - 4ac, all divided by 2a). These things never quite leave you. They just ricochet around one’s memory without our even realising. 

William Johnson Cory, the translator of my remembered poem, also said interesting things about education. Here are some of his thoughts on the matter below: 

“At school you are engaged not so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness. Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge.” 

I think I almost entirely agree. School should certainly teach you how to think. The stuff you remember, what remains, can be odd and seemingly unconnected. But it’s the process of learning how to think, of how to ask and start to answer difficult questions, how to not just settle for pure blarney, and how to be fulfilled in life that matters. And however many changes to syllabus, to forms of examination, to marking, to assessment, nothing will change these basic unchanging truths of life.