A blog by Head Master Andrew Halls is being published on The Sunday Times’ website. Subscribers to The Times Online can click on the link from the Parent Power page of the Sunday Times.
True Grit: Standing up to the 21st Century
9th March 2014
In two weeks’ time, we shall be holding our “True Grit” conference at King’s on developing emotional resilience in schools. Within a week of our advertising it, we were sold out. Nearly 200 leading school head teachers and pastoral heads are attending. Even though we closed the book long ago, we still have nearly a hundred and fifty schools either on the waiting list or asking us if we can hold the conference again.
Why has “personal resilience” struck such a chord? It is partly because we are openly discussing matters that some schools have been very reluctant to address before in any public forum. But it is also because so many of us have personal experience of someone we care about very much, either in the workplace, or within our families or friends, who has struggled to make sense of the world they are in. With an apparent perversity, some adults and children seem to “have everything” – except happiness. They may be loved, supported, with good jobs, or excellent academic expectations, food on the table, and a warm house to live in, but for reasons that even those closest to them cannot understand, they feel their life has no meaning, and are driven to thoughts of the darkest despair.
Living in the 21st century is not everything the advertisements have told us it should be.
Edwin Brock’s caustic poem, Five Ways to Kill a Man, was a favourite of English classrooms in the 1980s when I started teaching. After referring to “cumbersome” historical methods, such as crucifixion or nuclear attack, the poet laconically suggests that there is an easier way to kill a man:
“Simpler, direct and much more neat is to see
That he is living somewhere in the middle
Of the twentieth century, and leave him there.”
The pupils I taught thirty years ago easily understood the idea that the century they inhabited was one of global catastrophe. World wars were part of their families’ memories, and part of their own Cold War inheritance; any self-respecting “wild child” daughter could join the Greenham Common women’s peace camp; famines were televised and Live Aid offered hope to the starving and a palliative to the western conscience.
But these issues were by and large external ones – great, world-sweeping affairs that did not call into question the tiny and fragile world of the individual self. On the contrary, they helped promote a belief in the power of the individual to change things for the better. Without a doubt, this reached its climax in the fall of the Berlin Wall. This defining moment of 1989 proved to the world that individuals not only mattered, they could win the battle against apparently invulnerable and oppressive regimes. In the same year, Bryce Courtenay’s novel, The Power of One, pursued the same theme, and clearly struck a chord. It was translated into eighteen languages and sold eight million copies.
I suspect if Edwin Brock were to write his poem anew today, the 21st century would fit even better. There are still the world-wide concerns of over-population, terrorism, global warming and conflict. But added to these is an exceptionally developed and articulate narrative of the self, and a paradoxical sense of the futility of the individual – the powerlessness of one.
Through Facebook, Instagram and suchlike, young people, still growing into the man or woman they cannot yet possibly envisage, find themselves captured, adored, reviled or all too publicly ignored on a moment by moment basis. Anonymous comment websites like AskFM or Little Gossip mean that our young people are not only performing the sometimes tortured drama of their adolescence under the scrutiny of hundreds or even thousands of others, but they are vulnerable to cruel and absurd slanders that, for some of them, can be literally life-ending. Faced with the transient contempt of the online audience, and with too little sense of the meaningless of such vacuous and momentary unkindness, the individual suddenly seems extraordinarily small and vulnerable.
Shakespeare’s King Lear lost his kingdom, his daughters and his mind before concluding that man was just a “poor bare forked animal” stripped of purpose and dignity. In the 21st century too many people have come to a similar conclusion before they have even gone through puberty.
We need to teach them all over again the “power of one”, or to quote from King Lear again, to be able to say to them: “Thy life’s a miracle” – and mean it. “True grit” and resilience training is as much as anything a means of celebrating the miracle of human life, and the vast potential of every person to change things both within them and around them for the better.