Käthe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1910
It appears that we are the best runners in the world. No surprise to me but nice to have it validated. We are the world champions and record holders for the Save the Children World Marathon Challenge at under 13. This means that our young people ran 105 laps of a 400m track faster than any other participants in the world, breaking our own previous world record. A nice chap from Save the Children came and told us what the money was spent on and advised us on charitable giving. Assembled Tallis, despite the hard floor, reflected on their advantages and their place in the world and applauded the athletes.
I say with tedious regularity that the only thing we teach in school that is actually proved to make people happier and live longer, is PE. A pity, therefore, that performance table obsessions of recent years have made it harder for schools to give the right place to mens sana in corpore sano. We need exercise to help us think straight and survive. So I was talking to some trainee young swimmers waiting for their bus when one asked me if I could swim. I said I could, so she sought advice: ‘How do you actually breathe?’ I said that I did it by an undignified combination of gasping and keeping my head well out of the water.
Young people receiving advice coolly is an occupational hazard. I once took part in an inspection. It was going well and the year 10 class was absorbed in geography until a child’s plaintive request diverted the silence. ‘Sir, is it normal to have the same weird dream night after endless night?’ Sir, as I recall, said it probably was OK unless it was really upsetting him. But ‘How weird is weird?’ was harder to answer using geographical terms accurately with two inspectors in the room. I used to teach The Parts of a Church. I was talking about lecterns (how we do live) when a child who had previously shown little aptitude for metaphor helpfully told me ‘I know all about lecterns. Up and down the street at all hours of the day and night, banging on people’s doors and windows.’ I felt compelled to point out that on the contrary, a lectern was a large reading stand, sometimes in the shape of a large eagle, often made of brass, invariably stationary. He said that I was mistaken, and warned me to be on my guard.
None of this accidentally substandard advice really matters, until it does. Monday was Holocaust Memorial Day and assemblies have also been plain and clear. We’ve heard haunting music and seen terrible images, reflected in silence and listened carefully. Young people of this generation cannot be expected to respond with the same shock and horror that was expected of older generations. The events are known facts, and the images and stories endlessly terrible. They are almost familiar, certainly to those who study history to GCSE and beyond. That’s’ not to say that young people aren’t moved by them, but what do we expect them to think? Or do? How may we advise them sensibly? Do we say – be careful? Do we say - don’t collude with genocide? Do we say – this is why we work endlessly to stamp out all kinds of hate and cruelty in school? Or do we say that human beings are capable of terrible acts and we should never underestimate our capacity for wickedness? Our advice – be kind and thoughtful, make your own decisions, work hard, learn how to read and measure the world, find comfort in art and literature, keep fit, learn from the past - seems unequal to the subject. How can we prevent them from making catastrophic errors or believing bad things? What do we advise, to save the world?
The best we do is to teach them to value one another and build up the common good. Not to categorise fellow humans or set themselves against each other. Not to measure a person’s worth by a single unchangeable feature, not to rank people’s value. Perhaps next time I’ll write about performance tables and what they do to children.