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A letter from The Head – 6 September 2022

6 September 2022

Dear Parents and Guardians,

Values: listening, learning and living

Wokeness should not be our aim, rather, our goal should be finding truth in our values and maintaining a steadfast resolve in whom we are. Voicing an opinion is a dangerous game. I’m not sure my opinion will resonate with most, but in the cauldron of opinion is exactly where truth is understood and understanding is forged, and thus I will dive in.

Many parents of children in independent schools will be alive to the many challenges the sector is facing at this time, from fee challenges to claims of racism among pupils to the oft divisive gender debate.

It’s quite a storm!

A little reflection on our history may help. Independent schools were among the first to accept pupils of colour during apartheid – they led the way and openly challenged the regime.  Independent schools have challenged the status quo on many fronts, especially against the backdrop of a failing system and a sad “race to the bottom” that seems to have captured much of the state system.

And so, we come to the heady days of wokeism, cancel culture and trans…

There are many opinions and many biases. I hold both and, by their very definition, every one of us does. In a world that has all but forgotten absolutes, it is easy for those on the side lines of running schools to cry foul. Surely our world has not descended into relativism, that place where nothing can be taken as fact nor where anything remains sacred?

Challenging the norm is a fundamental part of our development as a society; in its extreme, the world has always been at war with itself when it designates some among us to be second-class citizens. This continues today. These many varied opinions have always been present, sometimes quietly held but always considered. Biases are inherent in our upbringing – sadly – as we all get conditioned into a way of being. Some of us have confronted these, others of us turn blind eyes.

And so, to the challenges our schools face today. In a world of greater voice through public grandstanding platforms such as Facebook, TikTok and Twitter, we are targets for every kind of criticism. I can already see the virtual darts flying my way.

As such, these schools that have always challenged the status quo and indeed require pupils to think critically about a range of subjects, have become the target of vitriolic abuse in the public arena of blogs, podcasts and tweeted commentary.

I remember in the fairly recent past those who were vehemently opposed to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and to Nelson Mandela when I was at school and the consequent disinformation that was peddled to smear their names at the time. Two imperfect human beings to whom we all owe much of our current livelihoods in today’s South Africa. In fact, the very critics of these icons yearn for leaders of their calibre against the backdrop of our current crop. Thank goodness the likes of these iconic figures continued on their paths of belief and action.

My point is that our independent school sector has often been at the forefront of public discourse on matters of societal discord. This is as a result of schools being a melting pot of children and families who arrive with their world views cultivated at home. No one escapes this reality.

Certain schools require a subscription to a particular ethos, code or religion. Jewish and Muslim schools are a case in point – their expressions differ widely.  Christian schools also make for an interesting study: depending on your denominational leaning, the expression of such Christian philosophy and ethos is broad and far-ranging; and indeed, among this broad church a multitude of expressions is alive. The Christian church has always found ways of distinguishing itself even among itself; our Christian schools fall into much the same category.

I choose not to stand in judgement.

Whilst my own ideals of right and wrong are continually being shaped, as I read, reflect and ponder, I find it all the more disconcerting that my knowledge of the world and our way of being is never complete. Other compelling arguments to how I “show up” continue to be presented. The woke agenda, if there is one, is one such disconcerting topic. Much of what I have believed and relied upon to shape my world view is being challenged. Some ideas are helpful, they require me to change my awkward biases, they arrest my thinking, and they question my prejudice. Certain aspects are unhelpful: the incapacity to engage in argument, the unwillingness to retain some of the good of old, the permission to live at the centre of the spectrum.

Vitriolic denunciation of anything to the left (by some) or to the right (by others) – penned by bloggers and commentators alike – is disingenuous to the very nature of what a learning institution should be about: debate. The importance for educators of holding a centrist position, as the reasonable man would, is critical to our ongoing ability to guide learning, discussion and debate.

And so, I choose to engage but to keep this engagement in perspective. We, at schools, are charged with guiding young people into becoming robust thinkers who will make our world a better place. The learnings we have gained as adults are important – we can see a little further down the roads of extremism and populism. As such, we owe it to our communities to hold certain lines, to discuss all issues, to teach what we believe to be truth.  In the 21st century, schools can no longer be places where only one way of being is championed and accepted; surely the world we live in and are preparing young people for is more pluralistic, open and tolerant?

We must guard against making every indiscretion by a child an act of racism or prejudice. Children disagree and argue – we all did. We must guard against parental involvement that forces the hand of the school when parents have signed up to the values the school abides by. Nor may schools be stubborn in their thinking and their adopting of new ideas if they enhance their offering within their mandate. Schools are living institutions that morph and develop as all great institutions do over time. Those that don’t embrace new learnings often die.

Hilton College is steadfast in its understanding of its role as an educational institution; we remain committed to equipping our young men for a world that is complex and ever-changing; we have a mandate to uphold and to develop in ways that ensure a “wider usefulness”.  Wokeness is not a desired state; broad understanding is. Wokeness, as linked to cancel culture, is often polarising, unhelpful and damaging to all, but especially to young minds. We cannot be all things to all people yet some conversations which may be difficult are essential for our young men to engage in before they leave the Hilton microcosm, such that they can be equipped with conviction in their on-going life’s journey.  At Hilton we set out to manage these difficult conversations in an open, nurturing and unforced manner – respectful of all, all the time.

The desired state of tolerance arrived at via discussion, debate and the acts of apology and forgiveness require dexterity in their delivery at any age, but especially in one’s teenage years when “influencers” are themselves often self-appointed disruptors whom the youth gravitate towards with alacrity.

Ultimately, we teachers are custodians of our institutions and of the young people who grow up through them. We need to keep them both true; challenge our collective thinking whilst holding our course with our eyes on our founding principles and on the world we seek to create and inhabit. We should be proud of these institutions, and we should protect them whilst being ready to change what we may have done wrongly in the past.

Hilton College is a place with a strong sense of belonging. It may not always have been so, but we hope to build a legacy for years to come for all who are fortunate to call it home.

Kind regards,

George Harris

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