26 January 2024
This newsletter sets out some ideas that I aim to focus on this year, in thinking about Hilton College and our role in the lives of the families we serve. It is long and covers a range of ideas. My hope is that you find a few minutes to indulge me by reading this and then to engage, should you so wish, such that we can make this partnership stronger whilst your son is in our care.
When does one hold a stock and when does one sell? When does one hold steadfast to an idea, an opinion, or a belief and when does one adopt a different view?
In certain contexts, trading being a good example, timing is key in the assessment of whether holding or selling is celebrated or chastised.
History is studded with examples of worldviews that were once accepted by a broad church, but which are now abhorrent and seemingly quite absurd in our modern world. I can think of weighty matters such as slavery, women’s voting rights, racial and gender inequality. On the sporting stage, certain games were the domain of a particular gender, golf being a leading example of gender disparity.
Through active opposition, persistent and often uncomfortable challenge to the status quo, new enlightened opinions and norms are agitated for, developed, and adopted. Acceptable behaviour and values in different communities have indeed shifted over time.
Certain aspects of civilisation seem to be less changeable and more constant: great art is enduring; ancient thought leaders’ ideas continue to shape what we value; architectural wonders remain an inspiration to us. What then for the role of education and schooling against this changeable landscape?
In some ways nothing changes, education has always been purposed to challenge firm beliefs whilst concurrently instilling certain values that the current adult generation deem essential for a good society – partly because these values were passed down through the ages to themselves and have stood the test of time. Perhaps, however, the rate of change is the one critical factor that has changed, such that the number of traditional values a previous generation relied upon as absolute has diminished more rapidly and resulted in less certainty in one’s personal philosophy and community’s philosophy.
Education, and schools, must then perfect the art of simultaneously instilling values and beliefs that may be considered absolute, whilst encouraging a questioning, curious and challenging mindset. This duplicitous task makes the function of educating in today’s world fragile, in that it seems to be more susceptible to critique from every corner. Ironically, it should be precisely the opposite if we are to advance a better world with citizens equipped for the next chapter of our shared civilisation.
Extreme proponents of both the left and the right should be listened to but tempered, in an education that seeks to challenge and inspire curiosity. The voice and attitude of the populist and the politically correct often shut down robust debates on topical issues. This tendency seems to prioritise sensational headlines, contributing to some classrooms becoming echo-chambers and risk-averse spaces where necessary conversations are avoided, even if agreeing to disagree is the outcome at certain points in the journey. Those wedded to a particular worldview can also be unhelpful in their dogged tenacity in holding a view against all rationality simply because they are unable to listen and to yield where necessary and appropriate. Both positions can be damaging.
This year elections will be held in about 60 nations worldwide; South Africa’s will be closely watched, and we will hear grand posturing from all sides of the political spectrum. As our fledgling democracy begins to find its feet and its voice, our citizenry would serve it best if our national education had ensured a critical approach and analysis of that which party A or B promises. If schools have been too afraid and inhibited from cultivating a questioning populace, the very construct of a robust democracy is a fallacy. Of the many things we need to mitigate risk for, this must be one of the highest on the list.
Great schools, and places of education, may not succumb to the latest vogue public issue in a reactive manner but should encourage debate that affords all students to form an opinion, articulate this opinion sensibly and clearly, whilst listening to dissenting arguments that challenge and test a viewpoint such that we can all improve our navigation of the complexities of our modern world. Secondary schools should help young people cultivate this skill without being held hostage to any particular hot-button issue.
Global warming and climate change are upon us and here the role of education seems all too clear. We must encourage our young people to question our modes of living and to investigate the opportunities that will present themselves for us to live differently as we remain the custodians of this planet and all its wonders. An education that avoids this debate and fails to challenge our young people and ourselves about how we should live in response to this environmental reality is an education out of step with the world. We need to ensure that this topic is at the centre of as many of our initiatives as possible this year, as we aim to shift our focus to a more sustainable way of life.
Observing parts of our world at war is difficult and unnerving. Schools need to encourage children to engage in understanding the challenges that nation states face, through a broad reading of history, and through lively debate on what an appropriate resolution to conflict may be. As a school based on a Christian ethos, a clear sense of how we should live in this world that is human, fractured and broken, is a lifelong lesson that requires clarity of thought and delicate, yet forthright, practise. Our young men must grapple with this.
School culture and ethos
We must work harder at aspiring towards fostering a school which champions and celebrates kindness. Kindness towards self, towards those whom one knows (one’s tribe), and towards those whom no one knows personally but who share our world with us – humanity at large.
Kindness is a strong value; an attribute we should prize. It requires focus to develop, and practise to hone its use. Many of us have read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies which is a fictional account of what happens when a group of adolescent boys land on an island where there is no adult supervision, and the behaviours that ensue when boys are left to their own devices. The story concludes rather tragically when a member of the group is killed through the demeaning and bullying actions of his peers; this after he had been othered and belittled from early on when given the nickname Piggy.
Intriguingly, and very hopefully, the author of Human Kind, Rutger Bregman, rebuts this fictional account of inevitable cruel behaviour by a group of unsupervised adolescents, by citing the real-life experiences of six Tongan teenage schoolboys who did indeed end up marooned on an island for more than a year in the mid-1960s, and how they worked as a team, helping each another to survive whilst learning to live together harmoniously and for the good of the group. Their lived experience suggests that we are naturally kind and good-natured at heart, debunking the myth of being mean-spirited and bullies by nature. If this is indeed true, my challenge to boys at Hilton is such that we rise above the oft-touted narrative that peers are nasty, that older boys are bullies, that this brotherhood is but skin deep.
Our school, made up of our seven boarding houses, must be a place of nurture, of fun, of challenge, of camaraderie and of care. Safe places of emotional maturity true to the real meaning of brotherhood; spaces where behaviours that fuel boyhood journeys that one must traverse in one’s awkward adolescent years are fostered and enabled. We are all different and have varied interests, talents and dreams; this is our strength, and we should celebrate and champion these differences rather than see them as a weakness. The conventional narrative about boys’ schools (and boys’ boarding schools in particular) being harsh places where you either sink or swim; where cruel behaviour is the order of the day; where difference is belittled rather than celebrated; where jocks rule and nerds are second-class citizens is an erroneous narrative and should be dismissed.
If Bregman is correct and Golding not, then our boys need to be held accountable in their pursuit of enabling their brotherhood, by ensuring their understanding of kindness surpasses meanness and certain archaic modes of being that may well have been the story of traditional boys’ schools of old. This kindness must encompass an attitude of tolerance and our embracing of difference culturally and racially. There should be no place for any othering at our school. Although we come from different backgrounds, we have a shared future that must be inclusive and respectful of all.
Alongside this measure of a healthy boys’ school stands the somewhat irrational metric boys’ schools are evaluated against and that is the all-consuming metric of sporting results.
Sport is essential in boys’ schools. It is also a fundamental ingredient to ensuring mental wellness.
Boys need to be physical; they need to pit themselves against one another; they need to aim at a goal; they need to improve at a skill they enjoy; they need to expend energy; they need the sense of accomplishing a task and of crossing the finish line. Being a part of a winning culture is important and, as such, we will continue to work at being the best we can be, but this may not be our sole aspiration. Some boys will pursue a career in sports, and we celebrate these boys and their achievements knowing that such a career has a finite lifespan, and thus boys need to develop and hone a range of skills to stand them in good stead for their lives after sport.
Nationally, we hold onto sporting success as the glue that keeps us going even in the face of enormous social ills that continue to define our fractured land, so we need sport and success in sport. Great boys’ schools, however, cannot be defined only by their results on the playing fields. We must guard against this. South African schools are easily engulfed in this narrow narrative and ours should not succumb. Sporting success must be a part of our overall success.
The science of the brain
A primary focus of an educational institution must be the science of learning. Dr Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things is a treatise that details the brain’s development and its function in making meaning of our world. The work is immense and quoting or referring to it may not begin to do justice to the enormity of the subject material and to McGilchrist’s most poignant work but, despite this risk, a fundamental tenet of his hypothesis is that we lean towards what we “attend” to and to how we attend, and that this attention is key to whom we become and to what we focus upon.
My interest in this is multi-faceted but primarily as a reminder that attending is integral to the learning process, and as such must find primary focus in our daily routine at school. McGilchrist’s concern is with our tendency to focus on the material, the things, the concrete, the formulaic – the domain of the left hemisphere of our brains – and at the expense of a focus on the more necessary, more enduring, more imaginative, and more composite meaning-making attributes of life – the domain of the right hemisphere of the brain.
Learning is one of the most wonderful experiences we have as human beings: growth and development enable us to become more, to experience more, to understand more. Schools are like fertile ground for seeds to be planted, watered, and nurtured such that the plants bear fruit and flowers in the future. Great schools understand this and ensure that they hold, challenge, develop and grow young people in multiple ways and at many moments along the way. Being intentional about attending to growth in the creative capacity of our minds is integral to educating for life in all its fulness; our young men need to fall in love with exploration and inquiry never allowing themselves to become dullards unable or unwilling to dream, to dare, to learn.
Sadly, the pervasive nature of technology in today’s world restricts the time we spend in creative pursuits and thus stunts the progress of key aspects of brain development. Whilst we are not anti-technology, we do need to be extremely vigilant in the use of, and time spent on, devices – hence our rules. Young people might not recognise these restrictions as being useful or necessary, but much of the reading I have been able to do on the subject confirms the understanding that screentime must be limited – for all of us – if we are determined to attend to the most important processes of discovery and of learning.
As this year unfolds, our intentional approach will continue as we want each young man to become all that he can become at whichever stage of development he finds himself. I look forward to joining our teaching staff in our ongoing quest to teach and guide in ways that go beyond the curriculum such that a richer understanding of education remains our purpose. It is my hope that each Hilton boy thrives as he develops here; that there is much laughter, much joy, great caring and strong acts of selfless service, all embedded in his experience such that his adult life will have a firm footing from which to launch a life of fulfilment.