On interconnectedness: a Māori perspective on educating

There is a deep instinct in most people’s being that they are more connected to the earth, to nature, to other humans, to their ancestors, to animals, etc., than they realise. Protestant Christianity, especially filtered through the Enlightenment paradigm (that is to say, then, most of protestant Christianity), has tried to separate ourselves out as individuals, and has worked hard to strengthen the individualist sense of ourselves, for reasons particularly to do with individual salvation and responsibility. Whilst this is not a heresy, it is a half-truth – i.e. it is precisely half the truth. The communal, the inter-responsible, the collaborative, the “being built into a temple” – this is the other half. Because of our fundamental western Enlightenment stance on life (the post-modern obsession with identity is just another example of western individualism), we have not developed the language of how to think of ourselves as linked across time, across space, with a peaceable understanding of ourselves as part of nature. Some of the post-human movement in philosophy is starting to address these questions. The idea of rhizomes, of a deep subterranean connection between people, has a lot of airtime in that post-human debate and literature, and it is important to listen to. The work of Rosi Braidotti in Utrecht is particularly significant in this field. Christians need to listen to and engage with posthumanist thinkers.

Wendell Berry, whilst remaining firmly on the protestant side of things, in that he sees God and his creation as separate, nevertheless expresses the problem with traditional Christianity brilliantly in two essays: God and Country in the book What are People For (1990), and Christianity and the Survival of Creation in the book Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (1993). Talking of this relationship between faith and land, Berry says:

 It is fascinating practically because we are unrelentingly required to honor in all things the relation between the world and its Maker, and because that requirement implies another, equally unrelenting, that we ourselves, as makers, should always honor that greater making; we are required, that is, to study the ways of working well, and those ways are endlessly fascinating.

(from God and Country, p.95)

In Berry’s work there is frequently a strong move towards the presence of God in all creation (which bothers some evangelicals as they see it as too animist) as well as (for instance in a lot of his poetry and in the closing chapters of Remembering) a strong awareness of the presence of our ancestors and their intense association with the land. None of this strikes me as unbiblical, because the Old Testament is a far more agrarian book than we give it credit for (and which Ellen Davis has written about wonderfully and in great detail in her Scripture, Culture and Agriculture (2008))

I was thinking about all this stuff because it is part of what I think about a lot anyway, but also because on Tuesday evening there was another presentation in the Cambridge Philosophy Seminars series, co-hosted with the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, this time by Carl Mika, from the University of Waikato, on Māori perspectives on education and the interconnection of things in the world. Thanks to my friend Joan Walton who has an interest in epistemologies of interconnectedness, I went along to this with a great deal of interest, all of which was amply repaid.

Carl began by explaining the formalities of Māori personal introductions, the tribal and sub-tribal loyalties that govern both the present and the past (ancestry that feeds and sustains the present and the future), situating himself in a culture in a way that we rarely do. Māori make up 16.5% of New Zealand’s population, and are organized traditionally into tribal, sub-tribal and family groupings, with acknowledgement of ancestors being fundamental to thought and existence, as they have given to and made possible current and future generations. A perspective on education cannot be divorced from a Māori worldview and language understanding. One of the main problems Carl addressed in the talk was that Māori and English philosophic concepts are nearly untranslatable in each other’s languages.

LAND & PEOPLE: For the Māori, ownership, particularly of land, is a foreign concept. Because land was an ancestor to the people as well, it was hugely important, and was a source of enormous identity conflict when the Crown policy of fragmentation of land during colonisation both conferred ownership rights over the land, enabling it to be bought and sold, and removed the access of the Māori to the land. This is reflected in a western concept of education, where there was a formalisation of boundaries between disciplines rather than the kind of interdisciplinary thought that Māori traditionally had. This was summarised in the concept of tangata whenua – the person as the earth and the earth is the person. Indigenous people are of (and from) the land: no division between the land and the human self exists in traditional Māori thought. The word whenua also means placenta and gives rise to the concept of a nourishing mother earth sustaining the people who live on it.

INTERCONNECTEDNESS: This is best seen from a western perspective in the idea of a holism where things are one. This is intriguing to philosophy, and Māori scholars see this as leading to an interconnectedness of all things. Part of this is the concept of life-force, which all things, human and non-human possess (this is where the animistic aspect of the culture comes into play). Māori philosophy has vast tracts of genealogy, both human and non-human, with everything possessing a life force. How this interconnection is viewed is in one of two ways. Either you have an interconnection between particular things that somehow remain separate (i.e. the interconnection is in the relationship, the space between discrete things) or you see all things as one and you don’t need the interconnecting force because the unity dispenses with it. The former is favoured in current scholarship, but both are possible in Māori thought. The latter is particularly challenging, particularly in a colonised context, because it challenges power by unifying oppressor and oppressed. And of course, with the importance of genealogy and ancestry, it is important to remember that the connectedness includes not just tangible things, but also ancestors.

This interconnection we can see not just as a theoretical concept, but as something political, something carried out. You do find in Māori contexts that the interconnection is acknowledged mainly through the language. Formal Māori settings acknowledge the interconnection in the language without actually articulating the concept of interconnectedness embodied in it. It is richly implied and embedded in the language used.

However, that sense is being slowly lost: there is a strong delineation between the “ceremonial era” of Māori culture and the present day. Now interconnection has to be articulated, lest it stay in the ceremonial era, and all the culture is left with is the fragmentation due to colonisation.

MYSTERY & DARKNESS: Part of the interconnectedness is the mystery and sense that we can never know everything. Carl maintained that mystery has been extinguished through colonisation. The researcher and teacher Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal indicates you can talk about one aspect of the world, but it is the interplay and the connections that are inherent in that, that is amazing to the sight. When Māori talk about “seeing” they are thinking of other worlds and dimensions that cannot be perceived with the senses but which nevertheless constitute our experience. This is important to know, because it represents an important divergence from established western thought. This is often couched in the thought “we do not know the full extent of something, there are aspects beyond our knowledge as equally important as the things as what we see.” Shades here of Wendell Berry’s Way of Ignorance.

And as Royal points out, darkness is also important in the mystery of the world. This is often overlooked in our struggles to be rightly logical, to see an Enlightenment progression from darkness (of ignorance and fear) to light (where true knowledge and understanding dwell). The way that Māori engage with this interconnectedness is seen perhaps most obviously in the struggle to engage rightly with the land, with the environment. A number of solutions have arisen from Māori thought that might offer themselves to the crisis of the environment.

WELLNESS: Wellness is also a fundamental – and fundamentally different from its western perception – quantity in Māori life. It relies entirely on the interconnection of physicality, family, spirituality and emotion (see Mason Durie’s work on Māori health promotion). This interconnectedness also informs philosophical wellness – how to apprehend the world and make sense of it. This philosophical thinking is not free from the idea of wellness. If we cannot think of the world as interconnected, then that has implications for our wellbeing.  This then does not become a conceptual or philosophical quandary, but something that impacts on the whole wellbeing of groups of people. This is a widely understood concept among indigenous peoples the world over. How we apprehend the world and how we order it and think of it, it has big implications for spiritual wellbeing. It is also a very strong biblical theme, though as western Christians, busy compartmentalising our lives, we don’t usually see it as such.

Ethics committees don’t really touch on this, but how we interact through thought with objects is also taken to be important in Māori life. We have to bring things into their interconnectedness with each other, protecting the world’s integrity. Māori stories tell about certain characters that engaged with the earth and the created order. Reading them, you’d be aware that they found it very important to engage with phenomena in the environment very respectfully.


INTERCONNECTION & EDUCATION

So where does this interconnection come from, and how does it frame education? Carl spoke of the “entities that conferred interconnection.” He spoke about 5 of these:

Kore/korekore and pouriuri convey a vulnerability. They together inscribe a sense of uncertainty and humility toward the so-called external world. Kore gives rise to the first state of creation. Because the latter is set forth as a genealogy, it sometimes feels as though kore/pouriuri have been left behind, but they are still there, informing Māori life and thought. They continue to influence and impact on the human condition. Pouriuri is becoming increasingly important in scholarship with respect to creative practice, and with artists as well. It indicates a veiled uncertainty about things in the world, a certain low level of vibration going on creating a gloom in which one operates.

Marama is the most compelling of the entities as it is the stage we are in now. Resembling the Enlightenment discourse, it enables us fully to understand everything that has come about. Emerging scholarship of kore/korekore has led to a critique on the emphasis on light, on marama. The focus on marama means we can’t focus on our uncertainty, where a lot of learning takes place.

Papatuanuku signifies entities beyond physicality. It is an important word – papa is both rock and a conceptual foundation, something that nourishes both thought and life.  Ranginui is very difficult to translate into English, as English doesn’t have the same concepts. We end up describe things but without the depth of meaning that ranganui carries. Rangi can be a register in which one talks. We tend to use the academic register, but the register you use is as important in how you want to communicate and the audience you are addressing.

UNCERTAINTY & LANGUAGE

The way that this frames education is around the areas of uncertainty and language. Language is a particular problem. In the western tradition, language is subject to the overriding supremacy of human thought. Language means that humanity is the ultimate arbiter of expression. Māori on the other hand assumed that the earth and all that is in it had a language before humans arrived. The way that the west uses language divides up things in the world between what is important and what is not important for human beings. This does not sit well with Māori thought at all. Māori needs – and has – language that enables them to express the identity of something in its constitution in the world. We in the west do not think that, never mind need a word for it. We tend to see things as singular and discrete, and our language describes precisely that. Translating that into Māori alters fundamentally the relationship of that thing to other things, to its interconnectedness and constitution in the world.

Regarding uncertainty, we’re taught from a young age to order things so as to make a clear argument – this doesn’t sit well with Māori thought either. How do we drive toward educational excellence? How do we orient toward reconnection in order to do that, articulating the world so we can keep the world together, rather than constantly classifying and separating? Some scholarship is trying to do that now. But then we have also to ask, how can we articulate a method that destabilises our academic conventions, which are all geared around certainty, proof, discreteness, definition, “clarity”? This might reflect the kore, the vulnerability that we need when being humble about our work and the claims we make in scholarship. We can find ways to destabilise our work while we are working, for instance by mocking ourselves as we go along, not taking ourselves too seriously.  Another way is to signal or shade that you dislike certain terms, and critique them through metaphor or humour, depriving them of their ostentation or portentousness, or again, not to engage logically but use metaphor or emotion to refer to an idea rather than carrying it on logically in the western fashion.


This has provoked a lot more thinking in the epistemological sphere. I am at present trying to construct an epistemology that allows for revelation as a source of knowledge and understanding: and if it allows for revelation, than it must also allow for uncertainty. And whilst my theological and spiritual background are far more “orthodox” (in a Christian sense) than the spiritual world of the Maori, I am grateful to have learnt from Carl, because he elucidates some thinking that is reflected in the Old Testament but which never arrived in the evangelical theologies I was raised in.

Watch with me…

Watch with me is the title of one of Wendell Berry’s more involved stories, most of which takes place in the woods and valleys of rural Kentucky, and describes the care of a group of farmers and friends for one of their number who has lost his mind and has gone into the woods with a shotgun.

It’s also Jesus’ word to his disciples as he goes to seek mercy from his Father on the night before his execution, and his reproach when they fail at this. Could you not watch with me, for one hour?

It’s a phrase that has an association with death, with the fading of the light and is the silent plea of countless Covid victims to the ICU nurses and doctors as they struggle to stay alive as lungs and other major organs fail on them.

Don’t go! Stay! Hold my hand! Watch with me! Watch!

It is something to do in our time for those who long to comfort the ill, the broken, the grieving, the housebound, the dying, but who can’t get close enough for touch, for bodily warmth, for tears. Watch with them.

Please, watch with me…just be here.

In our agonised and stuttering prayers for those we love, this phrase keeps coming back: we can watch from afar, we can hold our different adored ones before the throne of our merciful King, and watch with Him, and with those we love, who suffer.

Watching is sacrificial. It submits our own desire to turn away from suffering to the need for the suffering person to be watched for and with. It signifies an intentional presence. It is protective, assuming the role of guardian and carer in one word, whilst being alert to what might lie beyond, that which might threaten. It is a prayerful presence, an intercessory role, mediating and refracting the glory of the King to the lives of those who lie broken, from disease or betrayal or mourning. It is also an act of faith, a tiny sign that one day, those who sowed in tears will reap in joy. Not yet, not while we watch, agonising in prayer.

But later, one day, yes. Watch with me.

Kant, the Church of England and perspectives on dignity

If like me, you have slowly learnt to accept and rejoice in the understanding that God created you, then the source of your human dignity is never far away. It is conferred by the act of creation, and lies beyond either your control or your emotional sense. It is both a loving conferral (and thus not able to be removed) and also something out of which to act, conferring that same dignity upon others. This is a thoroughly biblical understanding, one that enables us to love our enemies and to perceive the link with our own self-regard as creatures endowed with the dignity of creation, and to take motivation from that when we confer dignity upon others as an expression of becoming dignified. This reflects to some extent Immanuel Kant‘s understanding of dignity as an inner (intrinsic) and an affective (extrinsic) aspects of our human rational autonomy. Kant is the great philosopher of dignity, but interestingly, he did not see the fact that we had an inner dignity as a reason for conferring dignity on others. That conferral on others arose from the exercise of reason: for Kant, it is the imperatives of reason, writes Oliver Sensen, that determine what is valuable. This differs from a New Testament understanding which is more affective than rational. We love, writes the apostle John, because he first loved us.

Wednesday evening I was blessed to listen to a group of academics from education schools in Cork (UCC) and Stockholm (Univ Stockholm) talking about the Kantian (and other) perspectives on dignity. The presentation was part of a seminar series from the University of Cambridge and the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, and centred around a collaborative paper (Roth et al., 2020) offering a range of responses to Kant’s arguments for human dignity. You can read the paper of course, but to listen to six of the co-authors present their perspectives was far more enjoyable.

After an exposition taken from my notes at the event, I will return to have a brief look at how the concept of dignity is framed within the Church of England Vision for Education.

Klas Roth began (as senior author) by outlining three aspects concerning dignity and its relevance for education. Firstly, in defining dignity, he noted Kant’s concept of inner dignity, which people have a responsibility and a duty to make possible, based on our reason, in one another. This has to do with ethics. Motivated by the moral law, education can become a place where we could re-live our dignity, where other people are treated as an end in themselves, not as a means to an end. This is a challenge for all of us and in education settings. Secondly, the Kantian view of price or value is about whether we do this well or not well, whether that dignity is shown in how we value others and our own sense of that – we place a price on the way dignity is used. We can always replace a person’s function, and their “price” with something else or by somebody else but we can’t replace an inner dignity as it is to some degree inviolable. We have a duty to make that possible. However, thirdly, there is a deviation we can make from trying to make dignity possible. We can deviate from the “price” but also we can deviate from our duty to be dignified, by treating the other as a means to a further end.

This speaks to a degree to the issue of performativity. The Kantian notion of price is recognised in society and in schooling in terms of how well we are doing, but dignity is not attended to in the same sort of way. Education then becomes something done toward an end, in which the inner, inherent dignity of individuals is overridden by the performative outcome, which confers a “value” or “price” on the individual: a ripe picking for a neoliberal, economic view of the individual, and a danger to those who resist Kantian individualism in favour of a more communitarian approach to our political and educational discourse.

Lia Mollvik, also from Stockholm, is a PhD student researching dignity and education, from a background in human rights. Kant, she argued, makes a distinction between price and dignity – price is an extrinsic value, valued by others, whilst dignity has intrinsic value, value beyond price. Thus there is an inner and outer dignity. In the writing of Oliver Sensen (Kant on Human Dignity, De Gruyter, 2011) contemporary and traditional views on dignity compete: the contemporary view is seen in human rights documents, preamble to UNDHR, etc. Dignity is inherent in human beings, a freedom and a right equally. This implies a view that dignity is something we have and can’t lose or gain more of, no matter what we do or what others do for us. This creates an entitlement so we can say that somebody has violated it. The traditional view, in line with Kantian framework – is that dignity has value beyond price, and the only thing that has that kind of value is the pure potentiality of morality contained within the Moral Law. Us having free will and being vulnerable, able to fall in and out of alignment with the moral law means that we can lose – and find – dignity. These two views are not mutually exclusive though they compete. There is great value in balancing the traditional and contemporary. Certain risks attend the overemphasizing of either one. A parody of “education for inner dignity” would be us sitting in a circle where we would stare into each other’s eyes for a hour or two and it would be lovely, though also boring and stagnant! We need some moral striving and a realisation of our outer dignity. If we go too far there, of course, we become judgmental of ourselves and others, not accepting of our vulnerability and too introspective. It becomes about me and my relationship to the moral law, my intentions and my not being open to my actions and how they are received. Lia concluded that education should strive to balance these different aspects of dignity by dancing between three different planes – on one plane we are here to learn a certain skill deemed valuable. In another we are here to realise the moral law and treat each other as ends and not as means, and yet another plane we are just hanging out together, perfectly imperfect together!

Rama Alshoufani also from Stockholm, elaborated on her colleagues’ ideas by using as an example the experience of neurodiverse learners in education systems. She believed that this experience revealed the essential dysfunction within education systems in the way we treat dignity and value learners. The ideas we have in society and the ideas we act upon, influence education systems and they in turn influence us. Educational systems are a subcommunity within the human community. Do we treat neurodiverse (ND) learners with dignity? And what does that mean if we do? Do we consider them disabled, dysfunctional, and “other”? Have we asked whether they want to be appreciated as different or not? If we have educational systems based on Kantian “price”, these systems are a means to a further end – a set of ends predetermined for ND learners. Certain tests, marks, study, group work, sitting still, homework, timed exams, etc. are stressful for people with neurodiversities. These routines and set points are designed for s specific type of learner and not the neurodiverse one! A certain outcome or set of outcomes is expected from us either in the systems themselves or within the legacy of those systems. In the Kantian sense, we can argue that a good education system values both the price and the inner dignity, treating learners as ends in themselves. Many ND learners do not want to be identified – they may not see themselves as having disabilities, just different strengths and focuses. Do we acknowledge them not as “different” but “differently wired ” but able to learn in a different way (e g. autism). Some ND learners need to focus on something they are really interested in in order to be motivated; disconnection from that interest to refocus on something else is an unnatural hassle for autistic children, as many of us who have taught them have discovered! We do this all the time, being ruled by the timetable and the bell, and not by the motivated interest of the child, not just ND ones! This applies to schools too: ND learners are “SEN”! We ascribe to them a learning “disability” but this does not necessarily honour their dignity. We have to ask ourselves: do ND learners want to be labeled like this, or is the learning difficulty exacerbated because they go through a system that is not designed for them? Psychiatric classifications are very neurotypically defined (“disorders”) and this leads to unnecessary labelling.What neurodiversity seems to demand is a dignity based on a way that people learn, an approach that sees them as an end in themselves. A good education in that case is one that respects the inner and the outer dignity of learners – the dance between planes that Lia talked about. This is to create an education that respects freedom in autonomous beings able to get from education systems what they want and what is the best for them, as defined by them.

Rebecca Adami spoke about the moral failure of our present discourse on children’s rights. If autonomy, as Kant defined it, is the capacity for moral agency, then, depending on how we view children’s moral capacities and potential for reaching autonomous status, children are in the process of becoming, not being. How do we articulate a moral foundation for dignity, when it comes to small children, who can’t set “ends” in their thinking? We need to speak to the moral duty of parents and adults as moral agents to treat the children as an end in themselves, and encourage them to model that. We have rights as individuals with respect to the state. Violations against children are thus a form of violence. Children’s rights presuppose a parental duty in the private sphere, extending into the public sphere in terms of legislation and child protection. Children can be denied the right to health care (if parents don’t take them to hospital when ill); parents can withdraw consent for treatment for mental health – this becomes a power imbalance. Parents have to implement a certain set of children’s rights (UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child). This realisation rests on ideal notions of moral adult conduct. All children’s rights are currently negotiated by adults in schools and in society, and have to compete with other factors – economic, etc, which often precede children’s rights. Rebecca used Susan Castro’s (2014) reading of Kant to suggest that the major party (that’s us as adults) have to act as if the children are our own. (The debate around child labour in West Wing S1 Ep17 turns on exactly this point). We fail morally when we fail to treat children as they are our own. Thus love, in this reading of Castro’s, overcomes the issues of equality, in much the same way (my interpretation, not Rebecca’s) that the love of God the Father for me renders meaningless any talk of my equality with him.

Katy Dineen, from UCC in Cork, spoke on moral responsibility, seeing herself as being on a mission to save Kant from some criticisms against him and against Kantians! The reason for this is that Kant talks about autonomy a lot, and is best known for that. People focus on this autonomy in Kantian moral theory. On the other side of this, is a focus on vulnerability. We are inherently finite, and mutually vulnerable. One of the things to try and do was to acknowledge and respond to a criticism of Kantian humanism. Is it futile? One interlocutor here is Kate Manne, a Cornell philosopher of misogyny: Manne claims that humanism fails in the very cases for which it is theorised about – torture, rape, dehumanisation. Manne argued that we don’t dehumanise, we recognise humanity in the very act of viloence – in fact this is what makes it “violent”. In order to treat someone as an enemy, to mistreat them, we have to recognise their humanity in order to destroy it. We are all humans in this. Is dignity a way to respond to the objection to humanism, because Manne has a point? We have to treat others as humans in order to make them an enemy or somebody to be tortured. They are not an animal, they are not prey. When you behave like this, you are recognising the humanity of the other, whilst at the same time dehumanising yourself in the act of violence, torture, rape, whatever. What would that look like through a lens of dignity? If somebody wants to torture or abuse, they recognise the humanity of the victim, but fail to recognize their own inner dignity, and, in accordance with the moral law, they begin to lose self-respect. The perpetrator fails to accord the victim the freedom to act in accordance with the moral law. The victim never loses their dignity, but the perception is that the dignity is lost, that degradation has occurred. Katy’s response to the objection is to say – you are absolutely right. Humanism must recognise that when these acts of violence occur, there are ways that the people victimised by it are still seen as human. But at the same time they are dehumanising both the victim and the perpetrator. This ties back to the idea of the dance – dignity does retain a focus on autonomy, but also on the finitude of human agency, the vulnerability of the person who who acts in this way.

The last presentation was deliberately a non-Kantian perspective from Fariba Majlesi, also from Stockholm. She was uncertain about human worth as a basis for human rights, and, following the thinking of Andrea Sangiovanni saw it residing more in morality and moral responsibility (which can be enacted in, for instance, the state and laws of justice). Sangiovanni, in the book Humanity without Dignity – suggests that instead of looking at equality with its attendant focus on human dignity, we should look at inequality and our moral responsibility not to act in cruelty. Dignity hasn’t worked to instil in us a rejection of inequality. The Kantian perspective has too long defined humanity in Enlightenment terms, where those with power, wealth and agency can have the dignity that comes with humanity. Instead, being committed to a post-humanist view of education, we need to take a deconstructionist view, where the discourse of humanism is reviewed, by humanists themselves, because there is something missing. Our relationality as humans is based on the susceptibility of the self (Judith Butler’s work helps to expose this sense of vulnerability not as powerlessness, but in terms of our being socially constituted beings, exposed to others, open to the risk of violence because of this exposure and relationality). Thus we end up with an ambivalent humanism. Human nature with its human endowments tends to separates human from inhuman, “the human that does not deserve to be human”. There is a problematic logic in humanism, that seems to ostracize certain humans bon the grounds of humanistic rationality as well as the “imperfect” – whether stateless, disabled, neurodiverse, etc. Fariba argued, with Butler, that human dignity has to be seen through the compassionate eyes of human vulnerability.

I found this whole discussion absorbing, and the speakers clear and with a wonderful ability to extract the clarity from sometimes difficult moral arguments. I just hope I have represented their thinking accurately! We can never forget that Kant grew up in a world deeply informed by Prussian protestantism, that peculiar mix of state Lutheranism and pietistic Calvinism. His moral law derived from that perspective, and as Christopher Clark and others have argued, the reach for rational autonomy, so central to Enlightenment thought, arose from a particular take on reformation theology. So when as Christians we think about dignity, we have a concept filtered strongly through Kant, whether we acknowledge it or not. For instance, one of the four “pillars” of the present “vision for education” in the Church of England is dignity:

Human dignity, the ultimate worth of each person, is central to good education. The basic principle of respect for the value of each person involves continual discernment, deliberation and action, and schools are one of the main places where this happens, and where the understanding and practices it requires are learned. This includes vigilant safeguarding. It is especially important that the equal worth of those with and without special educational needs and disabilities is recognized in practice. For the first time in history, there is now something approaching global agreement on the worth of each person through the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and its successor declarations, covenants and conventions, including that in 2006 on the rights of persons with disabilities. How that is worked out in each nation and each school is a massive task that calls on the inspiration and resources offered by each tradition of faith and belief.

Interesting here is the fact that dignity is related to “ultimate worth” – elsewhere “rooted in each person created in the image of God and loved by God…further shaped by the person, teaching and example of Jesus” – but that it takes its roots and educational expression from UN declarations and a common view of what dignity is and wherein it is constituted (a debatable concept, as we have seen). This may be, and probably is, the effect of Christian thinking reflected through the Enlightenment vision of humanity and human dignity into the universality of thinking that Max Stackhouse, for instance, celebrates in his study of globalisation as a part-realisation of the Kingdom of God. The CofE vision talks about many enjoying the fruit of its work without necessarily recognising where the roots of its thinking lie. This is not a deliberate obfuscation, simply a statement of the reality, where the work of the Kingdom is hidden.

In terms of dignity, the CofE Vision helpfully goes further in expounding dignity as consisting in blessing, creativity, joy, reconciliation and glory. Each of these is an attempt (some of the strongest work of the vision document) to see human dignity as reflecting and extending the work of God through humanity. This is not an area that Kant explored much, though the implications of his understanding could be drawn out toward these qualities. Seen in the light of this Vision for Education, Kant looks a bit reductionist, hostage to a particularly narrow or even Deist concept of God’s moral law.

The vision argues for an ecology of blessing, where “God blesses human beings and creation; creation and human beings can bless God; humans can bless each other; and the dynamic crosses generations and peoples” and a creation that arises directly from being created in God’s image. Taking joy is less rooted in human dignity as it is in the concept of playfulness, with God’s delight in his creation being transferred through his creation to us. Reconciling, as an exposition of dignity, relates to diversity and the ability of Christian educators to honour the dignity of those unlike us. In the light of Rama Alshufani’s work above, there is a particular need in church schools to redefine its educational purpose within the learning needs of all, and not just of the statute. As the vision says, there is a need for repentance and change at the heart of the reconciling work.

Glory, the final exposition of dignity in the vision, lays out the ultimate horizon for human dignity in these terms:

Glory might be seen as the divine dignity….shared with us…..[as] an overflow of the divine life, holiness and love, to which the core response is awe, adoration, praise and thanks. These are also the deepest springs of honouring and respecting all those created in the image of God. The ultimate horizon for human dignity is the intensity of eternal life in communion with God, enjoyed with others in the loving, infinitely creative and attractive presence of the God of glory.

Now we have moved a long way from a Kantian perspective into a doxology that is probably the strongest theological statement in the entire CofE document, transforming an “enlightenment” view of equality and equity into a glorious picture of humanity that derives its dignity its entirety from God’s own glory.

Acceptance of constraint

Today the libertarian wing of the Conservative Party (the bit that seems not to want to conserve anything) is having another pop at the government about their need to be free, “telling” Boris Johnson to lift the current range of Covid restrictions by the end of April. It seems to me that such libertarians cannot conceive of life without being able to do exactly what they want. There are, I understand, Christian people among this group of Tories, but their understanding of freedom is flawed, and has very little to do with a Christian freedom that is actually more about being slaves of Jesus Christ, in submission to one another, and finding freedom in living free from the desires and sins of the selfish nature – the “desire to do what you want” being chief among those sins. There is little sense in what they say that they are speaking for other people: they are ideologues of a particular concept of freedom, one shared by many on the religious right in the US. No government is gonna tell them what to do!

Walking across a frozen Wolverton landscape this morning brought us eventually to the Iron Trunk and a canal frozen enough for swans to walk on the surface and the narrowboats to be firmly anchored to the banks. Nobody was going anywhere. Owners were hunkered down, their wood burners puffing smoke into the air, a few engines running, the smell of canalside domesticity on a Valentine’s morning. Free but not free. Not free to start their engines and go to where they would like to go, but free to accept the constraints of not moving, of cooking breakfast, of giving thanks for a warm place to stay, of one another, the freedom of the daily round of chores that constitute life on a narrowboat. Freedom to think, freedom to read, freedom to not work on a Sunday. Lots of clearly identifiable freedoms that will change not a jot when Boris and his minions start thinking about what will happen post-Covid.

Anyone on the libertarian right who hankers after their mythical freedom had better think hard about the constraints of taxes, the constraints of health and of state protection from aggression. Much of what they freely value comes from a government able to provide these things.

I have been thinking for a long time about this. Not having employment for over two years caused me to place constraints on my life that would keep me active, thoughtful, prayerful, willing to serve. Those working in education, in health, in the search for effective vaccines, have all accepted the constraints of their calling and the constraints of the need to work within their calling. Freedom for them is defined within constraints, and even though it would have been easier with a half-competent government, something that seems as afar away as ever, the constraints for them define their work at this time.

We live under other constraints too: the freedom to love, to be generous, to offer hospitality as and when we can, the freedom to listen to the pain of others in this time of struggle. These are freedoms for the Christian that come from the liberty of being slaves of Jesus Christ, but even for those who choose not to follow him, there are the small freedoms we choose to exercise within the constraints of caring for family, of parenting our children, of teaching, of nursing.

Freedom is always within limits. We have the freedom to chafe against those limits, or to live graciously and conscientiously within them. The exercise of that freedom is the one that will transform us, to live better as servants of one another and of the King who has graciously offered to set us free.

Who said what to whom

In my daily prayer liturgy there is a canticle, and in it appear these words:

Be in the hearts of each to whom I speak; be in the mouth of each who speaks to me.

Every time I say it, it has the effect of pulling me away from a focus on Jesus as somehow “out there” in the ether, and back to a realisation that in every life there is enough of the reflection of God who can both resonate with what I say to them, and whose words can carry some of the meaning that Jesus wants to impart to me.

This is, really, a profound thing, if we stop long enough and think about it. In fact it means that in every life that I encounter, God has been at work. We know this theologically, but in the midst of conversation we often fail to see it, or at least I do. And this reminds me of the need to nurture that which I see of God in those that I have responsibility for, or just daily or even momentary contact with.

Mark Greene tells a fantastic story about Adrian, a school-teacher, who in the course of praying quietly for his pupils as he walked among them in class, heard the Spirit of God speak to him: Nobody has ever mentioned this boy to me before.

Imagine that. No one has ever mentioned this boy’s name to God before. No midwife, no health visitor, no parent, no uncle or aunt or grandparent, no sibling, no godparent, no lollipop person, no doctor, no primary school teacher, no football coach or sweetshop owner or bus driver, no schoolfriend… no one.

But God was listening, waiting it seems, alert at that moment to the fact that, though there are 7.8 billion people on his planet, and no doubt hundreds of thousands of prayers being offered at that very moment, someone was at last lifting this particular 14-year-old person to his throne. To him.

This is a holy thing, an opening up of the heavenly realms to our stretched and barely-comprehending imagination, to see each person in another dimension in which the love of God becomes the most powerful force and our only responsibility is to make connections through prayer and through our simple acts and words, even, it seems, through just the act of mentioning.

I grew up in a culture of Christianity that seemed to despise “prayer lists” and felt it was important that you “listened to God” and waited for his voice. This is absolutely OK, and wonderful, and not to be despised, but it fails to take the liturgical aspect of simply offering and mentioning the names of each one we love, care for, or who are our enemies (seeing that we have to do that too).

I have, in my new post, acquired a new group of people, in a variety of roles, for whom I may be the only person praying. I hope not, but they need praying for, even if just mentioning before the King, every day, to enable them to bear their burdens, and not least, to give me the confidence that when they speak to me, God is to some degree in their words, as the canticle says.

To sit in silence in the early morning, and breathe deeply, and consider these people before God, allowing him sight of them again through my actions – this is a great privilege to me, something I treasure and am grateful for the opportunity for.

Wherein lies the distinction? Church of England schools, values and virtues

A conversation last week around the work I am doing for my Ed.D. brought to the fore a discussion about whether church schools do or do not have a monopoly on all the most virtuous ideas in education. Of course one defensible answer is that they may have the best access to such ideas through their historical faith, but don’t always manage to differentiate themselves in a way that makes the case. So more often than not, the difference in the values of church schools and community schools is slender. My thesis is predicated on this sort of observation and the need to address it.

But it also raised for me a question about how I felt, reflexively, about my own leadership of a church school and why it was that I believed that actually, we were trying to be more virtuous than community schools and academies. Or, rather, that we esteemed virtue among our children and taught a form of discipleship that corresponded to our understanding of the good life to live.

In a paper published in 2013, Matthew Etherington argued that values are necessary in education but not sufficient. The problem with values was that even with the best will in the world, there was a power struggle to turn values into a virtuous life, and “no naturalistic theory has within it a sufficient moral obligation with which to persuade humans from their natural self-interest.” Etherington argues that such motivation must come from an external, theistic foundation, because ultimately “values education is too individualistic, relativistic, and …subversive of a serious moral commitment” (p.189). I agree and this is why in 2014-15 we moved at Christ the Sower from a values-led to a virtues-led understanding of character and community. This was not making us more virtuous. It simply signalled that values without a changed life were pretty meaningless, would lead to a virtue signalling (of the sort that CofE schools are sometimes accused of) without the necessary virtues.

Etherington’s point is well taken. There is unlikely to be significance for values unless there is an external source whose values they are. British values, as currently instituted in education legislation, are not specifically British values at all, but the imagined values of a particular (conservative) conception of Britishness. There are many people who have a very different understanding of what constitute British values. Beyond that, the fact that they remain values rather than virtues suggests that they remain as nice ideas external to us rather than something we inhabit. There is an Enlightenment-led idea about values and virtues that they are something that informs but does not transform: values may stay external to us but we cannot live up to an external expectation that we live virtuously. To be transformed by virtues is to acknowledge, in the modern mind, that we are not autonomous rational individuals.

This thinking has infected church schools (certainly CofE schools and those Catholic schools I know) as much as it has any other kind of school, and this is the reason why the difference is so slender. The “chosen values” might be different, more religious, but that external “standing beyond them” means that we stop the impact of our values at the boundary of the autonomous self. Our tradition of rational discourse in schools, upon which we base everything from our ideas of progress, curriculum, behaviour management, etc., is that of the Enlightenment. This is not new: it is the central thrust of Lesslie Newbigin’s and Tom Wright’s critiques of the church. Nor is this the first time I have argued this as an issue for schools, and it won’t be the last. Until we alter and rethink the basis upon which we decide what we value and why we need to be virtuous, we will stay in the rut of thinking that human concerns alone determine our path.

So a distinction must lie elsewhere: I suggest it lies primarily in the our concept of reality, our concept of what constitutes knowledge, and in our concept of discipleship and the goal of education. Beyond that, we need to think about pedagogy, about the basis of communal life, and about the nature of leadership, but these flow from the first three. Each of the first three is of course strongly contested, not just in western education but in CofE schools as well. The Church of England has never spoken with a clear, unified perspective, so I cannot imagine that it will ever achieve that goal in its educational aims either. The proof of that lies in the theological and philosophical hedging that goes on in the CofE Vision for Education. That a new conception of the basis to our educational effort is desired, though, is found in the 24 Leadership Practices which make a brave effort to cross the values-virtues boundary. The settling down around the concept of human flourishing is a kind of half-way point (at least for the 24 Leadership Practices) towards a fuller ontological-epistemological review of what exactly education is for. It reflects a desire to serve, rather than to be distinctive, and that is completely honourable. But it neglects a broader biblical purpose of knowledge, and allows itself to be co-opted by a publicly-acceptable modernist view of the end of education that leaves God and the fact of his historic reality and revelation in Jesus Christ on the sidelines.

Again, this is not a new perspective, but it means that the question of values must be subsumed to the question of educational purpose, which for CofE schools can be nothing less than bringing the whole of humanity toward the knowledge of God. Comenius, in a different age, understood this whilst respecting the philosophical and scientific leaders of his day. If the knowledge of God is central to education, then the transformation of humanity to be confirmed into his likeness for the purpose of service in the world – that is, discipleship – must be central to the didactic and pedagogical effort. Ultimately it is a question of lordship. Whose slave are we? And have we heeded the warning about trying to serve two masters?

Perspectives on mastery

Mastery language pervades the teaching of mathematics in England currently, and has done for at least seven years. It is unlikely to stop, for two reasons: firstly, no matter what we think of the language used, the approach it describes has grown to be an effective way of engaging a larger number of children into the skills and joys of mathematics and provides a really secure foundation for the discipline in general; secondly, it implicitly underlies the primary National Curriculum of 2014 and forms the basis of a large package of CPD materials issued both by NCETM and the DfE. I am using these materials for training with and they are good. They will serve trainee teachers well, but already I have heard in mentor comments and seen in lesson plans the language of mastery taking on a particular nuance that may in the long run be just as unhelpful as some of the mathematical concepts that mastery approaches were designed to replace.

The mastery concept and its associated language has also infiltrated large chunks of the science and English curriculum (I remember reading an application from a student at MMU that was full of “writing mastery” in 2016). It is also widespread (though defined slightly differently) in the language of medical education. Because of its ubiquity, it is almost inevitable that there is a wide variation in understanding and – more to be expected – a fuzziness between the taught concept of mastery in mathematics (as developed and expounded by NCETM, for instance) and pre-existing practice which perhaps failed to grasp some of the main changes that would be needed. The changes, in fact, are quite profound. Two recent papers by Pete Boyd of the University of Cumbria have explored the challenge of the mastery approach to traditional classroom practice around differentiation, and shown how mixed-age classes can also use these approaches effectively.

But my issue is with the freight that comes with the word.

On 29 June 1953, Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a sherpa from Nepal, together climbed to the summit of Everest. It was the first time that the mountain had been “conquered.” Edmund Hillary was knighted, Tenzing Norgay was not. Separating the two men was more than religion and culture: there was also the problem of their relationship to the mountains. Hillary came from the western mindset that a mountain was only worth the effort if you got to the top and made the conquest. He didn’t have a life-relationship with the mountains, in the way that sherpas have had for tens of thousands of years. In no way did Hillary’s life revolve around Everest except in the quest to master it. And we still know it with a colonial name. The intimate fear, respect, love and appreciation that mountain people have for their geography was not a key feature of the New Zealander’s psyche. He had been schooled in the western sense of being an autonomous rational individual for whom nature was there to be mastered and conquered. Mastery, in this sense, is an enlightenment concept. It is therefore also rooted in an individualist perspective, and of course the word is heavily overloaded with sexism and recalls the master-slave relationship that many US enlightenment thinkers were all too aware of. Of course, we know that these thinkers and the scientific and technological advances that they spawned have had an unquantifiable impact on the way we think about mastery: Mark McCourt argues that it is the work of Carleton Washburne and Benjamin S Bloom derived from the work of John Dewey that made mastery the modern concept that it is. If he is right, and he makes the case strongly and without compromise, then this is mastery rooted in a highly modernist western conception of what it is to be a learner, strengthened by recent advances in cognitive science that have exposed what we know of the learning process. He even argues that this is a form of mastery that Aristotle and Comenius would recognise. But mastery remains problematic not simply because of the practice of it, but because of the discourse around the word – individualist, domineering, male, triumphalist. And because the word is so contentious, the practice must always be on its guard against the psychological and political implications that inhabit our broader understanding of the word.

There is little in the world of critical discourse analysis about mastery: Olsen & Lyotard argued in a paper 25 years ago that the issue around mastery was a problem to do with the issue of completeness (I shall deal with this below), but only recently, through the work of Tony Brown and Peter Pawlik (MMU) has the language of mastery as used in mathematics come under scrutiny. A helpful dissection, from the perspective of Jacques Lacan on the way that mastery is used in education politics, comes from Matthew Clarke at York St John, though it does not deal with the pedagogy issue directly. Lacan’s perspective is that mastery is impossible because of the way we are constituted, not only in the conscious/subconscious parts of ourselves, but with a psyche functioning in different “registers” – the real, but also the imaginary and the symbolic. It is also impossible (I am grateful to Matthew for his insights here, and am quoting his e-mail reply!) because “the resources we have to master the world – particularly, the symbolic register of language – can never fully capture the fullness and complexity of what we label as ‘reality’… and this is a qualitative/constitutive barrier, not something that can be overcome by amassing more knowledge and information.” Curiositas, as formulated by Augustine, can never lead to studiositas, in Lacan’s theorisation of it.

That would be useful to pursue, but it might be better to formulate an interpretation of mastery so that whilst teachers might still find use in the practice of it in maths, they had a better understanding of the contentiousness of the term.

Some alternatives sit around the Greek word akreibeia (the careful and repeated attention to particulars through practice, questioning, exploration) used by Paul Griffiths as an aspect of studiositas. Ways of interpreting this in English include:

  • The stewardship of an ancient tradition in which certain skills and abilities are passed on from parents to their children. This was in fact the norm of mastery for centuries and in pre-industrial societies it still is.
  • Paying attention to beauty, wisdom and love as the motivations and end of our work. This kind of mastery involves a clear perception of the purpose of work and how it differs or is distinct from the mechanics we use to achieve it. Thus we become different people reflexively through our engagement with the work.
  • The pursuit of craftsmanship, where we are schooled as journeymen, creating masterpieces in order to be allowed into a guild of silversmiths, or weavers, etc. This is mastery as others’ skilled judgments, judgments as gatekeepers of the guild, letting us in once our work is repeatedly of a high enough standard.
  • The inheriting of a discipline of  study. In mathematics, we deliberately step into the tradition of Al-Khwarizmi, the founder of the concept of algebra, of Newton, of Gauss and the long list of mathematicians, in the same way that scientists embrace a tradition of thought and care. This kind of mastery is about learning the past and the significance of the past.
  • Finally, mathematicians and writers, historians and scientists often enjoy the feeling of being stuck, and having to struggle into a solution, and that sense of struggle involves the repeated attention to particulars – akribeia. “The hard part about math” says the Chicago mathematician Benson Farb, “is that you’re failing 90% of the time, and you have to be the kind of person who can fail 90% of the time,” When another mathematician expressed amazement that he succeeded 10% of the time, Farb quickly admitted, “No, no, no, I was exaggerating my success rate. Greatly.”

There is another aspect here which needs paying attention to, and that is the communal aspect of the work. I have often commented, whilst teaching staff at Christ the Sower, on the requirement for an open communal craftsmanship that collaborates in the pursuit of excellence, and my example has been one of two institutions – the glassmakers of Mdina in Malta, and the Bauhaus. Both are craft-in-community: not craft in the prosaic sense, but the bringing to bear of our whole persona towards the work, whilst being aware of the need to learn from (and teach into) the craftsmanship of others. Old teaching young and being inspired by them in turn; neophyte learning from expert and taking their learning in new directions. This adequately undermines the power of individualism found in the Enlightenment reading of mastery, I think.

The very last aspect that I want to turn to takes me back to Paul Griffiths, and his Catholic conviction of the impossibility of mastery. Where Mark McCourt (following Washburne and Bloom) seeks mastery in the expectation of completion, Griffiths reminds us of the requirement of humility in the face of knowledge; what Wendell Berry thinks of as the Way of Ignorance. Griffiths writes:

Studious practitioners…do not attempt mastery of what they study, a mastery that would only be possible if comprehension were possible. They attend, instead, repeatedly to what they study, always under the sign of necessary incompleteness, and with reverence for what is attended to…mastery in the sense of dominance is both an impossible task and an improper goal.

Thus true seeking of mastery does so, therefore, under the humility of our own incompleteness, and as an exploration of the created order in worship of its creator. We begin to enter the world of a real mastery, of a true stewardship, at the very moment we stop seeking to amass and dominate, and turn our face to the Master of all things.

Repentance is vanity?

So says a spokesman for the Elysée Palace today in the heated debate as to whether France should apologise publicly for the colonisation of Algeria between 1830 and 1960. Repentance is vanity.

What this shows is an awareness, however implicit, that mere apology is not enough. Repentance is needed, and that has consequences in action. The debate moves as to the significance of that action.

But vanity? Perhaps the word was mistranslated, though given the source and their legendary commitment to accuracy, I suspect not.

What this comment suggests to me is that the spokesman saw a public repentance as an embarrassing ornament upon the national dignity of France, a carbuncle on the fair face of Marianne. Repentance may be difficult, but it is also topical.

A number of writers, Christian and otherwise, are wrestling with the appalling, but unsurprising sight of evangelical Christians among those storming the White House a fortnight ago, Jesus banners to the fore.

There are a wide range of wise responses that have been made, both here and in the US (the Sojourners’ site is always a good place to keep tabs on left-of-centre Christian thinking on this), but at the heart of most of them has been the requirement for a deep, lived repentance, a re-positioning, a turning from the cultic, spiritually-invested idolatry of Trumpism to the true King whose power resides not in exaltation of strength, but in humility and a love for the weak and the marginalised. If Jesus is Lord, then Trump, or any trumped-up Caesar, is not. Who we bow the knee to matters, as does the person in whom we place our hope and trust: it impacts directly on how we live and think, on what – and whom – we hold dear, and what – and whom – we count as worthless. Jon Kuhrt’s blog on this topic, on the way that that spiritual investment overtakes and possesses a movement, is salutary.

This attitude and action of repentance of course, would be anything but vanity. It might be an embarrassment to the church, and we would have to suck that up. It might make us look even less relevant than we appear to be, but repentance is unto God, not unto man. Yes, there will be consequences – often large financial ones – to any part of the church saying “we got this wrong, we need to change and make restitution.” Catholic and Anglicans wrestling with the consequences of decades of child abuse at the hands of their clergy and employees know this only too well. But our first responsibility in repentance is towards God, who is the author of healing and salvation.

Repentance begins, as Macron has begun to see in the relationship between France and Algeria, in a recognition of the horror of what we have done, and a realisation of the enormous impact that it has had on deforming our national life (witness the long-term social deprivation of North African immigrants to France) and on our view of ourselves. It is not repentance that sticks a carbuncle on Marianne’s face – it is the sin itself – of colonisation and cruelty, of the denial of egalité, liberté, fraternité. The removal of such a blemish through apology and concerted action to make good on the ill we have committed. But even Macron cannot bring himself to find a way to repentance for those crimes.

Many years ago, I was speaking at a Pentecostal youth conference at Bloubergstrand, across the bay from Table Mountain. I was with two other speakers, Graham Cyster and John Mtwana, who were considerably older than I was, and wiser. The young people had come together from black and white churches to learn from each other. My brief was to speak to the issue around conscription into the army (to speak against it was a crime at the time, so I chose my words carefully) and to show the issue from the perspective of both sides, since the military – including National Servicemen – were commonly being used at the time in support of the police in quelling unrest in townships across South Africa.

At the end of the talk, after various brickbats had been thrown my way from the young audience (mostly about keeping religion out of politics, and me going back to Britain where I was from), one impassioned young woman said – “We didn’t build these walls – that was our parents’ generation! We had nothing to do with that!”

That opened up a serious issue which actually gained traction: what do we do about the sins of our fathers? In South Africa, the only way to address it was to say – yes, your fathers built these walls of separation, of apartheid, but you have lived in the security and injustice that they created, and with all the benefits that that separation affords you. To offer justice, there will be a cost, economic and personal. Breaking down walls allows water to flood where it will, and would have to lead to a ceding of privilege and an embracing of a repentant approach to black brothers and sisters.

The BLM movement in the UK has challenged some very ancient stereotypes and attitudes, because racism – and the economic foundation that our investment in slavery allowed us to lay in this country – not only is much older than South African apartheid, but has its roots in the Norman conquest and the establishment of feudalism and the British class system, as well as the Anglocentrism that extended its colonial tentacles across Wales, Ireland and Scotland – and thence across the world. These are the walls we have to dismantle, and they are very, very old indeed. It will take a lifetime fully to account for them and to build some sort of equality in our society that recognises that as sin and repents of it.

This kind of repentance will not be vanity – it will be the restoration of beauty and a step towards the favour of God.

The power of negative thinking

Following Gavin Williamson’s call to parents to grass up their school’s online provision to Ofsted, the regulator, who was not best pleased to have been placed in this position, received about 260 complaints. These complaints will now be considered, and possible follow-up inspections planned where necessary.

Those 260 complaints or concerns were dwarfed by the flood of 13,000 e-mails that came in from parents praising and honouring the hard work that schools are doing in extremely trying circumstances to manage the new (for many primary schools) online environment, as well as their efforts since the start of the national lockdown in March last year. And parents should know, as they have been present for large chunks of their children’s online education. This is a new thing for many teachers – having their children’s parents observing all that they are doing, learning to manage parental expectations at the same time as having to raise children’s expectations and manage their conduct remotely.

Of course, Ofsted are not thinking about contacting the 13,000 schools which are doing well, as their mindset is wedded entirely to a deficit-compliance model. In fact, their complaint against the 13,000 e-mails is that they are bunging up their inbox and increasing “the chance of a genuine safeguarding risk taking longer to be resolved”. Parents are, it seems, trusted to be right about things that are going wrong, and not to be trusted about things that are going well. I do hope that all those parents who wrote in got an e-mail back from Ofsted – and one that was more than the automated “thank you for your concern/your concern will be answered within 3 working days/if you have an urgent concern, call 999″ type of thing.

At the root of all this is, again, the issue of trust. When people are working very hard, in difficult circumstances, with new technologies, in an intrusive environment (teaching into the home is an intrusion if ever there was one, never mind parental presence in the lesson), government’s instinct should be trust schools to do as well for their children as they can, to back them, to ensure that all the remote learning support is there, in terms of software and hardware. Not this lot: trusting teachers is not something that the ruling classes ever find easy. But until they do, education in this country will stay in the compliance straitjacket of dullness that it has been in for 30 years.

The man who trusted teachers, until he didn’t

Like Janus, standing at the door of the year, pointing both ways, so the Secretary of State for Education (I capitalise to remind myself of the significance and gravity of the office) seems once again to be caught like a bunny in the headlights, unable to decide whether he respects and trusts teachers (evidence offered below) or whether he wants parents to grass them up to Ofsted (evidence also offered below).

Boris Johnson says that Gavin Williamson is the best person for the job of SoSEd. Perhaps, looking at the current cabinet, at certainly the least competent leadership I have come across in my lifetime, he is right. Maybe there is nobody better than GW. There are many who are worse. The Evening Standard reports that:

Downing Street said on Wednesday that Boris Johnson has full confidence in Mr Williamson. “It’s a huge brief and the Prime Minister believes the Education Secretary is doing it to his utmost ability,” press secretary Allegra Stratton told reporters.

Doing it to the utmost of his ability. Maybe he is. Maybe that’s the problem, right there. Maybe that’s as little as we can expect. And as for what the prime minister “believes” – I am sorry, but that too has not bred confidence. His beliefs, like his planning, are shifting sands.

Reading Rebecca Solnit’s piece on the Trump cult’s attempted sedition in Washington DC yesterday, I came across Frank Wilhoit’s definition of conservatism:

Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition….that there must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

Williamson, and the remainder of the current government (again, using the word loosely) decided long ago that teachers, the NHS and other public servants (perhaps by virtue of being designated servants) were out-group people, the “people who work for us,” those “we pass laws to control.” Teachers do not feel protected by this government: they feel mostly scapegoated.

This approach didn’t start with Gavin Williamson. It began in modern times in the UK with Gove (though Michael Barber perhaps started the rot in Blair’s government), and speaks into a culture of upper class entitlement combined with a managerialist understanding of running a country. The US is experiencing a particularly virulent version of this political stance (without the managerialist competence!), but even its roots are found in a class- defined Toryism that has translated through racism and the worship of wealth into the worst attitudes of some in the GOP. Trump’s cry to “get rid of the weak” has the same root, shorn of all pretence of civility and revealing the nakedness of the will to power, the triumph of the strong. What my guys do doesn’t matter, we’re the party of law and order, etc. Nick Baines on this morning’s Thought for the Day had a take on power that shows precisely why Trump is wrong.

So when I heard Gavin Williamson yesterday say that he trusted the teachers more than last summer’s exam-result moderation algorithm, two things came into my head. Firstly, I was genuinely surprised, because nothing Williamson has said in his appalling tenure of his cabinet post to date suggests he knows much about or cares much for teachers, never mind trust them. He has adopted the typical neoliberal trope of the current Tory (and former New Labour) leadership of being “on the side of children and parents” and has designated teachers as those who stand in his way of doing them good. My second thought was that the algorithm used to moderate teacher assessment last summer was so poor, that to place more trust in teachers than in that algorithm didn’t amount to a hill of beans. That’s more like it, Gavin. Damn with faint praise.

Then when the Guardian reported that he had asked parents to report teachers to Ofsted who weren’t providing “good enough” online teaching (who measures that, I wonder?), I could see that GW had recovered a bit of his mojo and had repented fully of his earlier sin of having appeared to like teachers. This is a truly appalling thing for a minister, in charge of a department that leads, provides money for and offers direction to those same teachers, to say.

I have this week embarked on a post that involves me bringing trainee teachers to be the very best teachers that they can be, under the horrendous circumstances of a pandemic and online teaching. I do not know, if I was in their shoes, whether I would want to do the job, when it is clear that everything the elected government says about teachers denigrates, disempowers and disenfranchises us. Along with other public servants, who exhibit a form of leadership in this country that the cabinet can only wonder at, they are the reason we are regarded as a successful civil society. Trusting teachers and sticking with that trust through encouragement and political commitment, however unlikely that might sound to English ears, would be a place to start for this current administration.