This is a really useful exposition on the issue of populism that I dealt with, in a more political way in an earlier post (https://huwhumphreys.wordpress.com/2018/11/07/the-laziness-and-dishonesty-of-populism).
One of the best things I have read on the issue from the church – Nick’s awareness of German history and religious culture comes through and there is plenty to read for those who are challenged to do so – I definitely need more understanding here.

Nick Baines's Blog

I was asked to preach in chapel at St John’s College, Cambridge, on ‘Populism’ in a series of sermons on ‘Thinking Allowed’. The readings were from Exodus 32:1-9 and Matthew 27:15-26. Here it is:

It’s easy to laugh, isn’t it? A primitive people, out in the desert en route from over 400 years of oppression in Egypt towards a land of promise. Their leader, who had a habit of being somewhat singleminded when it comes to how things should be done, disappeared up a mountain for a while; and, because he didn’t come back down immediately, the people found a more emollient leader who gave them what they wanted: a golden calf to worship. So, that was quick and easy. All they had experienced, all they had learned … and they threw it away in an instant. You have to read the whole book to see that this isn’t a rare experience.


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Le Ciel d’Automne

WP_20181102_16_00_47_ProI started this post at the end of September. I had felt that, as I always do, that the seasons somehow need marking here, a testimony to the exciting news about the leaves changing colour and falling off the trees. This is vital and critical to notice, and if we fail, straightaway we are impoverished as humans. If you fail to notice the glory of autumn and you live in Milton Keynes, then either you need to see an eye-specialist to check for colour-blindness or perhaps make that long awaited decision to cease using cannabis, even for medicinal purposes.

5.1.3This year there have been wonderful things happening in the autumn world, but it is the skies that have made the biggest impact on me – le ciel d’automne – which is the title of a lovely song by the Quebecois troupe La Bottine Souriante (probably the greatest folk band in the world!)

Autumn this year has been different – and not just because I haven’t had to go into work each day. All the stages of it have been different – some aspects have been early, some are only now appearing.

WP_20181018_10_27_03_ProFour weeks ago I was in Ipswich. It was a glorious Suffolk day, and as I tend to, I cannot long resist collecting shiny objects on the ground. In Ipswich it was chestnuts, bigger than the ones you usually find fallen from trees, scattered over a pavement on Constitution Hill, still falling as I collected. It is this profligate bounty that I adore about harvest and the turning of the year. We have also had the ridiculous oscillation of temperature over the early autumn that has added to its glory. This means that each year there is something to be rejoiced in that was different from the previous one. Spring, though wonderful, promises in an even way – the blossom is all beautiful and promising – no guarantee of fruit whatsoever.


Autumn, by way of contrast, is payback time, where nature does its self-evaluation and presents to us its fruitfulness. Imagine, by the way, if we couched performance management interviews in terms of human flourishing and fruitfulness? We do these interviews in October, after all. Who has flourished beyond their wildest dreams in your class this year? How fruitful has your English teaching been? What is the harvest from your class’ history study in 2017-18?

WP_20181020_10_44_58_PanoramaOnly now, having left, do I think of these wonderful things. Imagine a teacher’s reply: well, we have had some very fruitful geography, but really, the long hot summer and a cold winter meant that the learning didn’t go as deep as I hoped and the fruit is pretty small (you could have a lot of fun with this, I suppose!)

But above all else, it has been the skies that have been so (sorry for the pun) atmospheric. So here are a few photos, from Furzton (last week) and Stanton Low (today) and Bradwell and Woburn Abbey (3 weeks ago), to help remind us that as the rains surely come and winter gets darker and colder, the glory of the autumn sky is one of God’s great gifts of clarity to us, to be pondered, contemplated, and received in gratitude.

I make no apology for drawing your attention to beauty, by the way. It is fundamental to your humanness and to mine. Bruce Cockburn once sang “in front of all this beauty, understanding nothing.” Like joy, beauty is not measurable on any kind of scale, but again like joy, its presence and its impact is surely one of the surest ways of knowing whether there has been fruitfulness or flourishing, or not.


It has come to me again that if I am looking for the hallmarks of a prophetic, God-honouring school, then joy must be at the heart of the leadership and in the midst of the relationships. If this is not present, then I wonder what the school ultimately thinks of as its purpose, and imagine that it might be working too hard and not living in the grace of the gifts that we get from cold autumn skies, the love of children, the sheer pleasure of teaching and learning that there is to be found, and the kindness of leaders building a community of love and learning.



Family and State – what constitutes the common good here?

WP_20181108_19_49_54_ProThursday night at St Mary’s Church in Putney saw the second of two debates hosted by Together for the Common Good (T4CG), Theos and the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University. The “debate” (actually, there was such common ground between the speakers and the audience – except for one unfortunate chap from the Conservative Christian Fellowship, that “debate” is too strong a term for the event) was centred on the subject of Family and the State, and how we might move forward to the common good as individuals, churches and through our influence on local and national government. It was attended by about 80 people, and the level of questioning and discussion was strong enough to take the topics forward a long way. I could have done with it lasting another hour, but then we would not have had the great discussions afterwards (to say nothing of the canapes and wine).

Jenny Sinclair from T4CG introduced the evening, reminding us that in this very church the Putney debates of 1647 were held. There, I think, the similarities pretty much ended, except that the original debates were trying to find a constitutional settlement for England and Wales after the Civil War.

Speaking from the panel were Professor Philip Booth (Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St Mary’s University),  Mark Molden (Chief Executive of Marriage Care), Professor Sir Aynsley Green who was the first Children’s Commissioner for England 2005 to 2010 and Cathy Corcoran OBE (Chief Executive of the Cardinal Hume Centre from 2003-2018) and a passionate advocate for the poor and homeless. It had a strong Catholic composition, this panel, and the whole debate will appear on the Together for the Common Good website fairly shortly.  For me, and I don’t have a big public policy understanding, the most interesting thing was the contrast between public policy, especially taxation policy in the UK, with the central tenets of Catholic Social Teaching toward the poor. There is much more on this on the T4CG website, especially here, but suffice it to say that on Friday I saw more clearly than I have before that the whole intention of government policy for the last 10-15 years, has been to undermine marriage and family through the tax system, with its emphasis on the individual rather than the family as the basic taxable unit, and to ensure that the poor and the marginalised pay for the continued wealth of the nation through the way that the previous and current chancellors of the exchequer structured their austerity program. Cathy Corcoran in particular was scathing about the impact of this, while Philip Booth explained, more clearly than I have ever heard, the shape and individualistic focus of the tax system, and how it has been conflated with the welfare system by governments since Blair as an instrument of social policy. This was not a bunch of lefties banging on against the government, but a clear description of the pain that this government and the two (at least) previous ones, have wrought upon the poor. It made me think again, as I have often thought, that what we regarded as normal social democracy in the 1970s, and what Corbyn et al are arguing for in the Labour movement, are really not that far from each other. Thatcher has just messed with our brains so much that we have forgotten that “normal” meant a level of social security that many simply cannot today imagine.

There will be better comment than this on the content of the evening, and I look forward to seeing the videos when they come out. In the meantime, explore (as I will be doing) the T4CG website.

This was the second in a series of debates on the common good today – the first one was on migration and the state back in the summer. The final one, on State, Church and Community, will be held next year on 7 March. I will be there!

Magic coming out of his ears

Further to my previous post, I am writing this on the day after the US mid-term elections because of a big, beautiful quote (even bigger and more beautiful than barbed wire) from Donald Trump, congratulating himself for the astonishing “Republican victories” in the mid-terms, and who by his own admission tweeted:

This guy has magic coming out of his ears.

And he would know, surely. How tricky to sleep at night with all that magic oozing onto your pillow.

Can I just add that this is just another piece of evidence to add to Bernie Sanders’ overnight contention that:

The president is a pathological liar.

I really don’t know whether the fibs are pathological, but the magic ear thing does not assist credibility. Truly, America needs Lincoln, or Douglas, or Obama, or anyone, just for long enough to explain what a reasoned argument from a senior political figure could look and sound like. Mickey Mouse made longer speeches. In the meantime we are stuck with this, which may be what the president was referring to.magic-ear-by-atomic-beam-bulbhead-4228769841210_1024x.progressive


The laziness and dishonesty of “populism”

UnivJagCollNovWhen I was a teenager, I remember reading a book about nationalism. It was mostly about late 19th century nationalism, the sort that led to the pressures that broke up the Austro-Hungarian empire after 1918 and which led Woodrow Wilson to articulate the self-determination of all peoples amongst his famous Fourteen Points. That Wilson’s intervention was important to the former disenfranchised nations can be seen simply by a visit to a permanent exhibition in the galleries of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and the number of Woodrow Wilson streets, avenues and buildings scattered across Central Europe. This was the nationalism that meant that individual expression of nationalities could have a place in determining their own future, and the result was a glorious inter-war expression of sovereignty, language, theatre, art and music, even though for many (especially the Austrian and Hungarian writers and thinkers) there was a deep mourning at the passing of their extraordinary empire. I have been listening this week to a recording of Mahler’s 9th symphony under Bruno Walter recorded in Vienna just under two months before the Anschluss took place (12.3.1938). Listening to things in their historic context puts a different complexion on what we hear. The music and art that came out of that world, though coloured and sometimes darkened by the rejection of faith concomitant with the experience of the first world war (read Joseph Roth on Berlin, for instance), was a thing of beauty and glory in many ways.

Nationalism is far too complex an entity to discuss here – historical roots, perceived slights, oppression, economic exploitation, linguistic suppression – but simply put, it is the type of nationalism that emerges, and the attendant attitudes, that interests me and that needs to be spoken of in these populist days in which we find ourselves. The book I read as a teenager said that there were broadly two types of nationalism: the one that results in a national pride that is open and invitational, and the darker type, that we perhaps associate more with the word, that sees foreigners as the root of all evil and cannot see the defects and blind spots of our own national character and history. English nationalism, at the moment, is particularly bad at this, but it is not alone. In seeking a separate, populist future, English nationalists are currently looking back to an imagined past, using outdated analytical and historical tools, to inform an unknown future. Apart from anything else, it is intellectually lazy and dishonest. English nationalism could be a strong player in the political marketplace, but not like this. As far as I can see in the current political debate, no-one is articulating a future to inspire us, and until they do that, English nationalism will fall into the danger of all other nationalisms.

The point made by the book I read all those years ago about the two nationalisms is that the positive one (the freedom-seeking, open-hearted, invitational type) soon morphs into the darker one as soon as its project (or its borders) are threatened by events, migration or economic recession – in these cases it is usual to look within ones own borders for the reasons why a nation is not doing as well as it might. Roma and Jews have all suffered (partly) because of this. Zionism is another version of nationalism that shows the morphing of a legitimate desire for statehood into out and out oppression.

But when we see the types of nationalism that emerge today, whether Orban’s strident nationalism in Hungary, its counterpart in Italy, or the purposefully malign provocation of whole crowds by Trump, Putin, Maduro or Bolsanaro, and the way that they couch their arguments, you know straight away that they have simplified them for the purpose of manipulation. Slogans and political simplification are the hall marks of populist leaders trying to instrumentalise their people. And it works: most people cannot be bothered to think hard enough about politics to develop, respond to and act upon more nuanced arguments. This is the real root of populism – that politicians with nationalist ideas can easily find ready minds who are not open to the counter arguments or the nuances present in the central proposition that they are being sold. (See this clip from the West Wing – just the first half – for Aaron Sorkin’s exposition of this). This is supported by the press – particularly the BBC and the populist press – by virtue (!) of trying to compress complex political arguments into a leader or a front page article or headline news story.

So over time, we get used to shorter and shorter arguments – the twittersphere is not responsible for this but does not help – and we get lazy, of mind and of virtue.

We get lazy with our minds, refusing to develop, challenge and test arguments (if you are on the left, like me, then reading Roger Scruton on socialism is a good place to start the challenge). We refuse to amend our ideas because of reasoned arguments and strengthen the efficacy of our ideas in discussion with those like us, bolstered by whether we like the person making the arguments. We easily create an echo chamber, and this is dangerous for democratic process.

Lincoln_DouglasIt means, in a very real sense, the death of that social-liberal consensus we have had since the war, because it is too hard to understand, and because social democrats (this is the argument of Tony Judt in Ill fares the Land) have not taken the time or effort to explain it carefully for a new generation. Gone completely are the days when, like Stephen Douglas and Abe Lincoln, we would hear public debates where

“in each debate either Douglas or Lincoln would open with an hour address. The other would then speak for an hour and a half. The first then had 30 minutes of rebuttal. In the seven debates, Douglas, as the incumbent, was allowed to go first four times.”

This was all done in the open air, with no amplification. We have indeed become lazy politically.

We are also lazy in our prejudices. With the number of people from other cultures and nations in our country, we are more, not less, prone to making judgments about “all” of a group. This requires the tough work of assessing what we know of another person, and asking whether we would not behave in a similar way if we were in their shoes. Yes, there are national, ethnic and cultural characteristics – that’s what makes modern Britain so exciting to live in – but prejudice is lazy because it nearly always precludes knowledge. I would be considerably wealthier than I am now, if I had a pound for every person I know who has changed their mind about a group on the basis of getting to know one member of that group. But I am obviously fortunate in my friends. Many people do not do that necessary thinking or reflection. We used to love winding up our white house group in a church in Cape Town in the 1980s by asking a black teacher or black political activist to attend our meetings in our house and tell their story. People changed before our eyes, so open to meeting new people were they, and then you could get down to the nub of the intellectual arguments about South Africa’s future without prejudice getting in the way. People did not change their minds politically very much, but it was no longer rooted in prejudice. White students began to see how committed they were to an economic model of capitalism – and they could only do that because they had met a black guy, who they had gotten to know over an evening, who challenged that commitment.

But we are lazy in another way, and that is with regard to our own character and virtue. In his great book “Virtue Reborn”, Tom Wright argues the case that in Christ, as reborn children of God, our path of sanctification is the path of restoring to us our true humanity. And that can only be done with others around us, in mutual submission, in following the spiritual disciplines and by making a genuine effort to de-link ourselves from those cultural forces which diminish us and which work against love (the message of Romans 12, 2 Peter 1 and Matthew 5-7). Part of that sanctification concerns our ability to get out of our own self- or group-narrative and listen hard to others. It means a neighbourly love, and then, once that is mastered (and how pathetically we have generally tried), a love for our enemies. This is impossible for the Christian to bypass. It is central to the teaching of Jesus and if we fall for the wiles of populism, of other-contempt or other-hatred, then we have, to use Miroslav Volf’s terminology, excluded rather than embraced. If we are looking today for a missional Christian distinctive, and goodness knows we need one, I suggest we find it in our invitation and welcome to the stranger and the marginalised. This will help us overcome our own intellectual idleness and our laziness of heart. There are many things in our culture that stop us doing this – growing selfishness, distrust of others, our inability to discern the truth (how underrated a spiritual gift discernment of spirits is!) and a laziness that has made us lean on the state and its provision rather than finding imaginative and costly solutions ourselves.

Nationalism has its place, a place of pride and welcome, of glorious diversity and the opportunity to learn from each other, just until that very point when it diminishes the rights or dignity of the stranger, of the minority, of the immigrant (even the economic migrant!) or the poor on our streets, never mind perceived enemies. Then it becomes crass populism, unworthy of any Christian man or woman. In fact, unworthy of any human made in the image of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And that includes everyone.

The possibilities of forgiveness

I have a couple of acquaintances, friends really, for whom I think I may have found the perfect Christmas present. It is a new book by Sophie Hannah called How to Hold a GrudgeIt just seems absolutely on the money for my friends, who really struggle to know how to hold a grudge properly, or who hold them and then let the grudges overtake them with bitterness. Apparently, according to Ms. Hannah, grudge-holding can be “wholly positive.” She feels that “any office is a breeding ground for grudges, as well as extended family get-togethers” and that “grudges against other kids’ mums are the best!”

41SX-0X8oQL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_Her logic is less weird than you suppose, because what she actually does (if her piece in the Times is to be believed) is to classify and describe her grudges (she has a 1-10 scale) and thus in doing so, rob them of the power to fester. The aim “isn’t to wreak revenge like Liam Neeson in Taken (“I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you”) but rather to be able to to dodge any future slights deftly.” Eventually, it seems, she finds her way to a partial understanding of forgiveness and restitution, when she says that “we need to recognise that people will hold grudges against us and, if these are justifiable, we must attempt to make amends.”

Interesting piece, because it speaks, as Hannah says, to every part of human experience: what do we do when we are hurt? I have long been an advocate of deliberately refusing to take offence, but there are obviously emotional and physical consequences to all sorts of actions, and when the scale is big, such as the genocide which underpins most of the emotional power of Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Risingthen we have a serious problem that holding a grudge can easily morph into racial or ethnic prejudice. I recall meeting and listening to a Uighur Christian refugee who was struggling not to see ALL Han Chinese as guilty of the suffering that he and his fellow Christians had experienced. He came perilously close to a racist view, howbeit understandable. He had to deal with the internal conflict caused by external and collective pain. If he didn’t cope with it, chances are he would spend the rest of his life struggling to forgive all the Chinese he met (and there are a lot of them). But that forgiveness in such circumstances is possible, you need look no further than Corrie ten Boom.

So I welcome Sophie Hannah’s book, because far from truly legitimising the bearing of grudges, it helps people acknowledge their negative power and gives some help in how to manage them and remove some of their emotional sting. It is not the biblical answer, but in the absence of that as a reference, it may help some people. The title is probably unfortunate, but should help with the marketing.

But how different, how completely different, from Jesus’ approach: love your enemies, pray for those that persecute you, forgive as many times as it takes. In a couple of recent really challenging posts, Jon Kuhrt has reminded us of the need for grace and truth in our dealings with those in need or who are damaged and might hurt us. This proviso is critical, but it does nothing to alter the power of Jesus words: forgive as many times as it takes. This is not to say that it is easy, or that our emotions find it easy to alter as they keep up with our desire to be faithful, but I, and many others I know, have found how it is possible to turn those we held grudges against into fast friends.

Partly this is possible by taking a view of our own lives in which our emotions and feelings are not granted permission by our minds and will to dominate and rule. This might seem terribly philosophical, but actually it is just an extension of some very ancient thinking in which we exert the God-given faculties of our determined will and our renewed mind, in place of our hopelessly subconscious emotions in a time of crisis. This is the beginning of virtue and the Psalms are full of it, calling to mind the goodness of God in the midst of defeat, disappointment and betrayal. It is what Paul urges us to do at the start of Romans 12:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Allowing our mind the opportunity for renewal, through soaking in praise, reading the scriptures, praying for others (especially those we find most tricky) is critical. God needs our cooperation so that the Holy Spirit can renew and transform our minds.

For all the helpful things that postmodernism has brought, one of the least useful to the human psyche is the restoration of a ruling authority to the emotions. The idea that because “I feel such a way I am justified in behaving in such and such a way”: this has gained prevalence since the failure of duty in the 20th century (nothing like two cruel world wars to hack at the notion of duty!) and as a result we have become more selfish, and more concerned to act in accordance with our own emotions. This makes the renewal of the mind harder to assert and pursue, but I still maintain that the mind and our thinking consciousness need, together, to assert what we know to be good and true and lovely over the instinctual reactions that come from the reptilian brain and amygdala and which find expression in our feelings.

Forgiveness is, 9 times out of 10, precisely this: the assertion of what we know to be our best, our communal best, our collaborative best, over against the emotional instinct we all have to hit out, lash out or flee in resentment. It does not come easy, but is, like all the best virtues, come with repeated practice. This is probably why Jesus said – I tell you, (don’t forgive) seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:22). He was aware more than most that we needed the practice.

In a paper by Johannes van der Walt and co-authors from South Africa and the Netherlands, it is argued that we now are likely to require our children and young people to have a clear understanding of the why and how of actually giving and receiving forgiveness. I am not aware of any evidence from school-aged children that explores how they learn to forgive or whether there is a disconnect between what they are encouraged to say and what they actually feel. The work we have done with the Restorative Foundation goes some way to putting forgiveness at the heart of school practice, even if only implicitly. The RF is not an expressly Christian organisation and thus cannot be expected to have a theology of forgiveness to guide and sustain that part of their work. Where forgiveness appeared in the restorative practice at Christ the Sower depended on us allowing the teaching from Matthew 18 to take root explicitly in displays and in staff training.

Van der Walt et al (2018) argue that forgiveness education could be placed in Citizenship education, such is its importance in our large diverse communities:

The need for asking and giving forgiveness has in recent years become even more essential in view of the growth of multicultural and diverse societies and also in view of the information and technology revolution that is bringing people – both individuals and groups – in closer contact with one another than ever before, thus escalating the potential for violence and conflict.  (p103)

They argue that the role of forgiveness education could fit well into the framework for Citizenship Education proposed by James Banks in 2008. Both Banks and those that follow his lead are insistent on the explicit teaching of skills to manage and improve relationships within society and an explicit understanding of democratic principles, values and procedures on the part of the citizen.

To forgive an infringement does not come naturally, however, because of the in-born self-centredness of human beings; it has to be taught and inculcated, and this is where forgiveness education becomes prominent….schools must also prepare students to be engaged and responsible members of society, capable of relating to people from different parts of the world and dealing with issues that affect all of us such as injustices inflicted upon individuals and groups that result in pain and damage to them. These issues are of a justice nature in which forgiveness education becomes relevant. (p104-105)

The South African national curriculum document defines a number of areas in its preamble. “Without ever explicitly referring to forgiveness and forgiveness education as such, the curriculum provides ample opportunity for this subject to be taught” (p107). In Holland, the issues around the Dutch East India Company’s involvement in the slave trade and the national role in enabling the slaughter of 8000 Serbian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 mean that social justice issues, along with the attendant need for forgiveness and justice, require that forgiveness education is found a space in that curriculum too.

The paper explores biblical models of forgiveness and in doing so touches eventually upon the healing power of forgiveness. Taking its cue from the work of Robert Enright (Enright 2003; Enright et al 2014) the authors demonstrate a biblical root for forgiveness education by quoting a non-biblical source:

Forgiving is an act of mercy toward an offender, someone who does not necessarily deserve our mercy. It is a gift to our offender for the purpose of changing the relationship between ourselves and those who have hurt us….as a member of the human community. That person is worthy of the respect due to every being who shares our common humanity.

Forgiveness education, argue Van der Walt et al, required four steps:

  1. Forgiveness education can be located in a particular national context (tricky for us Brits, as we never take the blame for anything, but useful for South Africans and inhabitants of Northern Ireland, who have a distinct context). Black History Month comes to mind…
  2. Beyond the context, forgiveness education and the practice of forgiveness needs to become part of a school ethos and identity.
  3. A practical forgiveness pedagogy needs to be erected and taught. In schools using restorative practice, this could easily be incorporated.
  4. A training module for educators and the children they teach could be inserted within the teaching schedule. They advocate a directly Christian approach for Christian schools, but if not, recommend the approach taken by Jennings et al (2016) in their paper “The transgressor’s response to denied forgiveness.

What surprised me in this paper by its absence, was the impact of forgiveness education on the mental health of young people. Perhaps it is not as “up there” as a live issue in South Africa and the Netherlands as it is in the UK, but the self-healing aspects of forgiveness as a route to mental health and the healing of the conscience would surely make it into a paper written in the UK.

Whether Sophie Hannah fancies writing such a paper, I do not know, but I am grateful to her for raising such an important topic, and whilst I disagree with her approach, it is not hard to see that the long-understood, biblically-informed Judaeo-Christian teaching on the restoration of broken relationships sneaks past even those determined to hold a grudge, and write about it.

However, in her Times article she makes one excellent point that is rarely alluded to in the Van der Walt paper – the need to “make amends.” This is critical, because restitution is a thoroughly biblical aspect of fixing relationships, and lies at the heart of the “grace and truth” approach of Jon Kuhrt. Saying sorry is easy stuff, and actually so is forgiving sometimes, but fixing the damage, restoring the loss, paying back the theft, taking back the words, “putting the toothpaste back in the tube” – these are harder for all of us, and without a full encompassment of full and heart-felt forgiveness, are likely to cause us to limp along for a while, if we have not made appropriate restitution.

Object lessons: seeing the whole picture


During the autumn of 2004, when I was still at St Mary’s Primary School in Shawbury, I discovered in a cupboard the log books from the school’s predecessor – Moreton Corbet School, along with some more recent ones from the school. Moreton Corbet school is now a bed and breakfast, about 400 meters up the B5063 from where St Mary’s then stood (it itself has since closed and a new St Mary’s can be found in the middle of Shawbury, near the village church of the same name).


The log books were interesting for a number of things – the ones I had dated from the period 1891 to 1900 and we were fascinated by the number of canings, the amount of time children were not in school because of harvest, the handwriting (neat, but still nearly illegible) and the curriculum. The late 19th century was the height of the popularity of the object lesson, made known to the Victorian reading world by Gradgrind in Hard Times. The lessons that were listed in the Moreton Corbet logbook for the following term were single word objects – sheep, cow, pencil, horse and so on – and they were listed for the infant class (there were two classes at Moreton Corbet at the time, as far as the log books showed us). The object lesson was made unpopular by Mr Gradgrind, but it persisted in schools because it fitted well with late Victorian pedagogy, and because it provided a useful hook for knowledge. It was used in other countries, and had the one great advantage of not being rote learning – a significant advance in some pedagogical cultures.

403px-Orbis-pictus-002This all came back to me when thinking about a wonderful book, sadly not known to most British educators, the Orbis Sensualium PictusThe Orbis Pictus, as it is generally known, was written in Latin and German in 1658 by John Amos Comenius (1592 – 1670). It is the first full picture book to be used as a text book in schools. It was translated into English a year later and many editions subsequently followed. It preceded the object lesson as taught in Britain by about 200 years, and as a teaching tool, it knocks the object lesson into a cocked hat. It was first published in Nuremberg, home of Durer and many other printmakers and publishers – so no surprise that the woodcuts are of such high quality.

The thing that distinguishes the Orbis Pictus from the later object lesson is the intensely relational approach taken to all its subject matter.


Everything in each picture is shown in relation to one another and thus there is learning for the child not just about the subject matter, but a strong sense of the gestalt overview of learning. They serve as illustrated topic webs, raising questions, generating discussion, and moderating understanding. It is not a surprise to me that Comenius was forward thinking in this, because he was in virtually every other area of his endeavour, whether theologically, pastorally or in his inclusive approach to what should be taught, when and to who (his famous phrase from his latter work, the Pampaedia, was omnes, omnia, omnino).

Boys' races from 'Orbis Sensualium Pictus', 1658 (woodcut)Each page in the Orbis Pictus deals with a collection of objects in relation to each other – and moreover it deals with virtue and the work of the Holy Spirit in the same matter of fact way that it deals with the natural world (in great and helpful detail), the built environment, handicrafts and trades, etc. There is no real sense in which the lived experience of the child, with his fellows, parents or with God, is any less a subject worthy of teaching than the natural and physical worlds. There is plenty to take issue with – his wonderful description of “deformed and monstrous people” probably would not get past any Single Equality Scheme – but these are wholly of his time, and made worse in the English translation.

For such a book to have such a relational approach to teaching and learning seems highly anachronistic. The fact that Comenius is often said to be “before his time” makes me often think that perhaps the early years of the 21st century might be “his time” – more of that in later posts – but there are at least three vital consequences that flow from Comenius’ approach to learning, and in particular as evidenced in the Orbis Pictus.

  1. Schermata-2015-03-14-alle-14.52.23That knowledge and understanding was primarily relational flowed from Comenius’ own theology of creation being in relation to the Godhead (he explores this far more fully in the Great Didactic) and his understanding of pastoral leadership in the church: it resulted in a highly inclusive approach – boys and girls, rich and poor – all were to be taught, and all were teachable. In particular, there was to be no distinction on the basis of race or ethnicity. Comenius found it laughable and unsupportable to deny a person education on the basis of nationality or colour.
  2. “All knowledge” was to include “spiritual knowledge” both of God, our stewardship of His creation, and the knowledge that led to virtue through the transformation of our character. Orbis Pictus contains numerous plates where the state of the soul may be discussed in as like manner as the growth of trees, say, or the work of a potter or baker. The dynamics of relationship and relational pedagogy apply as strongly to the growth of virtue as they do to the development of the natural world or the built environment.
  3. The emphasis placed by Comenius on the growth in virtue (particularly in the Great Didactic and Pampaedia) is as strong and determined as that placed on the role of reasoned debate and rational deduction, which he prized highly. Comenius imagined a world, and then taught and lobbied towards such a world, where faith (expressed in virtue but also in stewardship to the natural world) and piety (expressed in prayer and care of the soul in its journey to Christlikeness as a means of grace) had equal value to rational thought and to the interpretation of empirical observation. Thus he stands as the major figure of early modernity in education, a man who believed that education was a means of assisting personal and social salvation and growth in grace, through responsible learning and personal piety. He consistently refused to separate out faith and reason, and made this point often in his letters to the Royal Society.

There are some uncomfortable senses in which we have gone backwards as educators before we ever went forwards again. The object lesson, in its 19th century format, stands as one of the most typical products of 19th century positivist teaching: it is, if you like, empiricism for infants. You stand outside an object and comment on it, learn about it, know everything about it, write about it on your slate. This combined with the catechesis and “Christian truth as unassailable fact” that was the basis of the National Society schools (“national schools”) from 1811 onwards, along with their commitment to keeping the poor in their place stands in sharp contrast to the much more egalitarian instincts of Comenius and his insistence of learning from within the text.

In 1992, in The New Testament and the People of God, Tom Wright wrote this (following an argument from McIntyre’s After Virtue):

We only know what objects are when we see them, at least implicitly, within events. And events have to do with (in principle) intelligible actions. The result of this is that instead of the dialogue or conversation….between “observer” and “object” as conceived within the empirical tradition, whether in its optimistic or pessimistic form, we have a dialogue between humans (not merely neutral or detached observation platforms) and events (not merely detached or meaningless objects). And on both sides of this dialogue we therefore have stories: the stories that the humans are implicitly telling about the world and the stories that are implied by events and, within them, by the “objects” that form their component parts. (p 44)

This quote helps us see why Comenius was correct and insightful and the “object lesson” approach is deficient. The object lesson is deficient in the same way that the whole modernist epistemology is deficient. Comenius understood, as do some post-modern thinkers, that to know something you have to be in it, engaged with it, loving it (or hating it!) and that when you find something out from this engagement or love, it is more of value than the apparently “neutral, scientific” positivist approach that so many have given their intellectual souls to.

Doris Salcedo at the White Cube

WP_20181013_10_53_23_ProWP_20181013_10_54_33_ProWP_20181013_10_55_30_ProWP_20181013_10_49_42_ProWP_20181013_10_47_21_ProThese intriguing pictures are the work of Colombian artist Doris Salcedo and can be found currently at the White Cube in Bermondsey. I went there last Saturday with my daughter as the review in the Times had been engaging. There are two installations – the Palimpsest, a collection of stone tablets inscribed with the names of people who have died pre-2010 (inscribed in sand) and post-2010 (outlined in water droplets) whilst fleeing North Africa and Turkey to find asylum in Europe – and Tabula Rasa, a meditation on the impact of sexual violence as demonstrated by 5 tables that have been smashed, broken and reassembled painstakingly.

Both are quite shocking and technically awe-inspiring. Just trying to understand the technology that enables the droplets of water to seep up through the stone from a filtration system of some sort below, to form the names of those lost, was a challenge. But the Palimpsest was shocking because it completely challenged at the point where the artist intended it to – our unengaged and poorly-rehearsed memory of actual people who fell into the Mediterranean as a result of circumstances few of us can imagine, and then drowned and their bodies lost to the deep, nameless to us, beloved of God who has always known their names and who grieves their loss. The White Cube commentary explains it better:

In her work Salcedo questions and exposes trauma by exploring its capacity to reveal and connect with grief, carving out a space for mourning that is both poignant and insistent. ‘My work is about the memory of experience, which is always vanishing, not about experiences taken from life’, she has said. In Palimpsest, presented in the South Galleries, she deals with the subject of Europe’s migrant crisis and the many who have fled from Africa or the Middle East over the past 20 years and drowned in the Mediterranean or Adriatic attempting to cross into Europe. Produced initially for the Palacio de Cristal, Centro de Arte Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, the installation consists of a floor of rectangular stone slabs covering the entire gallery space, on which the names of over 300 victims temporarily and intermittently appear. The names are first spelled out in sand (for those who died prior to 2010) and then in delicate droplets of water (for those who died between 2011−16); a constant state of inscription and erasure that transforms the gallery into a potent and active memorial. Bringing to mind the image of a ‘crying’ earth, Palimpsest attempts to expose the inability to collectively mourn, highlighting the way memory functions in a society which is trained to forget, where each new tragedy erases the previous one.

The rise and fall of the definition of the names in water or sand reminds us of the surge of grief-loss and normality that constitute the way most of us come to terms with the loss of those we cared for.

The Tabula Rasa, by contrast, is a recreation of the breakage of humans, principally women, after sexual violence of whatever sort. The commentary states:

…wooden domestic tables subjected to a brutal and complex cycle of destruction and reconstruction, the sculptures suggest how, after such experiences, one can never be whole again since the self will always be changed or ‘lacking’. After being strategically damaged and splintered, each table is painstakingly ‘repaired’, glued back together fragment by fragment over a lengthy period of time. Although at first glance appearing complete and ‘whole’, they remain, in fact, a fragile composite of tiny parts, rebuilt as faithfully as possible in an impossible act of recreation. In some, legs appear aggressively fractured, mended but still not properly registered and full of cracks and gaps, as if they have been worn through or eaten away, while their surfaces reveal a tactile network of fissures, like a map of past damage. Salcedo has described her sculpture as a ‘topology of mourning’. ‘The only possible response I can give in the face of irreparable absence is to produce images capable of conveying incompleteness, lack and emptiness’, she has said.

When we looked carefully at the tables, not only was the craftsmanship astonishing, but the gaps where there were simply bits that had not been recovered or which had been worn away permanently, lent a fragility to the tables. To me also they had the bare presence of tables where unsympathetic officialdom may once have sat, judging, administering pain and destruction in a clerical fashion, like the men who once must have sent thousands to gas chambers or to the gulag.

Salcedo talks of her work as political and mental archaeology – revealing structures beneath the surface of our minds and political systems that can be used to sustain violence in our societies, as well as digging below the surface of victims to reveal experience and then describe it.

Great exhibition – it is free, and on till 11 November.

Economics for actual humans

AP_2006_1434My favourite piece of political polemic is still Tony Judt’s Ill fares the Land, published the year of his death, 2010, and thus a commentary on the state of social democracy and the requirement of nation states and their members to tend to the common good in economic ways before the impact of the current right-wing onslaught of Cameron, Osborne, May and Trump (these people just made it worse: it was certainly not in a good state before that).

I was reminded of it this morning reading Lynsey Hanley’s piece in the Guardian about the requirement to invest in a common social, economic and communal life before we get all excited about high-tech and high-skill economies. It is really worth reading and it partly expresses an idea I was trying to get across to a friend, a professional economist, at a party on Saturday evening, when discussing the interventions that Yanis Varoufakis tried to make at the last UK general election and since: that serious care for people takes investment and high quality planning, but because of the generally local and communal aspect of that people-care, infrastructure-care-and-repair and social world-building that they support, it leads to a generally higher number of people employed in worthwhile and people-centred work. Teaching, for example, is one of the few areas of employment where teacher-pupil ratios lead to an irreducibility in the number of people employed, although there are plenty of people who feel that we could get rid of teachers! Imagine what could happen if we treated cottage hospitals, day-care centres, etc as places to involve as many people economically in our communities as possible – that we invested in people and their commitment to place and community, rather than in another million metres of fibre optic cable.

Lynsey Hanley argues that true social regeneration comes from careful attention and investment in “foundational activities” defined as:

…the materials and services without which we cannot live a civilised life: clean, unrationed water; affordable electricity and gas without cuts to supply; collective transport on smooth roads and rails; quality health and social care provided free at the point of use; and reliable, sustainable food supply. Then there’s the “overlooked economy” – everyday services such as hairdressing, veterinary care, catering and hospitality and small-scale manufacturing…

These ideas have been explored by the Foundational Economy Collective, with the intention and observation that all long lasting economic and social change has to begin where people are and actually get people back into useful, social-world-building work, alongside others in that same social world. Governments tend to think about “the public” or “society” as the gainers from their policy, and when they think harder, they talk about “individuals and families.” Thatcher, famously, was on this scale, dismissing society and focusing on individuals and families, but many on the left, who think about the whole country rather than the diversity of communities, are on the same scale. Hanley argues, here and elsewhere, that we are actually on the wrong scale, that local and regional communities (rather than society, the “public” or the family) are just as powerful an indicator of identity as anywhere else, and this is surely right. The idea of neighbourhood, or communal responsibility, has now died the death in many areas largely because of the failure of the dependence economy, combined with social (and therefore geographic) mobility. People no longer have to rely on each other for anything and therefore the need that we express simply by our humanness is not fulfilled, with consequent increase in loneliness and poorer mental health. We would rather go to a local Tesco or Sainsbury’s and get a bag of sugar than ask our neighbour for a cup of the stuff and risk human contact. This is not the case everywhere, but it is in many places, and in the growing new housing estates, with people who work a long way from where they live, it will become the norm unless there is a sudden growth of neighbourliness. As Norman Wirzba puts it in his essay An Economy of Gratitude, repentance is needed in order to do this:

Repentance….is the gateway to full acknowledgement of our interdependence with others, the recognition that together we form a membership in which need and satisfaction can meet because we have given up the tenacious drive to maintain ourselves at the expense of others….through confession and repentance we become detached from ourselves and thus freed to experience, cherish, and nurture the gifts we are to each other

Hanley’s vision – and Judt’s too, if brought to a local scale – would lead to a more economically engaged, neighbour-responsible community. However, this requires investment, or reinvestment, to seed local initiative, as well as for all those communal organisations – churches, schools, shops, clinics and those who use them, to turn their face to their present, not to an uncertain future.

None of this comes as news to Wendell Berry, of course, who has been cogently arguing for vibrant local community for a very long time now and for whom community is clearly defined:

By community, I mean the commonwealth of common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so….community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy and local nature….A community cannot be made or preserved apart from the loyalty and affection if its members and the respect and goodwill of the people outside it….community life is by definition a life of cooperation and responsibility.

Cooperation and responsibility, loyalty and affection, respect and goodwill are not qualities that will be in the topmost part of the collective mind that is, for example, planning the Oxford-Cambridge High Tech Corridor. They are not really high-tech or high-skill qualities at all, but without them, as Berry has made plain, and as Judt implies in his work, and has Hanley has pointed us to in today’s article, the whole thing is an investment in a future without community, and thus, eventually, without social cohesion.

OFSTED and the future of curriculum

Picture1It is worth reading Amanda Spielman’s short piece (an “HMCI Commentary”) on curriculum design and recent research, if only because it is a useful precursor to her speech yesterday to the SCHOOLS NorthEast Conference which really lays out clearly the welcome direction in which she wants to take OFSTED, back to a model that was far closer to the sort of one that I was inspected under in 2003 at St Mary’s. The “quality of education” judgment, combining curricular provision, pupil data and teaching, learning and assessment will hopefully undermine those schools and their leaders for whom data-chasing is becoming a sort of demonic pastime.

However, the real OFSTED focus at the moment has been on curriculum. One of the best papers written by OFSTED on the curriculum came out just before I entered headship in 2001, and I have kept my well-thumbed and pink-highlighted copy ever since. Amanda Spielman is right to argue that there has been a concern for the narrowing of the curriculum ever since then (good to see her referencing this excellent booklet) but this has not translated in any way into the temperate use of school data in the meantime. All the data-chasing has happened while OFSTED were apparently wanting a broader curriculum. I can hear multiple school leaders saying “you could have fooled me”.

Despite her best wishes, I do honestly suspect that Spielman’s well-meaning approach will founder, and schools will still be tempted to focus overmuch on English and maths. The reason for that assertion is that it is not up to OFSTED alone to determine how schools think about their performance. In most secondary settings, and in primary ones too in more highly competitive areas of the country, performance is competitive and linked to the league tables. For secondary schools, there is obviously scope to alter the league table structure to favour a broader curriculum judgment (although a good hack at EBacc would be needed for this). No such mechanism exists for primary schools who only report English and maths. League tables for them are now an anachronism, if we accept Spielman’s arguments and her well-founded concerns for children. So we would be well to get rid of primary league tables, because otherwise we will find (not for the first time) OFSTED operating in direct educational opposition to the DfE. One recognised judgment is enough.

In short, OFSTED can change all they want to, but the DfE has to rid itself of league tables and call the dogs off from the Regional Schools Commissioners in short order if what we all want for schools is to have any impact.

The first change (argues Spielman in the Schools NE speech) is losing outcomes as a standalone judgement. The second change is broadening the existing quality of teaching, learning and assessment judgement into a quality of education judgement. This one should include curriculum alongside teaching, learning and assessment, and will also reflect outcomes. Then third, we propose splitting the current judgement of personal development, behaviour and welfare into 2 separate judgements: one for behaviour and attitudes and the other for personal development.

The separation out of the behaviour and welfare will enable inspectors to have a good look at how the school impacts the individual child and how mental health issues are addressed. It is the sort of place where the loving community that many schools prize will count for something. For Christ the Sower, it presents an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of restorative practice as mediated through a gospel approach.

The remainder of her speech is worth a close look. It feels right, even if all the bits and pieces can be quibbled with by interest groups. It feels as though some serious listening to those who really want the best for children, not just the results they achieve, has been going on here. With the above caveats. of course.

According to yesterday’s press release which accompanies the speech,

In January, Ofsted will launch a consultation on the new inspection framework. Unlike previous consultations, views will also be sought on each individual inspection handbook. Ofsted will consider all responses carefully before finalising the framework. Further details of the consultation and how to respond will be published early next year.

This is worth looking out for, and responding to. In particular I would urge parents of primary school children to be involved in this consultation, as it is ultimately for your benefit, and that of your children, that OFSTED even exists.