The fundamental struggle of all political life is that between what is and what should be. This is why people have sometimes (maybe erroneously) said that politics is the “art of the possible.” If politics is only the art of the possible then it has given up, hasn’t it surely?
I have been thinking about this in the light of waking up yesterday to find that Donald Trump is the only Republican candidate left in the US Primary race. He had, in my view, one asset, and that he was to the political left of Ted Cruz and therefore probably more amenable to reason by those who understand US politics, than his erstwhile rival. However, the rule of “what is and what should be” would mean that in political discourse, as in any relational field, the “what should be” does not just govern the political destination but also the direction and manner of the journey. And it is here where Mr Trump has given us an object lesson in disrespect. He has already made America a smaller place. He has, by his coarseness of language, choice of opponents and willingness to engage in a particular type of political dogfight made a once great nation more small-minded and given the impression already that the US is no longer a world leader, not does it in any way deserve to be. He has impressed only the desperate and the shallow – and that will command him a large constituency in the US, whose people long for America to be the nation they were taught to believe in (Trump is not going to deliver on that, by the way), but whose political depth of focus is restricted by the kind of narrow political conversation that the GOP have been spinning over the last 20 years. Europeans, far from dreading him, cannot see why he is so crass, or why, given the crassness, his electorate support him.
Who runs the US, despite its decline, still matters to those who count themselves as allies. However, the thoughts and perceptions of those who count themselves as allies are far from first priority with the US electorate, as with any electorate. Few of us go to the polls wondering what the Germans will think of the outcome. But increasingly, perhaps these are questions we ought to consider.
It might therefore be time for those of us broadly on the left of European politics to begin looking to more homegrown examples of what we might do and change. The NAHT conference speech by Russell Hobby ended with his urging headteachers that “our remedies oft in ourselves do lie” (All’s Well that Ends Well, Act 1, Sc 1). His final paragraph of his speech went like this:
The argument over freedom will rage unresolved because freedom is an empty category. You fill freedom with the choices you make, for good or ill. Let’s make bold and principled choices together. Holding the moral high ground that we deserve, and building the education system we want to see despite all the challenges we face. There is no group of people more equipped to do so.
As well as finding this inspiring (how many public figures do that for us any more?), it is a highly practical aide memoire for action. It informs an approach to decision making that places the good of those we have direct care for at the forefront of the decisions we make. This in and of itself will mean that our decision making and the choices we make with the freedom we have will likely be more principled than if we are doing it to “build an empire” or “expand our influence”.
In his 2014 essay “On being asked for ‘A Narrative for the Future,‘” Wendell Berry says this (in the context of environmental change, but this could easily be applied to educational change):
If…we have our minds set in the future, where we are sure that climate change is going to play hell with the environment, we have entered into a convergence of abstractions that makes it difficult to think or do anything in particular. If we think the future damage of climate change to the environment is a big problem only solvable by a big solution, then thinking or doing something in particular becomes more difficult, perhaps impossible.
It is true that changes in governmental policy, if the changes were made according to the right principles, would have to be rated as big solutions. Such big solutions surely would help…but just as surely they would fail if not accompanied by small solutions. And here we come to the reassuring difference between changes in policy and changes in principle. The needed policy changes, though addressed to present evils, wait upon the future, and so are presently nonexistent. But changes in principle can be made now, by so few as just one of us. Changes in principle, carried into practice, are necessarily small changes made at home by one of us or a few of us. Innumerable small solutions emerge as the changed principles are adapted to unique lives in unique small places. Such small solutions do not wait upon the future. Insofar as they are possible now, exist now, are actual and exemplary now, they give hope. Hope, I concede, is for the future. Our nature seems to require us to hope that our life and the world’s life will continue into the future. Even so, the future offers no validation of this hope. That validation is to be found only in the knowledge, the history, the good work, and the good examples that are now at hand.
This is perhaps the best example I know of how to live in the present, fully alive and as servants of those we are called to in good work. It grants us an autonomy as teachers and leaders, and in so doing, creates a future that we have not yet seen, but of which we may be more sure, because of the work we do in the present. Our remedies do indeed oft in ourselves lie.
Late last year I read the fantastic Choice Words by Peter Johnston. The book is essentially a collection of observed questions from experienced teachers and researchers in real-life situations in American schools that provoke a deeper growth and learning in written English. Some are really obvious and none are beyond the scope of our usual wit and perception. What makes the book wonderful is the fact that they are all there in one place and the use to which these words are put. It is also the perceived possibilities arising from the questions that make them wonderful.
Near the beginning of the book, Johnston quotes this from Mary Rose O’Reilly’s The Peaceable Classroom:
I had gone off to be a teacher, asking myself from time to time whether it might be possible to teach English in such a way that people would stop killing each other.
I love this quote, because it demonstrates to a much greater degree than we in British education usually suppose, that the teaching of the English language is not to be separated from the education of the whole child into a social context. It makes a complete mockery of the current emphases of the DfE and the STA in testing English knowledge.
But it also reminds all of us that education is for something, and that that something is a peaceable world of rich human flourishing. I have been challenged to revisit what we have been learning over the last few years about What-If Learning. One of the fundamental emphases of Trevor Cooling’s work in this project is to insist that the theological exposition of faith, hope and love is found in teaching and learning that arcs towards love and forgiveness on the one hand, and respect and reverence on the other. This is the discipleship journey, if you like, that we ask all children and adults to make.
It is, at heart, the “what should be” that will one day impact on the “what is.”