Monday morning, having just completed the previous post, I walked into school, thinking about the conflict inherent in the two views of children mentioned in that same post, and read this:
I don’t know why this is not seared into my mind more, but the words began to resonate immediately, and I saw as though for the first time that we have already done much of the necessary work and thinking that have laid a foundation for a Christian anthropology at school. Somehow, the wording of the “good earth” paragraph of our school vision enables the “high expectation-source of strength” view of children to be a full part of the “created as a unique individual-designed to flourish fully in community” view of humanity that is at the heart of the creation narrative.
Perhaps we simply make things too complex, but it is necessary from time to time to be re-focused upon the guiding principles we ourselves have subscribed to. And this, in its depth and breadth of intent, is where I have nailed my educational colours.
I have been reading the essay Imagination in Place by Wendell Berry (2004), one of a collection of essays that sit within the book The Way of Ignorance but which also appears as the title essay of another collection of essays about writers and writing.
It is a hard examination of what makes him a writer with a particular message from a particular place and time, but what excited me in the essay was an exposition of what it meant to Berry to be a farmer in a particular place at a particular time, with particular watershed conditions, and particular climate. It touches on the subject I began to explore two posts ago (and which I feel I have left quite unexplored) but also speaks through metaphor to the breadth, mystery and sheer difficulty of educating children (or adults for that matter) who are just so cussedly unalike from one another! Berry is talking about farming, to be sure, and we are not, but once again the parallels are striking, and when we are looking at the range of ways we can view children and the influences on them that enable them to flourish, we are not a million miles away from farming terminology. For example, here is Berry writing about his own farm in Henry County, Ky:
The most insistent and formidable concern of agriculture, wherever it is taken seriously, is the distinct individuality of every farm, every field on every farm, every farm family and every creature on every farm. Farming becomes a high art when farmers know and respect in their work the distinct individuality of their place and the neighborhood of creatures that lives there. This has nothing to do with the set of personal excuses we call “individualism” but is akin to the holy charity of the Gospels and the political courtesy of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Such practical respect is the true discipline of farming, and the farmer must maintain it through the muddles, mistakes, disappointments and frustrations, as well as the satisfactions and exultations of every actual year on an actual farm….
…If one wishes to farm well, and agrarianism inclines to that wish above all, then one must submit to the unending effort to change one’s mind and ways to fit one’s farm. This is a hard education, which lasts all one’s life, never to be completed, and it will almost certainly involve mistakes. But one does not have to do this alone, or with only one’s small intelligence. Help is available, as one had better hope.
…when one passes…to the daily life and work of one’s own farm, one passes from a relative simplicity into a complexity that is irreducible except by disaster, and is ultimately incomprehensible. It is the complexity of the life of a place uncompromisingly itself, which is at the same time the life of the world, of all Creation. One meets not only the weather and the wildness of the world, but also the limits of one’s knowledge, intelligence, character, and bodily strength. To do this, of course, is to accept the place as an influence.
If we took the words agriculture, farm, farming and field out of this quote, replacing them with education, school, teaching and classroom we would be within touching distance of the kind of schooling that best fits our vision. The longing for the best is there, and yet the uniformity demanded by other powers is subjected fully to the mental acumen required for our daily struggles with the actual children in our actual classrooms that present us with actual challenges, and which shape our teaching. To ignore complexity in favour of a simplistic model of human progress helps us not a jot, and disrespects parents who know the uniqueness of their child.
And SATs, of course
I am writing this on the day of a very tough KS2 Maths Reasoning SAT paper, which has had many baffled and whose “aspirations” for children is more cruel than challenging. Nothing is gained for these children in seeking to meet these standards. For them to struggle with things that show them what they can’t do, rather than what they can, is, in the words of Russell Hobby of the NAHT, “a fairly horrific…test. We’re all for high aspirations, but there is nothing to be gained from crushing ten and eleven year olds.” He wrote that after the reading test on Monday. It will be interesting to see headteacher colleagues’ reactions to this Maths Reasoning paper.