I had not intended to write this piece on the day that Carillion, the public service contractor, went into administration and put 20000 jobs at risk. Carillion, like Sodexho and Serco, and a host of other “public service contractors,” occupy a place in our national life which we would do well to look at. In their growth and expansion, usually by gobbling up smaller contractors or outbidding them so that they go to the wall, they are symptomatic of what has happened to “public service.” The servant-heartedness has gone clean out of it, to be replaced by endless arguments about money and contract value. There is probably a general rule that the closer and more local a service is to those it serves, the more accountable and more likely it is to preserve a servant ethos. This of course springs from relationship, which is not measured in GDPs nor in the bottom line, but which works most effectively when the served and the servant spring from the same local communal demands.
And this is where we need to enter the debate as educators. Some years ago, the wonderful Alison Peacock co-wrote a book based on her experiences at the Wroxham School in Potters Bar called Creating Learning without Limits. It was part of a larger Cambridge University education project that is still going strong, and recently has published a short paper combining what we have learnt from Alison’s work (and that of her co-workers) with the thinking of Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia approach to early years education (the 100 languages of children). In case there is any doubt about this in what follows, I am a big supporter of this approach, and as a school we have set up a vision that for children, encourages them to bear fruit beyond their wildest dreams. This is a good and godly vision for children, and is our fullest representation at Christ the Sower of the work of Carol Dweck and Shirley Clark on growth mindset. To use what is termed “prophetic pedagogy” (a ghastly term and one that undermines any sense that God may want to speak into the teaching process in a class), creates limits on pupils’ expectations of themselves and reinforces limits in the mind of the teacher as well.
So when I say that I want to advocate for learning with limits, do not misunderstand me. I am NOT talking about the individual, God-granted and God-cherished gifts and attributes that each person has the responsibility to do something with. Instead, I am trying to give voice to a view of education that is that of a community service, locally loved and locally responsible, whose purpose is to help develop and sustain that community (however defined) within its own agreed loves and hopes. This is the sort of thing that organisations like Human Scale Education have been trying to do for many years. However, if we are to root this in a theological view of what it means to be a communal human, we will almost certainly need insights from the bible and from agrarian writers and not the usual growth-centred crowd who seem to think that we can always get bigger, faster, brighter or cleverer. However, and in Milton Keynes we have plenty of this, we are today “blessed” with communities that are generally unsettled, partly rooted if at all, with little common purpose and with a general commitment to the ease and convenience of life that a growth-centred, digital world can offer. Most communities in the UK have not recently done the kind of corporate work that has made any communal decisions and therefore provided any communal limits. They do not know, in Albert Borgmann’s words, what their focal practices are. They do not experience, as is common in Holland and elsewhere, the “consensual authoritarianism” that places just and sensible limits on how a community may conduct itself. This work is not being done, at least not in our city, and therefore we will have to try and find a way to do it in schools. Worldwide, such communities exist, but by purpose and design, not by accident. Amish communities of the US and Canada are an obvious example.
Perhaps a useful start-point would be to acknowledge that the Bible, whilst describing plenty of changes in how humans interact with God and the world, nevertheless sees humans as “developable” only in terms of God-given talent and in God-given relationship – with God and with others in a loving and purposeful community. What we do with what we have (not whether we have it, by the way), and how we conduct ourselves in love towards and with those we live and work with in family, community, school, etc (including our enemies) is of far more import to the Biblical view of humanity than our ease, our comfort, our entertainment. To use a tool for its convenience needs to be weighed alongside the value of doing the work that the tool does ourselves as a dignified human worker.
This then brings us fairly directly to a conflict of standards. In this country, the government has for the past 40 or so years decided on behalf of schools what standards are appropriate, and these include a range of very familiar metrics and impositions on schools, such as safeguarding (wouldn’t it be great if we called it brave-making!), such as national expectations of improving standards in reading, writing and maths at different age bands, such as increasing adherence to “British Values,” such as the increased digitisation of knowledge and learning, and the constant striving for academic perfection (maybe the correct oxymoron here is the “standard” of “improvement”).
All of these standards are based around a modernist, Enlightenment-inspired model of progressive human development and ability (one of its best and clearest modern exponents is Matt Ridley in the Times) that both the history of the 20th century and the testimony of scripture have long proved false.
So where instead do we turn? Two key scriptures wriggle out of Paul’s pastoral heart. The first is in a passage to the church in Thessalonica about the return of Jesus to earth. Paul writes:
make it your ambition to lead a quiet life (the AV has ye study to be quiet): You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thess. 4:11-12).
The second is to Timothy, who was then at Ephesus with an ambitious (see Rev 2) church to cope with:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Tim.6:6-9).
Amongst the many standards that God holds up for his people throughout the ages (I have just been reading Leviticus 19 and its great catalogue of what it means to Be Holy, because the Lord your God is Holy) are the virtues of godly contentment and quietness of heart. These of course infiltrate all that we do as Christians, if we take them seriously. Blaise Pascal once said that all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. However, this is something we can hardly bear, as modern humans, as much as we superficially desire it.
To have a godly contentment as a standard in schools, to be satisfied with what we have, to honour it and be grateful for it, but not to count our worth by owning it, this would be a great thing. It would have to be taught. The key skills that would bolster this standard would be a deep appreciation of the given world – nature and people, leading to a growing humility; a rich thankfulness that would cause us to be grateful for every blessing and encouragement, adsorbing the appreciation of them to our character; and a pursuit of silence. We only ever “do silence” now for Remembrance day or for some terrorist atrocity. What if we could practice quietness of heart, and teach our children to do the same, to create a school of silence for a few moments each day.
These are the beginning of placing limits on ourselves, so that we order our lives aright and give one another, and ourselves, the best possible chance of growing in contentment under the watchful love of a great God.
These limits – of silence, of making space for each other, of learning individual and communal contentment, of preferring one another’s needs above our own, of thinking about the whole community rather than just ourselves – may not necessarily concord with what our modernist philosophy calls success. But at some levels, it will answer Richard Foster’s call for “deep people.”