About a year ago I read Julian Stern’s A Philosophy of Schooling. As well as doing school leaders the service of rooting the thinking of John Macmurray more deeply in the way that we think about schools (though others, notably Michael Fielding, have had much to say on Macmurray), Julian’s book challenged me as a school leader in the area of school vision.
In an important argument that reflects what the rest of his book is driving at, but more as an exemplar of “misdirected performativity,” he argues that the creation or adoption of a school “vision” by school leaders contains the seeds of performativity – responding to the overarching requirements of the DfE and Ofsted – but also the danger of an instrumentality that can be enforced using a vision: its very unchallengeability gives it an authority and voice that is close to being divine. He writes:
…vision was originally used in religious contexts, and it implies access to ideas from God rather than from other people. Having vision is a ‘special’ quality, therefore, in religious traditions, and its conversion into a leadership characteristic retains some of that quality. Asking for visionary leadership means enacting the visions of those outside the school, and especially those of the (god-like?) central government policy-makers. If having ‘vision’ matters, in the sense of having pseudo-mystical insight into (rather than dialogically generated understanding of ) what is needed, then school leaders are both ‘separate’ and are looking outwards for inspiration. In such ways, being expected to practice ‘visionary’ leadership is precisely to ignore the people you lead, and taking ‘inspiration’ from outside that group. Vision is one of the ways of directing performativity outside the school, and is dangerous for precisely that reason. (p. 123-124)
I have had one discussion only with Julian about this, but the possibility of being accused of misdirected performativity made me look back very strongly at the kind of vision we built together in 2012 as a school. What I found myself defending in conversation was the public nature of the vision: how we wrote it, how it was adopted with different groups and how, year after year, we tested it out and measured our own actions against its requirements which we had come to accept. I have no idea now whether it is still the vision for the school. It seems still to be on the website, but I hope that, rather, it has been internalised by those who for a long time held it very dear. One important role it played was its directive, discipling nature for those in the school – children, parents, staff – who did not identify as Christian. It was this aspect, I think, that made me most proud of its prominence: that those who didn’t quite understand how to live life and teach in a church school, could find actions inspired by the vision that would, in their eyes and ours, make a wonderful contribution to young children and to our communal life.
A more serious and germane point that Julian makes in his book is that having a vision as a leader marks you out as a leader rather than as simply a community member (he spends a lot of time on the relationship between leaders and followers), and that therefore you as a leader also get “tainted” by the unchallengeability of the vision. The vision thus has the power to distort both others’ perception of the leader as well as add layers of undeserved and even unwanted grandeur to him/her as the inheritor, or writer, or “lead pursuer” of the vision. That a “vision” is fundamentally necessary to direction and also religious in character should not deflect us from seeing the dangers that it possesses in its power to make other people do precisely what we want.
I am challenged sharply by this, as I have always held the idea of vision as very important, and people have looked to me, throughout 16 years of school leadership, to live out and remind others of the vision we have adopted together. My caveat with Julian stands, I think. Visions are important, but need to be communally held. Even Moses, going up Horeb to collect the tablets of the ten commandments, had a vision of a mountain covered in fire and smoke which was shared with the entire Israelite company. He was scared; they were scared. Shared vision.
Earlier in his chapter on leadership, Julian writes:
Sharing a purpose does, as Northouse says, provide an ethical underpinning to a system in which some get paid more than others (and some—the pupils and their families—get paid nothing), and in which some have significantly more power than others. (p. 109)
This ethical underpinning depends largely on mediation: how is such a vision of what could be in a school brought to those whose job it is to put it into practice. I would maintain that I did that well, and my senior leaders might even say that I functioned worse when I did not fasten my eyes closely onto the vision we had (jointly) given assent to.
So far, so reflective.
Then, last week I picked up a book that I have read often – Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It is a most wonderful, challenging and orderly book – orderly because in a very reformed German way, it directs individual and common practice with clear prose and high expectations of the way that the Christian life, whether individual or communal, should be lived. I tend to feel told off by a thoughtful humble professor every time I read Bonhoeffer. It is a good feeling and I ought to get used to it. Obeying him would do much good for me, and I should read him more often. I was re-reading it in search of any understanding of the way that Bonhoeffer served his seminary community at Finkelwalde, for whom the book was first written. Bonhoeffer tends not to write about his own motivations in this book, and his voice is didactic rather than reflective. But what I did find, and which I had either ignored or forgotten, was some fascinating writing about vision. Of course, in this context he is talking about the vision that a leader has for his community. This community could be a seminary (as it was first applied) but also it could be a church, and by extension, a school, or at least a church school.
Bonhoeffer writes about the nature of “visionary dreaming” in a section suitably entitled “Not an Ideal but a Divine Reality”
The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. (p.15)
Of course, he is right. It is God’s church, and He knows – He alone knows – what his vision of church and Christian community can and should be. The things that happen to a fellowship must come: they are a direct consequence of the sin that we carry with us. We can dream all we like of a noble community, but this is the only way.
Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.
This, using starker language than Julian Stern would use, points to the same reality: a vision for a community has to be spoken only by Him who called the community into being. Earlier in the book, Bonhoeffer argues that there is no Christian fellowship at all except for Jesus Christ, and he hints that there is no true friendship either without Him. There are dangers for those who think in this way, because the powers that are at work in a Christian community are so rooted in the sin that each member carries with them that it will be impossible without God’s grace and forgiveness to live in such a community. He or she who tries to build one in his or her own image is doomed:
The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
The root into genuine community, that of Christian fellowship, argues Bonhoeffer, is a grace-filled thankfulness. Learning to be grateful for the small things that occur within friendship, within the sharing of bread or sharing the scriptures, enables us to find the gratitude to which we are called in a church community:
Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness, and His promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of His grace?
This is very male language, of course. Bonhoeffer led a community of men, men with a serious purpose to find what faithfulness looked like in the German church of the 1930s. That in such a community, Bonhoeffer should be focusing relentlessly on thankfulness, on grace, on living a life of Jesus Christ together might surprise us, when there was such prophetic work to be done. He concludes the section with a reminder of where our true fellowship lies:
The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases. Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.
I realise that in drafting in Bonhoeffer to my overall argument and reflection, I have moved from a discussion of a vision of a school to that held by a Christian community. I do not see much difference, I must confess. If we have a public faith that motivates the church to be light in the darkness, then we have to give due consideration that what is good and right for the church is good and right for all. As I wrote in July, the overlap in terms of mission, is substantial between those called to be church and those called to serve as church in teaching and learning. Where it is not, it is the recasting of the definition and purpose of education – not mission – that will need to be rethought and remodelled.
But it is not our mission, and not our vision: it is “God’s reality in which we may participate.” What this might look like for church schools will almost certainly be locally determined through prayer, discussion and the putting aside from ourselves the demands we make of one another in fellowship. In doing this, we might attain to the reduction of the distance between leadership and followership, and a humbler, more affectionate community might arise.