By Tim Middleton
There is a very real danger that many species of animals in our world will become extinct. We have already succeeded in allowing the dodo to become extinct while if we are not careful the black rhino and other species will also soon become extinct. We are responsible for their survival; we cannot leave it simply to the survival of the fittest. The same truth applies to us with regard, not simply to animals, but also to values and qualities.
At the moment, many would argue that when we look at younger members of the human species, we will often see people who wait to be told what to do, who give up at the slightest difficulty or inconvenience, who become frustrated and bored if they have not got what they want immediately, who live for self and selfies, who care for no-one really, but themselves. That is especially interesting (and disturbing) if true, as Kurt Hahn, a forward-thinking educationist of a previous generation (being the founder of Outward Bound), held that, “I regard it as the foremost task of education to ensure survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity; an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial and above all, compassion.” The very things we believe we see in young people today are the complete opposite of what is needed if society and its values are to survive. And it is the task of education to ensure the survival of these very qualities and values.
The first quality Hahn highlights as being absolutely necessary to keep in existence (if we and they are to survive) is an enterprising curiosity. The emphasis on “enterprising” underlines how this curiosity needs to be innovative, imaginative, inventive, interactive, individual. The importance of “curiosity” stresses how pupils must look and learn for themselves rather than be told the answers; it speaks of interest, intrigue, inquisitiveness, insight.
Hahn secondly highlights how crucial an undefeatable spirit is. We should note it is an “undefeatable spirit” not an undefeated spirit. We need to ensure our children, who have everything they want at their fingertips, have an undefeatable spirit (or as William Hanley put it in his poem, Invictus, “an unconquerable soul”) when things do not go their way (or they do not get their own way),.
Thirdly, Hahn saw tenacity in pursuit as an essential quality for any and every person. The tenacity speaks of the doggedness, stubbornness, resolve, persistence that is needed while “pursuit” reminds us that things do not come straightaway, but often have to be chased and hunted. We need to run and run and then run some more, not like Forrest Gump who was told to run away from things, but to run towards what is valued and needed.
Fourthly, and most importantly in this current world, we need to ensure the readiness for self-denial remains. We might see a lot of state denial and indeed school denial (“you cannot do this, that or the next”) but we do not see a lot of self-denial. There is plenty of talk on self-esteem and self-reliance, but little on self-denial. We need to help young people to understand the importance of considering others before and better than ourselves, of putting others’ interest before our own.
Fifthly, “and above all” (please note), Hahn stresses how crucial it is that compassion survives in this dark, materialistic and selfish world. It is more than passion (which is for self) but compassion is reaching out to others, with a moral compass that points to truth and integrity. At present, the prevailing forces are more compulsion, comparison and condemnation rather than compassion.
The foremost task of education, therefore, is not to provide outstanding academic results, sporting excellence, cultural variety, expansive CVs, numerous awards or leadership positions. The foremost task is to ensure our young people have gained certain fundamental and crucial qualities. If we fail, then few other things will survive. We do not have five lessons a week on enterprising curiosity or on an undefeatable spirit or indeed any of the other essential qualities, but we must ensure their survival by putting our children constantly in situations where they discover they have to use these qualities.
Education is responsible for ensuring, above all else, that children continue to have these five fundamental qualities and to do that, we also will need — guess what — enterprising curiosity, undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial and, above all, compassion.
Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.