By Tim Middleton
A number of years ago, a group of pupils overseas organised a petition to the examination board to declare that one examination question of an A Level History paper was not fair. Ignoring for the moment the obvious point that examination questions are meant to be tough, we may be intrigued to know that the “unfair” question was simply this: “Was Hitler a despot?” The pupils’ argument was that they did not know what a despot was and therefore they could not answer the question. Quite how any pupil studying Hitler in History at A Level would not have come across the word “despot” at some stage in the two years of studying the subject may well defeat our minds, but in case we are not clear ourselves, let us note that a despot is “a ruler or other person who holds absolute power, typically one who exercises it in a cruel or oppressive way”. Leaving aside Hitler for a while, let us note though, that there are despots surrounding our children today, in the forms of “despites”.
In a previous article, we quoted Kurt Hahn’s statement that, “Education must enable young people to effect what they have recognised to be right, despite hardships, despite dangers, despite inner scepticism, despite boredom, and despite mockery from the world.” We considered the first part of his statement which underlined how education must be effective; we need here to consider the second part of this statement, how it must have an effect despite the many circumstances working against it being so. Such factors may at times be seen to be despotic, having much power over the minds of our young people to the extent that they cannot think in the way that they believe is right. If we are to enable our children to be effective, we must help them conquer these serious “despots”.
The first “despot” (or “despite”) are hardships. When things are tough, it is always tempting to drop all efforts to be effective and explore the easier road of efficiency. We have considered this also in a previous article on how there is “no education like adversity”. The pupils who petitioned for an easier examination were clearly strangers to such a view, hence their education was ineffective.
The second “despot” (or “despite”) that Hahn identified were dangers. Fear (be it of failure, injury, embarrassment or any other, even that of missing out, commonly known as FOMO) can have a debilitating effect on young people and prevent them from impacting the world in which they find themselves. We must enable them to hold to what is right in the face of such dangers.
Thirdly, Hahn noted how inner scepticism could prevent young people from effecting what is right. Doubts about our ability to cope with tasks are ever lurking all around, in particular if such circumstances are hard or dangerous. We question our intelligence if we come across something original or different and consider it easier to go the regular efficiency route.
The fourth “despot” for Hahn was boredom. If a child is not interested in something, then there is little chance of it having an effect on them. It is even harder in today’s modern “instant” world where the attention span of young people appears to be much-reduced.
The final “despot” (or “despite”) was mockery of the world. No one likes to be mocked or to face any criticism; in a world that tries to say there is no right or wrong, anyone who does stand for what is right will indeed face mockery. If we give in to mockery, we will not be effective; we will probably only be efficient.
In the same article in which we discussed this matter of effective education, we likened such a commitment to that of the famous high jumper Dick Fosbury who introduced to the world the Fosbury Flop. In an article about Fosbury, Mayo Oshin referred to “four simple steps to improve your creativity for better innovative ideas”. Interestingly, these four steps might well be seen to reflect some of those things that Hahn noted can prevent young people from being effective. Oshin encouraged readers, firstly, to be open to new possibilities (perhaps to avoid boredom); secondly, he warned them to “ignore the naysayers” (the mockery from the world); thirdly, he exhorted them to “prove yourself wrong” (in other words, overcome the inner scepticism) and, fourthly, he told them to “trust your intuition” (despite the dangers). If we do not help our youngsters face any such despot, they will certainly be for the high jump and, what is more, fail every exam.
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.