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Just deserts or just desserts?

by Tim Middleton

For many of us, a meal would not be considered complete without a pudding, without the dessert! Crème brulee, sticky toffee pudding and custard, apple crumble, banoffee pie, trifle, chocolate mousse, strawberries and cream — yes, please! How could we possibly end a meal off better than with a tasty, sweet, juicy, flavoured dessert? In fact, would it not be wonderful if we just had a meal containing desserts? Of course, there will be the nay-sayers, the gloom-spreaders, who will be quick to point out that such a policy will simply mean we will end up being firstly sick and secondly fat. If we just had desserts we would certainly get our just deserts!

Interestingly, the same is true when it comes not just to desserts, but also to deserts. Many will tell us that right now desertification is increasing rapidly, at a greater rate in fact than the obesity rate in many countries. Desertification is what lies at the heart of all the global climate issues, many will argue, and if we continue at our present rate we will indeed have our just deserts. We do need to look seriously at what is happening to prevent this desertification. Indeed, many will see the close link with the deforestation that is increasing, whether deliberately (through man’s clear intentions) or accidentally (through nature’s wild expansions — caused by man’s crass actions). Much of this destructive force is done for short-term gain (be it to provide fuel or space) though all that ultimately results is dry, arid, useless land.

Without question there is great need for educated minds to be put to this huge global challenge. However, there is equally great need for us to understand education in a similar way. CS Lewis, one of the great thinkers and scholars of recent times, stated over 50 years ago that “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” The statement, while compelling even now, should be put in context for the preceding sentence stated that “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility, there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.” He was writing in the context of emotional intelligence and in simple terms was saying that education is not just about the head but also about the heart. Cutting down jungles was an analogy for pupils evaluating critically what they were being taught, examining and challenging preconceptions and assumptions, but that is not enough. Yes, the head, the mind, the brain is important in education, but not on its own and not in the ascendancy.

What Lewis argued then “ irrigate the deserts” and what is still crucial today is that education must bring life and energy and growth in the lives of young people. We need in education to bring creativity and we need to stir the heart, which is perhaps what has been done in recent years with young people like Greta Thunberg speaking out so passionately on these major issues. We need to feed the dry, arid, barren minds and bring them to life. The purpose of a good education then is to ensure that the pupil is taught at a young age how to identify those things which are true, good and beautiful. Sadly, we only find educational desertification being instilled through the ‘deforestation’ caused by the internet, removing all thinking from our operation and promoting the mindless rush for instant gratification, power and money. As Lewis noted, we need “to educate children to not only recognise their own emotions, but also to know when it is appropriate to use them.” Another writer has expanded this to say we need “to recover a role that not only criticises, but encourages, that not only explodes myths, but also serves as the custodian of forgotten dreams for a better world”.

The bottom line is this: We cannot have our cake and eat it. Equally, we cannot keep on cutting down jungles without irrigating the deserts, educationally speaking; however, we need primarily to prevent the deserts being created, not least by the cutting-down of jungles. Deforestation needs to be managed and controlled, in creation and education. More significantly, there is massive need to address the issue of desertification, in Lewis’s terms, both by eliminating and preventing the causes while providing the means to bring it all back to life.

Here is what we must do: forget the dessert and concentrate on the deserts — in the natural world and in the educational world. The dessert is the end of a meal; the desert is the end of our earth. It needs irrigating! Only then will we have hope, purpose, and meaning. That is no trifle!

l 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.

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